Saturday, October 14, 2017

My latest for Ketagalan Media: The conversation about Taiwan's symbols matters

I got a weapon in my lungs
So tell the fuckin' cops to come
Get ready now
We never back down

- Back Down (Traudes)

This is what I was listening to as I worked with Ketagalan Media on the final edits to my latest piece, a rebuttal to J. Michael Cole's editorial on the importance (or lack thereof) of Taiwanese vs. ROC imagery and symbolism.

And it occurred to me: there was a time in Taiwanese history that my writing a piece like this was illegal, and the cops would have come. In many cases, the cops did come, and people died, some by their own hand. Now, thanks to the efforts of the Taiwanese people and not the dictatorship that persecuted them, I can say these things freely. The cops aren't going to come.

And yet, the symbol of the party that once sent the cops a-knockin' is still on the national flag for some unfathomable reason. I cannot agree that this isn't something we should keep talking about, nor that those who want to see party symbols wiped off the flag should settle down and 'play nice' so we can 'transcend' our 'small differences'.

That is to say, while I agree with some of Cole's points, I take exception to others: it is neither narcissistic nor a 'small difference' to have a legitimate point of contention that the symbol on the "national flag" is the symbol of one political party (in a democracy!), and the party that committed mass murder at that.

I'm sure a foreign resident giving her unvarnished opinion on the imagery associated with a country she is not a citizen of is likely to raise some hackles. All I can say first, is that this is my home too, and I do get to have an opinion on the goings-on in my home.  And secondly, that there are a lot of people who agree with me.

Taiwan deserves better. And I may not be the perfect spokesperson for that, but every last one of us has a weapon in our lungs. Let's use them.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Kind of Blue


I'm sitting in my apartment in downtown Taipei as my two cats scurry around the living room and my husband cleans up from dinner. I think about my job, my friends, my pets, my home which I am very comfortable in, my life and my livelihood, and they are all in Taiwan. I think about what I would lose if I were to leave, and it's quite a lot. I have no home in the US and no obvious city to move to there. My prosperity is tied to Taiwan's prosperity. Taiwan is my home, and it would affect my life profoundly if I were to leave.

However, this is not reflected in my legal status (I've written about why before).

This is not a post about dual nationality, though, it's a post about the battle for Taiwan's soul, and what it means when we are too kind to those whose ultimate goal is to bring Taiwan as close to China as possible even when public sentiment is not in their favor - and what happens when we downplay their side of the argument while telling those with legitimate points of contention to settle down and play nice. 

This is, however, related to my own struggle.

The laws that keep me foreign are Republic of China laws, written in China before the ROC had any reason to claim, or desire to claim, Taiwan.

Contrast that with the welcome Taiwan gives me: a lot of foreign residents here say they are singled out, treated as 'other', not allowed to assimilate. Sometimes that happens to me too, but most of the time I live my life and am treated like a normal person and normal neighbor. Most people I talk to have no idea that I can't become a citizen without giving up my American citizenship and are horrified to learn that fact.

I can't help but feel that while Taiwan wants me here, the ROC doesn't.

There have been attempts to patch up these differences through amending the laws but none have been sufficient. This issue is a microcosm of a bigger problem: the legal system of the Republic of China and the framework Taiwan actually needs to build the country most want it to become are irreconcilable. There is no patch that can fix it - the framework can't just be amended. It needs to be completely revamped.

So, when people say "the ROC is just a name", or "let's not fight over nomenclature and symbols", I do get annoyed. My life is directly impacted by the existence of the Republic of China, and it goes well beyond a name, right down to laws that were written in Nanjing in the 1920s without any reason to consider Taiwan or what kind of country it might become.

Considering all of this, I just can't agree that the symbolism of Double Ten day is mere imagery. It may be true that in the great swaths of the non-political, colorless or centrist population that we are more alike than we are different, but what differences we have run far deeper than a flag, an anthem and a name.

I also cannot agree that it is mere imagery that divides us. There is a portion of the population in this country who may not be pro-unification, but who do think of Taiwan as ultimately Chinese. This is not a minor difference that can be ignored: it informs all sorts of beliefs.

In fact, I genuinely do not believe this is true:

The fact of the matter is, and notwithstanding the nomenclatural issues that arise for many within the green camp, today’s ROC — how it is lived and experienced on a daily basis — is a transitory, albeit official, byword for what everybody knows is Taiwan.

No, not really. Today's ROC for many - not for everyone, I concede - is a byword only for "the ROC", which is in Taiwan and includes Taiwan, but is Chinese. It's a byword for the ultimate cultural underpinnings of Taiwan, and for something they quite likely hope will happen someday: a liberalized and democratized China that they can convince the Taiwanese to happily unite with. Perhaps not in their lifetime, but someday. This is what they mean when they say they are not pro-unification.

It is a byword for "let's not rock the boat" at best, for "no matter what you say you are fundamentally Chinese" or "no matter what people think being Taiwanese is about having Chinese ancestry" at worst.

Wait, no, at worst it is a byword for - and this is a real quote from Foxconn chairman Terry Gou - "you can't eat democracy".

If I am wrong and "the ROC" is, in fact, a byword for "Taiwan", somebody better tell my neighbors, because they sure don't see it that way.

It is the driving belief behind rewriting history to make the KMT seem benevolent - "228 was a necessary step to 'stabilize' the situation in Taiwan" - and those who fought for Taiwanese democracy "troublemakers" (while re-writing that democracy as some kindly deathbed wish by an enlightened and saintly Chiang Ching-kuo). It's the belief marginalizes all non-Mainlanders, which prioritizes Mandarin as the primary language and Chinese history and culture as the primary focus in schools. It's the belief which keeps pushing for economically problematic deals with China. It's the driving force behind treating Taiwanese culture and language as something for 'peasants' and teaching children that before the KMT came in and "fixed everything", Taiwan was a poor backwater (this is, of course, completely false). It is the side that complains about Taiwanese who won't call themselves "Chinese", as though anyone had any right to tell someone else how to identify.

It is a byword for all of these things - for how they want Taiwan to be, in direct contradiction to public sentiment as well as what Taiwan already is.

One can argue that those who hold these beliefs and yet do want to see a future for Taiwan are just another side of the pro-independence coin, and I'd actually agree to an extent. I'm not that interested in the "taidu" vs. "huadu" debate; I find the whole thing a bit overcooked. Those who want Taiwanese independence can want it however they want, and I too am not sure there's a huge difference.

