March 11th 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Money flows freely to fuel anti-coal campaign

CANBERRA OBSERVED People and renewables get on till pay day arrives

EDITORIAL Commission report demonstrates old saying about statistics

ENVIRONMENT Ignore claims that Antarctic ice sheet will melt away

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE Taiwan society divides over gay agenda

ECONOMICS Globalisation: a bumpy ride for some

GENDER POLITICS Parliamentary stalemate on same-sex marriage

CULTURE WARS Samizdat and the internet

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Theresa May prepares Britain for post-EU life

HISTORY Christianity and progress in human happiness

MUSIC What's the score? Originality v novelty

CINEMA Silence: Stamping on the face of faith

POETRY AND SOCIETY The modern world and damnation as voyeurism

SOCIETY The working class and globalisation

BOOK REVIEW The man who split the party

It's time to build new water storages in the Basin

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Taiwan society divides over gay agenda

by Jeffry Babb

News Weekly, March 11, 2017


By three methods may we learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is the noblest; second, by imitation, which is the easiest; and third, by experience, which is the bitterest.



The turbulent issue of same-sex marriage is dividing Taiwan’s society almost down the middle. Taiwan is a free society with a vibrant civic culture. Frequently people will take to the streets and hold mass rallies to promote their points of view, as have those opposed to same-sex marriage and those supporting it.

The island of Taiwan is both a traditional Chinese society that upholds age-old family values and a modern society that is probably the most tolerant in Asia in terms of politics and personal beliefs. Homosexuality, though, on the whole, is still considered shameful, especially by the older generation.

President Tsai Ing-wen is on
the left side of the divide.

Much of this civic culture probably has to do with the fact that for many years Taiwan was practically the 51st state of America. The people of Taiwan absorbed American values. Thousands of students annually traipsed abroad to the United States to study.

When Washington announced that it would recognise Beijing as the rightful capital of all China from January 1, 1979, it was a terrible shock to the people of Taiwan, many of whom fled to America, as they believed that the fall of the Republic of China on Taiwan to Beijing’s forces was only a matter of time. The island not only survived, but thrived, assisted by the passage by the U.S. Congress of the Taiwan Relations Act (1979), which protected Taiwan’s interests.

Taiwan is a small island, half the size of Tasmania. Its population of 23.5 million is slightly less than that of Australia. Taiwan is an island nation, one of the original Asian Tigers. Now that the labour-intensive industries such as garments, footwear and giftware on which Taiwan built its economic prosperity have moved offshore, Taiwan has become a high-tech society. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company Ltd (TSMC) is the world’s largest contract manufacturer of integrated circuits, also called chips.

Taiwan has its problems, but it is an economic success story, despite its lack of almost any resources apart from its fertile western plain, where agriculture flourishes.

Taiwan has evolved into a liberal society since President Chiang Ching-kuo lifted martial law in 1987. Formerly, young women who associated with foreign men were thought to be little better than prostitutes. That is no longer so.

The island was a Japanese colony for 50 years. The occupation was terminated only by the arrival of the Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist Party, led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in 1945. Under the Chiangs, Taiwan was a one-party state, but as long as you kept your head down you were unlikely to experience trouble.

Initially, the KMT was welcomed, but the welcome soon ran out. On February 28, 1947, the native Taiwanese rebelled against the KMT, following an incident involving a widow selling cigarettes. Cigarettes were a government monopoly, and a lucrative one at that. For many years the peculiarly named “Long Life” cigarettes were almost universally consumed in Taiwan. The “2-28 Incident” caused a great deal of bitterness between the native Taiwanese and the KMT-dominated government. No one knows how many people died in the insurrection; estimates are around 30,000, almost all native Taiwanese.

From then on, the divide between the “mainlanders” who arrived with Chiang Kai-shek and the native Taiwanese grew wider. The mainlanders, who initially numbered around 2 million, saw themselves as the ruling elite. They flatly refused to learn Hoklo, the native Taiwanese dialect of Chinese, thereby reducing the prospects of interaction. The mainlanders spoke their native dialect, from wherever in Mainland China they had originated, and usually Mandarin Chinese, which is the official language of both the Republic of China on Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China, with its capital in Beijing.

Intermarriage between mainlanders and Taiwanese was rare. For many official jobs proficiency in Mandarin was a prerequisite, thus effectively barring Taiwanese from entering many professions. Of course, this altered over time as the younger generation became fluent in Mandarin. Education was in Mandarin. The Taiwanese turned their energies to business, where they prospered greatly.

The mainlanders and the Taiwanese are Han Chinese. Approximately 95 per cent of China’s population is Han Chinese. The Han take their name from the Great Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD), which was more or less contemporaneous with the Roman Empire, matching Rome in longevity and influence. For China, it was a time of prosperity, internal peace and innovation.

Within the Han Chinese group, there are some 100 subgroups. To say that the Taiwanese are “not Chinese” displays an ignorance of the Chinese people. According to traditional thinking, there are five major ethnic groups in China: Han, Man, Mong, Dzang, Hui – the Han, Manchus, Mongolians, Tibetans and Muslims. One cannot ignore the fact that in recent years, more people regard themselves as Taiwanese, rather than Chinese, but that is a matter of politics, rather than culture.

