Member, Federal Labor Relations Authority
Last November, I had the privilege of serving as head of an American delegation on a trip to Taiwan. My eight colleagues all serve essentially as the labor commissioners of their respective states. Among the eight were Larry Roberts of Kentucky, the current NAGLO president, and Ryan McKenna of Missouri, NAGLO’s current first vice president.
It was a wonderful experience, and fascinating in so many ways and at so many levels. Taiwan’s Ministry of Labor and its Ministry of Foreign Affairs co-sponsored the trip. We visited many of the offices within the Ministry of Labor, learning firsthand how Taiwan chooses to promote the dignity of work, the welfare of workers, and the sustainable development of enterprises.
But we learned so much more. The Taiwanese are a very friendly people. I think we were all taken with their vitality and optimism. They are also a determined people. Having gotten to know them better, I can understand their economic and political accomplishments, namely, how they have achieved democracy, freedom, and prosperity peacefully.
Taiwan is also an intriguing blend of traditional and modern culture. At the National Palace Museum, one of the most popular museums in the world, we saw cultural artifacts going back through several Chinese dynasties. We went to the top of Taipei 101, an engineering marvel that held the distinction of being the world’s tallest building from 2004 to 2010. We visited the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, a shrine to the person most Taiwanese credit with Taiwan’s autonomy. And, on our last night, we had a special dinner at the Grand Hotel, one of Taiwan’s most visible landmarks, and apparently, a project of Madame Chiang Kai-Shek. Many political figures and celebrities have stayed there over the years.
Yes, we share many values with Taiwan’s people, certainly those of a democracy and those reflecting a commitment to human rights. And, we have a long history of economic ties and industrial cooperation. But, not to be left out, is our love of baseball. While we were there, we repeated a custom of exchanging gifts with our hosts. No gift that I presented brought more spontaneous joy to a recipient than that of an official Washington Nationals baseball cap. Baseball is a national pastime in Taiwan.
Through it all, perhaps most sobering was a constant recognition of Taiwan’s unique standing in the world — having all the attributes of an official state except formal recognition by most others, including the U.S. Since 1979, we, along with most nations, have officially recognized mainland China and not Taiwan. For this reason, Taiwan constantly faces challenges to assert its place in the world order and exercise its responsibilities in international relations.
Most poignant, for me, was our delegation’s trip to the island of Kinmen. In addition to Taiwan proper, Taiwan has jurisdiction over several smaller islands, including Kinmen (which we formerly called Quemoy) and Matsu. Both islands are very close to the mainland, which we could see from Kinmen. In 1960, as a very young boy with an early interest in political affairs nurtured by my parents, I remember watching the debates between presidential candidates John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. One debate focused on foreign policy, and a significant portion of time was devoted to America’s responsibilities regarding Kinmen (Quemoy) and Matsu.
In 1950, Kinmen was the site of a terrible battle between Nationalist and Communist forces — in which several thousand men died. But, the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-Shek defeated the Communists, thereby preserving Taiwan’s freedom. We were all quite moved to see the shrines built to honor those who died. It was a vivid reminder of how quickly the world could change and how vigilant we must be in protecting democracy. The question debated by Kennedy and Nixon is even more intriguing today, particularly given the changes in the world order since the 1970s.
Finally, a discussion of this trip would be incomplete without referring to our delegation. As mentioned, I was the only federal official among eight state representatives. There were many different viewpoints within the group, including those of a political nature. But, we all got along well, and, I thought, enjoyed one another. There were a lot of laughs. But, I also had the sense that each of us appreciated that we were part of an American delegation representing our country. If anyone from our delegation visited Washington, DC, I would welcome them as a friend.
In this sense, it reinforced for me a notion that I think is often lost here at home. When we discuss, or even vigorously debate, issues of any kind, we do so as Americans with our country’s and respective states’ interests in mind. Indeed, our country was founded on disagreement and dissent — and expression is one of our most cherished freedoms.