Monday, 15 September 2014

a visit in January 2004 .....

I visited Taiwan for a week during January 2004 as part of an Australian federal parliamentary delegation, involving myself Michael Organ (Australian Greens), Michael Danby (Australian Labour Party), David Johnson (Liberal Party) and Peter Slipper (Library Party). The following account was largely written during late January of that year, shortly after returning from Taiwan. I have supplemented the original record with some notes from 2014, as I look back and reflect on that time. During the delegation I was accompanied by my then wife Jeanette. Likewise Michael Danby was accompanied by his wife and the two spent some time together during the visit as we politicians were engaged in official activities associated with the visit. The delegation was in Taiwan for approximately a week, with the majority of that time in the capital Taipei attending the international conference on parliamentary issues as they pertained to Taiwan, entitled the First International Parliamentary Forum on Asia-Pacific Peace and Security. There was also time following the completion of the conference for visits to various parts of the island. This included a visit to Hualien to observe the dramatic limestone formations and a mountain-top Buddhist temple. In addition we travelled to the west coast and had an encounter with the local Indigenous population, who are of Polynesian origin. Taiwan is a heavily populated country, with a beautiful landscape. It is also a relatively wealthy and technologically advanced society. The following account is sketchy in part due to the fact that I did not keep a day-to-day diary at the time of the visit, and all the photographs I took on the trip - which would have triggered specific memories both then and now - were lost when my electorate office was broken into shortly after my return to Wollongong and my computer and storage discs stolen. I have therefore used this blog to reconstruct the trip and add to it as my memory permits. Like my memory,  it is a work in progress.

Statue of Ti-tsang (Dizang) P'u-sa, the "Earth Store" bodhisattva, monastry, Tarako Gorge, Hualien, Taiwan

The Parliamentary Forum

Following a local by-election in October 2002, I was elected the Federal Member for Cunninghan and became the first member of the Australian Greens to take a seat in the lower house of the federal parliament in Canberra. During the second half of 2003 I made contact with the Taipei Cultural and Economic Office in Sydney - the equivalent of the Taiwanese embassy - and as a result of my offer to raise issues relating to Taiwan in parliament, I was invited to attend the 1st Annual Convention of the International Parliamentary Forum on Asia-Pacific Security to be held in Taiwan on 13 and 14 January 2004.

As a supporter of Tibet and democracy in Asia, I felt an affiliation with Taiwan when I was made aware of its history, its support for parliamentary democracy, and the ongoing threat of invasion from Communist China. The Chinese government made claim to the island and pointedly aimed missiles in its direction, though their claim was without foundation. There were obvious connections between the plight of Taiwan and those parts of China which had been taken over by the Communists since the revolution of 1949, such as Tibet and Mongolia. The multicultural aspects of present-day Taiwanese society - including an Indigenous population related to the Maori of New Zealand - and its technology-based economy led me to look forward to the visit, which was to be my first to Asia.

A summary of the forum is contained in the following video which was compiled at the time by the organisers. It reveals the main elements of the forum, with presentations by local and overseas dignitaries plus highlights of the cultural entertainment interspersed throughout.

 IPF Asia-Pacific Security Forum, Taipei, 13-14 January 2004, video, 54 minutes.

The forum was significant in bringing together parliamentarians from around the world who were supporters of Taiwan, even if that support did not extent to the party or national government level.

Off to Taipei 

We left Sydney as part of the Australian parliamentary delegation to Taiwan on the China Airways flight on the evening of Saturday, 10 January 2004, for the 9 hour flight north to Taiwan. The time zone was only about 1 hour behind Sydney, therefore there would not be any significant jet lag issues, though the length of the the flight would nevertheless be tiring. We were fortunate to fly business class and the journey was a real pleasure overall. I had not travelled much prior to my election to parliament - not because I did not want to, but mainly due to lack of opportunities,  financial constraints and raising a young family. I was therefore excited by the novelty of the flight and the feeling of an adventure before me. Taiwan, and Asia, we're very much a mystery to me at that point in time.

Arriving....

