Protest chic goes global

Latter-day hippies and martial arts masters form an odd coalition in Taiwan to promote "global peace." But something is lost in the translation.

By Richard Blow
Published April 9, 2001 10:58PM (EDT)

My frustration at the World Citizens Assembly held in Taiwan probably peaked when the Taiwanese children took the stage two by two, costumed to represent the indigenous peoples of every continent. The children representing North Americans were dressed as Indians, wearing feathered headdresses and toting spears. The two supposed to be European looked like the St. Pauli Girl and her boyfriend. And the two "Africans" were wearing faux lion pelts and painted from head to toe in blackface.

But no one else at this global "peace" conference seemed to find this bizarre, and the next thing I knew, the children had clasped hands to lead us in song. We sang the anthem of Tai Ji Men, the Taiwanese menpai (academy) of martial arts hosting this conference. Against a backdrop of repetitive, hypnotic washes of synthesizer, the lyrics went:

The dawn of peace
Bursts from the passage of time
Praise of true love radiates from the rotation
Of heaven and earth
Growing aspirations for peace
Are surging in our minds ...
Love and peace
Love and peace
Will last forever.

It was at this point that, cranky and jet-lagged from the 20-hour trip, I lifted my pen and wrote "How did I get here?"

Like this: A couple of weeks before, I got a call from a friend who works for the Appia Group, a New York public relations firm. One of her clients, the Tai Ji Men, was hosting a peace conference in Taipei. The Dalai Lama, who was about to arrive for a controversial visit, might be there. (He wasn't.) Richard Gere and Uma Thurman might also come. (They didn't.) The Tai Ji Men wanted some press to promote, well, peace. How would I like a trip to Taiwan?

Enough to travel around the world to visit the country at the heart of the growing tension in the United States' relationship with China. For the United States, it's a schizophrenic situation. Even as Congress debates the sale of four high-tech Aegis destroyers to Taiwan -- a move that has the People's Republic of China fuming -- the United States has no ambassador there. When Taiwanese officials meet with State Department officials, they're not allowed to enter Foggy Bottom. At the Americans' insistence, one high-ranking Taiwanese government official told me, the diplomats meet "in hotels and coffee shops." Now Taiwan, or the Republic of China (ROC), lies smack in the middle of President Bush's first foreign policy crisis: the capture of a U.S. spy plane and crew by the PRC. As a result of the incident, pro-Taiwan forces in Congress have become emboldened, and the destroyer sale seems more likely. And that means tensions between the PRC and the ROC are sure to rise.

It also means that Taiwan is more eager than ever to find allies, even throwing its support behind a relatively marginal event such as the World Citizens Assembly. Yet, to a certain extent, there's a logic behind this gathering of peacemakers. Under President Bush, the United States is returning to a foreign policy whose attitude toward China and Russia resuscitates a certain Cold War-like aura. Naturally, that's going to reinvigorate the peace activists of the American left.

But things have changed since the days of the nuclear freeze and anti-Sandinista protests. This conference is further complicated by the fact that the Taiwanese (as opposed to U.S. peace activists) are loath to criticize U.S. policy and are bullish on Bush. As Hsiu-lien Annette Lu, the vice president of Taiwan, told me, "We expect that the Bush administration can improve mutual relations to compensate for the damage done under the Clinton administration."

At the conference kickoff, on the top floor of Taipei's stunning Grand Hotel, it's clear that some things are getting lost in the translation between East and West -- like just how one spreads peace, anyway. The Tai Ji Men take a nonpolitical path.

I ask two of their members what they hope the conference will achieve. At first, they don't understand, so I repeat the question. This time, they get it. "Love and peace," they say, speaking and smiling in unison. "Love and peace." You try asking a follow-up to that.

Many of the "delegates" from the Association of World Citizens (a United Nations-affiliated nongovernmental organization that holds the World Citizens Assembly), meanwhile, seem like refugees from the '80s outfitted with fresh batteries and old slogans. "The United States is the beneficiary of the imperialist world we have created," proclaims one panelist. Not exactly a Tai Ji Men thing to say.