What I am interested in, however, is the papering over of the pro-China slant of the KMT. For example (and from the same link above):

Thus, despite its [the KMT's] stronger identification with ROC symbols and nomenclature, it is unfair to describe today’s mainstream (read: electable) KMT as pro-unification; when one recent chairperson flirted with the idea of uncomfortably closer ties with China she was quickly cast out and will be no more than a footnote in the party’s history.
That isn’t to say that a number of KMT politicians have not, rather unhelpfully, played the China card in a bid to gain an electoral advantage against their opponents from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) or the New Power Party. But more often than not this was political expediency rather than the expression of an actual commitment to PRC ideology or unification. 
Here's the problem with that: just as being pro-independence no longer means voting for a pan-Green party, being pro-China no longer means being pro-immediate-unification. Being against immediate unification does not mean one is against eventual unification.

The politicians who use "closer ties with China" as a campaign platform aren't doing so for political expediency alone: they may not support unification now, but generally do not believe in independence, ever. This is not "huadu". This is a "let's wait it out" pro-China belief system.

Generally speaking, it is pretty clear to me that their deeper political beliefs are oriented towards China: a cultural and ethnic (Han) notion of China that transcends PRC and ROC, but ultimately ends with unification, because Taiwan is simply not a wholly separate identity to them, and will never be. Not in this generation, anyway. They are not "huadu", they are "status quo right now, unification someday far down the line". There is no "du" (independence) about their beliefs, only biding time.

Those who have no love for an PRC ideology do not necessarily believe that Taiwan's future is one that is free of China. Remember, they feel Taiwan is ultimately Chinese and they are offended and threatened by the idea of a separate Taiwanese identity that has no ties to China beyond a few dubious ethnic links and a few hundred years of being a colony of the Qing. Being pro-China, rather like being pro-Taiwan, is also on a spectrum. They are not necessarily on our side for the long haul.

You don't have to be a unificationist to feel that way. You don't have to be White Wolf or Hung Hsiu-chu. You can be any run-of-the-mill politician who still stands by the old symbols of a dead regime, who still feels Taiwan is Chinese.

And, if you still feel Taiwan is Chinese, you can use that to justify not teaching much Taiwanese history in schools, whitewashing what history you do teach, and continuing to be dismissive of expressions of Taiwanese identity and the cultural importance of the Taiwanese language (you might even, against all linguistic evidence, insist that it is merely a "dialect").

It is about way more than the imagery: it's about the ultimate identity of Taiwan, and about how that identity informs everything from a constitution that no longer adequately governs the Taiwan we have today, to a legal and governmental framework that does not fit Taiwan - remember, we got rid of the Tibetan affairs council very recently and we still don't treat China like a regular foreign country. It also includes everything from fundamental ideas of how children should be educated - what history they should be taught and why - and which languages should be given priority to what extent Taiwan should move away from being a state whose citizenship rests mostly on family history to one that is more international.

It is not just nomenclature, and it is not just an anthem. It is more than imagery. It directly impacts lives, including mine.

That said, let's take a look at that imagery. I don't think enough people appreciate that the reason why the pro-Taiwan side hates the flag of the Republic of China is not necessarily because it is not a flag that originated in Taiwan. Certainly that is an issue, but what inspires such disgust for the ROC flag is that big ugly KMT sun. The reason people protest the national anthem is not that it's "not Taiwan's anthem". That surely instills some level of dislike or annoyance in many, but a lot of it is the lyrics that blatantly refer to one party (just look at the first few lines). The issue is not as much the ROC as it is the KMT's centrality and privilege within it. Many see that flag or hear that anthem and think of the relatives and ancestors that that party killed, imprisoned, tortured or "disappeared" - and yet there they are, still on the flag, still in the anthem.

How is it not obvious why this bothers them? Why should they be the ones to bridge this gap and accept symbols that are directly linked to the pain of their history?

Why should people be expected to "set aside" this difference? Why on earth should they have to pretend it's not a problem?

Yes, we have an ROC in which the KMT is out of power, but they still occupy that place of privilege on the flag and in the anthem. I do not see how it is acceptable that one party is enshrined in this way in a democracy, and do not see how such symbols can ever be viable symbols for that democracy.

Why should they look at that flag, celebrate Double Ten or hear that anthem (or look at that portrait of Sun Yat-Sen) and think Taiwan? If I were Taiwanese, I wouldn't.

I can't condone an attitude that the victims of a historical injustice should just quiet down already, because they're causing trouble with their protesting that the party that once killed their family members and mucked up their country for a generation still has their damn sun on the flag like it's all okay.

Yes, in today's Taiwan it is possible to refuse to sing the first two lines of the anthem, or to change the lyrics. It is acceptable to refuse to pay homage to Dr. Sun. It is okay to speak your mind about the flag and the party logo enshrined on it.

The problem is, we shouldn't have to do any of that. Taiwan deserves a flag that doesn't remind some of its citizens of the suffering of their ancestors, an anthem we can stand for proudly and a holiday that doesn't give us mixed feelings.

It doesn't do anyone any good at all to say we should push all of that down and pretend it's not a problem. It very much is.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

My heart is Taiwanese, not Republic of Chinese


I am not a patriotic person by nature. Even when I was young, with flags in every classroom and prints of portraits of the founding fathers in our history textbooks, the Pledge of Allegiance every morning and the generally rah-rah pro-America conservatism of the town I grew up in, I just wasn't into it. I mouthed the words to the Pledge; pretending to go along was easier then. I applied the same logic to religion: after my parents' shocked reaction when I proclaimed my atheism at a surprisingly young age, and clear disapproval at choosing any belief system that didn't include faith, I pretended there was a God all the way through my confirmation because it was easier than fighting people who had no business telling me what to believe anyway.

Being ex-hippie liberal academics, my parents' attempts to make me into a wholesome young woman who feared God, prayed to Jesus and loved her country were half-hearted but sincere. Their worldview was a constrained liberalism that, while openminded, ultimately colored within the lines. In particular, Mom lamenting that she "didn't do enough" to make me into a good Christian and happy, honor-defending American was an attractive but ultimately specious reasoning for my turning out the way I did. There's nothing she could have done. I decided God didn't exist around the time I figured out Santa Claus wasn't real - I told you I was young when it happened - and I expressed a desire to live abroad as early as junior high school.

