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Opinion and Editorial

Taiwan president’s Twilight Zone experience

Tom Plate
Filed on January 17, 2007

LIKE the late French writer Albert Camus, the late American television pioneer Rod Serling, in his celebrated “Twilight Zone” TV series, liked to focus on the absurd. He believed that the absurd, at times, revealed more about life than the real thing.

One famous episode has a passenger airline taking off in one decade but then facing the prospect of having to land in an earlier one. Something really weird —call it a “Twilight Zone” moment —occurs in mid-air. All on-board are extremely startled, to say the least, when they realise they would have to land in a whole different dimension of time and space.

Now here is a whole new “Twilight Zone” experience for you. But this one happened in real life, it happened last week and it happened to the embattled President Chen of Taiwan. The experience almost took him and his travelling presidential party into a whole new dimension of time and space.

A China Airline jet, leaving Taipei with President Chen Shui-bian and aides, lands for a refueling stop in San Francisco. It is bound for Managua to allow the president’s party to attend the inauguration of the president of Nicaragua —one of only 24 countries that recognise the prosperous island of Taiwan as a stand-alone government and nation.

Because of the extreme tension between Taiwan and China over the island’s true political status, the angry Chinese government in Beijing expressed disapproval at the granting of a stopover visa by the US to Chen in San Francisco (on the way to Nicaragua) and Los Angeles (returning to Taipei). Beijing went all the way to the White House to try to stop the Chen party’s jet from landing on the West Coast —and to Mexico City to deny the Taiwan plane over-flight rights to Mexican airspace.

Basically, if Beijing could have its way, Chen would be grounded, just like any misbehaving teenager. China regards Taiwan as nothing more than a viperous rogue state and breakaway province that needs to be reintegrated with the mainland —whether its 23 million people like it or not.

At the last minute, though, President George Bush personally approved the two US landing visas, and persuaded Mexico to permit the China Airline jet to over-fly its territory in order to get to its Central American destination before running out of fuel. So far, so good —but suddenly the modern “Twilight Zone” plot thickens.

Before taking off for Los Angeles International Airport from Managua for the return to Taipei, the president’s party is suddenly and dramatically informed by the control tower that the government of Mexico has “changed its mind” —no over-flight permission! Beijing, petty and furious as ever, has finally gotten the Mexican government to kowtow. Now a new flight plan is urgently needed. How are they to get back to LAX, where the Bush approval for a stop-over remained in force, without running out of fuel?

Word of the unfolding melodrama reaches a secret international VIP waiting-room at a conference area at LAX, where a crowd of pro-Taiwan well-wishers was gathered. Among the supporters included a raft of Taiwanese-American businessmen, pro-Taiwan China scholars and several Los Angeles officials (including LA Mayor Antonio Ramon Villaraigosa) —not to mention one syndicated newspaper columnist. The tension mounts with speculation about the Presidential party’s arrival and safety.

Up in the air, the China Airlines crew manoeuvres the jetliner far out over the Pacific Ocean so as to avoid Mexican airspace (and an attack by the Mexican air force?), then swings the jumbo jet back eastward for a safe landing. The president’s party hits the Los Angeles tarmac hours late, but deplanes safely into the protective cocoon of American and Taiwanese security teams. As President Chen finally enters the VIP area, the worried crowd releases a collective sigh of relief and erupts into spontaneous and heartfelt applause. The president bows, and then proceeds to shake the hand of everyone present in the large room —maybe a hundred or so.

One would have thought that Chen would look tired and defeated. But he did not. Instead, this controversial politician whose family had been accused by Taiwan prosecutors of corruption and who personally has been accused by Beijing of provocative “splitism” seemed unruffled, deeply calm and defiant.

It took me a few hours to piece together why he was so happy, why his own personal “Twilight Zone” experience hadn’t unnerved him and why he seemed more resilient than ever. The answer is that Chen understands that Taiwan gains whenever Beijing reveals itself as a bully. He knows that a democracy never looks more necessary than when a non-democratic state acts as if it finds democracy threatening. China, by literally trying to force the president’s plane out of the air and into some “Twilight Zone” of non-existence, had shown the world that at times it goes too far.

Tom Plate, a full-time adjunct professor at UCLA, is a veteran US journalist

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