The following is a true story. It is based on notes taken from a conversation with a former state representative from a Midwestern state who I’ll refer to as John Smith. He has asked to remain anonymous.
It was the early-2000s. With 6 months left in his third term as a state representative, John Smith was a lame duck. Other legislators gave Smith sad little nods in the hallways, and the “watchers” – the lobbyists who sat in on every vote – stopped inviting him to comped dinners at fancy restaurants. Without an opening available in the state Senate, Smith knew his political career was over, at least for a while.
Smith had seen many of his colleagues come close to mental breakdowns when they finally left office. They couldn’t comprehend why strangers stopped taking their phone calls and laughing at their jokes. Their sense of identity and self-worth was tied up in their title and modicum of power over their fellow citizens. But Smith didn’t care about all that. He was a libertarian, though he wasn’t super open about it. He hated the political machinations which stole money from the people to be dolled out by the aristocracy of pull. Smith never tired of mocking the self-righteous, self-important elected officials who revel in power so petty that their own constituents don’t even know what they do.
Having served his terms, Smith was content to enjoy the last of his prime political days as he always did – voting to decrease government authority, never voting to increase it, and trying to avoid contact with his own constituents as much as possible.
One day, Smith was at lunch when he got a phone call from his chief of staff. There were five Chinese men in Smith’s office. They wanted to meet him to discuss an important matter. Smith asked his staffer if they had made an appointment. They hadn’t. Smith told his staffer to tell them to make an appointment. Then he hung up the phone and went back to his meal.
One week later, Smith was sitting in his office when the staffer told him the five Chinese men were back. Smith asked if they had an appointment. They did. Smith had no excuse to avoid them.
Five immaculately dressed Asian men with jet-black hair entered Smith’s office with giant smiles. Smith soon discovered that the men were not (precisely) Chinese, but Taiwanese. He didn’t actually figure this out by anything they said, but by the many gifts they immediately gave him for no apparent reason. They gave him a coffee table book displaying Taiwan’s ample natural beauty, an acrylic cube of the island, a silk Burberry tie, and other assorted knick-knacks that Smith swiftly lost in his office.
Smith surmised that these gifts were part of an elaborate greeting ritual, and in a panic, he looked around his office for a gift to give back. He chose a book randomly off the shelves – some sort of compendium of state legislation from the mid-90s. The five Taiwanese men were ecstatic.
Finally, the men introduced themselves as Taiwanese diplomats. They explained (in broken English) why they were there – they wanted Smith, the Chairman of a generic government affairs committee to shepherd a resolution through his committee onto the State House of Representatives floor for a vote. Unlike a bill, a resolution doesn’t require the government to do anything besides proclaim support or condemnation for something. The resolution in question required the state government to formally encourage the World Health Organization to recognize Taiwan as a member.
Smith was chronically skeptical of the government and politics in general, but rarely was he baffled. The request was nonsensical. These Taiwanese diplomats had badly misunderstood – or had been purposefully misled – about who Smith was and what sort of authority a random state legislature had.
In the most diplomatic manner possible, Smith tried to explain to the five smiling Taiwanese men that the WHO could not possibly give less of a shit about what a state legislature thought of its diplomatic affairs. The WHO is a giant international NGO; the state legislature has literally no foreign affairs power or influence whatsoever. Even if the resolution was passed, it would be utterly meaningless.
Then Smith explained that one of the government affairs committee’s functions was to forward meaningless resolutions to placate constituent groups who don’t know the difference between real political action and vapid theatrics. For instance, a state rep might create a resolution for the state to formally celebrate Poland’s entry into NATO, or the twentieth anniversary of the founding of modern Ukraine, or whatever. And then the Polish/Ukrainian cultural group in his district would celebrate, and invite him to some big event, and give him a plaque, and ensure 90% of its membership voted for him in the next election. It was a cheap way to buy support from ignorant voters who confused ceremony with reality.
As a rule, Smith didn’t indulge in these resolutions so he couldn’t endorse the Taiwanese bill.
The Taiwanese men insisted that Smith had misunderstood them. They said (in heavy Asian accents) “the bill is very, very important” and nothing like those other bills. Smith became less and less polite as he argued back. He told them that a letter from his state to the WHO wouldn’t make it past the intern who sorted their mail. But the Taiwanese men would not relent; they stood in Smith’s office and tried to convince him how vitally important this bill was for 30 minutes.