What I'm trying to say is, this is a pretty baked-in character trait. I see patriotism as a more Earth-bound form of religion: different faiths and their interpretations are ultimately fake lines drawn in the heavens that mean little beyond how they affect our real-world interactions, and patriotism is the worship of fake lines drawn across the globe delineating arbitrarily-decided "countries" which only matter, again, insofar as they affect how we think and interact (or are allowed to interact) as people. The borders themselves though? They're only real in our minds.

When I was younger, my desire to live abroad was a bit more Machine-approved. I'd always assumed I'd do it through the foreign service, international business or NGO work, academia, that sort of thing. None of them were working out - I hadn't considered in my plans that someone who is at best institution-apathetic would not fit in well at a large organization.

Forget chips on shoulders: I had bricks. Packing up and doing it on my own with a few thousand dollars in savings - and let's be honest, a hefty chunk of white middle-class privilege because I can not entirely escape the benefits of institutions - mortared those bricks right up into something like a moveable fortress. But at least they were off my shoulders.

That was ten years ago. Listen to me now, and I sound like a Taiwan missionary. Spreading the gospel of Taiwan to everyone I meet, and probably being deeply annoying in the process.

Have you accepted Taiwanese democracy into your life?

Here, read this article about Taiwan. It will change your life! I'd be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Did you know that many Taiwanese died for the freedoms we enjoy now, and someday the Republic of Formosa will rise again?

If you are interested, you are welcome to come with me to a protest this Sunday.

Okay, I'm not that bad (usually), but I am a true believer.

So what happened? I'm not a different person - I didn't suddenly decide that loving one's country was great and we should all love our countries and place deep importance on national borders. I didn't become a flag-waving, anthem-singing, crying-eagle-meme-posting patriot. I'm still the same old Jenna who doesn't function well as a cog in a corporate (or government) machine, who thinks God is an interesting fantasy, and who wants to keep her American citizenship as a matter of convenience and who has done her best work without a boss issuing commands.

Yet I do believe. As I've written before, I can really believe in a country that, despite having thousands of missiles pointed at it, wakes up every morning quietly insisting on its continued existence, perseveres, builds and improves itself and refuses to be ground up like so much pork filler in China's world-building sausage-fest and has, against the odds, turned itself into a pretty damn solid first world democracy. I didn't want to be a cog in an organizational machine, and Taiwan refuses to be a casualty of the global realpolitik machine. I feel that. I feel it like some people feel Jesus.

As Double Ten Day approaches - celebrating start of the Xinhai Revolution (in China, not Taiwan) on October 10, 1911 - and as the usual array of "Happy Birthday Taiwan!" nonsense starts appearing, it's given me a moment to reflect on how this came to be. That is, how I managed to be so enamored of Taiwan and yet not a patriot.

I think it's because Taiwan both is and is not a country. It is a sovereign nation in every respect that matters: it is self-governed, has its own military, currency, constitution and international relations and flag. Sort of.

It is also not a country in that the government currently in place here is a foreign one. All of the things it has, which make it fully independent, come from a government neither conceived nor formed in Taiwan, and certainly not by the Taiwanese. That government decided back when Taiwan was a colony of another country that it ought to be theirs - nobody asked the Taiwanese how they felt about this. That government has localized in some ways but not in others, and arguably not in a lot of the ways that matter. (To give one example, the citizenship laws were written in China in the 1920s and have not been meaningfully amended since.) This makes it a colonial government. The Republic of China is a country. Taiwan is still under colonial rule, playing host to its foreign master. It is also independent, a situation which is just as difficult to explain to non-believers as all the contradictions in the Bible are, except in this case it's true.

Imagine if the British government lost its territory in the 1800s and relocated to India, and India today was fully independent under the name and governmental system of Great Britain. Imagine if few recognized this government, opting instead to recognize the People's Republic of Britannia in the British Isles, and nobody recognized that India had a right to not only de jure independence, but to have that independence as India, not Great Britain. It's like that.

Imagine if the day after tomorrow was Magna Carta Day, and all of India would have a public holiday and be expected to celebrate the signing of the Magna Carta, and told all their lives that this was somehow relevant to their own history and land.

I doubt if I were an immigrant in that other-universe version of India that I would care much about "Magna Carta Day", nor about "Great Britain".

Similarly, I don't care much about the Republic of China.

Thinking along these lines, I realized that my love - and missionary zeal - for Taiwan has nothing to do with patriotism. I love Taiwan - the concept, the land, the history, the civic nationalism borne of shared values. I do believe Taiwan deserves statehood and I would happily reside in that state, but I doubt I'd ever be a typical "patriot". I love Taiwan not in the way one is taught to love the arbitrary boundaries defining one's world but which were not chosen: the religion, country and family one was born into (though I do sincerely love my family). I love it the way one love's one's friends or spouse (no, not like that, you know what I mean). As something one chooses because of shared values and other commonalities and compatibilities. I will love Taiwan no matter what happens to its national boundaries, although I wish for it something better than what it has now. After all, I was not born here. My family is not Taiwanese, but my friends are.

I still don't dare say I am Taiwanese - a lot of people get the wrong idea, sure, and also on some level I don't think I deserve the honor. But my heart is here.

The Republic of China? That could disappear tomorrow and I wouldn't care. If it were replaced by the Republic of Taiwan, I'd celebrate. Double Ten Day will come and go this year, as with every other year, and I just won't care.

In short, my heart is Taiwanese, not Republic of Chinese.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Latest for Ketagalan Media: Catalonia and Taiwan are not the same - but why does Catalonia get more international sympathy?

I'm back in Ketagalan Media, this time writing about the Catalan independence referendum and why it has received generally sympathetic media coverage, whereas Taiwan generally has not. When it is not being ignored completely, Taiwan's desire for de jure statehood, or at least the right to a referendum on it, is couched in critical terms, with China's claims often leading the story.

Why is that, and why is it a problem? Well, you can read more here. 

Catalonia aside, I think the two biggest issues facing Taiwan vis-a-vis the rest of the world are first, getting the outside world to understand what Taiwanese nationalism is about, and second, changing perceptions that politics somehow works "differently" in Asia (the old "Asian values" nonsense, even though the 90s are over and Lee Kwan Yew - the most well-known proponent of this idea - is dead).

To wit:

There are good reasons for the West to support a referendum on Taiwanese statehood, however. The post-war Western world has moved away from the idea of ethnic nation-states, having correctly decided that pigeonholing people into specific nations by ethnicity only causes more tensions rather than easing them. Yet Catalonia, an area whose identity is deeply fused with ethnic identity, enjoys international sympathy for its desire for a referendum. Taiwan, on the other hand, has no “ethnic” claim to nationhood. It is made up of ethnically Chinese Hoklo and Hakka people, a number of distinct indigenous groups, and a growing number of people from Southeast Asia and the rest of the world who have made Taiwan their home. Its nationalism is today a civic nationalism based on shared values, and these shared values line up nearly perfectly with those of Western democracies.

