CAMBRIDGE, England — So our great leaders were unable to reach agreement in The Hague last month on how to save the planet from environmental pollution. So we can continue pumping out ozone-destroying fumes to our hearts’ content, especially gas-guzzling drivers in the good old United States. Forests can go on being destroyed, grasslands turned into deserts, seas turned into sewers and our children and grandchildren turned into asthmatics while politicians sit around slanging each other.

What happened to the statesmen who could have put teeth into the Kyoto Protocol negotiated three years ago? There are some, but they do not seem to have been in The Hague.

One was in Cambridge last month. Nobel laureate Lee Yuan-Tseh, president of Taiwan’s prestigious Academica Sinica, was in town to give the annual Chuan Lyu Lecture at the China Center of the university’s East Asia Institute. The title of his lecture, “Taiwan at the Crossroads,” was a provocative one that attracted a large number of Chinese students and faculty. They expected an analysis of political events in Taiwan and relations between it and the mainland.

Although rumors suggested that Lee has been chosen as a go-between for the two governments, charged with finding a way to move back from the strong rhetoric of recent months, he denied this — and came across as someone who wouldn’t say something if it wasn’t true.

He began with a brief history of Taiwan since 1875, when a defeated China ceded it to Japan. He told a sad tale of Japanese colonialism, in which the Taiwanese people had no equality of opportunity and local culture was suppressed. The end of this period was marked by three years of Allied bombing, during which many Taiwanese had to flee to the hills. “A plague on all foreigners” was the attitude of most Taiwanese by the end of the war, Lee argued, and they were excited by the prospect of reunification with China, which seemed to offer national self-determination, democracy and social well-being.

However, the Nationalists did not bring those benefits. Instead, they became another colonial force that took away the rights of islanders and induced a sense of hopelessness among young people, who turned to socialism. This led to repression, which forced many — including Lee himself — to emigrate to the U.S. and elsewhere in search of freedom, security and protection of human rights.

Those who stayed behind became aware that the split was not between ethnic groups, but just between good and bad people with the bad people in control — until the democratic elections that gave people new hope and that led Professor Lee to return to his homeland.

Lee used this brief history to explain why many people in Taiwan now want to be their own masters above all else, albeit in the context of a Chinese social structure. He thus managed to skirt the independence issue, leaving open the possibility that some political solution could be found in which Taiwan could be more closely associated with China while maintaining substantial control over its own affairs.

In the second section of his talk, the Nobel laureate argued that although Taiwan has had a remarkable period of technology-based economic growth that has made its population one of the richest in the world, it now faces two problems that threaten that well-being.

The first problem is the need to accommodate the population explosion that will see the number of citizens grow eight-fold over the next 100 years, in contrast to the fourfold increase of the last 100 years. He argued that it would be important for countries like Taiwan not to seek to emulate the economies of the North, in which 5 percent of the world’s population consumes 30 percent of the world’s resources. Taiwan, and other countries in the South, must find a new way to develop that should be both technology-intensive (by necessity) and should in each country take account of the fact that we live in a global village. The domestic and international consequences of technology-based development for the global environment are the second problem that Lee sees Taiwan, and the world, facing.

Turning to the future, Lee said that he was sure that military confrontation is now unlikely to settle differences between nations. He sees the future of the world depending on international cooperation so that people can work together to achieve survival and sustainable development in a finite world. He believes that many of the world’s problems are amenable to solution through the application of scientific analysis and the development of technology. He made an impassioned plea to move away from the growing protectionism surrounding new discoveries and argued that such knowledge should be freely available.

After the lecture, Lee skillfully deflected questions about cross-strait relations by arguing that his scenario for the future called for all countries, despite differing social and political systems, to find ways of cooperating. He sees corruption as the main threat to such cooperation, in Taiwan and elsewhere.

The importance of Lee’s position could not have been better accentuated than by the self-centered and self-defeating nationalism of our “leaders” in The Hague. They almost went out of their way to prove his point. The politicians in The Hague were conspicuously lacking in statesmanship. We need more statesmen — like Lee — to take the lead. And if he really doesn’t have a role in efforts to defuse the crisis between Taiwan and China, he should have one.

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