As a member of the Australian federal parliament between 2002-2004 my life was hectic to say the least, with most of my working hours allocated by my staff towards media, meetings and travelling. Frankly it was a bit of a blur as I now look back at it, and realise that it is the reason I only made a few brief notes on the visit upon my return. Those notes consisted of basically the pros and cons, with few embellishments. The rather critical cons were dealt with first and may give the impression that I did not enjoy the trip. This is wrong, as I would return in a flash and would encourage others to visit. My original 2004 notes begin as follows, with contemporary additions interspersed:

The visit to Taiwan was good, very good in parts, but in other parts it was not so good. First let's talk about the not so good:

1. The polluted air of Taipei. This was of concern and surprising, coming as we did from the relatively pollution free air of Sydney and Wollongong. Yes, I know the steel works at Port Kembla near Wollongong had a reputation as one of the biggest polluters in the country, but by 2004 this had been cleaned up to a substantial degree and the plant was no longer polluting the general environment as it did through to the 1980s. There was a foretaste of Asia's air quality issues as we flew over the Phillipines and the observed from our small window at a height of 10,000 feet that the atmosphere below was dedicedly brown from pollution, and this was spread out over a large area of the sky. When we finally got to Taipei and travelled to our hotel, the pollution in the city meant that for the first three days of the visit we did not see the mountains in the near distance or, for that matter, some of the skyscrapers on the other side of town. At that time Taipai had the tallest building in the world, and we did not see it during those first few days because of the smog. The climate did not help - it was hot and humid, almost sub-tropical, and with a lack of sea breeze to clear the air on a daily basis, as happened back in Wollongong. The air away from the city was a lot cleaner, though the heat and humidity generally persisted. Of course I was dying for a swim in the ocean, as I was accustomed to every day at home, but this was not to be as Taipei was somewhat distant from the beach, and a surfing culture does not really exist on the island, though there are beaches and breaks. One of the most popular was McCauley's Beach, 20km north of Taipei, which had been used for surfing since the 1960s.

2. The busy schedule. This meant that I didn’t have much free time to acclimatise and relax and get out and see the city. Instead, I had to rush through those few special meetings I was able to arrange outside of the conference agenda and official meetings that had been arranged for us as part of the delegation. This included a visit to the local Tibet Information Office. 

3. The food. It was nice in some instances, but in others not so nice, being so unfamiliar to me. For example, the Taiwanese eat a lot of seafood, often uncooked, such as sea mussels and sea slugs. This diet is very different from the traditional Australian one of meat and two veg which I had been raised on. The food was often presented to us in long, tiring, official banquets where patience was a virtue of which I traditionally have little. I remember one banquet where after about two hours we had been served 3 or 4 courses of the aforementioned uncooked seafood and remained somewhat famished. Looking back I think I would seek to savour such an exotic experience second time around, and perhaps find a way to enjoy sea slug, even if only in small portions.

4. The silly, disgusting attitude of China to this wonderful, democratic country. China believes that it owns Taiwan, and it continually threatens the country, with missiles permanently aimed at its strategic sites. Fortunately the United States is a friend of Taiwan, and this keeps the Chinese agressors at bay. Internally the politics is democratic, however some of the more conservative elements speak of uniting with China, oblivously to the harsh barbarities of the Chinese Community Party regime. Of course Taiwan is one of the most wealthy countries in Asia, and has substantial investments in mainland China, so the event of all out war is, hopefully, not likely. The fact is, Taiwan is a multicultural society, comprising indigenous peoples and more recent arrival of Chinese and Japanese heritage. China's claim to ownership is therefore without historic merit. 

And the positives?

1. This was my first trip out of Australia. It was an opportunity to experience briefly a whole different country and culture, though of course we are all basically the same, wanting to live a happy, peaceful life, free from aggression. It was an adventure for me, and as such I was very excited by it. I regarded every moment as both a challenge and something to be mindful of. I was there for perhaps the one and only timeline my life, therefore my eyes were very much open to around me. Taiwan was both the same but different. The city of Taipei was a modern city, like Sydney, only bigger and with more people. It had many of the same stores; it had McDonald's. Yet it was Asian and so very exciting because of the difference. 