I cannot emphasize this point enough. Taiwan exists as a place, an idea, an identity and a state because of the shared values of democracy, human rights and self-governance that the Taiwanese share. Taiwan is not an ethnic enclave, so it cannot exist based on ethnocentric reasons (although previously, Taiwanese nationalism was tinged with a fair amount of Hoklo chauvinism, to its detriment). This is an idea that the rest of the free world can and should - I would argue must - support. It worries me that other nations don't understand this - I have heard before that Taiwan ought to be Chinese moreso than Tibet or Xinjiang because at least they are ethnically the same, as though that should matter in the slightest! It worries me even more that some people perhaps do understand this, but don't care.

And there's this:

There may be a deeper, more troubling reason [for the lack of international support for Taiwan] as well. When discussing current affairs in Asia, there is a fear of “imposing Western values on Asians.” Westerners are perhaps more willing to support self-determination by a minority within a Western state; when asked about a territory in Asia, may point to “Asian values” or how politics happen “differently” here, where people view issues of governance, democracy and human rights through a different lens. One might even hear “Confucian” values evoked to defend this stance.
While this attempt at multiculturalism and intercultural understanding is laudable in some ways, when it comes to issues of human rights and freedom, such a view essentially states that these things are for Westerners and are not available to Asians. Or, even more troublingly, that Asians as a whole don’t want them or that they somehow do not apply to Asian cultures. By this logic, Westerners are entitled to self-determination, but in Asia one apparently does not deserve such privileges.
Such a view is acutely harmful to Taiwan, a free and liberal democracy that values self-determination in much the same way Western nations do. Such a view also benefits China, an unfree and illiberal state whose values are in direct contradiction to those of the free world. The Chinese government has said openly that these values, which ought to be universal human values, are merely ‘Western’ and therefore do not apply to them. For the West, to support such a view is to undermine its own moral framework. 

No but seriously, I'm gonna throat-punch the next well-meaning liberal who throws this stale 1990s-era garbage about "Asian values" at me. It happens too often and it's got to stop. Here's an "Asian value" for you: treat people like people. Or do as Lao Tzu said - I'm paraphrasing here - and just chill already. Here's another Asian value: democracy, self-determination and human rights matter. Want to know why that's an Asian value? Because an entire nation of Asians - that is, Taiwan - believes it! In fact I think they'd be offended to hear the idea that they somehow don't deserve these basic rights because Asia is somehow "different", or that they don't need them, or worse, that they don't want them. Or, worst of all, that the mere suggestion that they should have them is itself "culturally imperialist". 

You know who supports the idea that Asia is somehow "different" so the West can't impose so-called "Western values" (which are actually universal values) on them?

Dictators, that's who. Because it's convenient for them to do so - it suits their ends, which are not the ends that any person who believes in human rights and bettering the world can accept.

By acting as though Asia is somehow less deserving, we are helping the dictators, authoritarians and power-hungry expansionist regimes willing to torture and murder their own citizens. Is that really what we want to be doing? 

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

BREAKING NEWS: Scientists discover Taiwan had human settlements before 1945

In a groundbreaking discovery announced Monday, a team of archaeologists, historians and ethnographers shook the scientific world by determining that the island of Taiwan was populated before the Kuomintang settled there and declared it a part of the territory of the Republic of China.

The announcement shocked many students of Asian history as well as institutions of higher learning, as it was commonly believed before the discovery that Taiwan had no human settlements and was therefore an unoccupied territory that could be rightfully claimed by any government who cared to lay claim to it.

The nature of the pre-Kuomintang settlements on Taiwan are as yet unclear, but the team has announced plans to continue its research if additional funding becomes available. "The funding issue is far from settled," noted Dr. Jill White of the University of Southern Dakota. "We will first have to negotiate with the Confucius Institutes and Chinese Student Associations at our respective schools to secure backers in our departments. If we wanted to study, say, the Qing Dynasty presence in Taiwan this would not be a problem, but the era we are interested in - 1895 to 1945 specifically - is, shall we say, a sensitive issue."

Asked for further comment, Dr. White did not respond as of press time.

The announcement outlined what life may have looked like in Taiwan before 1945. "There appear to be the ruins of many structures resembling Japanese-style architecture," the transcript noted. "The exact nature of these structures is unclear, but point to a potentially Japanese-influenced culture on Taiwan. If true, this overturns everything we thought we knew about Chinese history."

Not everyone was convinced, however. "Pre-Kuomintang settlements in Taiwan? Well if that's true, then everything we write about Taiwan in the media now is wrong!" exclaimed media worker Ralph Wiggum. "That's unpossible!"

"This isn't news," noted Taipei housewife Doris Ouyang. "Everyone in Taiwan has always known that Taiwan has been a part of the Republic of China since 1911."

However, some people watching the news seemed hopeful that this could lead to a more accurate understanding of Taiwan and East Asia in general.

"This is earth-shattering," said Ridgemont High School Social Studies teacher Lucy Brown. "All this time I had been teaching my students that the Kuomintang took refuge in Taiwan in 1945. I didn't even think to consider that there might have already been people there. Oh well, it probably doesn't matter, I'm sure they were primitives living in a backwater. Anyway it looks like things worked out well for Taiwan."

The team has submitted a paper to the Journal of Applied Asian Studies, however, it was rejected without feedback by the journal.

"This is inaccurate and harmful false 'history' propagated by splittist elements looking to discredit and harm the image of China abroad," noted journal director and China specialist Dr. Bill Black when asked for comment. "It is, as Confucius says, merely a clumsy oxen throwing stones among tigers."

"I know that obscure idiom because I'm a scholar of China," he added.

"In addition, such mendacious falsehoods hurt the feelings of the Chinese people. Have they no respect for China's excellent 5,000 years of culture?"

Monday, October 2, 2017

...that's a lot of rapists

Focus Taiwan reported yesterday that a special operation that took place from March to May resulted in the apprehension of 31 fugitive rapists.

While this ought to be good news - 31 is a lot of rapists - it raises more questions than it answers.

First of all, would a "special mission" have been necessary if the Taipei City police had paid more attention and allocated more resources to catching rapists generally? I don't think anyone knows how many people in a city the size of Taipei would, on average, be rapists, but...this just seems like a lot, no?