"The struggle for peace is not going well," Douglas Mattern, a Silicon Valley engineer who founded the AWC in 1975, tells me later. "There's a revival of the Cold War, a militarization of space. We want to work for a world without weapons." Maybe he should mention that to the Chinese, who have 300 missiles pointing at this island.

Meanwhile, wandering around are the kinds of people who, I imagine, quit their jobs to spend six or seven months of the year attending such conferences. One Indian man spots my press badge and rushes up to me.

"I am from [incomprehensible]," he says. "My people are in a terrible situation with the Indian army."

"Yes," I say.

I wait for more; he waits for more. It's a standoff.

"I'm so sorry," I finally say.

"Yes, thank you," he responds, and, satisfied, walks away.

I had been told that someone would meet me at the landing gate when I landed in Taiwan. As I walked off the ramp at the Taipei airport, I saw a young Taiwanese woman holding a sign bearing my name. Next to her was a man carrying a video camera on his shoulder, which he promptly pointed my way. I had two problems with this: One, it creeped me out. Two, I'd been on a plane for as long as I could remember. I wasn't looking my best.

But the guy didn't seem to care. He walked backward through the airport, capturing me walking down an escalator, getting my passport stamped. Then, by the baggage carousel, there were about 25 more Taiwanese awaiting my arrival, all wearing white T-shirts saying "World Citizens Assembly 2001." When they saw me, they burst into applause, and insisted that we pose for a picture together.

Few nations have as tangled a history as Taiwan's. Occupied at various times by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the Spanish, Taiwan was controlled by China from 1662 until 1895, when Japan seized it after the First Sino-Japanese War. After World War II, Taiwan was returned to China. Then, after Mao's communists came to power in 1949, the Chinese nationalist government, or Kuomintang, fled to Taiwan -- a remarkable exodus of 2 million people -- and created a government in exile. The nationalists vowed that one day they would retake China, while the communists insisted that Taiwan remained the property of the PRC.

The Kuomintang never did get China back. Over the next 50 years, though, Taiwan evolved into a democratized, multiparty society with a booming economy. But as its economy prospered, its international status declined in proportion to the PRC's growing power. In 1971, the ROC lost the China seat at the United Nations to the PRC, and in 1979, the United States withdrew diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. Other countries, worried about offending the PRC, followed suit, and today only 29 countries officially recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation.

The result for Taiwan is a profound sense of international isolation and a constant awareness of its big bad neighbor a mere 100 miles to the west. Imagine living in Cuba if Cuba were the democracy and the United States the heavily armed, oppressive dictatorship, and the rest of the world had made a decision that it had a better deal with the dictator.

Much of Taiwan is strikingly beautiful, a rugged, mountainous land rising out of the Pacific. But not Taipei. Largely built in the last 50 years, it's crowded, dirty and filled with architecture that looks like it was shipped over from East Germany after the Wall fell. The air is so polluted that not once in five days did I see the sun, and many of the countless Vespa riders constantly zipping around the city cover their mouths with white masks. The streets teem with vendors selling an incredible variety of fruits, fish, vegetables, meats and delicacies such as shark fin and dried cuttlefish, virtually none of which I recognize. And yes, to a Westerner, some of the foods are repulsive -- like the turtle I saw dangling from a chain, a hook driven through its softened shell. As I stared, the turtle suddenly twisted its head and looked me in the eye.

It's a modern country filled with vestiges of the past. You can still hear Japanese spoken by people who lived through the occupation. But in a land with 12 million phone lines, there are also an estimated 10 million cellphones. The exchange of business cards is an almost compulsory ritual -- but if you don't use two hands while formally offering someone your card, it's a great insult.