Smith diagnosed the men as hopelessly naïve, but he also developed a soft spot for them. After spending years surrounded by real-politic cynics and psychopaths (as Smith diagnosed the vast majority of politicians), Smith found it refreshing to meet someone at his office who was at least earnest. And besides, Smith liked Taiwan. He identified with its historical dedication to independence and freedom.
So Smith took pity of the Taiwanese men. He wouldn’t sully his hands with their resolution, but he knew someone who would. Smith told them that he would do his best, and the men left his office with smiles after much thanking, nodding, and bowing.
Smith picked up the phone and called the chair of the legislature’s health committee. The Taiwanese bill was about health, so Smith figured that was close enough. Smith explained the situation to the Chair and asked if he would pass the resolution through his committee to the House floor for a vote.
The Chair thought about Smith’s request for 20 seconds. He figured that passing this bill along would take literally five minutes (to have a cursory hearing) and it wouldn’t piss anyone off, and in return, he might get a small favor from Smith in the future. So the Chair said ‘sure, why not.’
The call took 5 minutes.
Smith hung up the phone and then told his chief of staff to call the Taiwanese men to tell them that their bill would be passed along with no problem. Smith assumed that would be the end of it.
The Taiwanese men showed up at Smith’s office the next day. They were utterly ecstatic, completely overjoyed, just incomprehensibly thrilled. Smith received endless handshakes and thanks and proclamations of his benevolence and the assurances of the debt owed to him by the Taiwanese people. Feeling awkward about the blatant pointlessness of what he had done for these gentlemen, Smith nodded along and wished them best of luck, and he assumed this weird event was finally over.
Then the Taiwanese men insisted that Smith had to join them at a “Taiwan Day” gala on the other side of the state to celebrate their triumph and thank him for his fantastic contribution to Taiwanese sovereignty.
Smith hated stuff like this. Any legislator could, if he so chose, indulge in these sorts of petty formalities. Over the years, Smith watched as lawmakers were invited to receive awards at the Chemical Council’s Lawmaker of the Year Celebration and the Automobile Association’s Annual Ball, among many others. Smith also hated stupid, pointless official events like “Taiwan Day” that were clearly invented for the sake of placating random busy-bodies and ignorant constituents. And the gala was being held far away from where he lived and Smith didn’t have any Taiwanese people (that he knew of) in his district. Attending the gala would be a complete waste of time.
But once again, upon being denied their request, the Taiwanese men were utterly crestfallen. And once again, Smith felt bad for them. He agreed to go.
Smith doesn’t remember much about the gala besides seeing lots of black hair talking.
It was held in a giant banquet hall packed with about 400 people decked out in suits and dresses. After dinner, a procession of important-looking Taiwanese men and women went on stage and gave speeches about… something. It was almost all in Chinese, so Smith didn’t understand any of it.
But the podium was too tall for the vertically-challenged Taiwanese speakers. And it was on a stage above everyone else sitting at the gala tables. So all Smith could see was raven-black hair bouncing up and down while a voice echoed throughout the room.
Smith was not quite the only non-Asian at the event. The four or five others were all seated at his table. All were other state or local elected officials who had presumably done something for Taiwan.
Eventually, Smith was called on stage. Some short guy said something in Chinese and everyone applauded. Smith smiled, waved, and went back to his seat.
In Smith’s words, the whole thing – the five Taiwanese men, their request, the way they behaved, and then this fancy gala – was “fucking bizarre.” But as he left the celebration for his hour-long drive home, Smith thought, at least it was over.
A few weeks later, the Taiwanese resolution was officially pushed through the health committee. A few weeks after that, the resolution was passed in the House with no resistance, and shortly after, the Senate did the same. As a resolution, it required no sign-off from the governor. And so one of the fifty United States formally encouraged the World Health Organization to recognize Taiwan as a member of their organization.
The five Taiwanese men showed up at Smith’s office. There were, once again, “fucking ecstatic.” In between more endless praise and bows, Smith congratulated them and said he was happy to help.
Then the Taiwanese men asked Smith to come to Taiwan to meet Chen Shui-bian, the President.
