Hunger and conviction on the world political stage

By Thomas V.Bona

Like other scholars of his generation, Edgar Lin ’67 came to the United States in the 1960s and ’70s to study. When he returned home, he found that Taiwan was, as before, still in the grip of martial law and political dissents were not tolerated.
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Hunger and conviction on the world political stage

By Thomas V.Bona

Like other scholars of his generation, Edgar Lin ’67 came to the United States in the 1960s and ’70s to study. When he returned home, he found that Taiwan was, as before, still in the grip of martial law and political dissents were not tolerated.

Despite the risks, Lin, a longtime educator, decided to write about environmental, nuclear and social issues, and managed to stay under the radar because the government saw the environmental movement as harmless.

When martial law ended and his opposition party started to gain power after more than 40 years of political struggle, Lin took on official government posts – first in environmental protection and then in diplomacy.

He is now Taiwan’s representative to the United Kingdom. As the island tries to step out of China’s shadow and onto the world stage, he’s become a key player in representing the interests of Taiwan.

“Life moves mysteriously and unpredictably,” said Lin. “So long as you remain hungry and foolish in fulfilling your commitments and following your heart, it might lead you precariously to a rewarding result, if you are lucky. I have been lucky to end up as a diplomat.”

After meeting and taking a class with Professor of English Samuel A. Yoder, who was a visiting lecturer at Taiwan University in 1963, Lin came to Goshen College in 1965 to study English literature. But he already held a bachelor’s degree in English from Taiwan University, and soon switched to biology. Friends and professors remember him as a dedicated student who brought innate intelligence to a wide range of interests. They’re not surprised to see what he is doing today.


“He would say, ‘I know who I am.’ He had a great deal of self-awareness – not arrogant – he had a very clear sense of self,” said Henry Landes ’68, Lin’s college roommate. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he would be president of Taiwan. He could do whatever he wants to do.”
Lin always knew he would return to Taiwan. Looking back at his time at Goshen, he said the experience resulted in more than a degree; it changed his life, opening doors to commitments to simplicity, pacifism and environmentalism.

“An excellent liberal-arts education is what we all need these days, when we are all educated to become specialists or robots. Goshen College offers a good liberal arts education to students, and the rest depends on what they want to get out of life,” he said. “My work is my mission, not a job, and my positions ... in the different stages of my life have allowed me to truly express my commitments.”
He’d always wanted to teach, and got his first taste while living on his third continent. Between graduate studies, Lin served for three years in Kenya with Mennonite Central Committee’s Teachers Abroad Program.

Professor Emerita of Music Mary Oyer knew Lin in Goshen and in Kenya. Years later, she caught up with him in Taiwan. In each place, she was impressed with his dedication.

“He was just a remarkably broad person, interested in so many kinds of things. He was in science, but he was always interested in other fields as well,” Oyer said. “He was so interested in the way people think.”

After earning a doctorate in ecology at Indiana University, Lin returned to Taiwan in 1975. He began a 27-year tenure teaching at Tunghai University, a Christian institution focused on general education (as opposed to more specialized programs offered at other schools in Taiwan).
But he didn’t just teach. He wrote articles on serious environmental issues facing the densely populated island as well as the wider world. He issued warnings about nuclear proliferation – particularly how improperly regulated reactors could cause huge problems in the event of an earthquake or natural disaster.

The Tapei Times said that Lin is often credited with starting the public debate over nuclear power in Taiwan. As early as 1979, he openly criticized the construction of nuclear plants in the absence of clear plans for their maintenance and disposal of waste. Later, he wrote that the political process must become one concerned with ecological issues.

All he did, Lin says, was stay hungry.

“The key, I believe, is my love to know and to read. … I have learned methods of critical thinking more than knowledge of facts,” he said.
Lin admits he was also lucky.