From the outside, the Tai Ji Men academy looks like a fairly modest YMCA. Inside, I take off my shoes and am ushered into a small room with six ornate chairs flanking a beautifully carved wooden table. Tea is served in small, delicate cups and I am introduced to George, a man who appears to be about 60 and is the Tai Ji Men's most senior diz, or, roughly, student. (I never get to meet with Dr. Hong Tao Tze, the Tai Ji Men's shi fu, or master.) George's real name is Chen Tiao-Shin, but like many Taiwanese, he has also taken a Western name to facilitate contact with foreigners.

The Tai Ji Men, George explains carefully in halting English, is a Taoist lumpai, or martial art, but not a martial art in the sense that Westerners think, with Bruce Lee kicking and punching and shattering cement blocks. Very roughly translated, Tai Ji Men means an ancient academy of yin and yang, or the phenomenon of the universe. It's a sort of life school that integrates physical conditioning with spiritual lessons; there's really no Western equivalent. The Tai Ji Men call it "heart kung fu," which is about as close as they get to a sound bite.

I must still look a little confused because George asks me, "Have you seen the movie 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'?"

I have seen the film, directed by Taiwan-born Ang Lee. Before my stay in Taiwan is up, about five more people will ask if I have seen it.

"This is like us," George explains. The protagonist, Chow Yun Fat's character, is a disciple of a similar lumpai. He fights when he has to, but prefers a more peaceful integration of body and spirit.

Twenty years before, George was a high-ranking executive at Acer, the computer company whose presence is ubiquitous in Taiwan, when he was diagnosed with chronic hepatitis. Seeking to radically change his life, he quit his job and joined Tai Ji Men. He is now a changed man -- and a healthy one. His is hardly the only such story. Some days later, I spoke with a woman who had joined Tai Ji Men when she was "very unhappy and depressed." I asked her what she thought would have happened if she hadn't joined the group. She instantly crooked one finger back and forth. "I die," she said.

A cornerstone of Tai Ji Men philosophy, George continues, is the promotion of worldwide love and peace through cultural exchange. "People's hearts are getting worse and worse every day," he says. "Cultural exchange is a means to help people love each other."

That's what led the Tai Ji Men to give martial arts performances last year in San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., where they bonded with Mayors Willie and Jerry Brown. The Tai Ji Men had seen the Association of World Citizens' Web site. The two had similar goals, and it was agreed that in 2001, the Tai Ji Men would host the World Citizens Assembly, a rally of its members from 50 countries. Peace activists from the East would welcome their counterparts -- or the closest thing possible -- from the West.

Hosting a conference with a U.N. NGO, meanwhile, is a point of immense pride to the Taiwanese, who desperately want to join the United Nations and believe that working with U.N.-affiliated NGOs is a big step in that direction. I don't have the heart to tell anybody that, as a friend of mine who has worked for the U.N. puts it, "A random NGO cannot make one iota of difference in their joining the United Nations. That's like asking a magazine subscriber to help you get a job at the magazine."

Still, it says something about Taiwan's identity crisis that it so longs to believe otherwise. How can you be a country when the rest of the world has decided you aren't?

Day 3 of the World Citizens Assembly brings a massive Tai Ji Men performance before some 10,000 people at Taipei Municipal Stadium. The ceremony begins with a martial pounding of drums and a deafening sound like hundreds of those long plastic horns that really avid fans toot at college football games. The stadium field fills with flag-waving men in white pants and shirts, two beautiful human dragons over 150 yards long, scores of women dressed in gold to represent the phoenix, which along with the dragon is a powerful symbol in Chinese culture. An announcer broadcasts throughout the stadium, first in Chinese, then in English. One thousand children -- yes, 1,000 -- march across the field, pounding small drums. Eventually a series of dignitaries will ring the Tai Ji Men's "bell of peace."