Assuming we should not be nervous that there even were 31 rapists to apprehend - again, I have no idea how many any given Taipei-sized city would typically have on the files - I have to wonder how they managed to catch so many in 3 months. Could it possibly be because they had some idea who these people were, and therefore once it was made a "special mission" with "extra resources", finally bothered to go out and nab them?

Could they not have apprehended any of these fugitives sooner? Because really, I cannot emphasize this enough: 31 rapists is a lot of rapists.

I know I'm supposed to be applauding the police, but I can't shake the feeling that they were sitting on their hands before, not taking rape cases seriously when it was even remotely challenging - or perhaps not even challenging - to find an accused rapist and take him (or her - but usually him) into custody.

Let's keep in mind that the rape law in Taiwan was only changed in 1999, which is a very long time to wait for a change in such a law. Until then, the old law was written to define rape as an offense against women, in which the offender used force so that she "could not resist", and was a "crime against public decency" (it is now a "crime against sexual autonomy"). Under the old law, men were not included, and not all types of coercion or non-consensual pressure or activity were covered. The 1999 change was an improvement, but I have to wonder if its being less than 20 years old has anything to do with current attitudes towards rape: not that I think the police don't care, but that they don't care enough to devote resources to finding offenders, or perhaps still think of rape as an issue of "chastity", or something that is perhaps, to them, not as much of a crime if the use of force was not as violent as they might expect.

I know that's a pretty strong accusation to make, and to be fair, every police officer is an individual, and I am sure many of them take rape reports seriously. However, if there is no truth to it, why is it that it took until May of this year to apprehend so many rapists, and how were they apprehended so quickly?

Finally, I fear that the general attitude of law enforcement is laid bare in the final paragraph of the Focus Taiwan article, and it is deeply problematic.

Although the mission has ended, police efforts to crack down on sexual assaults will continue, Taipei City Police Department Commissioner Chen Chia-chang (陳嘉昌) said. He also urged women to take precautions for their own safety, such as avoiding walking alone in remote areas and always locking their car doors after getting in. 

Ahem - excuse me?

First, this ought to cause any woman in Taipei to question the old belief that the city is completely safe for women.

Secondly, while I understand the impulse to warn women to be careful, I can assure you that more or less every woman is already well aware that the world is a more dangerous place for her than for men. By admonishing women with something we already know, Chen is not only being condescending, but drawing very close to victim-blaming.

Instead of telling women how to be safe, Commissioner Chen, how about working to make Taipei safe for women? How about continuing to spend the resources necessary to apprehend rapists in a timely manner rather than waiting for a "special mission" so that women can safely walk alone in remote areas and don't have to fear being chased into their cars? You know - so that we can walk around safely and not feel nervous whenever we get into said car?

A woman being as safe as a man on the streets of most Western cities is often considered a distant dream, but it is possible in Taipei, which is generally regarded as safer. I walk around in Taipei, alone, at all times of night. Just this past Saturday I walked from my sister's apartment to my own - Brendan had gone home early - at 2:30am and did not feel unsafe.

Taipei could be a city where women are safe in public as men are, but it won't happen if it takes a special mission to capture all of those rapists - really, let's just consider one final time how many rapists that is - and it certainly won't happen if the police themselves, rather than allocating resources to keeping women safe, admonish women that Taipei is not safe. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

I have massive flag angst

From Wikimedia Commons

Who would have thought a simple question about a flag could bring up so many emotions about a country I'm not even a citizen of?

But that's exactly what's happened.

A friend pointed this out on Facebook, and he's not wrong:

I think younger people have actually subverted the image and robbed the KMT of the intended meaning....

Now, it seems, the people who have grown up with the ROC flag as a symbol of Taiwan...only see it as representing Taiwan. The China part has been totally lost no matter how hard the KMT tries to push it. The KMT has had their dear symbol stolen from under their noses and they can't do a single thing about it. 

This is true (and is also not the first time the point has been made). The current generation of Taiwanese have taken that symbol and turned it into their national flag, stripping it of its previous association with the KMT one-party state and its inherent Chinese/Han chauvinism and unificationism.

Stores sell it, people wear shirts decorated with it and get in trouble if they try to wave it at international sporting events. Some may feel a wave of pride when they see it abroad, as its image is suppressed anywhere Chinese 'soft' power (there is nothing soft about it).

Try as I might to be okay with this, I'm just not. To me, this isn't a victory, although it has positives. This is an accident of history in which a flag that stands for authoritarianism, annexationism and ethnic chauvinism, by being subverted, has made it harder to create something better, something uniquely Taiwanese, something that doesn't create deep feelings of discomfort among some people. Although I'll probably be criticized for this, on some level it feels like that flag, with its KMT sun in the upper left feels like it sort of Stockholm Syndromed itself into the national consciousness (I await your hate mail). With no other clearly superior options forthcoming it became the de facto choice, perhaps making its own subversion necessary. What else do you do without other clear options?

Before you get on my back about those other options, a quick re-tread of a road we've already been down: the green-and-white independence flag is too similar to the DPP flag and the hearts flag and moon flags are a bit boring, and for most don't stir much association with Taiwan. The tiger flag has its own issues - although it is my favorite design by far, I have been told by someone who should know that the tiger was chosen because in Chinese symbolism, tigers are subordinate to dragons, and the stated fealty of the 1895 Republic that flew that flag was to the Qing Empire, whose symbol was a dragon. Also, there have never been tigers in Taiwan. With all of these other choices wanting, what other choice is there but to take the national symbol shoved down your throat and turn it into an actual national symbol of the nation you always envisioned rather than the nation it was meant to represent?

But let me be clear: that KMT sun makes me want to barf. There it sits, as though that party has some sort of special privilege or sacred place in Taiwanese politics more so than any other party; as though their brutal, dictatorial and murderous past could be so easily whitewashed. As though any party deserves a place of privilege in a free democracy, with their party symbol on the national flag. If adopting/subverting the ROC flag as the Taiwanese flag settled the question, to me, that question was settled with the wrong answer.

I'm not entirely sure why I care so much - I didn't grow up here. The KMT didn't torture, murder, imprison, force into exile or 'disappear' any of my family members. I'm an English speaking white girl from New York and not a citizen of Taiwan - why on Earth should I care what the flag is?

And yet here I am, going against the mainstream and being open about not liking it one bit.

This brings up all sorts of difficult questions.

