YouTuber’s quest to visit Taiwan’s dwindling allies

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This photo taken on February 13, 2019 shows Taiwanese YouTuber Ben Wu talking about his travels while displaying a video during an interview in Taipei. (AFP)
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This picture taken on February 13, 2019 shows Taiwanese YouTuber Ben Wu displaying a cloth showing the portrait of King Mstwati III of eSwatini during an interview in Taipei. (AFP)
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This picture taken on February 13, 2019 shows Taiwanese YouTuber Ben Wu speaking in front of a poster of himself during his travels during an interview in Taipei. (AFP)
Updated 12 March 2019
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YouTuber’s quest to visit Taiwan’s dwindling allies

  • Wu’s YouTube videos on his channel “Ben’s Adventures” have racked up tens of thousands of views and turned into a career

TAIPEI: From battling a storm in the Solomon Islands to consulting a witch doctor in eSwatini, Ben Wu has trekked some of the world’s less-trodden paths as he embarks on a quest to visit all of Taiwan’s dwindling diplomatic allies.
The list of countries he must visit is short — just 17 nations still recognize Taiwan over mainland China, a vivid illustration of the democratic island’s international isolation as Beijing uses its clout to woo Taipei’s few remaining friends.
In all practical ways Taiwan is a de facto independent country but both Taipei and Beijing insist they are the one true China and that other nations can recognize only one of them. Most have sided with China as its political and economic might has grown.
Last summer Wu, 25, was having a meeting in Taiwan’s foreign ministry on the day El Salvador just happened to become the latest country to switch its recognition to Beijing.
He watched as the country’s flag was removed from the ministry’s entrance.
“I think most young people only know about our allies when there is a termination of diplomatic relations and this is not good,” Wu told AFP at his home in Taipei. “They should know about the allies in other ways.”
Using YouTube, Wu is trying to change that.
He came up with the idea to visit the remaining allies while riding the Trans-Siberian Railway. Flicking through a news article about Taiwan’s allies he realized he only recognized three — Haiti, Tuvalu and the Vatican.
“I love travel and some of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies are less known and more difficult to reach. I hope to explore these countries that fewer people have traveled to and be a part of ‘people diplomacy’,” he said.
So far Wu has ticked off five allies in the Pacific — Tuvalu, Nauru, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands and the Solomon Islands — as well the only ally in Africa, eSwatini.
This month, he sets out for Latin America and the Caribbean to visit Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Haiti, Belize, Saint Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines as well as St. Kitts and Nevis. He will wrap up his quest with the Vatican and Palau in the summer.

Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation was not always the case.
After its split from the mainland in 1949 when the communists defeated Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists, it was the Republic of China that was recognized by the majority, not the People’s Republic of China.
The global reversal began in earnest in 1971 when Taiwan — then in the grip of Chiang’s military dictatorship — was kicked out of the international club by the UN General Assembly, which recognized the PRC as “the only legitimate representative of China.”
Allies began falling like dominoes with Washington switching recognition in 1979 — although it remains a key military backer and supplies Taiwan with most of its weaponry.
Those nations that remained tended to be impoverished, smaller countries in the Pacific, Africa and Latin America who have since become easy pickings as China morphed from dysfunction and poverty into the world’s second largest economy.
After the 2016 election of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen — who hails from an independence leaning party — Beijing has launched a campaign to further undermine the island’s sovereignty.
Five allies have been poached, it blocked Taipei from attending major global gatherings and pressured a string of international companies, including airlines and hotels, to list Taiwan as part of China.

J Michael Cole, a Taipei-based expert at the University of Nottingham’s Taiwan Studies Programme, said the remaining allies most at risk of switching are those in the Pacific.
“Beijing is hard at work trying to sway those,” he told AFP, adding China may try to lure further defections as Tsai seeks reelection in 2020.
But he added that Taiwan under Tsai had made “substantial progress strengthening ties with unofficial allies that, in the end, are far more influential, both in terms of their diplomatic weight and size of their economies, than the small states with which it has official diplomatic relations.”
Wu said he wanted greater awareness of the those who have stayed loyal to Taiwan, even if somewhere like Tuvalu only boasts some 12,000 people.
“These countries have a voice in international organizations. They can speak up for Taiwan and let more people know about Taiwan’s difficult diplomatic situation,” he said.
Wu’s YouTube videos on his channel “Ben’s Adventures” have racked up tens of thousands of views and turned into a career.
One shows him bashed by a storm in a rickety boat after seeing human skulls left by headhunters in the Solomon Islands.
Others show him consulting a witch doctor in a dark room filled with bags of herbs in eSwatini, eating betel nuts in Kiribati and finding Taiwanese food in a Marshall Islands supermarket.
Wu says he hopes other young Taiwanese might follow in his footsteps.
“I hope to introduce the culture, tradition, custom and sightseeing of our allies in a relaxing way so people can get to know these countries. I am opening a window, a door and people can explore the rest.”