To me, the affair resembles a cross between an Up with People halftime show and a Soviet May Day parade, but that's probably unfair. I don't know the traditions and imagery embodied in this ceremony, and I am sure that if I did, it would resonate far more. All I know is, it's long. More than four hours after it begins, the pageant closes with a mass singing of the Tai Ji Men anthem ("Growing aspirations for peace are surging in our minds," etc.) and a fireworks display. After that, the Tai Ji Men run up and down the field clapping and smiling in what appears to be an almost religious ecstasy. The effect is lost on me, but for these Taiwanese, the emotion is clearly genuine, powerful, life-changing. Who am I to say that it can't make a difference?

A skeptical Western journalist, that's who, a journalist who finds it hard to believe that cultural performances alone will help end war, or that anything, really, will end war. But if peace is to be preserved in the Taiwan Strait, part of the answer surely lies in politics, and to learn more about that, I set up a meeting with Lu, the Taiwanese vice president. Lu has spoken twice now at the World Citizens Assembly, and has stood out as a beacon of common sense; so far as I can tell, she is the only speaker actually to have mentioned the word "China."

I meet Lu at the Presidential Building, a huge but slightly sterile complex in downtown Taipei, in a red-carpeted conference room adjoining her office. Lining one wall of the room is a display cabinet featuring gifts from various foreign visitors. There is nothing from the U.S. "You cannot give us official gifts," Lu says.

This kind of snub is especially frustrating for Lu, who spent several years in the United States when she was younger. Born in Taiwan in 1944, she has a master's degree from the University of Illinois and studied at Harvard. An activist for women's rights and a Taiwanese nationalist, she became a member of the Democratic Progressive Party, which opposed the long-dominant Kuomintang. Last year, in a watershed election won by the DPP, she was elected Taiwan's vice president. A thoughtful woman with a with an agile mind and refreshingly frank style, Lu is tired when she meets me because, the day before, she not only spoke at Taipei Stadium but flew to the interior of central Taiwan to greet the Dalai Lama. The Tibetan leader is visiting Taiwan, something else that has displeased the PRC. Lu isn't surprised by that. After all, China is burdened with "an evil government." What surprises her is when Taiwan's ostensible friends let her country down.

"It's amazing, the way they treat us," she says. "The Dalai Lama and other [anti-China] troublemakers have visited the White House." Not Lu, nor any Taiwanese official. Last year Lu traveled to San Francisco on a trade mission to meet with executives from Hewlett-Packard and Cisco. She says the State Department called those companies and urged them to cancel the meetings, which they did.

"We're not afraid of facing China. Many other countries are. The world continues to spoil the PRC, like a bully. It's time to ask, Which country is the greater democracy? How can the United States, which is founded on the principles of democracy, not recognize a country which is also a democracy?"

Unlike many of our European allies, Lu is pleased with the new foreign policy of the Bush administration. Bill Clinton coddled China, she feels. Not W. After all, "from a geopolitical point of view, Taiwan is very important. It is two-and-a-half hours from our airport to seven major cities in Asia. Taiwan is an unsinkable submarine in the Pacific. Nobody but the Chinese would be happy to see Taiwan swallowed up."

That morning the China Post and Taiwan Times were reporting that China had captured an American espionage plane and was holding the plane's crew as prisoners. Why, Lu asked, would anyone be surprised by that?

The World Citizens Assembly wound up the next day by issuing a unanimous proclamation. It included five "whereas" clauses and five "be it resolved" clauses. To be honest, it was kind of a strange document. One clause said, "Whereas a peaceful sound has not been received by every corner of the world into everyone's heart ..." That sounded like a Tai Ji Men idea. But another section said that "the [U.N.] Security Council needs to be restructured so as not to allow any nation to make the world hostage through its present veto power." That was an obvious reference to China, and was far too political for the Tai Ji Men.

Either I'd been missing something all along, or the Tai Ji Men actually had managed to bring East and West together, and changed us both.

Richard Blow

Richard Blow is the author of "American SonA Portrait of John F. Kennedy, Jr.," and is currently a book about Harvard University.

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