2. The politics, which were interesting and invigorating. The country is so democratic, that it was a lesson to all of us - this is what China could be like if the Communist Party did not have control. The overt democracy was very American, and a bit over the top compared to what we are used to in Australia, but it is nevertheless very welcome, and something we should strongly support. I will never forget a moment when we were walking down one of Taipei's main streets when a van drove by, full of people waving flags and obviously on the campaign trail. The ever present threat of Communist China and the local, right-handed Kuomintang Party which is Pro-chinese obviously heightens the Taiwanese appreciation for open and free democracy. The alternative is abhorrent. 

3. The city of Taipei, with its 20 million residents. Taipei was lively, exciting, different and congested, with people and yellow cabs and step thru motorbikes everywhere, and lots of people walking and eating and buying clothes. Just like in Oz, only so many more. The mass of people was obvious, as were the huge apartment blocks on the city's edge to accommodate them all and were something we in Australia were not accustomed to. Taiwan is a small, island nation with a capital city whose population almost equals that of Australia as a whole. What brought home to me the sheer numbers were the mass of step thru motorbikes which seemed to line every street in the city. They took up every bit of spare concrete on the paths lining the streets.  At intersections you would see a whole families, on a single bike, sail through at speed, unrestrained and mostly without helmets. Having said that, the traffic was overwhelming and chaotic,  but the drivers were polite. No honking or abuse, and few accidents. I was told that this was not always the case, but that the population at some point and en masse decided that courteous driving would be the way of the future, and they stuck with it.

4. Meeting up with Kelsang from the local Tibet Information Office, and going to 2 local Tibetan shops, which were full of wonderful aromas and images and artefacts and statues and thankas and prayer flags. It was beautiful. We did this on the last day, Saturday morning, and brought some stuff with Kelsang. These included some beautiful Om Mani Padme Om embroided hangings. I will never forget the shop - it was lined with exquisite Tibetan Buddhist items such as statues, implements and fabrics,  including thanka. There is something very beautiful and different in my mind about Tibetan Buddhist items - the colour, design, consistency of application and inspirational beauty. This shop was full of examples.

5. Going to Hualien on Friday. This was the only time we got out of the city buildings. We flew 1 hour south of Taipei to a beautiful part of the island, with steep, limestone mountains and gorges and a coastal landscape similar in part to home. It has real tourist potential for Australians, and is not nearly so crowded as the city side. Interesting the see the indigenous inhabitants there - they are related to the Maori of New Zealand;

6. The Grand Hotel in Taipei was beautiful – like a large Buddhist temple and a modern hotel, with ornate paintings and furnishings, located on the side of a hill, like Nan Tien, and with big red cement columns;

The Grand Hotel, Taipei

7. Meeting with Linda Arrigo was both fun and scary – a mixture between Elizabeth Perry and a loud American, if you could imagine. A democracy activist for three decades, very knowledgable about local politics, but so in your face.

A blur....

I will remember the trip to Taiwan as a blur of images – the big red Grand Hotel columns, the yellow cabs packing the streets, the literally thousands of step through motobikes on the roads and sidewalks, the people on the streets, eating and buying, the neon signs so prolific and wonderful to look at at night, little restaurants in back alleys and people cooking at all hours of the day.

I will never forget walking through the town around 10am on Saturday morning before the shops had opened and seeing an old lady preparing a salad and stew on the sidewalk, cutting carrots, with a skinned chicken near by, blood stains around its neck… apart from this image the city was pretty clean, though some of the smells were a bit strong now and then. There was not much rubbish anywhere, and the underground railway was amazingly clean and fast, with no one allowed to eat or drink or smoke. It was  very safe, like the rest of the city, and very clean.

I loved the crowds, the faces which really were just like ours actually. I loved the streetscape and the thin shops and thousands of neon signs. Like something form a Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan movie. Yet on the edges of the city were lush green hills of limestone, with the sub-tropical vegetation so think and so steep that you could not climb them, or so it appeared. The temperature was very warm, and humid.

One day we hastily visited the Presidential Palace Museum, and I saw there some beautiful Tibetan items brought out of China when Chang Kai Shek fled the country. We picked up a beautiful catalogue, which made me happy.