For many years, it was unwise openly to challenge the Chiang regime. People became anxious as the United States, Taiwan’s great friend and protector, edged closer to accommodation with the Great Satan on the other side of the Taiwan Strait. The Tangwai, or “outside party” movement was gaining in confidence. When U.S. President Jimmy Carter announced that the U.S. would sever official ties with the Republic of China on Taiwan on January 1, 1979, President Chiang Ching-kuo, who had succeeded his father, cancelled the scheduled elections, in which the Tangwai were hoping to improve their position. The Tangwai responded by organising a demonstration to celebrate Human Rights Day on December 10, 1979.

The demonstration rapidly degenerated into a riot; who actually “caused” it is a matter of conjecture. The end result of the Kaohsiung Incident was that the “Kaohsiung Eight” were found guilty of treason, for which the mandatory punishment under martial law was death. Although all the “Kaohsiung Eight” were found guilty, no one was executed.

Turning point

Although it may not have seemed so at the time, the Kaohsiung Incident was the turning point in Taiwan’s democratic evolution. Chiang Ching-kuo nominated Lee Teng-hui as his successor. The choice was inspired, if somewhat odd. Lee was an agricultural economist; his native language was Hoklo, not Mandarin, which he did not speak well.

If one wants to understand the same-sex marriage movement in Taiwan, here is a good place to start. In years gone by, homosexuality was frowned upon and homosexuals were often ostracised, but on the other hand there were a number of places which were well known as gathering places for gay men, where “cruising” was popular.

New Park, now renamed as 2-28 Peace Park (after the 2-28 Incident) has been known as a gathering place for gay men for decades. Peace Park is near the Taipei railway station and just opposite National Taiwan University Hospital, one of Taipei’s top hospitals, in the centre of the capital. Gay men are known as tongzhi or “comrades”. The island has an expansive range of gay saunas, hotels, spas, bars, clubs and male prostitutes.

Taiwan, for whatever reasons, is a permissive place these days. Young people speak a patois of Mandarin, Hoklo and English that is incomprehensible to their elders. Almost 50 per cent of eligible young people are in institutions of higher learning. About half of Taiwan’s auto repair shops have closed down in recent years through lack of staff; lots of graduates but not many mechanics.

Taiwan is divided on the question of same-sex marriage, perhaps with a slight inclination towards approving it. A bill is before Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan, working its way through the legislative process. Those promoting the bill predict that it will pass the Legislative Yuan in the middle of 2017. Others are advocating a form of partnership agreement, which would allow the same-sex partner decision-making power in the case of medical treatment. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has come out for increased rights for same-sex couples.

Those opposed to same-sex marriage are vehement in their opposition. Evangelical Christians have come out to demonstrate against it. The issue concerns all religious groups, Christian, Buddhist, Muslims and others.

Taiwan may nonetheless become the first Asian country to endorse same-sex marriage. Both pro and anti same-sex marriage advocates have held mass rallies in support of their viewpoint.

Domino effect?

What are the chances that other Asian countries will follow suit? Slim. The Sultan of Brunei, for example, has imposed sharia on his tiny country on the northern coast of the island of Borneo. Homosexuality is punishable with death by stoning. This may not be enforced but it must certainly concern any gay man considering a trip – for work or pleasure – to Brunei.

Why has Taiwan, among dozens of Asian countries, taken on the burden of pioneering marriage rights for same-sex couples, a first for the Asian region? It has to do with politics.

Taiwan has, for the first time, a Green government, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). While in international linkages the DPP is described as a centre-left party, there is no doubt that it is, as its green livery suggests, a Green party. There is another official Green Party, but it is a fringe party with relatively little influence.

The policy linking the “Pan Green” parties is Taiwan independence. The “Pan Blue” parties, led by the KMT, advocate eventual union with the Mainland at some distant time in the future. While the KMT is economically conservative, the DPP could hardly be called socialist. Socialism versus capitalism is not the main dividing issue in Taiwanese politics. The DPP could be called, in the language of the left, a “progressive” party.

Green parties, internationally, tend to pursue the same sorts of policies. These are sometimes called “value clusters”. The DPP, along with other Green parties, advocates rights for same-sex couples. Another policy is the complete shutdown of Taiwan’s nuclear power industry, which accounts for 20 per cent of Taiwan’s electricity output.

The DPP also opposes Taiwan’s coal-fired power generation industry, for which Australia is a major fuel supplier. The fool’s gold solution is “renewable energy”: namely wind and solar power. Most local business leaders do not believe that this is a feasible solution. Taiwan’s high-tech economy must have a reliable source of electricity.

Green activists from Taiwan have assisted the Australian Greens during elections, reliable sources report.

For the moment, the outlook for same-sex marriage is somewhat confused. Those favouring partnership agreements as an alternative to same-sex marriage seem to have a slight edge.

All you need to know about
the wider impact of transgenderism on society.
TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

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