December 21st 2013

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Articles from this issue:

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Australia's year of the three prime ministers

EDITORIAL: Australia needs to rethink East Timor policy

SOUTH AFRICA: Nelson Mandela: some inconvenient truths

CULTURE AND CIVILISATION: A clear and present danger:
Religious liberty and the family in the late-modern age

LIFE ISSUES: Belgium euthanasia experience teaches bitter lessons

VICTORIA: Liberal Party votes to restore GP's conscience rights

SCHOOLS: Extra money not the best way to raise standards

OPINION: The values needed to underpin Australia's economic growth

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: High Court challenge to same-sex 'marriage' in ACT

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Scant media coverage of Parliamentary Prayer Service

CULTURE: The most dangerous idea in human history

TAIWAN: From putrid to clean and green in 30 years

BOOK REVIEW: Not the end of history but the return of history

BOOK REVIEW: A time for militancy

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From putrid to clean and green in 30 years

by Jeffry Babb

News Weekly, December 21, 2013

Taiwan’s population of 23 million is almost exactly the same as Australia’s, but Taiwan is one of the most densely populated countries on earth while Australia is very sparsely inhabited; Taiwan is half the size of Tasmania.

When the Portuguese sailors first saw the main island of Taiwan in 1544, they called it Ilha Formosa, or “Beautiful Island”. Indeed, “Formosa” was a common name for Taiwan for many years. Taiwan is like a mountain range emerging from the ocean. Only the western coastal plain is suitable for agriculture and habitation. The interior is mountainous and covered in dense forest.

Taiwan is indeed beautiful, but when I arrived in Taipei over 30 years ago, one could hardly call the nation’s capital city beautiful. It was laced with open drains, and the only public transport system, the city’s rattletrap buses, was always jam-packed. Everyone was too busy making a living to worry about the environment. Taiwan was the workshop of the world, exporting garments, footwear, consumer goods, toys, giftware, bicycles and parts all over the world.

Now much has changed. Taipei has one of the world’s best metro systems, with trains running to almost every corner of the city. Journeys that once took hours can be completed in 20 minutes.

The mass rapid transit (MRT) system is a joy to ride. The carriages are clean and the passengers form orderly lines to board. Ticketing is very simple. You can either use a rechargeable multi-journey card or else, for a single trip, you can purchase a token. Unlike Melbourne’s myki, short-term visitors to the city are not saddled with cards they may never need again. You can also use the MRT card to make purchases at convenience stores.

Taipei is climbing up the ranks of the world’s most liveable cities. Its southern cousin, the city of Kaohsiung, is like Chicago, a “city of the big shoulders”, to quote a description from Carl Sandburg’s 1916 poem Chicago, and has also been remarkably transformed.

While Taipei is a centre of governance, commerce, finance and education, Kaohsiung is a port and relies on heavy industry such as the China Steel Corporation (CSC), which is a long-standing customer for Australia’s coal and iron ore miners. The Chinese Petroleum Corporation (CPC) refines oil and produces petrochemicals. These strategic industries, which are essential for Taiwan, have also cleaned up their act in recent years.

Taiwan now relies on knowledge-intensive industries which produce such things as computers, integrated circuits, car parts, high-tech machinery, exercise equipment, medical appliances and electronic components. The old standbys, such as the garment industry, have almost entirely disappeared. The air, which was once polluted and heavy with smog, is now pristine.

The water supply is a problem because the mountainous interior of Taiwan does not hold water and so harvesting it is difficult. The water supply system dates from the pre-1945 Japanese colonial era and is not adequate for the stresses of modern life. The water itself is fine but getting it to consumers still causes problems. Taiwan is also usually hit by around three or four typhoons a year, which cause flooding in the cities and major landslides in the mountainous interior.

One major advance in Taiwan is in governance. Taiwan is simply much better governed now than it was in the past. For years the people of Taipei were told it was impossible to get rid of the abandoned cars and scooters that littered the backstreets and alleys of the city. Mayor Hau Lung-pin promised he would clean up the city, and he did. Thankfully the authorities listened to reason and did not shut down the city’s night markets, which add character to Taipei.

Taiwan is now tackling major problems such as energy supply. The nation has three nuclear power plants, with a fourth ready to come online; but nuclear power is very unpopular, especially following the nuclear power station disaster in neighbouring Japan.

Taipower, the only electricity company for the whole island, is on the verge of bankruptcy because increases in power charges are especially unpopular politically. It is next to impossible to charge an economic rate for electricity. Officials are well aware that a carbon tax along Australian lines would be politically unsellable. Renewable power generation is costly and unreliable, and relies on expensive imported technology.

Taiwan has much to teach the world. New technology such as light-emitting diodes (LEDs) will revolutionise the way we light up our lives. LEDs use about a tenth of the power of conventional globes.

Taiwan has also led the way in intensive farming, so that agriculture, despite being a declining portion of the economy, is highly efficient and innovative.

Taiwan’s Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) is leading the way in adapting green research to practical uses. ITRI doesn’t aim to change the world in one hit. As most of Taiwan’s firms are small and medium enterprises (SMEs), ITRI’s technology is transferable to small and mid-level companies all over the world.

Taiwan has proven that economic development does not necessitate environmental catastrophe. It is a lesson that its powerful neighbour across the Taiwan Strait could well take note of.

Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer, who for many years worked as a journalist in Taiwan. 

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