Taiwan in transition
Political and cultural changes are happening in Taiwan. Christians (4.5 per cent of population) should better reach out to young people, believes Michael Dixon, an English teacher who has lived in the island for more than 20 years.
KAOHSIUNG · 15 MARCH 2016 · 12:13 CET
After living more than two decades in Taiwan, Michael Dixon knows its culture well.
“I became a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ in mid-1992 and very quickly, God opened up the opportunity for me to move from the United Kingdom to Taiwan”, he explains.
Dixon now lives in Taiwan’s second largest city, Kaohsiung (2.8 million inhabitants), which is situated on the south-west coast of the island facing the Taiwan Strait. It is the country’s largest container port.
He works as an English teacher. “The pursuit of education including learning English is an important thing in Taiwan society. From a very young age, many school pupils face long hours at school followed by several hours in a supplementary school (known as cram schools)”, he explains. “For the past ten years I have taught mostly in senior high schools”.
Dixon serves in a local English-speaking church in the capacity of elder, Bible teacher and lay preacher.
In an interview with Evangelical Focus, Dixon gives his views on the political, cultural and spiritual changes happening in Taiwan.
Question. What significant things have happened in Taiwan these last weeks after the election of January which gave the presidency to pro-independence leader Tsai-Ing Wen?
Answer. It is important to note that not only did Miss Tsai garner 56% of the vote to the 31% garnered by the KMT presidential candidate Eric Chu, but also her party secured a landmark victory in the legislative election securing 68 of the 113 seats. What has surprised me is that unlike previous elections there has been no protest from opposition supporters at the result. My observations suggest that they realise that many people have grown tired of wages that in real terms haven’t risen for twenty years, a weak economy, high property prices and dissatisfaction with the incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou’s approach to improving relations with China.
Currently, Taiwan is going through the transition period between the election and the presidential inauguration in May. The legislature is currently debating a law to establish a framework to handle this transition period. At this point, no agreement has been reached.
One final point to mention is that China has been surprisingly quiet on the rhetoric front. Very little has been said. Could this be because they realise that many in Taiwan are tired of this, or could it be that they are quietly observing the way Miss Tsai and the DPP develop their policies on how to handle the sensitive issues of cross strait relations. Time will tell.
Q. According the Taipei Times, 90 per cent of young people in the island identify themselves as “Taiwanese”. Do you think an agreed full independence from China is possible in the near future?
A. Historically, Southern Taiwan has been the “heartland” of the pro-independence movement led by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), whereas the northern and eastern parts of the country have traditionally supported the pro-China Kuomintang (KMT). However, since the first openly democratic presidential election in 1996 a new generation has grown up in this country that has become increasingly politically active and who prefer to identify themselves as “Taiwanese” rather than “Chinese”.
The Sunflower Movement that occupied the legislature in 2014 is a case in point. They represented a growing dissatisfaction amongst young people at the growing trade and political links between the KMT Government and the Chinese Government, a lack of transparency in these dealings, and an apparent lack of concern for Taiwan and the future of the young generation here.
But in answer to your question, full independence from China, despite the desire of a growing number of people (especially the younger generation), remains very doubtful in the near future. It is interesting to note that president elect Miss Tsai unlike the previous DPP President Chen Shui-bian (2000-08) has emphasised that she wants to maintain the status quo on cross-strait relations seeking peace, greater reconciliation and cooperation rather than forcefully pursuing an aggressive independence agenda.
In my opinion, this is the best approach as China has always maintained an bellicose position on the Taiwan issue giving it little or no space in the international arena and never ruling out the use of military force to reclaim what it considers to be its 23rd province. Miss Tsai and her new administration need to be given time to develop a cross-straits policy that upholds the dignity and status of this nation whilst developing open, peaceful and pragmatic ties with China. This is going to be a major challenge.
Q. What is the presence of Protestant/Evangelical Christians in the country? What other denominations are there?
A. Traditionally the dominant religions in Taiwan are Buddhism and Taoism with one figure I saw, stating 35.1% and 33% of the population respectively.
Early Christianity was forced out under the Ming Dynasty, but starting in the 1860s, Christianity was re-introduced to Taiwan by the Catholic and Presbyterian missionaries. During the Japanese colonial period no further overseas missionary activity was permitted in Taiwan. It wasn’t until the ending of the Chinese Civil War in 1949 and the establishment of the Chinese communist government in China that missionaries fled with the Chinese Nationalist (Kuomintang) army to Taiwan.
Today the major denominations found here are the Catholics, the Presbyterians, Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Seventh-Day Adventists, True Jesus Church and an increasingly growing number of small non-denominational churches.
According to Wikipedia government statistics estimate that Christians make up 4.5% of the population with an even split between Protestants and Catholics.
Nearly all of Taiwan's aborigines (who traditionally live in mountains and along the east coast) profess Christianity (some 70 percent Presbyterianism, the remainder mostly Catholicism).
Q. Do you think members of Christian churches in Taiwan are engaged with the socio-political situation of their country? Would their engagement make a difference?
