UAlberta Student Shares Experience Participating in the Mosaic Taiwan Program
Noureddin Zaamout, a Master in Political Science student at the University of Alberta, was selected to join the prestigious Mosaic Taiwan Fellowship Program 2016, which is run by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). The fellowship is a prestigious 3-week program in which 30 emerging North American leaders (25 from the US, and 5 from Canada) wishing to gain firsthand experience of the Taiwan are given the opportunity to explore the country and meet with the country’s top diplomats and politicians. The program ran from June 5 – 25, 2016. Here is what Noureddin had to say about his experience:
The Mosaic Taiwan Program has given me the opportunity to explore the country and meet with various diplomats and politicians including President Tsai Ing-wen, the Foreign Minister David Lee, as well as numerous ambassadors, and officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Environmental Protection Administration, and Mainland Affairs Council.
I. The Program
The Mosaic Taiwan Program was initiated in 2013 and is run by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). It aims to provide emerging North American leaders with a unique perspective into the country promoting learning and understanding of the country’s political, economical, social, cultural and social settings. My cohort consisted of 30 fellows, of which 25 were from the United States and 5 from Canada. On the first day of the program, we were welcomed with a tremendous opening ceremony at the MOFA headquarters in Taipei. The event was attended by the Taiwanese Foreign Minister, Canadian and American representatives to Taiwan and a number of high-level officials.
The program’s opening ceremony covered by Taiwanese CTS News.
Throughout the the 3 weeks we had the opportunity to attend various lectures given by diplomats, professionals, and academics , covering a variety of issues from international relations to security, economics and national politics. Other lectures covered Taiwan’s environmental protection, healthcare, indigenous history and culture, waste management, transportation and much more. These lectures were informative and allowed for an in-depth understanding of the country at so many different levels. Aside from lectures, we were given the opportunity to explore the country and visit many places around the island.
In the first whrilwind week of the program we had the opportunity to interact with locals at the Songs-han Community north of Taipei, tour the Fuki-uei Recreational Area, hike up to the Wind Art Army Camp, tour the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, and visit Taipei 101 building. In the same week we travelled to Tainan city via high speed rail and explored the refruishbed Dutch Fort Zeelandia, Hayashi Department Store, the National Museum of Taiwan History and the National Museum of Taiwan Literature. We also flew to Kinmen island and toured the Jhaishan Tunnel, Juguang Tower, the Troops Headquarters, the Maestro Wu Knife factory and Kinmen Kaoliang Liquor Inc. Later, we travelled to Taichung and explored the Chung Tai Chan Monastery, Sun Moon Lake, and biked at along the Xiangshan trail. During the last week of the trip, we explored the National Palace Museum and visited the historic Presidential Office Building (erected during the five-decade Japanese rule of Taiwan) and met with the newly elected President Tsai Ing Wen. You can view more pictures by visiting the program’s Facebook page
Taiwan is a small island in comparison to Canada or the United States. You can walk or bike around and everything feels like it’s within close proximity. Taipei is a highly urbanised city that is about a third as large as Edmonton in squire kilometres, with a population three times larger. As I walked around Taipei, I was amazed by the sheer magnificence of the city, with numerous high-rise buildings, large highways, and massive transit system. The city is well-organised and clean. It is accessible and felt very safe. Taipei has a vibrant energy to it; the city remains active throughout the night. I’ve particularly enjoyed visiting the various night markets in Taipei, primarily the Shihlin and Raohe Night Markets. Both markets were packed with people even at very late hours of the night. It was an extraordinary experience with lots of great food and merchandise.