Once again, Smith found the request so bizarre that he wasn’t sure what to say at first. He was a lame duck state-level representative of a mid-tier American state. He didn’t have a job lined up for when his term ended in six months. And now, after he had made a five minute phone call to help a meaningless resolution move to the House floor, Smith was being invited to meet a head-of-state on the other side of the globe.
Smith said, “no.” It was too absurd.
The Taiwanese men were utterly crestfallen. They asked, “why not?”
Smith said (as politely as possible) that it would be a colossal waste of his constituents’ tax dollars to fly him across the world for meaningless bullshit.
The Taiwanese men said they would pay for it.
Smith still hesitated. He had never been to Asia and thought it would be cool to visit Taiwan. Plus he was curious to see how far this bizarre chain of events would go. And these guys were pretty insistent and quite generous…
Smith asked if he could bring friends with him.
The Taiwanese men said “no.” But, they said they would love for him to bring some of his political colleagues with him.
This was not Smith’s first choice. He would rather bring along personal friends, but still, he could think of two who might be worth inviting: the health committee chair and a drinking buddy.
A few days later, after Smith had convinced his colleagues to embark on the next stage of this bizarre quest, Smith agreed to go to Taiwan to meet the President.
Over the following weeks, Smith received a flood of logistical emails which finally clued him into who exactly these Taiwanese men were and how they were connected to the Taiwanese government.
The five men in Smith’s office came from the “Taipei Economic and Cultural Office of Chicago.” While nearly all countries have an embassy in Washington DC, many nations have consulates or sub-consular offices throughout the US to handle diplomatic affairs, like visas. This was one of Taiwan’s offices.
This realization only deepened the mystery for Smith. The men who came to his office and pushed the absurd WHO resolution weren’t even from Taiwan’s main embassy. They were from a secondary regional hub which apparently had so little to do that it spent money on lavish “Taiwan Day” celebrations.
Why was this meaningless resolution so important to them? Why were they so upset when Smith had initially refused them? Why did they care so much about this obvious bullshit? Why were they flying small-time regional legislators around the world for a week-long diplomatic affair to meet their head-of-state? What was the fucking point of any of this?
About a month after the resolution passed, Smith arrived at the airport with his two legislative colleagues. They were greeted by a group of smiling Taiwanese men who set the tone for the trip by “treating us like idiots.” The guides carried their luggage, handled their tickets and passports, guided them through security, pointed where to go at every step of the travel process, and eventually escorted them to a China Airlines (really “Taiwanese Airlines”) jumbo jet. To Smith’s surprise, they were brought past the dozens of rows of seats to a staircase. Smith didn’t know planes could have staircases.
At the top, Smith and co. entered a large space containing about a dozen giant plush seats that resembled lazy-y-boy recliners. To again set the tone of the trip, the space resembled a luxury suite in a 5-star hotel. One of the Taiwanese guides informed them that this was “Emperor Class,” and it was where Smith and his companions would be seated for the flight.
For the next fifteen hours, Smith and his colleagues were given the best airline service money could buy. Smith, who had never even flown first-class, was given complimentary course-after-course of absolutely delicious food which would do just fine in any fancy restaurant. In between eating and joking with his colleagues, Smith tried to watch a movie on a giant (for a plane) tv screen. But then the legislators discovered that it wasn’t just the food that was free… but the drinks too. And so, throughout the duration of the 15 hour flight, Smith and the others proceeded to get “obliterated” on copious amounts of free top-shelf liquor.
The group exited the aircraft in Taipei in the evening to find a new array of smiling, bowing, thankful Taiwanese guides awaiting them alongside a limousine. Smith, his two companions, and two guides piled into the limo for the ride into the city. They were jet-lagged and hungover, but before any of them could sleep, the guide turned on the tv in the limo and played a ten minute DVD about Taiwan that mostly consisted of soaring shots of nature and skyscrapers, and smiling Taiwanese people going about their work in an arguably excessively idyllic framing. Smith would soon learn that this video also set the tone for the entire trip.
An hour later, the limo pulled up to what Smith described as “very, very generous accommodations.”
Smith doesn’t remember the hotel’s name, but it was not only the nicest place he had ever stayed in, but had to be the nicest hotel in Taipei. It was in the dead-center of downtown and had a drop-dead gorgeous view of Taipei 101, which at the time was the tallest building on earth.
