Taiwan: Technology, theology and trouble

Technology and theology dominate Taiwan's public discourse, Steve Kelman learns.

I am in Taiwan for a few days to participate in work to help develop the use of the case method in teaching Taiwanese civil servants. The weather has been very nice -- mid-70's, and often blue skies (Taipei suffers from some air pollution, but compared to the disgusting air in Beijing, it's very pleasant).
 
You know you're in a country where tech is important -- or maybe I should say, a country where nerds rule -- when the major editorial in the leading English-language newspaper is on the subject of the introduction of a new tablet computer by a local company. The editorial in the Taipei Times, about introduction of a new very lightweight laptop by the Taiwanese company Asustek (the ASUS brand), was a mixture of product review and commentary about what Taiwan needs to do to keep its strong role in high tech. The editorial's tone was devastating. At the press conference, the "dull presentation and monotonous tone almost sent the audience to sleep. The deafening claps that came during the launch of the firm’s Eee PC netbook in 2007 were not heard this time. No wows and no shouts of excitement were heard either, and the press room was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. ...
 
"The silence speaks volumes about the difficulties that lie ahead for ultrabooks — the name Intel has bestowed on this new breed of notebooks. ...Granted, Asustek is just selling the hardware, but its new offering fails to deliver the stylistic design that it needs if it really wants to challenge Apple. Asustek represents a microcosm of the PC industry, holding on tightly to the myth of prioritizing performance over everything else. ...

"As Google and Amazon aggressively expand their cloud services to the hardware arena through mergers, acquisitions and strategic partnerships with hardware suppliers, PC companies can no longer make easy profits. ...PC companies, Taiwanese brands in particular, should heed the warning signs and quickly devise countermeasures because Wintel’s (Microsoft and Intel) dominance is showing major cracks. They can start by asking: Are ultrabooks a new breed of PC that can really appeal to consumers? Or are they just a last ditch effort by PC firms likely to crumple in the face of competition from tablets and smart phones?"

The newspaper's musings on tech's future in Taiwan were a diversion from one of the major features of Taiwanese society, not the least in the Taiwan independence-leaning Taipei Times itself: The theological divisions over sensitive words and expressions involving Taiwan's relationship with China.

The day I arrived, the paper had an article on the front page complaining that Taiwanese universities, the best of which have names proceeded by the word "national," were dropping that word when the universities had dealings with China. (So, for example, National Taiwan University, Taiwan's premier university, referred to itself just as "Taiwan University.") This change represented a craven bowing to China, the article quoted observers as stating.

Taiwan recently celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the 1911 revolution, led by Sun Yat-sen, which overthrew the Manchu Dynasty and established the Republic of China. There are Taiwan flags on display in large numbers throughout Taipei. Taiwan currently calls itself "Republic of China (Taiwan)" -- although, amazingly, the moniker changes depending on which political party is in power, with the nationalistic Democratic Progressive Party preferring to call the country just Taiwan -- and the anniversary celebrations featured controversy over whether Taiwanese should celebrate this anniversary at all, or regard this as the observance of a revolution in a foreign country that later imposed itself on the Taiwanese people when Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan in 1949.

I saw in Sunday's newspaper that "Occupy Wall Street" had come to Taiwan. Several hundred demonstrators held a protest at the entrance of Taipei 101, one of the tallest buildings in the world whose lower floors include a luxury-brand mall, protesting inequality in Taiwan. (I visited the mall the next day, and was impressed mainly by how empty almost all of the luxury emporiums such as Hermes, Cartier, and Dior were. The biggest exception was Louis Vuittion, which was really crowded; Tiffany's and Brooks Brothers -- two of the few American brands in the mall -- also had a fair number of customers.)

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