II. What I learned: The Complexities of Taiwanese Diplomacy
The program has given me a new insight into Taiwanese diplomacy and difficulties faced by politicians in conducting their affairs internationally. The country enjoyed significant international recognition, as the Republic of China (PRC), from 1949 to the 1970s. Given the politics of the Cold War and the emergence of an increasingly anti-Soviet People’s Republic of China, Canada, the US and many other global powers shifted formal diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the PRC. Faced with significant loss of international legitimacy and increasingly powerful domestic opposition, President Chiang Ching-Kuo permitted a process known as Taiwanization, bringing Taiwan-born politicians into the Kuomintang, allowing for limited elections, and eventually lifting the world’s longest-ever (38 years) martial law.To Chiang Ching-kuo, Taiwanization seemed necessary to ensure the survival of the regime, as it will allow for its re-legitimization and improved democratic representation of the people internally and internationally.Since then, the efforts of generations of opposition politicians and activists have led to the consolidation of democracy, and we have seen the emergence of a unique Taiwan that is , very different from China. Today, Taiwan operates “like a country” with democratic institutions and extensive bureaucracy internally, but lacks international recognition. The PRC’s ‘one China policy’ has restricted what Taiwanese diplomats can and cannot do at an international level. In speaking with diplomats and ministers, I came to a greater appreciation of the difficulties they face. On one hand, they invest heavily in strengthening relations with countries in which they enjoy recognition, while on the other they pursue various educational, economic and cultural missions in countries in which Taiwan is not recognised to promote exchange and trade. The purpose of these missions is to increase international connections to avoid being isolated and to offset PRC military threats. It appears to me that Taiwanese diplomats believe that the more connected the country is to the international community (primarily through trade, travel and cultural missions) the safer it will be. They are actively seeking to diversify their trade partners in order to avoid a reliance on the Chinese market that has proved subject to political vicissitudes.
In pursing economic, political and social exchanges with other nations, Taiwanese diplomats face many closed doors. Given the country’s lack of recognition, they are unable to participate in most global organizations like the United Nations, World Health Organization, and China’s recently established Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. Diplomats have sought through various avenues to make their case for membership in such organizations, but have been failed because of Chinese opposition. At the end of the day, many global powers will not jeopardize their relations with the PRC by supporting Taiwan’s efforts in seeking admittance into international organizations. To complicate matters further, Taiwanese politicians are well aware that the country’s export-based economy has been slowing down in recent years. They are seeking to diversify their trading markets and in recent months have mobilized extensive efforts to be included in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). However, given the country’s lack of formal diplomatic ties and likely opposition from China, they are well aware that this will not be an easy task.
Lastly, identity politics is very important in Taiwan. I had the chance to meet with many people from all socio-economic and ethnic background throughout the trip. They all had specific ideas for what Taiwan means to them. The majority self-identified as Taiwanese. One person I met boldly said, “We were never Chinese, and will always be Taiwanese”. I heard similar statements made by many others, primarily among the younger demographics and indigenous people. A few people who fled to Taiwan from the mainland as refugees in the 1940s identified with China and glorified such individuals like Sun Yat-sen and Chianq Kai-Shek. It appears to me, that the majority of people believe in a specific Taiwanese national identity, unique and different from mainland China. Yet, what I found remarkable was the indirect, cultural affiliation with China that was expressed in a number of settings. For example, the portrait of the 20th century Chinese revolutionary, Sun Yat-sen, was present in all official government offices and settings and appears on the country’s currency. There were grand memorial halls dedicated to Sun Yat-sen and Chianq Kai-Sheks serving as a reminder of the the leaders’ goal of unifying China. At the memorial halls, some people expressed devotion and respect for these individuals. With this mind, I began to reflect on how all of the above complicates the job of a Taiwanese diplomat. It is clear, by the country’s official name and practices that there is a deep connection with China, yet the majority do not see that history as relevant anymore. People serving in the Taiwanese government are also well aware of this and themselves the product of the society they serve. Thus, they cannot easily challenge the world’s ‘one China’ policy, fearing Chinese retaliation; They also cannot get too close to China without igniting popular discontent.
Noureddin Zaamout is a second year student at the University of Alberta completing his Master of Arts in Political Science – International Relations degree . Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about the Mosaic Taiwan program, visit http://mosaictaiwan.net/.