Presidential Palace Museum, Taipei.

So all in all Taiwan in a week was a blurred memory of food, markets, neon signs and step throughs, sitting in rooms with other pollies and officials talking about Taiwan’s place in the region – all very interesting – and just taking it all in.

Hualien monastry

The visit to the female monastry on the side of the hill gorge in Hullien was inspirational. The area is so picturesque that iif ever one wanted to get away from it all and find some peace, whilst not really getting away from it all, then this was it. I will never forget the huge golden statue of Buddha sitting next to the temple on the side of the mountain, with the turquoise blue waters of the river below it, as misty clouds hung in the sky above. I wish I had the time and space to just relax and take it all in. But no, we had to keep moving… The Buddha reminded me of the old movie Jason and the Argonauts, where the giant statue came alive – so mystical, ancient, and a whole other world from what I know. Very very strange and I am not sure if it is for me.

Rush, rush rush from Monday night to Saturday night, and so glad to get home. If I do it again I must make time for space, for nothing, for just chilling out and doing what I want.

Democracy and freedom

We need to support Taiwan and its lovely people. They are just like us, you and me – they want peace, prosperity, democracy, equality. Freedom. Democracy has given them freedom, whilst China unnecessarily threatens their peace. Perhaps this is one area where I can play a small role, though the office staff suggest that as it has nothing to do with local affairs then I should leave it alone. Well stuff ‘em. I must do this. I must do Tibet. I must do refugees, medicare, etc. I must.

China is wrong. Taiwan is a small, free, independent nation, just like Tibet should be. It is no threat to China. It is a friend to Tibet as well, which is both natural and welcome as Tibet needs friends. I found out the other day that Ruddock used to be a great friend of Tibet…. Sigh….

I must find the time to write about Taiwan, a 90 seconder and more in parliament. On one hand it has nothing to do with Wollongong, on the other it is one piece in the puzzle of life and the world around us.

Perhaps I will get to Taiwan again, and spend some leisure time there, with the Tibetans and able to arrange some meetings.  I now have a fair bit of knowledge about the situation there and can give informed comment. My attitude to China continues to be hard and almost impossible to resolve. I sicken when I think about Tibet and the awfulness of the Chinese communist regime, for there is nothing I can do…. Nothing…

Leaving....

I have been home a week now, and this time last week – Saturday at 10.20pm – we were boarding the China Airlines C340 leaving Taipei aboard a jet taking us south on a 9 hour flight to Sydney, and home. I was tied, with a heavy head, and rather drained after a hectic week of engagements in the capital city and travel throughout the island. I will, however, never forget walking through the Chang Kai-Shek airport, from the departure lounge to boarding, and passing by an eatery which had a strong peanut oil aroma. After a week I was dying for some Australian food as we had experienced a wide variety of Taiwanese Chinese cuisine for the length of the stay. In the hot, sticky, late night air of the airport, as we prepared to depart, the peanut oil was overwhelming. There was nothing wrong with it per se, but after a week of long, rather strange banquets - sometimes being presented with food that was unknown to the palette - the warm, pungent aroma eminating from the restaurant in the confined airport corridor, along with my desire to get home, tiredness, and the lateness of the hour – it was actually 1.20am in Wollongong – combined to make me feel rather seedy and ill at the end of my first experience abroard.

We hopped on board the plane, tried to sleep during the long flight, and eat some food. I occasionally looked out the window on the lights of Taipei below, and later, as the morning sun rose, on the sprawling Great Artestian Basin of Australia – all red and brown and salty white – stretching from Queensland in the north and south east towards Sydney. As we got closer to home the view turned decidedly greenish looking down from 10,000 feet.

The return to Wollongong and work, and the theft of my laptop from my electorate officer three days later, was a blow. It contained uncopied files and the 74 pictures of Taiwan from my digital camera. All of this added to my weariness during the early months of 2004. As time passed I realised that I had lost some irreplaceable things in the theft, including a file on the history of Tibet that I had been working on over Christmas and zip files with my Metropolis web site on them. Irreplaceable. However I nevertheless  quickly got back to the swing of things in Oz, and Taiwan faded fast. I therefore felt the need to write some of my memories down, before they disappeared.