On most issues of Taiwanese civil discourse, I have in the last few years found myself agreeing with a pretty substantial majority, or at least a strong plurality, of locals. I don't hide my pro-marriage equality, pro (eventual, de jure) independence views, my general gravitation towards the views of the Third Force parties, and my support of Taiwanese identity not as a problematic ethnocentric belief but as one of shared history (even recent history) and values.

There was a time when this was not the case - the early Ma years, for example - but back then I didn't have such a strong 'Taiwan identity'. I still don't feel fully comfortable claiming to be anything other than a foreigner, but I don't feel remotely the same way as I did in 2008. Back then I still assumed I'd go 'home' someday, or travel and live elsewhere, and that 'home' was in the United States. It was easy to say that my personal opinions didn't really matter because I was not Taiwanese, I could not vote, and ultimately what I thought wasn't important. This was a good thing for the time, because many of my views, while now mainstream, were absolutely not the majority view then.

At some point, something changed; something inside cracked open (if you were wondering if this happened around 2014 - yes, yes it did). I went from "I'll probably go home someday" to "I want dual nationality because this is my home." Not everyone understands this, though, so when I talk to such people, I still tend to frame my opinions this way: yes, I believe in certain things, but so do many, if not a strong majority, of Taiwanese. So I'm not trying to force my opinions on anyone - I more or less support what most people do.

This is the easiest way to buffer the criticism that being a foreigner living in and writing about Taiwan inherently courts, because honestly, there will always be people who just don't get it. Some might incorrectly think that my considering Taiwan home is a weird racial fetish thing (it's not - the desire to change one's race strikes me as deeply odd and problematic). Some might think I want to be just another whitey hoping to climb to the top of the dogheap in some kinder foreign country where being white confers extra privilege simply due to standing out, because I couldn't make it where I came from (also not true: my ambitions don't include wanting to be at the top of anything.) Some will think a foreigner in Taiwan - or a Westerner in any non-Western country - is always an invader, leech or both. Some will think any opinion I have that diverges from the mainstream is simply that of yet another whitey who thinks their 'superior' view can 'enlighten' the 'locals'.

Very few understand that I simply have an opinion on my home because I live here too. What happens here affects me, and it is natural to have opinions about issues concerning one's home. American politics, at this point, feels like 'foreign affairs' to me even though that is the country in which I vote. What happens in Taiwan affects me on a granular level. Why wouldn't I care about that?

Even fewer understand that I'm not necessarily out to change local minds on this or almost any issue, and in fact I rarely write in Chinese because I don't necessarily like the idea of a foreign resident trying to affect local discourse in that way (one exception can be found here, regarding convicted sex offenders being allowed to hire domestic workers).

I might say I support self-determination - the right of the Taiwanese to decide how to run their country. And I do. At the same time, I just don't agree with the way society has chosen to accept that flag, so saying "well I just support self-determination" comes across as insincere if not hollow. I just don't like it, and although the people I hang around tend to agree with me, most people don't.

Of course, these two things are not the same, which is easy to digest when the discussion is centered on one's native country. I don't like the way the latest American election turned out, but that doesn't mean I think democracy is a load of crap (I do think the electoral college is, but that's another issue). I can likewise support the right of Taiwanese citizens to decide for themselves what the ROC flag symbolizes, without liking the outcome.

However, it's so common for critics of expat political commentary in any country to not draw that distinction - assuming that foreign nationals must agree with local decisions otherwise they're just White Savior Western Cultural Imperialist Jerks - that it must be clarified.

So, to what extent do I get to have and express my own opinions on Taiwan, especially when they diverge from the mainstream? At what point does doing so make me someone trying to push a foreigner's view on the rest of the country? How long do I have to live here, and what sort of assimilation is necessary, before my views are as legitimate as those of any Taiwanese? I can't say it enough: this is my home. Am I still obligated to subordinate my personal views to that of the majority in a way a dissenting local would not? What right do I have to have a minority opinion about a country I'm not from?

At what point is this an opinion I hold about my home, rather than an opinion a foreigner holds about a country she does not hold citizenship in?

I could ignore all of this, knowing that haters are, as the adage goes, gonna hate. If someone has decided to believe that foreigners' dissenting views are never welcome, that's just what they're going to believe. On a molecular level I don't really care what they think. If you're reading this now and you hate me - well, first, you're probably not alone, but secondly, I sincerely and truly don't care. My opinion isn't going to change just because you don't like it.

On the other hand, if I am going to advocate for Taiwan more generally, I have to engage with these questions. It keeps me honest - if I ever tread too close to 'enlightened white lady wants to make the benighted locals' I want to know about it so I can stop. It also helps me remember that I'm not writing about these issues because I think I know better than Taiwanese society, but because this is my home too, so I get to have and express an opinion. It helps me remember when it's worth taking that expression beyond the expat and English-speaking bubble and into the realm of local discourse (answer: almost never). It also helps me work on framing what I have to say in a way that can't be as easily dismissed.

It also helps me remember what privilege I do have. I lack the ability to be activist in certain ways here - I'm too easily identified, too easily made a target, too easily criticized for being "not Taiwanese" or "making it all about me" (Taiwanese Americans might be similarly criticized as not 'Taiwanese' enough, but it's not quite the same as having an obviously foreign face). I do think it's important to seek out Taiwanese voices on Taiwanese issues and to actually listen to them. That might get me down, but I have to remember that, for all of the things I can't do, standing out (that is, making it easier to draw attention to what I have to say) and being a native-level English user from a background of comparative advantage - how many Taiwanese can up and move to the US the way I moved to Taiwan? - are privileges I should neither forget I have nor take for granted.

I don't have answers - I'm still not sure where that line is. All I can say for sure is that this is my home, so I do get to have an opinion as what happens here affects me too. Everything else is still kind of up in the air.

My politics are open: I'm not a fan of the flag of the Republic of China, nor of the Republic of China generally. I view it as a foreign entity that unfortunately governs, but is philosophically and historically distinct from, Taiwan. Taiwan is my home; the Republic of China is not. I feel nothing when I see the flag of the Republic of China flying. I feel quite a bit when I see images I more closely associate with Taiwan.

It's easy to get involved when one agrees with the zeigeist. It's not so easy when one opposes it, but is very obviously foreign. I know there are locals who agree - it's not just Lao Ren Cha against the rest of Taiwan. The question going forward is how to best support those locals and work with them without making it all about me.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Taiwan: A History of Agonies - a review

A History of Agonies alongside symbols of some Taiwanese social movements I have been here to witness
and participate in. It all ties together. 