A. Historically the most active denomination in the political arena has been the Presbyterian Church, which has traditionally, supported the DPP and Taiwan independence because they feel it best serves the interests of the local people.
Interestingly, many native-born politicians including former president Lee Teng-hui have urged members of the church to not let their political passion overshadow their sense of morality and justice as taught by the Bible.
The Presbyterian church generally conducts all of its church services in the main Chinese dialect in Taiwan, Taiwanese rather than the official language of Mandarin Chinese. Mandarin has only been spoken here since 1945, Taiwanese much longer.
Other denominations from my experience may have support amongst their members for the various political parties but do not have a started position either way. One has to bear in mind that politics has always been a sensitive issue in Taiwan between those who favour re-unification with China and those who do not – this can even divide families! It is best if the churches and individual members focus on confronting the social issues that this country faces rather than align themselves to a political party.
Q. Do Taiwanese Christians in general see social justice, democracy, transparency, freedom of conscience, etc., as priorities connected to their biblical worldview?
A. This is a very important question. In my twenty plus years here I have seen no evidence that Christians have had a major impact on society as identified in your question. That is not to say that there haven’t been groups of individuals who have been doing something about this.
Taiwan has been going through major social changes in the past twenty years. Issues that would have been frowned upon before are becoming acceptable. For example, abortion, divorce, couples cohabitating instead of getting married, and LGBT rights. So-called “gay” marriage hasn’t been legalised yet, but there are growing demands from the gay community for it to become so. Despite protests from some Christians, this could become a reality in the near future.
Sadly, Christians in Taiwan (and I include myself) have not made a sufficient stand on these issues from a biblical perspective. It is true that we are to “love our neighbour” and not “judge” others, but this does not mean that we should remain silent whilst biblical morality is being rejected by society. We have to present what God has to say on these matters in a loving and non-judgemental way. The method I use (especially with young people) is to explain that God doesn’t like a lot of things that society accepts, and then go on to explain that God also didn’t like most of the things I was getting up to before (and at times even now!). I made a conscious decision to follow the ways of Jesus and the Bible. In doing it this way, individuals don’t see condemnation, but, rather, the changing power of Jesus!
I believe that it is too late for Christians in Taiwan to change the ungodly behaviour and thinking here by standing up and preaching, protesting and condemning society. It won’t work. This is what I call the macro level approach.
We need to work on a micro level with individuals (especially young people) exposing them to the biblical worldview, and allowing Jesus to change them one soul at a time. That is how Taiwan society can be won for Christ.
Q. How could Christians bring reconciliation in moments of socio-political tension (neighbours with different opinions, radical nationalism on both sides, education, etc.)?
A. Simply to live a Christ-like life. The Bible tells us to love our neighbour, to live, always where possible, at peace with others, not to judge others, and to pray for those in authority.
I believe these attributes can be applied to the political arena as well. As people observe a Christian’s perspective on an election or the independence/reunification question perhaps it will get them to think more carefully about their approach.
A Christian should come come across as an individual who peacefully respects others' opinions rather than causing unnecessary conflict. I believe differing political opinions, elections and the issue of independence/unification can be handled in a more harmonious way. Christians have a major role in bringing this about by being Christ like. Hopefully others will follow their lead.
Q. Finally, is there anything else you would like to add?
Politics in Taiwan, like in most other countries, is an important issue. Taiwan faces some testing times ahead domestically and with its external relations with China. The new president, the new government and all other elected officials need our prayers. (1 Timothy 2:1-2) For me, however, there is the greater urgency to get the message of salvation and eternal hope through Jesus Christ out in to Taiwan society.
So many people have still either never heard of this message or have a limited or distorted view of it. My personal focus is the young generation as in any given week I spend a lot of time with them. If Jesus doesn’t return in the near future, these young people who are the future teachers, lawyers, doctors and leaders of this country, need to hear the gospel now, as they will greatly influence the future direction of this country.
I also think that the way church operates in Taiwan needs to change. Without diluting the message of Jesus and the Bible, it needs to be made more relevant to the young generation by doing away with all the traditional elements that have been around for decades. For example, many of the hymns in my church’s hymnal date back to the mid 19th century. Per se, there is nothing wrong with these hymns, but they have no relevance to the youth of the 21st century! Church services and the music need to be made more contemporary and the way the Bible message is presented needs to be in such a way that young people are interested in knowing more. Certainly, the smaller evangelical churches have woken up to this fact, but a lot more needs to be done!
In addition, individual Christians need to become bolder in sharing their faith with the people around them. It is true to say that there is a cultural tendency for religion to be a personal thing but we need to overcome this. In Taiwan three things seem to be very popular: politics, motorcycles and convenience stores. Current estimates put the number of convenience stores in Taiwan at over 10,000 -- not bad for an island with a population of 23 million! I hope that one day, instead of seeing a convenience store every few hundred metres we will, instead, see a small “house” church reaching out into that immediate community. I believe that thousands of such churches will have a greater impact than a smaller number of larger ones. I would like to finish by saying that despite the daily challenges I face living here, I love Taiwan and its people very much, and would like to spend the rest of my life here serving the Lord Jesus.