In the fabulously luxurious lobby, Smith was surprised to see a dozen other Americans. Quick introductions were made and Smith realized they were all state-legislators from the mid-west region (Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio). Before he could learn more, like why these people were here and what service they had done for glorious Taiwan, Smith and the others were shuffled off to their rooms.
Of course, each and every legislator got a suite. Smith’s room had a perfect view of the Taipei 101, and his bedroom was bigger than his actual bedroom in his own 1,880 square foot house in the US. Throughout his week-long stay, when Smith wasn’t lounging in his king-size bed or watching CNN (the only English channel) on his colossal tv, he would hang out at the roof-top pool with a free vodka in-hand and overlook the city.
Later that day, as Smith walked through the hotel with one of his colleagues, the latter leaned over and asked, “how much are we costing these people?”
Smith could only laugh. “Do they realize I’m not a US Congressman? I’m a useless term-limited politician who might be some random local official in six months.”
The next day, Smith and his colleagues began a rigidly structured routine that they would repeat every day for the entire week.
They’d get picked up in front of their fancy hotel by a “luxury bus” at around 8:30AM. On the bus, their local guide would tell them which government agency or department they were visiting that day: transportation, science and technology, energy, water, etc.
Then they would watch another 10-minute video where a smiling Taiwanese man would talk about the government department in broken English. Smith described these videos as “hilarious propaganda.” I asked him if they were like those cheesy work-place safety videos, but he said they were closer to “World War II propaganda reels.” Smith soon learned that the glorious nation of Taiwan’s many government agencies ran elaborate cutting-edge operations where nothing ever went wrong, no one ever complained, and 100% of Taiwanese citizens were thrilled with their services.
After a 1+ hour ride, Smith and co. would arrive at a massive power plant or water treatment facility or office building for transportation planners, for a mind-numbingly boring tour. For over an hour, the department head would lead them around the operation and manage to combine needless technical detail with chipper false-enthusiasm to overwhelm the legislators with the inescapable sense that the Taiwanese government truly was an impossible model of safety and efficiency.
At the end of each tour, the department head would turn to the group and ask if they had any questions about Taiwan’s freshwater management system, or whatever. The legislators would stare back in silence.
Smith and the others would then eat lunch and take the long ride back to the hotel. But they would get no respite; next up was a cultural expedition, usually to a local museum. While Smith typically loved learning about other cultures and histories, what he most remembers from these trips was seeing nothing but endless arrays of pottery shards. Pottery from this century and that century and made under this dynasty and that dynasty to hold rice and grain and whatever else. By the “30th pottery shard,” Smith stopped paying attention.
On only one or two days, the group was permitted free time rather than another cultural expedition. Smith used these time slots to stroll around downtown Taipei, but he wasn’t particularly impressed. He thought the city was quite boring… both anti-septic and sort of garish with its omnipresent brightly-colored signs. There were no interesting stores or decent skylines. Most of all, he remembers seeing countless stores for shoes, eyeglasses, and handbags, and literally nothing else.
At around 6PM, the 15 legislators would be picked up for dinner. Each night, they’d go to a different extraordinarily extravagant restaurant accompanied by their guide (who also functioned as a translator) to eat with 5-8 random government officials.
As with everything else on the trip, the meal was strictly structured. While eating countless courses of very expensive food, the whole group would perform a round of toasts. Each of the legislators and government officials would receive a shot glass and a bottle of rice wine (18-25% alcohol). Then each of the 20-25+ individuals around the table would stand up one-at-a-time, make a toast to Taiwan or the Taiwanese Water Department or whatever, and then everyone around the table would take a shot of rice wine.
Smith claims that if he wasn’t a prolific drinker at the time, he wouldn’t have made it through this ordeal. They had no idea what to expect in Taiwan for this bizarre trip, but they certainly didn’t expect a grueling alcohol endurance competition. The lucky ones spoke first when they could articulately bullshit their way through a 30 second toast, while the unlucky ones had to make their best extemporaneous speech after 20+ shots of unfamiliar alcohol. While many of the legislators were slurring their words and laughing uproariously at the clumsy propaganda toasts, the government officials somehow remained cogent throughout. Taiwanese people know how to drink.