Anyone who truly loves reading has become so emotionally engaged with a book that it makes them cry, often at the most inconvenient times. It stays with them and affects how they feel, think and interact with the world for some time after the reader has finished with it. Occasionally, this effect is permanent.

This happened with Green Island, a book I highly recommend to everyone and which made me Ugly Cry in my favorite coffee shop, and would say is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand 20th century Taiwan. I expected it would happen with Taiwan: A History of Agonies as well - I mean, the agony is right there in the title. Taiwanese history certainly contains enough tragedy to make anyone with a heart sob for hours.

So, I was surprised when that ended up not being the case.

Please don't misunderstand - it's not that it left me cold, or I found it uninteresting. I certainly had an emotional reaction to reading the words of a Taiwanese person describing what to him was not always "history": Ong Iok-tek lived through much of the events of the later chapters of the book. I was also intellectually engaged in reading history from a decidedly Taiwanese Hoklo nationalist perspective, especially in a book written in the mid-to-late 20th century. A lot has changed vis-a-vis Taiwanese identity since then, and comparing the two was an illuminating exercise. 

I will say that I learned quite a bit. Ong was especially interested in providing as much detail as possible about the various rebellions during the Qing and Japanese eras, because they proved his point that the Taiwanese never took being colonized lying down. I learned a few interesting details about the Zheng era, and quite a few famous names from history whose contributions I hadn't been clear on were discussed. Ong also spends a fair amount of time on every home-rule movement of note, which makes this a good source of knowledge for anyone hoping to refute the ridiculous yet oddly common notion that "Taiwanese identity" did not exist before the 1970s.

It was also interesting to read from that mid-century nationalist perspective. I'm aware of its existence and the general worldview of that generation of pro-Taiwan activists, as well as the generation after them which pushed through to democratization. I am aware of some of the problematic beliefs they often held, from thinking indigenous people were inferior to believing that nobody who came over from China in the 1940s could ever really be Taiwanese (and extending to views on women and homosexuality as well, although these aren't issues that come to the fore in this book - the only thing I remember being striking in that regard was Ong's reference to the "men" who fought and died for Taiwan.) It was quite another thing, however, to read from that perspective in the words of someone who was one of them.

It's not that Ong said much in this vein that I found new or surprising - for example, along with his focus on rebellions and home-rule movements above, he was dismissive of indigenous (mentioned above and to be mentioned again), focused almost exclusively on male luminaries (with a few exceptions), was critical of the Qing but not so much of the Japanese, and wrote from a clearly - but I think entirely deserved - anti-KMT perspective.  I don't recall Taiwanese Hakka being mentioned at all - if they were, it was too brief a reference for me to catch.

I was surprised, however, at his criticism of the 1895 republic, a blip in history that is interesting to me for no particular reason - I think it may be because I just like the flag. It's not that I think the Republic of Formosa deserves effusive praise, but I would have expected a Hoklo nationalist to give it just that. I recall reading that there was a concerted effort to bring back the symbols of that time - particularly the tiger flag - as symbols of the Taiwanese independence movement later. But, instead, he said that the republic's foundation day declaration "lacks style and refinement for a declaration of independence", was pointedly critical of their kowtowing to the Qing emperor, and of the scrambling of many of its leaders to evacuate to China when the whole thing fell apart later that year.

I did enjoy comparing Ong's views to the views of the young "naturally independent" pro-Taiwan generation of today. They have people like him to thank for giving them shoulders to stand on, and they are aware that they are connected to the luminaries of the pro-Taiwan social movements of history, but it is clear they'd find a lot to criticize in his words, especially in his love for Japan and derision of indigenous people.

I really love this tiger flag, it's the best flag

And, finally, I have to admit that this is the first comprehensive history of Taiwan book I've ever read. I've devoured others such as Taiwan's Imagined Geography and Accidental State, but they focus on certain periods. Reading one author bringing it all together was a positive experience.

I didn't cry, however. There is no single reason why. In some places, the writing was a little wooden, which I blame on the translation (I got the distinct feeling that it flowed better in Chinese). How does one start sobbing at lines like this?

Thus, China's relationship with the Kuomintang transfigured itself from a hostile contradiction to a non-hostile contradiction.

Areas where Ong editorialized, even when I agreed, didn't make me stand up and cheer as I thought they might - perhaps because I like my history as un-editorialized as possible. "We Taiwanese are seeking the helping hands from the free camp to rid ourselves of the oppressive rule of the Kuomintang" and similar wording, while I agree with it as an accurate sentiment stemming from the state of affairs when this book was written in the 1970s and to some extent of more modern eras as well, doesn't do anything for the nerdy historian in me. It would have been more powerful to simply present history as it was and let it make the oppression of the KMT very clear.

It could be that the translation was clearly not copyedited by a native-like user of English, as small grammatical mistakes, as well as issues with register and collocation, abounded. A personal favorite:

"The Tai-kang fallen, the fortress was totally isolated. Cheng Ch'eng-kung summoned the Dutch to surrender: 
My Dad opened up this island, Taiwan. Now that I need it, kindly get out!'

That was rather an odd message."

Gee, ya think? 

And, the all-time most amazing phrasing in the world:

"Everything began when the Cairo Declaration made Taiwan a booty for the Kuomintang to claim."

That sort of thing tends to jolt one's mind out of the narrative and back into the real world. 

My lack of emotional outburst might also have been because, although I have sympathy for any person who lived through that period of history in Taiwan, I lost some sympathy for Ong after his derogatory marks about indigenous people (which the editors acknowledged in a preface, but ultimately left in the work so as to preserve it as authentically as possible). To wit:

"When the Taiwanese say that Taiwan belongs to the Taiwanese, some Chinese quibble that Taiwan belongs to the indigenous people and they alone have the right to their land. Behind this line of argument by the Chinese are seen glimpses of their scheming design to label the Taiwanese "aggressors" and shamelessly enjoy their share of the spoils..."

Yo, Ong, I know you're dead and Imma let you finish, but...I think this, or at least I think the country belongs to the "Taiwanese" who are of all different backgrounds including indigenous, and indigenous people have earned certain rights and reparations due to the historical wrongs done to them. And I absolutely detest the Chinese government and see Taiwan as fully independent.

Also, insisting that Taiwan's history is a Hoklo history rather than an indigenous one into which others later entered is actually closer to China's current rhetoric that you are "all Chinese". 

"The indigenes in Taiwan made their living mainly by fishing and hunting and occasionally engaged in farming, though of a rather primitive style." (Ong goes on to quote Georgius Candidius' super racist take on indigenous people, calling the women "complete drudges" and the men "idle by nature"). 

