I traveled to Taiwan this month with only a few preconceptions and considerable curiosity whetted by Ann Pang-White, chairman of the philosophy department at the University of Scranton. Ann introduced me to the officers of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York, who subsequently invited me to visit Taiwan as a guest of the government. I mention that as the backdrop for my visit because I recognize that I was privileged to have a trip custom-tailored to my interests in civil society and cultural affairs. On both counts it was stimulating, heartening and thoroughly enjoyable.

I was fascinated too by New York Times columnist Tom Friedman several months ago declaring unequivocally that Taiwan was his favorite country next to his own. He went on to explain that, lacking large deposits of natural resources and located just across a narrow strait from China, Taiwan was cultivating its richest resource — its people — and investing a substantial amount of its budget on education. According to Friedman, “…if you really want to know how a country is going to do in the 21st century, don’t count its oil reserves or gold mines, count its highly effective teachers, involved parents and committed students.”

Finally in disclosing my pre-visit impressions of Taiwan, I read Shelley Rigger’s book, “Why Taiwan Matters,” and learned that “students of U.S.-Taiwan-China relations characterize our policy as ‘strategic ambiguity.’ ” The term has become influential in my thinking about the institutions and organizations that I found on the ground that seem to animate and define this small nation.

Taiwan is both pragmatic and idealistic in its modus operandi — it aims at producing significant brain power, a lively political life and strong financial and cultural relationships with other countries including our own — all while admittedly not knowing what comes next. Will it be unified with China or will it stand alone? Will it gain more official recognition as a nation in time? Given the uncertainties that hover over it, I find both wisdom and courage in Taiwan’s ability not only to cope with but to thrive in a state of ambiguity. An alternative that one could imagine would be a wait-see stasis that would be debilitating financially, politically and, yes, spiritually.

On the U.S. side, we have an unofficial relationship — no exchange of ambassadors — yet a robust and diverse informal alliance revealing strong affinities with regard to politics, economics, civic activism and institutional growth. In the larger international arena, Taiwan sends many well-prepared students to continue their educations abroad who subsequently bring the world back to their homeland. Taiwan is strategically connected to the world.

Though tradition has an important place in Taiwan, modernity and innovation are palpable in its cultural and civic life. The think-tanks, the Foundation for Democracy, the Public Television Service, the health care facility and other institutions I visited were impressive in their currency and vision.

Everywhere we had conversations — not just show and tell exercises.

For example, J.J. Yuann, chairman of the philosophy department at the National Taiwan University, hosted a roundtable discussion on my book, “The Democracy Reader,” involving a dozen students and several faculty members in a lively exchange on the role of the citizen in a democratic society. In the realm of culture, I saw two traditional groups in performance, both effectively bringing the past and present together. I visited Creative Park, built on the grounds of an old winery in the center of Taipei, replete with avant garde art, children’s performances and trendy shops and cafes—very much like what I might see in downtown New York. The National Theater and Concert Hall in the Chiang Kai-Shek complex offer hundreds of performances a year by internationally renowned opera companies, symphony orchestras, jazz groups and dance and theater ensembles. The day I was there I saw the American Ballet Theater in rehearsal for a week of performances. The complex was clearly up to the caliber of our Lincoln and Kennedy centers.

Saving the best for last, the people that I met and came to know did not suffer from parochialism or timidity. They were intellectually curious, well informed and comfortable citizens of their own beloved country and the increasingly interdependent world. They were ready for tomorrow — to shape their future and live creative, compassionate smart lives.

Of course in a week I could only see the surface of the society — but surfaces speak volumes about what lies beneath and behind them. I saw public spaces inhabited by people who were not afraid. Whether on their way to work or to a restaurant, to a university, a doctor’s appointment or a shopping expedition, I had the sense that they felt in charge of their own lives. They know where they’re going.

Publication Date: July 29, 2012 

Privileged view reveals vibrant, focused culture
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