At around 9PM each night, Smith and the drunken legislators were finally dropped off back at the hotel. While a few of the more adventurous ones would take their chances and explore the nightlife of a developing city where almost no one spoke English, most of them went straight to bed.
The worst-off individual out of everyone at the dinner table each night was the head of the health committee. He happened to hate seafood, and as luck would have it, the lunches and dinners they were served every single day consisted of almost nothing but seafood. So he ended up force-feeding himself an enormous continental breakfast at the hotel, and then nibbling on rice for lunch and dinner. If that wasn’t bad enough, rapidly consuming the equivalent of 6-8 drinks on an empty stomach certainly was. On one of the last days of the trip, the poor man got so wasted during the mandatory toasting that he passed out on the table and had to be wheelchaired out of the restaurant.
The following day, the man seemingly caught a stroke of luck – dinner was a buffet. Rather than being served a million courses of fish and shellfish, he could choose his own meal. But when he got to the buffet with Smith and tried to pick his dishes, he kept running into a problem… the third word.
Grilled chicken… feet.
Braised beef… tongue.
Barbecue pork… testicles.
He ate rice.
A highlight for Smith was the second-to-last day of the trip when they finally broke from the routine for a “vacation” day.
The legislators were taken on a 2.5 hour bus drive to Sun Moon Lake which Smith had to admit was beautiful. They wandered around the water for a while taking in the sights, and then went on a boat ride across the lake to meet a tribe of “natives” who preexisted the ethnic Chinese population. The group’s guide explained that the Eat Us Out people had an ancient and rich culture known for its intricate woodwork craftsmanship.
“Eat Us Out…?” Smith asked.
“Yes! Your Chinese is very good!”
When Smith got to the tribal village, he discovered the guide was right: the Eat Us Out people did have intricate woodwork craftsmanship. They specialized in making giant wooden penises. Smith says he considered buying one, but he “already had a bunch at home.”
(I can’t find the “Eat Us Out” people via Google. If any reader can, let me know in the comments.)
Smith took everything in stride. Between the jetlag, nightly drinking, tightly regimented schedule, and the sheer weirdness of everything, the week in Taiwan went by like a fever dream. By the third day, he was “bored as hell” since most of the trip consisted of tedious government tours and dinners, but the absurdity of the situation kept him alert. Between making jokes about the sloppy propaganda with his colleagues, Smith meditated on what was really going on around him. What was the true purpose of this trip? Why was the Taiwanese government spending so much money? Did they know that Smith and the other legislators were just provincial lawmakers? Did they know the resolution he passed was meaningless?
Eventually Smith formulated a hypothesis… the whole operation was a scam.
The five Taiwanese men who came to his office were directly employed by the “Taipei Economic and Cultural Office of Chicago.” This office was a sub-division of the general Taiwanese diplomatic apparatus in the US, but… there probably wasn’t much for it to do in Chicago. There aren’t a ton of Taiwanese people in the Midwest and not much of diplomatic importance. So the office needed to do something to justify its funding, manpower, and very existence… like pretending to get a super important piece of legislation passed in the American government.
Who knows what the Chicago office told the Taiwanese central government? Did they know Smith wasn’t a federal Congressman? Did they know that a state-level legislature had absolutely no power or influence over the World Health Organization? Smith had no idea. But either out of ignorance or negligence, the Taiwanese government apparently didn’t mind spending tens of thousands of dollars per person on a luxurious trip for 15 Americans to Taiwan.
On the final day in Taiwan, the whole gang was taken to another gala. This one made the original banquet back in Taiwan Day look like a quiet dinner party. The legislators arrived in a limo, but for once, they weren’t the only ones. More than 500 Taiwanese people decked out in tuxedos and formal gowns filed into a massive ballroom. TV cameras were set up around the room and manned by swarming media personnel. Dozens of impeccable waiters brought out course-after-course of high-end cuisine and rice wine. Smith and the rest of the Americans were, of course, sat together at a table to be gawked at as a spectacle by passers-by. After dinner, a series of government officials gave speeches in Chinese which none of the legislators could understand. At least this time the podium was short enough for Smith to see more than little black haircuts bouncing up-and-down.
