Taiwan's Dynamic Civil Society

On the eve of Taiwan’s election on January 14, China made an extraordinary statement on how cross-straits relations should be conducted.

The statement was made by a spokesman for the mainland Taiwan Affairs Office, who said both sides should follow Master Cheng Yen, a Buddhist nun who leads Taiwan’s biggest NGO, the Tzu Chi Foundation, and advocates ‘Great Love.’

The Tzu Chi Foundation has just organized winter distribution of food and clothes in 13 provinces in the mainland, with 3,000 local and Taiwan volunteers.

The spokesman's statement may have a political purpose, but it touched on a special quality in Taiwan society – the deep engagement of religious groups, one of the island’s great strengths and one which China does not encourage.

Master Cheng Yen is one of the ‘four high mountains’ of Buddhism in Taiwan -- four masters with millions of followers abroad as well as at home. They are part of a dynamic civil society that is the envy of mainland visitors.

The organizations led by these four, other Buddhist groups, as well as Christian and Daoist organisations, are active in society, providing spiritual guidance, medical care, education, social welfare and help to the poor, the sick and the underprivileged.

They make Taiwanese among the most generous in Asia. They donated US$170 million to victims of last year’s tsunami in Japan, as much as South Korea and the US, whose combined populations are 12 times as large. Charitable donations exceed US$1.1 billion a year, most from people on modest incomes.

In the first two weeks of January, the world saw the passion and intensity of the election but did not see this dimension of Taiwan.

The island has more than 40,000 non-profit organizations, with more than one million volunteers who work at home and overseas. Eight percent of its citizens are blood donors, one of the highest ratios in the world.

This rapid development of civil society occurred after the end of martial law and one-party rule in 1987. These NGOs have created a diverse and lively society, with hundreds of newspapers and magazines, over 350 television stations and 40,000 new book titles each year.

Even mainland tourists on brief visits cannot but notice the vitality and diversity of society. In the evenings, they switch on to see the intense debates on the television channels; they can choose between those which favor the ruling or opposition parties. These programs are as important to them as a visit to Sun Moon Lake or the memorial to Chiang Kai-shek.

When they come out of the 101 Tower and its luxury brand shops, they see Falun Gong members practicing on the sidewalk, a silent protest against the ban imposed by their government.

“This is public space,” said member Liang Lin, sitting with his legs crossed. “The police do not bother us. We want to tell our mainland friends that they have been misinformed. If something improves your health, why set yourself on fire?”

Civil society also means civility. As more mainlanders swarm across the Taiwan Strait their demeanor is coming into greater contrast with the Taiwanese themselves. That is an issue that has polarized Hong Kong as well, with locals and mainlanders facing off against each other in a series of angry confrontations.

After the Taiwan election, life quickly returned to normal. On Sunday, the city was calm and peaceful; the election banners and megaphones had disappeared.

This same spirit is evident in everyday life. On buses and subways, seats with a special color are reserved for the old, pregnant women and mothers with babies; they are left vacant by other travelers.

People are polite to visitors, showing them directions if requested and ending with a ‘thank you’ or ‘do not mention it’. They converse quietly so as not to disturb the people at the next table.

“That is the great difference with our mainland guests,” said Lin Li-mei, a waitress at the Changchun Business Hotel. “They talk bluntly and loudly, unaware that they disturb others. Our manners came from the mainland long ago. Theirs were destroyed by the Cultural Revolution. They need time to get them back.”

So while the Taiwan economy increasingly relies on the mainland as its main export market and source of tourists who spends millions of dollars, China should look here for a model of the society it wants to build, the ‘soft power’ to complement its formidable ‘hard power’.