By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

The Lectern: The Olympics seen from Taiwan

Because of the delicate state of relations between Taiwan and China, the Olympics are an issue that divides Taiwanese along political lines. The previous government, roundly defeated in presidential elections in March, was pro-Taiwan independence and anti-China. The current government is trying to improve relations with mainland China -- for example, direct tourist flights from China have begun. Parts of Taiwan society, particularly big business (which has many investments on the mainland) and some descendants of mainlanders who came to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek when the Communists came to power in 1949, are actually quite pro-China.

Taiwan itself participates in the Olympics as a separate team, though under circumstances that are humiliating, especially for Taiwanese proud of Taiwan's national identity. Their team is called "Chinese Taipei," it marched alphabetically at the opening ceremony just after the China team and the Hong Kong team ("China Hong Kong"), not as either "Republic of China" or "Taiwan," and there is no Republic of China flag at the Olympic stadium.

I have asked a number of Taiwanese whether they root for China in matches where the Taiwan team is not represented. The question is generally met with nervous giggles and the occasional observation that this question is very sensitive. The more a person supports the former government, the less likely they are to root for China; the more the person supports the current government, the more likely to root for China. Indeed, I've noticed big differences in Olympics coverage in English-language papers supporting the two different political parties. The pro-government newspaper gives more coverage to the Olympics, and, in its coverage, features with greater prominence the performance of Chinese athletes. The anti-government newspaper writes less about the Olympics overall, and the coverage they have gives more attention to victories by the United States, the United Kingdom, Argentina, and Jamaica. When a Taiwan athlete won a bronze two days ago (in taekwondo!), this was the front page lead story in the pro-independence Taipei Times, and got much more modest treatment in the pro-government China Post.

On another topic, I had an interesting class discussion with my Taiwanese students (all 40-something civil servants) about the transition in Taiwanese society towards a changed view of the civil service. In traditional Chinese society, government officials lorded over people; one student described their relationship with the population as master and slave. As Taiwan has democratized over the past 20 years, there has been a conscious attempt to introduce a new relationship between government officials and the people. Here, the phrase civil servant has a genuine meaning -- designed to signal that government officials exist to serve people, not lord over them -- as does the word customer to describe the status of citizens vis-a-vis government.

I did a vote in the class about how far in their opinion the transition had gone between the old idea of government official and the new idea of civil servant. Almost all students said they believed the transition at this point was between half and three-quarters complete. It would be interesting to do a similar poll in mainland China.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Aug 21, 2008 at 12:10 PM


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