Playing the Panama card - The China-Taiwan connection

Fellows Spring 2002

By Vanessa Hua

June 05, 2009

Panama City -- At Sun Yat-sen School in Panama, the students begin every week singing the national anthem of Taiwan. "One heart, one soul, one mind, one goal," 1, 700 children mumble in Mandarin. Lined up in wobbly rows, the youngest ones fidget in uniforms adorned with a plum blossom, emblem of the Asian nation.

The school's sprawling grounds are a symbol of Taiwan's largesse to the Chinese living on the isthmus of Panama -- some 200,000 people in a nation of 2.7 million.

Built with a $2 million gift from Taiwan, the complex shows just how far the island government will go to win the affection of Chinese communities worldwide. The students are unwitting foot soldiers in Taiwan's public relations fight against mainland China.

The students at Sun Yat-sen School are not brainwashed to worship Taiwan. But what they are taught is blasphemous to Beijing: that Taiwan is an independent government. The mainland regards the island as a renegade province.

In 1949, China's Nationalist government fled to Taiwan, routed by the Communists on the mainland. For these leaders in exile, what better way to legitimize their existence than to lay claim to people in exile, too? Sharing a concept, a belief, a wish - rather than a common geography -- becomes proof of statehood.

Lately, the mainland has joined in the game of wooing the Chinese in Panama.

To find out why the far-flung community matters to these rival governments, I recently traveled to Panama, a country that has fallen off the U.S. foreign policy radar in recent years only to pop onto screens in Taiwan and China.

I discovered a growing Chinese presence, startling at first and ubiquitous; Panama has Central America's largest ethnic Chinese population.

Every time I stepped into a corner market, Chinese were behind the counter. In Panama City, I bought "Chinese empanadas" (dumplings) and "Chinese tamales" (rice wrapped in lotus leaves) and flipped through the local Chinese newspapers El Expreso and El Diario Chino. Once when I hopped into a cab, the Panamanian driver -- seeing my Asian features -- spun the dial to a Cantonese news broadcast, from Latin America's only Chinese radio station.

Panama's Chinese first arrived on the isthmus as railroad laborers 150 years ago. Many have become successful merchants and professionals but never attained complete acceptance.

Now, Chinese Panamanians find themselves drawn into the diplomatic battle between the mainland and Taiwan. These adversaries are courting the people of this Chinese enclave 10,000 miles away and generations removed from their ancestral lands.

This brand of realpolitik is like peer pressure in junior high school, with nations following the lead of the most powerful and popular. China refuses to have diplomatic relations with any country that recognizes Taiwan. Because China is an emerging power, the United States and most other countries recognize it. Taiwan, once a desired ally, has been shunned but for a pathetic handful of countries that includes Chad, Liberia and the tiny South Pacific island republic of Nauru.

With its strategic canal, Panama is key among Taiwan's 28 diplomatic allies.

The country has collected millions in investment and aid from a grateful Taiwan. In return, Panama last fall co-sponsored Taiwan's bid to enter the United Nations.

Lacking diplomatic status, China has tried to use its financial clout to persuade Panama to switch its loyalties. Should Panama defect to Beijing, Taiwan's other Central American allies, including Nicaragua and Costa Rica, would likely follow.

Taiwan and China are trying to leverage Chinese Panamanians, struggling to define themselves in a geopolitical game.

Some support Taiwan, others are pro-China, while others forge a hyphenated Panamanian identity, free of the distant political conflict.

The countries are fighting over people like Edith Lao de Barahona, 66, beloved among Panama's Chinese. Taiwan's government helped groom Lao as a leader, sponsoring her to study political intelligence at a school on the island. She has also crossed over into mainstream politics, serving as the capital's vice mayor in the early '90s.

Manuel Tong runs Palacio Dorado, a glitzy Chinese restaurant that hosts events honoring the mainland. More than 40 immigrant investors pooled their money into the eatery, which opened in 1999.

Jeannette Gonzalez's Chinese great-great-grandfather emigrated to Panama around the time the nation itself was born in 1903. "I'm called Chinese because of my eyes, but that's it," said Gonzalez, 19.

Chinese communities around the world share the predicament of Chinos- Panamenos. San Francisco's Chinatown was also a front-line between pro-Taiwan and pro-China forces. During the 1970s and '80s, brawls erupted at Bay Area protests. Although disagreements remain, time and interaction between the two sides eased tensions.

Today, Chinese Panamanians illustrate what happens when nationality, history and ethnicity collide.

When Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian met with Panamanian President Mireya Moscosco last year, he dropped off a $50,000 donation at the Chinese Cultural Center.

Last year, after Taiwan brought over Peking-style acrobats, China leaped to bring a troupe.

For years, Taiwan held its Oct. 10 national day celebration at the swank Cesar Park Hotel. So when China decided to throw its national day fete -- nine days earlier, on Oct. 1 -- where better than the Cesar Park?