Under the nationalist Kuomintang Party – which was chased from mainland China by the Communists – Taiwan wasn’t a place to make political waves. His brother-in-law, who was trying to rebuild the public health system in rural Taiwan, was killed when he was suspected of being a rebel; Lin’s sister was in prison for 10 years only because of association.

“Martial law forbade political criticism of the government,” Lin said. “Although the environmental, ecological movement appeared benign to the government, it was a political movement to me.”

This is where the ‘foolish’ part came in again, perhaps.

“To be foolish does not mean to do silly things. It means you should have a passion for your faith and commitment to your passion to the extent that you make decisions differently from others who do not share your faith,” he said. “The Mennonites were ‘foolish’ in refusing to serve in the military, even, for example, under the threat of imprisonment. I consider myself ‘foolish’ ... to get involved with risky Taiwanese politics under martial law.”

But he had faith, he said, of democracy taking hold among his 23 million countrymen. And it did – by the early 1990s, there was no longer one-party rule; in 2000, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party – of which Lin is a member – won the presidency.

In 2000, Lin was tapped to lead Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) after spending a few years as Taipei’s city environmental agency chief. During his year heading the EPA, Lin helped implement newly passed governmental policies, including ones aimed at cleaning up garbage and other waste that littered the island. He was removed from the post after an oil spill and resulting controversial cleanup efforts. An article in the Taipei Times stated that some felt Lin was to blame for the slow and inefficient official response while others said he was a scapegoat – let go so the government could save face. For Lin, it was another experience with the capriciousness of politics.

A year later, Lin started his diplomatic career, returning to Africa to represent Taiwan in The Gambia. At the end of his three-year stint, Gambian leaders and local press honored Lin for bringing aid from Taiwan in the form of grants, food and expertise – including flying Gambians to Taiwan to study petroleum processing. Lin also brought his personal knowledge of ecological and health issues.

In 2004, Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian appointed Lin to his most prominent position yet – representative in the United Kingdom.
Quite a political career for a man who once wrote that politics is “an ocean full of sharks” in a book titled The Evil Spirit of Politics. He braved those waters with open eyes and the best of intentions, knowing the worst that could happen.

“Like it or not, no human society can stay away from politics,” he said. “I believe in piecemeal engineering of social changes, not a utopian approach. The world needs good people with ideals and conviction who dare to take risks in politics in order to change the world.”

He admits it’s tough to propagate his belief in pacifism and democratic principles with the huge threat of China – which, he said, has hundreds of missiles aimed at the island – nearby. Taiwan is no longer recognized as a sovereign nation by much of the world, including the United States and the United Kingdom. China claims control of Taiwan and, amid tense relations with the emerging superpower, few other nations openly contest that.
“Taiwan wants to talk, but China refuses,” Lin said. “The problem is a dilemma for any decent human being, not to mention for a small nation like Taiwan. I have been very frustrated and at times morally outraged.”

His key job in the UK, then, is making sure China’s demands don’t gain more traction there. The most significant issue currently is a proposal that would lift the European Union’s arms embargo against China; the move is being held off, for now.

Recently, Lin and others pressed for Taiwan to be admitted into the World Health Organization. Lin also works with the British government on other global issues, such as limiting the spread of bird flu from other Asian countries.

 
Merle Jacobs, Goshen College research professor emeritus of zoology, always appreciated his former student’s concern for the earth. It was one of the reasons Jacobs pushed Lin to continue with scientific studies. Lin knew even in college that overpopulation and correlating declines in clean air, fresh water, food and other natural necessities would cause warfare and other strife. Jacobs is “elated” that Lin is working on such a large stage.

“It wasn’t particularly surprising, but it gives you a good feeling that some of these students are getting in there, being aware of these problems,” he said. “Politicians don’t deal with the truth of many problems, they deal with the superficial benefits that they get out of their careers. It takes someone that’s really concerned about the real truth behind the problems. Edgar’s one of those people.”

 
-- photographs are from Katie Kotting of Images for Life, which is based in London.





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