Remembering....

It is September 2014 and a lot has changed in the decade since my journey to Taipei. I did follow through with the promise to raise Taiwan in parliament, and spoke on the subject three times during 2004, shortly after the return to Australia. The first was on 18 February where I presented a brief conference report to the parliament. I also gave two speeches in March supporting Taiwan’s efforts to become a member of the World Health Organisation. Links to those presentations are included below, along with a copy of the Handsard transcript of the conference report.

18 February 2004 - Taiwan conference report (speech)

11 March 2004 - Taiwan and the World Health Organisation (speech)

29 March 2004 - Taiwan World Health Assembly Membership (speech)

These speeches were the least I could do for Taiwan as the Federal Member for Cunningham, considering the Australian government's rather ambivalent attiutude to the country and the increasing power of China in the region and locally. My speech to parliament reporting on the visit is presented here:

Taiwan - speech to the Australian Parliament, 18 February 2004

Mr ORGAN (Cunningham) (9.40 a.m.) — On 17 and 18 January, I attended the first international parliamentary forum on Asia-Pacific peace and security in Taiwan, with other parliamentarians from around the globe. I would like to thank the Taipei Cultural and Economic Office in Australia and the Australian Commerce and Industry Office in Taipei for their assistance in making the trip a success.

It was a timely visit. On 20 March, the people of Taiwan go to the polls to elect a new president and to vote in their first ever referendum calling for peace with China. Taiwan, with a population of some 23 million people, has in recent years made major strides in human rights and is emerging as a vibrant democracy. It is a significant economic and technological player in the Asia-Pacific region and has the potential to become a major tourist destination. In 2001-2002, Taiwan was Australia's eighth largest trading partner and export destination, with two-way trade totalling almost $9 billion.

Regrettably, however, our government does not formally recognise Taiwan, nor do we have any official dealings with it. We are dealing at arms-length with a like-minded democracy based on a decision taken back in 1972—the so-called One China policy. That is a policy that needs to be reassessed in the light of our changing relationship with the People's Republic of China and the emergence of Taiwan as a democratic country. The One China policy offers a false legitimacy to the ongoing torture, imprisonment and denial of basic freedoms for the Tibetan people; it labels the Dalai Lama as a terrorist; it excludes Taiwan and its people from membership of the World Health Organisation; and it threatens the peaceful, democratic life of the people of Taiwan.

The One China policy may well not be working in the best interests of regional peace and security and our own economic interests. The diplomatic and political maze surrounding relations between China, Taiwan and us is reflected in the fact that, while Taiwan was made a member of the World Trade Organisation—the WTO—in January 2002, it has been trying without success to be readmitted to the World Health Organisation. It seems to me that Australia should reconsider its decision not to support Taiwan's membership of the WHO, especially in light of the SARS epidemic and the more recent bird flu outbreak affecting Asia. Equally concerning is the continuingly aggressive attitude of the People's Republic of China towards Taiwan and the 496 ballistic missiles presently targeted on Taiwan by China. This does not aid stability in the region.

As an independent, sovereign nation proud of its open and free democracy, Australia could help persuade China that it has nothing to fear from Taiwan, making its present aggressive stance unwarranted. I wonder if there might not now be an opportunity for Australia to use its influence to encourage dialogue between Taiwan and the People's Republic of China, to help bring an end to the friction between these two important members of the community of nations.

Going back?

I would love to return to Taiwan, to enjoy the food, the aromas, the people and the landscape. To take it all in again, but this time at my own pace, slower, and with my eyes wide open, is something I look  forward to. The journey in 2004 was very much a blur, but that is the nature of being a federal politician and engaging in parliamentary tours. I was working, it was a job, and there was precious little time for leisure. All I really have are the memories of the beautiful hotel, of the journey to Hualien and the limestone formations, of the banquets, of the vibrant democracy, of the freedom and of the support for Tibet. Finally, of course, I have my momentoes - the Om Mani Padme Om silk banners which hang in my room and which I would be lost without.They will forever remind me of Taiwan and the Taiwanese.