OTTAWA—Taiwan Night 2015 is soft power at its finest, a night of food and drink in solidarity with an island democracy some fear to call a country.
On March 10 at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier, there was a sizable contingent of MPs from every party. Partisanship was on hold for the evening, though they sat in caucus clumps at their respective tables.
Waiters with wine buzzed around the tables. The scallops and steak got rave reviews. Ministers and MPs from every party took turns at the podium, joking freely, sometimes sharing more than you’d expect. One described the trauma inflicted on his “Baptist liver” by 40-proof whiskey during his third trip to Taiwan.
“So that was the third visit. And the fourth visit, I can’t actually remember,” said the MP.
Several cabinet members also attended. The relationship between Canada and Taiwan is an easy one, said Conservative Party Whip John Duncan. “We share so much.”
Taiwan is special to many of these men and women. It is an island of democracy and prosperity in a region where many governments still tell their people what they can and can’t believe.
And Taiwan symbolizes hope. It is a country of Chinese people who have proven false any argument that democracy is culturally incompatible with the Chinese tradition. Taiwan is the feisty underdog in an international order that has many countries afraid to challenge China’s threatening stance toward the island nation. Taiwan faces a standing threat of invasion from China should it overstate its independence.
This is the undercurrent to the evening. At a similar function last year, the previous ambassador was more explicit about the threat China poses to Taiwan, and Taiwan’s shared values with Canada.
Tonight, it’s more subtle. The key word is values, and that Canada and Taiwan share them. Sometimes those values are spelled out: democracy, human rights, rule of law. Sometimes they are left unspoken. Everyone here knows the context.
Of all the national evenings held in Ottawa at which foreign ambassadors play host to Canada’s elected elite, few if any are bigger.
Minister of National Revenue Kerry-Lynne D. Findlay called it a party. She was enjoying herself she said, meeting interesting people, including the King of Soy Sauce. Political talk is kept to a minimum.
It is a party, but it is a party with a purpose: connection, friendship, and a reminder of Taiwan’s special place in Canada’s foreign affairs.
‘It Is Not About Fish’
Taiwan’s ambassador, Bruce Linghu, jokes about surviving a long and cold Ottawa winter, a boast that earns him applause from the room. Linghu learned about the meaning of ice fishing this winter, he said.
“The significance of ice fishing is to bring some whiskeys and ryes with you. It is not about fish. It is about family and friendship.”
Whiskey comes up quite a bit. Taiwanese love it, and they drink it with zeal. Duncan notes that Taiwan is the second largest market for premium MaCallans after the United States, which has 319 million people to Taiwan’s 23 million.
There is no whiskey tonight though, just wine. Linghu asks the crowd if they like it and gets enthusiastic cheers. It’s from B.C.’s Lulu Island Winery, owned by a Taiwanese businessman.
“They give me a good price” he joked.
Treasury Board President Tony Clement took to the podium. He said it was nice to get out of the small windowless room where he is kept busy cutting budgets. He recalled his days as minister of health when he played a small role getting Taiwan into the World Health Organization.
“That was very important. It was long overdue,” he said.
The Chinese regime pressures countries to ignore Taiwan, to keep it from any of the important international organizations that normal countries belong to.
If there is an explicit political element to this event, it comes at the end of the night in a speech from Conservative MP John Weston, chair of the Canada-Taiwan Parliamentary Friendship Group.
Weston knows Taiwan better than most. He met his wife there, also a Westerner. Both speak Mandarin fluently. He named his daughter Meimei, a popular name for Chinese girls.
“Tonight, you’ve all said it so well: it’s about people and it’s about values,” he said.
Weston invoked former U.S. President John F Kennedy and comments Kennedy made at the height of the Cold War. Kennedy visited West Berlin in 1963 and made a speech underlining U.S. support for West Germany. East Germany was falling deeper behind the Iron Curtain at the time as its soviet-controlled government cut its people off behind the Berlin Wall.
“I was thinking if JFK were here, he would say ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’ I think we can all say ‘Nous sommes des Taiwanais.’ We are Taiwanese tonight.”