Then came the main event. Smith didn’t know if Taiwan had a president or prime minister or something else entirely, let another his name, but when yet another small Taiwanese man with jet black hair stepped up to the podium and dozens of media people swarmed around the stage to snap photos, the guide told the table of Americans that they were looking at Taiwan’s fearless leader. The president of Taiwan gave another speech in Chinese which Smith couldn’t understand. Then the president called all the legislators by name.
Smith got on stage and stared out at the elite of Taiwan through dozens of camera flashes. He looked to the TV cameras and realized he was being broadcast to an entire nation. Then, John Smith, a soon-to-be retiring state representative, handed the president of Taiwan a framed copy of the meaningless resolution he had helped pass in the state legislature with a five-minute phone call. Smith had purchased the frame two weeks earlier at Target for $13.99.
It was literally while shaking the president’s hand that Smith claimed he figured out what was really going on. His early hypothesis – that the whole operation was a scam by the Chicago office to justify its budget – was correct, but that was only part of the story. The scam was much bigger than that.
Smith helped the Chicago office pass a resolution which did absolutely nothing. As a reward, the office paid for a round trip flight across the world in “Emperor Class,” put him up in a 5-star hotel for seven nights, paid for seven expensive lunches, paid for seven extremely expensive dinners in 5-star restaurants, paid for limousines and buses to drive him around, and paid staff to manage the whole affair. By Smith’s estimation, the entire operation must have cost the Taiwanese government at least $15,000 per person… times fifteen legislators.
Smith’s theory was that everyone was in on it. Smith knew it was a scam. Smith’s colleagues knew it was a scam. At least some of the other legislators knew it was a scam (though others seem to have bought into the bullshit due to their own vanity). The Chicago office must have known it was a scam. Even the central Taiwanese government and Taiwanese president must have known it was a scam. The only people who didn’t know it was a scam… were watching it on tv.
The Taiwanese people saw a white American politician handing a framed piece of paper to their president in a massive, fancy ballroom packed with their elites. Smith couldn’t speak Chinese, but he was pretty sure he knew what the present was saying in his speech. He was claiming that the great nation of Taiwan was making incredible strides in declaring its sovereignty and attaining international recognition. As proof of the effective leadership of the current government, Taiwan’s bold diplomats had persuaded a prominent American politician to pass an important bill which would sway a powerful international organization into accepting the legitimate statehood of Taiwan.
Could the average smart, educated, politically aware Taiwanese citizen locate Smith’s state on a map? Did they know the difference between American state and federal legislatures? Did they know how the World Health Organization made diplomatic decisions?
Most likely no one in Taiwan but a very few politically-in-the-know government officials knew these things. And these people could use this information asymmetry to put on a big smoke-and-mirrors show to impress the Taiwanese people and inspire loyalty to the current regime. All they needed was maybe low-six-figures to buy the presence of a bunch of oblivious provincial American politicians. They would give these politicians fancy plane rides and hotels, flatter and soothe their egos with endless unwarranted praise, and then use their dumb, smiling faces for a PR event.
Everyone won. Smith and the legislators got a vacation, luxuries, and a crazy story. The Chicago office justified its budget and existence. And the national Taiwanese government boosted its popularity with voters.
Everyone won… except the Taiwanese people. They had to pay for an entire operation dedicated to fooling them.
To Smith, his Taiwan experience epitomizes politics. Politicians didn’t succeed on any basis close to merit, but on persuasion and trickery. Smith didn’t consider (most of) his colleagues to be evil, just responding to bad incentives. The public was rationally ignorant because their individual vote didn’t matter, so their loyalty largely fell to emotional whims premised on false spectacles conjured by showmen in office.
The scams he commonly saw his colleagues perpetrate in the state legislature against their constituents were not fundamentally different from the scams used by a big national government of a major country. Whether it was creating a meaningless holiday, or putting on an elaborate show to promote a meaningless diplomatic resolution orchestrated by a defunct state-level politician on the other side of the world, Smith saw politics as nothing but an elaborate mirage designed to part the foolish from their money and keep the ruthless in power.
Afterword – I first heard this story almost a decade ago. I decided to write it down two months ago. It was only by sheer random coincidence that the relationship between Taiwan and the WHO recently became a topical news story. See here and here.