What you need to know
Salvadorans in Taiwan reflect on their president's decision to switch diplomatic recognition to Beijing.
“This guy is our Trump,” says Yao Lin (林駿堯), resignedly. “Everyone hates him and no one has a clue how he won the seat.”
Mario Argueta goes a step further. “As ignorant as someone can get,” he says. “He didn't even finish college.”
The most withering assessment of all comes from a Salvadoran former student in Taiwan who spoke on condition of anonymity. “A money-thirsty, corrupt little man who lacks any knowledge of China and Chinese foreign policy,” he says.
They are referring to Salvador Ceren Sanchez in general and, in particular, the Salvadoran president's announcement on Aug. 20 that his country was to establish ties with China. Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) has cited Taipei's refusal to fund a port project, which – following a feasibility study – it deemed financially unsound – as the prime mover in San Salvador's decision. Although the exact details of the project were not mentioned, it was clearly a reference to the La Union port in the southeast of the country.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs chief also cited alleged demands by Ceren Sanchez's ruling left-leaning FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) party for funds to be used in the president's re-election campaign early next year. With support for the government at a low, the opposition ARENA (Nationalist Republican Alliance) party has seized upon the allegations as a violation of the country's sovereignty by encouraging foreign intervention in internal affairs. Government officials have denied any request for extra funds was made, but many of Taiwan's Salvadoran residents remain unconvinced.
“What’s currently going on is that El Salvador is having the presidential elections soon, and since the current government couldn’t get more money from Taiwan and other countries to fund their campaign they resorted to China for help,” says Argueta, a Salvadoran who is pursuing International Business at Tamkang University. “They know China will say yes, because this is what China wants.”
For Lin, the news was “a shocker,” not because he didn't see it coming but because of his strong ties to both countries. The 28-year-old actor was born in Taiwan but grew up in San Salvador after his father moved there as part of a military police security detail for the Taiwanese embassy. “The news about the project of the port in La Union was just the straw that broke the camel's back,” he says. “Dealing with China [has been] a lingering idea since the 2009 election of left-wing [FMLN] candidate Mauricio Funes. The government preference tilted towards the mainland and they strengthened relations with Brazil and Cuba. Though there was no legitimate reason to break ties, they kept playing with the idea, while receiving aid and donations from Taiwan.”
Alas, this useless man has assassinated 85 years of help from Taiwan with one speech. — Salvadoran former student in Taiwan
The anonymous former student is equally nonplussed by the logic of the decision. “In El Salvador, I worked with the technical mission from Taiwan who brought efficient land farming and fish farming methods,” he says. “The ministry of health was updated with the help of Taiwanese public health professionals and Taiwanese funds and technology. The police had vehicles and motorcycles donated by the Taiwanese government,” he adds.
“El Salvador sent many professional, capable people to Taiwan to get technical degrees in with a scholarship from the International Cooperation and Development Fund, so they could go back and assist the development of the country. El Salvador was one of the few countries that had a relationship with Taiwan based on technology and development, not just money,” he says. “And now, alas, this useless man has assassinated 85 years of help from Taiwan with one speech.”
Manuel A. Diaz, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Health Research Institutes in Hsinchu takes a more measured view, but agrees that the thinking on the part of the Salvadoran administration was flawed and short-termist.
“It is not the wisest decision,” he says. “That cheap money that will be injected in developing a port in our country might seem great now, but it will backfire in the near future on our government and our people."
Diaz also fears that his countrymen are at the mercy of a campaign of disinformation: "We, as Salvadorians, might not be aware that this is a scheme that Chinese are using to build ports and infrastructure that ultimately will be used by Chinese corporations. They know that our economy is weak and the government won’t be able to repay the money borrowed. As result they hope to take control of that infrastructure for who knows how many years.”
His sympathies lie with the current batch of scholarship students who stand to be ejected from Taiwan on the back of the diplomatic rupture. “I’m just glad it did not happen when I was a student. They are the first direct victims of our government's decision.”
Douglas Alfaro, a teacher and football coach, who last year featured in a segment on Formosa English News was similarly sympathetic with the plight of his compatriots. “People already have their lives here,” he says. “Having to leave the country isn't something any of the Salvadorans here want. I think a lot will prefer to stay and pay their studies on their own.”
Alfaro says that after pressure from student groups, the El Salvador government agreed to cover the fees of students who started studying in Taiwan between 2014 and 2016 so they can complete their degrees, as happened with Panamanian students when their government broke ties in June last year.
But he fears there could be a long wait in store. "We don't know when. The way things work in my country, they might take a long time to give the money."
Elsewhere, there is just sadness and disbelief that life in Taiwan might be coming to an abrupt end. “It really is heartbreaking,” says Daniela Hernandez, a student at National Chengchi University. “Right now, we’re in limbo. I feel conflicted about it as, on surface, it doesn't seem to be a smart choice."
For his part, Lin is ambivalent about where the fault lies. “I don't fully blame El Salvador,” he says. “How many of the 23 million people in Taiwan care? The majority of citizens can't even name five allies. How many of us have traveled to any of these countries, to get a better understanding of our current situation? Let's keep playing mobile video games to forget that we were bullied by the Japanese last century or that we had a missile crisis with China in the 90s?”
The issue, as he sees it, is Taiwan's failure to assert itself and create a discernible brand. “Taiwan should be more like Apple,” he says. “They weren't the best a decade ago, but how did they come through? Identity. And that's what we are losing. Forget the Allies, this is the real problem.”
This story was updated to indicate that the El Salvador government has agreed to cover the fees of students who started on scholarships in Taiwan between 2014-2016.
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Editor David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)
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