Tens of thousands converge on California ‘poppy apocalypse’

A woman poses for a photo among poppies in bloom on the hills of Walker Canyon in Lake Elsinore, California, on March 8, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 24 min 30 sec ago
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Tens of thousands converge on California ‘poppy apocalypse’

  • More than 6,000 people on a recent Saturday stopped at the visitor’s center at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

LAKE ELSINORE, California: Like Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz,” the Southern California city of Lake Elsinore is being overwhelmed by the power of the poppies.
About 150,000 people over the weekend flocked to see this year’s rain-fed flaming orange patches of poppies lighting up the hillsides near the city of about 60,000 residents, about a 90-minute drive from either San Diego or Los Angeles.
Interstate 15 was a parking lot. People fainted in the heat; a dog romping through the fields was bitten by a rattlesnake.
A vibrant field of poppies lures Dorothy into a trap in the “Wizard of Oz” when the wicked witch, acknowledging that no one can resist their beauty, poisons the wildflowers and she slips into a fatal slumber until the good witch reverses the spell.
Lake Elsinore had tried to prepare for the crush of people drawn by the super bloom, a rare occurrence that usually happens about once a decade because it requires a wet winter and warm temperatures that stay above freezing.
It offered a free shuttle service to the top viewing spots, but it wasn’t enough.
Sunday traffic got so bad that Lake Elsinore officials requested law enforcement assistance from neighboring jurisdictions. At one point, the city pulled down the curtain and closed access to poppy-blanketed Walker Canyon.
“It was insane, absolutely insane,” said Mayor Steve Manos, who described it as a “poppy apocalypse.”
By Monday the #poppyshutdown announced by the city on Twitter was over and the road to the canyon was re-opened.
And people were streaming in again.
Young and old visitors to the Lake Elsinore area seemed equally enchanted as they snapped selfies against the natural carpet of iridescent orange.
Some contacted friends and family on video calls so they could share the beauty in real time. Artists propped canvasses on the side of the trail to paint the super bloom, while drones buzzed overhead.
Patty Bishop, 48, of nearby Lake Forest, was on her second visit. The native Californian had never seen such an explosion of color from the state flower. She battled traffic Sunday but that didn’t deter her from going back Monday for another look. She got there at sunrise and stayed for hours.
“There’s been so many in just one area,” she said. “I think that’s probably the main reason why I’m out here personally is because it’s so beautiful.”
Stephen Kim and his girlfriend got to Lake Elsinore even before sunrise Sunday to beat the crowds but there were already hundreds of people.
The two wedding photographers hiked on the designated trails with an engaged couple to do a photo shoot with the flowers in the background, but they were upset to see so many people going off-trail and so much garbage. They picked up as many discarded water bottles as they could carry.
“You see this beautiful pristine photo of nature but then you look to the left and there’s plastic Starbucks cups and water bottles on the trail and selfie sticks and people having road rage because some people were walking slower,” said Kim, 24, of Carlsbad.
Andy Macuga, honorary mayor of the desert town of Borrego Springs, another wildflower hotspot, said he feels for Lake Elsinore.
In 2017, a rain-fed super bloom brought in more than a half-million visitors to the town of 3,500. Restaurants ran out of food. Gas stations ran out of fuel. Traffic backed up on a single road for 20 miles (32 kilometers).
The city is again experiencing a super bloom.
The crowds are back. Hotels are full. More than 6,000 people on a recent Saturday stopped at the visitor’s center at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California’s largest park with 1,000 square miles (2,590 sq. kilometers).
But it helps that the masses of blooms are appearing in several different areas this time, and some sections are fading, while others are lighting up with flowers, helping to disperse the crowds a bit.
Most importantly, Macuga said, the town’s businesses prepared this time as if a major storm was about to hit. His restaurant, Carlee’s, is averaging more than 550 meals a day, compared to 300 on a normal March day.
“We were completely caught off guard in 2017 because it was the first time that we had had a flower season like this with social media,” he said. “It helps now knowing what’s coming.”