FASS Student Delegation to Taiwan: December 16th-23rd 2013

January 24, 2014

The Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, John Craig, along with 12 students from FASS, took part in a delegation to Taiwan in December 2013. The delegation was hosted by the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and met with dignitaries, political party representatives, non-governmental organizations, academics, and others over seven days. In addition to formal meetings and briefings, the group also toured parts of Taiwan including Taipei, Hualien, and Kinmen.

Four students share some of their experiences, thoughts and reflections on the trip: Jenny Shaw, Jimmy Peterson, Ali Wagner and Mark Friesen.

Jenny Shaw, PhD Student (Sociology and Anthropology)

I am a second year PhD student with research interests in youth, family, and transnational migration. I hold a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship and will start my research with migrant youth and their families in the fall of 2014.

Our delegation was graciously hosted by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and as a diverse group of students from a range of disciplines, we were able to contribute our perspectives, critical insights, and questions to help broaden our experience.

During the first half of the trip, we were introduced to topics concerning Taiwan’s international relations, economy, and social issues. We met with representatives from the Ministries of Economic Affairs, National Defense, and Education as well as with the Mainland Affairs Council, the Canadian Trade Office in Taipei, the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, and numerous research institutes. We learned about different perspectives on Taiwan’s past, present, and future in terms of both domestic and international issues through meetings with both the governing party (the Kuomintang) and the opposition party (the Democratic Progressive Party).

The latter half of the trip mainly consisted of daytrips outside of Taipei. We visited Taroko National Park in Hualien (pictured) where we learned about histories of colonization and displacement of Indigenous peoples. Next, we flew to Kinmen where we learned more about the history of the conflict between Taiwan and China, about histories of migration, kinship, architecture, and daily life on the island. Lastly, we visited Hsinchu, an industrial park known for the development and manufacturing of innovative technology. What most intrigued me was the emphasis placed on Indigenous peoples’ and women’s relatively high representation in government, as well as the advancement of youth programs and gender equity at the national level. It was excellent to see the promotion of democracy and social welfare through progressive social policies in Taiwan.

Jimmy Peterson, MA Student (Political Science)

I am starting the second semester of my MA. Most of my work has been for the NATO Defence College on NATO’s involvement in Africa and on humanitarian intervention. My thesis or research project will be on the implications for Canadian foreign policy of U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2012 "Pivot to East Asia" regional strategy.

Knowing little about Taiwan before embarking on this trip, I had read and heard about how Taiwan’s recent democratization was still problematic. I was fascinated by the relatively rapid and genuine democratic transition that has taken place in Taiwan since the late 1980s. Comparatively, most countries have struggled for much longer when democratizing. Apart from a challenging one-year period when the Kuomintang Party first handed over power to the Democratic Progressive Party after losing the presidential election in 2000, Taiwanese democracy has been robust.

The Taiwanese differentiate their political system from China’s predominantly on their adherence to democratic principles. Voter turnout has been consistently high (in Taiwan, 70% turnout is regarded as low) and there is no significant resource imbalance between the major political parties. Competitive elections have occurred at the local level for nearly fifty years, and these local experiences assisted in the transition to free and fair direct presidential elections after 1996.

The composition of our trip was further illustration of Taiwan’s democratization. Hosted and sponsored by the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we met with senior government officials, opposition leaders, business firms, and representatives of NGOs, social movements, and research institutes. The fact that we even met with the opposition party, the women’s centre, think-tanks, and academics critical of the government (or even condemning the now ruling KMT) was a testament to this democratic nature. I wonder if our federal government would facilitate meetings for delegates from another country with the opposition parties, non-governmental organizations, and feminist organizations?

Alexandra Wagner, BA Student (International Studies)

I am working on my undergraduate honours degree, focusing on International Security and Conflict. I plan to graduate in summer 2014, once I have fulfilled the language requirement of my degree, which I am currently working on by attending Spanish school in Guatemala.

Taiwan is a young democracy, with martial law ending in 1986. The speed with which Taiwanese society implemented democratic reforms is impressive. We learned about these changes through conversations with the two main political parties: the Kuomintang has been in power the longest and it both enacted martial law and ended it; and the Democratic Progressive Party is a relatively new party that emerged through protests against the Kuomintang during martial law.

Both parties helped us to understand the importance of generational change. The oldest generation in Taiwan were born in China and lived primarily under martial law, while the next generation were young adults during the change to democracy, and the youngest generation are those who have lived most of their lives under democratic Taiwan. We learned that the speed of change is increasing as the oldest generation are beginning to leave powerful positions, making room for the younger generations.

I was also interested in the gendered aspect of Taiwanese society, and I was particularly impressed as Taiwan recognised gender equality in the 1947 constitution, working to ensure that women make up a minimum number of seats in Parliament, and setting up a department of gender equality in 2012. Indeed, the 2008 creation of the Taiwan Women's Centre was a landmark in women's promotion and equality in Taiwan; their current focus is campaigning against gender abuse in Taiwan.

Overall, being part of this delegation has changed the way I view international diplomacy, political development, and many other factors that I will apply to my studies and my life. I hope I have a chance to visit Taiwan again.

Mark Friesen, MA Student (Urban Studies)

I am a graduate student planning to complete and defend my thesis – concerning democracy at the metropolitan scale – in summer 2014. As a member of the delegation to Taipei, it was striking to learn about the rapid development of progressive democratic practices in Taiwan. I was surprised, for example, that peaceful protests are a common occurrence. We also learned there are a minimum number of seats in the Taiwanese parliament which must be allocated to women, and that six seats are reserved for aboriginal members.

In addition, the Taiwan Women’s Centre serves as a forum for non-governmental organizations to collaborate on human rights issues in Taiwan and the region. Such forums would be of considerable value in any polity, and Taiwan’s direct government support for this (and other) democratic programs was impressive. However, in meeting with the official opposition party, we also heard of the significant obstacles that were overcome to achieve these milestones.

For example, it took the civil service nearly a year to transfer control and operationalize the new government when the opposition was elected for the first time, for the simple reason that they had never had to do so before. The founders of the opposition party comprised those who had been imprisoned by the former regime; we heard of government abuses that occurred in the 1980s, and of the ongoing work needed to address discrimination and human rights issues.

Today, Taiwan faces ongoing challenges. The government’s position on Taiwan’s relationship with the mainland is: no unification; no independence; and, no use of force. This approach has, arguably, enabled Taiwan to engage in stable international relations with China and the world. So despite facing difficult political issues in the future, the Taiwanese commitment to democracy is a huge inspiration, and I believe may be Taiwan’s most important asset.