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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Monkey see

2012 is going to be an "unnerving year for Northeast Asia", according to the editorial writers at the Japan Times ジャパンタイムズ. Elections are going to be held in Russia, South Korea, the United States and, of course, here, the results of which could bring about substantial changes in regional politics and relations:

"The first ballots will take place in Taiwan, where both presidential and parliamentary elections will be held together for the first time on Jan. 14. President Ma Ying-jeou 馬英九, who took office four years ago, is battling Democratic Progressive Party 民主進步黨 nominee Tsai Ing-wen 蔡英文, and at this point the race is too close to call.

The most notable feature of the Ma presidency has been the calming of cross-strait relations and there is a fear that a Tsai victory will roil the relationship as did the last DPP president, Mr. Chen Shui-bian 陳水扁, who was forthright in his support for Taiwan independence. Ms. Tsai has tried to dampen concern but the Beijing government worries that lightning will strike twice.

Nonetheless, a Tsai win could prove destabilizing. Not only because Beijing fears a DPP victory, but because China is undergoing a leadership transition of its own as President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao turn over their offices to the fifth generation. Authoritarian societies are inflexible at the best of times, and changes at the top, even if planned, exacerbate hardline tendencies as followers jockey for position.

There is little inclination on the mainland to tolerate Taiwan's democratic foibles, but China has learned to be low key with its complaints, recognizing that overt intervention is only likely to antagonize Taiwanese voters. No one wants cross-strait relations to deteriorate — and they do not have to, regardless of the election outcome — but the congruence of two leadership changes is likely to generate friction regardless of intent."

The best outcome for Taiwan would be a Tsai victory over the corrupt, blood-stained Chinese Nationalists, aka the Kuomintang  中國國民黨. However, what Taiwan needs is often not what the major players in Northeast Asia desire. "Stability" is the operative word here, and stability means having a Taiwanese leader who would do his best to keep the Chinese placated. Tsai may be the right choice, for both moral and historical reasons (she would be the island's first female president if elected), but there is no guarantee the Taiwanese electorate will make the right call. Just as large segments of the working poor in the United States continually cast their ballots for Republicans in congressional and presidential elections, so too do many Taiwanese voters vote against their own best interests. These people might strongly identify with Taiwan and not with China, yet they continue to elect (and reelect) KMT candidates. The lure of pork barrel politics often triumphs over concerns for the dangerous erosion of national identity. 

Fortunately for Taiwan, we'll be out of the country on election day. Due to complex Freudian family relationships, my wife is a strong supporter of the KMT, but thanks to the lack of absentee voting here, she won't be able to cast a ballot before we leave for the U.S. That's one less vote for the blue side. I'm not allowed to participate in the electoral process here (nor would I want to), but I've done what I can to help ;-)

Politics is a noisy business in Taiwan, but at least I was able to escape some of that this afternoon by fleeing to the mountains of Dakeng 大坑. I took an easy walk along Trail No. 5 - easy in the sense that I usually approach this trail by first climbing the No. 1 (or No. 2) Trail, then finish the hike by descending the No. 2 (or No. 1), which makes for over 2½ hours of steady progression. Today, however, I cut out the steep ascent/descent by approaching the start of the No. 5 Trail from the rear, by way of Zhongxing Mt. 中興嶺. This effectively lopped off around 90 minutes from my usual trek, but as I prefer the longer sojourns, I'll revert to the traditional approaches the next I do the No. 5. As it was, much as changed on the trail since my last visit. New wooden staircases have been constructed, and in some places the path has been widened. There were more people than usual on this trail today, perhaps because of the easier accessibility. Shorter walking times, easier trails and the lack of good views - though it was sunny and warm in Dakeng this afternoon, haze obscured both the city of Taichung 台中  to the west, and the Central Mountain Range 中央山脈 to the east - could have made for a disappointing day out.

Thank god for the monkeys. While walking along the ridge past the point where the No. 1 Trail joins the top, I had to answer the call of nature. Venturing off into the forest to take care of business, I heard the familiar grunts and sounds of heavy movements through the trees. In the distance, behind an orchard, were several monkeys cavorting in the foliage. They were too far way for me to get any decent photos, but I was close enough that they noticed my presence, and were shaking the branches at me in an effort to scare me off. After watching them from afar for a while, I returned to the trail, and in just a matter of moments, came across a small group of four macaques 台灣獼猴. These ones were much closer, and while leery, nevertheless made no attempt to run off. As I result, I was able to take these shots and videos:

No matter how many times I encounter macaques while hiking in Dakeng, I never get tired of stopping to watch them. I'm fortunate that I have time on a weekday afternoon to hit the hills, for on weekends, when the noisy hordes swamp the trails, I'm pretty certain the monkeys retreat into the depths of the forest. I'm not particularly happy about having to live where I am, but I do appreciate the chances to interact with nature that I have in my area. It helps to keep me sane, and I'll need all the sanity I can preserve if Ma gets another four years to try and bring this island closer to China.

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