Li Yonglu, China's representative to Panama, dismissed Taiwan's efforts. He argued that 95 percent of Chinese Panamanians support reunification because their ancestral origins are on the mainland. But Chinese Panamanians have no say in Panama's foreign policy. Panama has no plans to switch recognition from Taiwan to China, government officials said.

Even so, Taiwan and China persist in seeking favor from local Chinese.

I visited Jose Chong-Hon, director of the Chinese Cultural Center. So far, he has rejected China's overtures, even though others on the board have pressed him to open relations.

"They lack honesty. What is their intention? What if they want something in return?" said Chong-Hon, 64. "It would twist the minds of people to think we support continental China."

At the Sun Yat-sen School, which adjoins the cultural center, a portrait of Sun, the father of modern China also revered in Taiwan, watches over the library. A statue of Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist leader exiled to Taiwan in 1949, guards the gym.

Every time the elementary and high school students walk past tacky travel posters of Taiwan and study with teachers imported from the island, they become familiar with a place that most countries snub. About 40 percent of the students are non-Chinese. Their parents want them to learn Mandarin -- which they think of as the language of the future -- along with Spanish and English.

In Panama, the Chinese community's vision of China, and what it means to be Chinese, has long been filtered through Taiwan, said Lok Siu, a New York University anthropology professor. She researched the diaspora on the isthmus for her doctorate at Stanford University.

In the past, the Nationalist Party-led government -- first on the mainland and then on Taiwan -- drew its support from the Chinese diaspora.

At the turn of the 20th century, revolutionary Sun hatched his plan to overthrow China's Manchu dynasty from countries where he lived in exile. During China's war against Japan, Chinese abroad sent money and volunteers.

These expatriate loyalists are hua qiao, or overseas Chinese. The term describes Chinese whose allegiance lies in their ancestral home, even if they are no longer citizens. The name connotes an eternal foreigner, one not yet assimilated or accepted in his new land.

"Our government cherishes the philosophy of blood, even in the second or third generation," said David Hu, Taiwan's ambassador to Panama.

Whatever the embassy can do to raise the status of local Chinese in business or in politics could help Taiwan's relations with Panama, Hu told me.

I saw Hu's big smile as he worked the crowds at a kite festival, community dinners and other events the embassy sponsors to cultivate relations. Last fall, Taiwan's capital Taipei paid for a trip to the country for two dozen Chinese Panamanian professionals, most of whom don't speak Mandarin and don't trace their family back to the island.

Taiwan's Nationalist Party, after losing the 2000 presidential election, is recruiting new members in Panama. Wouldn't the money be better spent currying votes in Taiwan?

"We will never give up the overseas Chinese. What is important is the heart is close," Alex Chiang, the party's South American representative, told me over dim sum.

Unlike Taiwan, China does not overtly coddle Chinese living abroad. Beijing does not want to give an opening to other countries that might interfere in its internal affairs.

But China may be winning anyway because the demographics of Chinese living in Panama have changed in the last two decades. Recent immigrants have a greater allegiance to the mainland, while old-timers support Taiwan.

During the 1980s, Panama's then-dictator Manuel Noriega sold travel documents to tens of thousands of Chinese from the mainland and Hong Kong -- a practice that generated millions for his regime. Immigration from China, much of it illegal, continues.

I drank tea with Enrique Yau, head of the pro-mainland Chinese Chamber of Commerce. The manager of a construction supplies store, he is eager to do business with China, which he respects as the motherland. China now holds more financial opportunity than Panama . For Yau, who immigrated to Panama as a child, nationality is a matter of practicality.

His citizenship? Panamanian -- in order to do business on the isthmus. His two youngest children's? American -- for the benefits of U.S. citizenship. Yau sent his wife to New York to deliver their babies, who thus acquired their prized citizenship automatically. Some once-ardent Taiwan supporters are also changing their thinking. In the politics of filial piety, some support Taiwan's democratic government, the easy and only choice during the Cold War. But with China opening up, many are doing business with the mainland and making ancestral pilgrimages.

With each generation, more Chinese Panamanians lose interest in being Chinese; they see themselves as Panamanian. More likely to dance salsa than to sing karaoke, the assimilated Chinese take what makes them most proud of their ancestral culture: respect for elders, their work ethic, their family's steamed fish recipe.

They are on their own in their adopted land.

In accordance with feng shui, Panama City's Chinese cemetery sits at the slope of a hill, giving shelter to souls. The tombstones are etched with hybrid names in Chinese characters and in Spanish script: Josefa Lu de Chan, Alejandro Hun, Rosalina Chan. As Chinese Panamanians assimilate, many convert to Catholicism. But in the Chinese tradition of honoring the dead, incense and paper money smolder by the crosses that mark the graves.

The Chinese community should work for itself, not for Taiwan or China, said historian Juan Tam, who helped renovate the crumbling graveyard. "Why should we bother with any of the two governments? The position we have achieved is not thanks to their talking, it is thanks to us."