Long-time reporter Kenneth Liu speaks to The Wild East on the need to ‘give China time’ for its democratic development, how Taiwan can act as catalyst and positive example and what he sees are Chiang Kai-shek’s most significant achievements
Story and photo by Trista di Genova, The Wild East
In The China Post’s dusty, grungy old Taipei office with dilapidated equipment and desks overflowing with dot-matrix hard copy printouts, is where I met Kenneth Liu.
You’re probably unfamiliar with his name – his work is published only under the generic byline ‘China Post news staff’. However, readers nevertheless would have read a lot of his work — he writes the majority of breaking, page 1 stories that I would be the last to check. Often we were the last employees there to finish work at half past midnight.
Ken’s also a wonderful, learned man, gracious, helpful and supportive — a positive role model for me as a young writer. He always carries a little AM/FM radio with him and pen and paper in his pocket. While I was at the Post, we spent many nights after work holding seminars with interns about Taiwan, and drinkin’ beer in the park, so Taiwan-style.
Kenneth Liu was born in Henan, China, “near the Shaolin Temple,” he points out, formerly served as bureau chief of United Daily News, and has worked for The China Post for years, often as their lone, full-time local reporter.
Our discussion other night in the early hours in Banciao began with my comment about the hard lives of the Chinese people: “Don’t you feel bad for Chinese people? Feudal warring states, the so-called ‘Cultural Revolution’ where they destroyed their culture, the Great Leap Forward (into Shit, we laughed); famine, flooding, oppression of dissent?”
Ken expressed how lucky he felt to grow up and be in Taiwan in the first place; “Otherwise there would be no chance for me to learn English, know many things, to know foreigners like you.” There’s a huge difference between a life in China and here in Taiwan, he said; “they are entirely two different worlds.”
China’s social controls are so strict otherwise it’d be too easy to lose control over such a massive population of 1.3 billion, which explains (but of course doesn’t justify) cases such as the brutal suppression of Tiananmen Square (traditional Chinese: 天安門廣場; pinyin: Tiān’ānmén Guǎngchǎng) student protesters demanding democracy in 1989.
Many people blamed the Tiananmen massacre on the leaders at the time, Li Peng and Deng Xiaoping, but what was needed was time, Ken said. When things “got out of hand the whole regime was threatened, so like a cornered animal fighting for life, it had to bite back and bite hard.”
But China’s communist leaders of today cannot be underestimated, he stresses. “They are smart. They understand the problems of their country or they wouldn’t be the leaders.” Chinese communist leadership is “the top of the top. Never take them lightly or think they’re stupid, or backwards.”
“You cannot push democracy too fast because it’s like driving… or riding a horse. If your horse can go faster than a screaming angel, you could end up in trouble…“
Taiwan’s democratic influence can help “China’s slow transition to a more democratic society; it is the move we must make, otherwise it’s all a waste of time.”
We want China to make a stable transition to a more democratic place. Give China time, he stresses.
China has to take its time, because if it collapsed – say, the 25 provinces broke apart a la Soviet Union, or it ‘balkanized’ like the former Yugoslavia following the power vacuum left in the wake of Tito’s death – ”1.3 billion people could be thrown into a kind of void, like a black hole, and it would churn up chaos, turbulence” throughout the world.
“How can we expect them to know what democratic order is? In my personal opinion, if change came too fast, the whole system could burn and crash,” he said. “If China crumbled it could be a disaster. People would flee to China-held Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, other places would be flooded; it would wipe out those systems.”
“We have to give them time. Time Rules. If we push too hard for democracy it will backfire.”
History repeats itself, and China is no different, he said, pointing out how China’s Civil War in the last century was preceded by centuries of warlords feuding with each other. Sun Yat-sen and the Nationalists tried 11 times to unite the country before they finally succeeded, Ken argues. After the Ching dynasty emperor was dethroned, warlords again emerged powerful. Chiang Kai-shek’s Northern Expedition succeeded in bringing together most of the provinces, wiping them out one by one, he says, to make it a unified nation again. But like Yugoslavia’s Tito, there was not enough time to consolidate power. At the same time, Japan was worried a unified China would be too powerful, so they launched an invasion, before Chiang could consolidate; this is why Japan wanted to destroy China in 3 months. But they’d “run into a huge and hard rock – Chiang Kai-shek.” And that’s the contribution of Chiang Kai-shek, Ken argues.
He sees Chiang’s life in three chapters: Chapter 1 is the Northern Expedition. Chapter 2. Fighting Japanese for 8 long years; and Chapter 3: Taiwan, the finale.
The way Ken sees it, Chiang actually laid a foundation, a blueprint in Taiwan for all of China in the future.
“People say we [Taiwan] shouldn’t get too close with China, but I think we should get as close as possible, and Taiwan could be catalyst. Of course we are no match in money, or people, money but Taiwan’s value is to serve as catalyst, to show them ‘don’t be afraid,’ to just give people things like education and freedom; they wlll work out the most efficient way for themselves. If you keep the door shut it’s very easy for China to brainwash the Chinese, but if Taiwan treats investors with dignity and give them fair wages, they will know maybe the system in Taiwan is not so bad.”
China’s democratic transition should be taken step by step, Ken said, using tourism as one example.
He also offered a few predictions and observations, such as within a few years, the number of Chinese tourists coming to Taiwan would no longer be restricted. They’re currently only allowed to come in tourist groups; Chinese ‘tourists’ traveling singly sometimes try to leave the group and stay in Taiwan. If so many of these ‘bad apples’ break away from tour groups, “Beijing is concerned they might do something illegal, which would be bad for China’s image, and cause some frictions,” Ken said.
He says checks on who comes will be streamlined to prefer business interests over ordinary workers . Traditionally, those companies have to be invested in by a Taiwanese boss and foreign company’s executive, for example IBM, Proctor and Gamble. Now the next step, he said, is for the business executives to be allowed to come here individually. By June of 2011, Taiwan will begin to allow individual tourists from China, said Ken, putting into place facial recognition technology, and setting criteria such as a certain income threshold, or certain types of sought-after skilled labor, “like the old days”. “This is how the world works…. All it takes is money,” he remarked.
Taiwan is a stepping stone to doing business in China, he explained. First the big corporations send their executives to work and train in Taiwan, since its policies are more liberalized, then they’re sent to China.
Also helpful will be the implementation of plans to lift restrictions on allowing residents further travel, to major cities in China like Shanghai, Beijing and some provinces closer to China — Fujian, Guangdong (Canton), then to 20 cities. And then after one year these areas will be open to travel everywhere, Ken says. “Officials in China know that. The direction is open, the only thing is how fast you want that to go.”