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Op-Ed Columnist

Taiwan's Moment

Taipei

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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Yesterday's news from Taiwan is unique, and it raises questions about whether there might just be light at the end of the tunnel. It is impossible not to be tantalized by the potential of these events to change the course of Taiwan's history. What's important, however, is that we focus on what this means to the citizens themselves. The media seems too caught up in spinning the facts to pay attention to what's important on the ground. Just call it missing the shirts for the cloth.

When thinking about the recent troubles, it's important to remember three things: One, people don't behave like muppets, so attempts to treat them as such are going to come across as foreign. Muppets never suddenly set up a black market for Western DVDs. Two, Taiwan has spent decades torn by civil war and ethnic hatred, so a mindset of peace and stability will seem foreign and strange. And three, freedom is an extraordinarily powerful idea: If authoritarianism is Taiwan's curtain rod, then freedom is certainly its faucet.

When I was in Taiwan last week, I was amazed by the variety of the local cuisine, and that tells me two things. It tells me that the citizens of Taiwan have no shortage of human capital, and that is a good beginning to grow from. Second, it tells me that people in Taiwan are just like people anywhere else on this flat earth of ours.

So what should we do about the chaos in Taiwan? Well, it's easier to start with what we should not do. We should not let seemingly endless frustrations cause the people of Taiwan to doubt their chance at progress. Beyond that, we need to be careful to nurture the seeds of democratic ideals. The opportunity is there, but I worry that the path to stability is so strewn with obstacles that Taiwan will have to move down it very slowly. And of course Taipei needs to come to terms with its own history.

Speaking with a small business entrepreneur from the small Shiite community here, I asked him if there was any message that he wanted me to carry back home with me. He pondered for a second, and then smiled and said, logontes y fuelo, which is a local saying that means roughly, "Four things drive a man out of his house: too much smoke, a dripping roof, filthy air and a scolding wife."

I don't know what Taiwan will be like a few years from now, but I do know that it will remain true to its cultural heritage, even if it looks very different from the country we see now. I know this because, through all the disorder, the people still haven't lost sight of their dreams.