So, no mention of the complex trade networks that the indigenous took part in?  No mention that women often enjoyed higher status in indigenous societies? None of that? Just drudges and idlers?

And worst of all - it makes me want to puke in my mouth a little bit even typing this out:

Those of us who are used to the scenes of American Indians shot and killed in Western movies are liable to wrongly assume that primitive (ed: UGH) aborigines are doomed to fall in number at gunpoint. In reality, however, massacre is not necessarily the main cause of population decline (ed: yes, it was, along with other forms of overt oppression) A decadent sex life may be one of the causes; unsanitary lifestyle another (ed: **** you). Unpreparedness against hunger and contagious diseases also triggered population decline (ed: hunger and contagious diseases wrought by the way in which indigenous were treated by every colonial wave to enter Taiwan, perhaps?

In short, I have nothing good to say about Ong's view of indigenous people, and it was certainly a big part of what hardened me to the rest of the book a bit.

It is telling that he begins the book not with a brief recap of what we know of indigenous life before colonization, but with the Chinese knowledge of the island and then, the Dutch. 

The editors included an explanatory note to essentially apologize for this, and I understand keeping it for reasons of portraying Ong's voice historically accurately, but...this is not the sort of book that is going to deliver an emotional gut-punch, with nonsense like that.

Finally, I found A History of Agonies hard to follow, because names popped up and disappeared regularly, sometimes with scant biographical info, other times just dropped into the narrative. I did not necessarily know who every person was (although to my credit, I had heard of quite a few). It was also difficult to figure out what Ong was talking about sometimes: he spent quite a bit of time talking about the "Ch'ao-chou", "Chu'an-chou" and "Chang-chou" "gangs", and it took me some time to realize that he was talking about people who themselves or whose ancestors had immigrated to Taiwan from Quanzhou or Chaozhou in Fujian (he also mentions "Chang-chou" (Zhangzhou). Perhaps he needn't have used Pinyin, I know that system has its detractors, but the Wade-Giles - as it usually does - makes it difficult for me to figure out how to pronounce certain things and makes a lot of words, to be honest, all look kind of the same. I know my opinion is not universally accepted, but we can all agree that including characters after any words rendered in Chinese or Taiwanese would have been a good, and helpful, idea.

Of course, I knew this because I know a fair bit about Taiwan. Can you imagine how someone reading this as a beginning text on Taiwanese history would even begin to decipher what Ong meant by the "Ch'ao-chou and Chu'an-chou gangs"? Such a reader might think these are gang names rather than the cities of origin of rival groups of Taiwanese immigrants.

This really cemented my overall impression of the book: this is not something to read as a primer or basic history of Taiwan. There must be better options - it will be confusing for neophytes, and overly simplistic for those with background knowledge.

Instead, I would say, by all means read this book, but do so knowing what you're getting into. Read it as a personal perspective, as a specific take on the events of Taiwanese history from the point of view of a certain kind of Taiwanese nationalist of a certain era. In that sense, it is illuminating, but a clear and readable history, I am sorry to say, it is not. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

The world is ending because China is upset: Western liberals, the media and Taiwan

Visual Footage of the Tsai-Trump Phone Call

I woke up and it was the Apocalypse.

Children were wrenched from their parents' arms by bleeding reanimated corpses risen from the depths of Hell. Fiery stallions with coal-red eyes carried an army of Grim Reapers on their backs as the innocent shrieked for mercy. Rivers burned and oceans smoldered. Lifeless bodies hung from trees, their souls hanging inside out from their mouths. Wingèd gray-skinned Hellbeasts sliced through the air, the screams emanating from their long, knife-like beaks striking terror into every living creature as the black-clad sentries of Styx stood silent, unmoving, unscathed. The streets were littered with bones and splinters, some still attached to throbbing chunks of bloodied flesh and meat where they were pulled wholesale from human bodies. The sky was black and poisonous with clouds of sulphurous magma overhead as oilslick-black machines outfitted with insect-like exoskeletons impaled, strangled and violated women in front of their husbands and men in front of their wives with their cold mechanical tentacle appendages.

That is to say, American "President" Donald Trump and Taiwanese President Tsai Ying-wen had had a short, uneventful phone call, and the world subsequently burned as everyone tried to figure out what it all meant. 

Apparently, it meant that Everything Was Over, that Donald Trump had irrevocably angered China, which would lead to world war, economic collapse and global catastrophe.

Of course, what it had meant was that the two presidents had had a phone call, acting like presidents of two sovereign countries, which they both are, rather than pretending the truth is somehow not true so as to avoid the breaking of a billion glass hearts. China got annoyed - almost certainly in part because the way the event was reported legitimized their anger - but things continued much as usual. Cargo ships plowed the ocean carrying the weight of global trade on their backs. US-China policy remained unchanged. Taiwan remained a pariah through no fault of its own, its status an accident of history, a free, industrialized democracy with almost no overt support. The rest of the world formulated a huge chunk of its Asia-Pacific policy to mollify China.

Some organizations did report on this honestly. John Bolton noted that it was time to revisit this policy (paywall - ugh), quite rightly pointing out that the current method of "acknowledging" China's position, selling some arms to Taiwan when we feel like it, doing lots of trade with Taiwan but otherwise telling it to bend over and take it whenever China gets angry, is unrealistic and unfair. The Daily Beast told everyone to just calm down everybody. The National Interest did a middling job, but has had some good recent pieces since. The Diplomat, which few people I know outside of Asia read, had a good piece by J. Michael Cole. Fox News' website ran an article whose viewpoint I agree with. 

Generally, if you consider the editorial line of the sample above, the best reporting not only on this issue but on Taiwan in general has come from conservative sites, or at least those that are not explicitly liberal (The Daily Beast seems to be somewhere in the middle to me, The Diplomat neutral).

Contrast that to the media I, and my liberal friends, generally read. The Washington Post did put out an op-ed dubbing the phone call as "brilliant" (they had other coverage too, which I can't read because I don't subscribe). The New Yorker, however, called it "dangerous" (with a hefty helping of inaccurate "Taiwan and China split in 1949" history thrown in too), acknowledging that there is a case to be made for better Taiwan relations but then capitulating to the same old "China will see this as destabilizing" line. They threw in that "a subset of" conservative analysts felt the call was the right move, a line which, if anything, will turn off liberal readers. The New York Times said he'd hit China's "most sensitive spot", brought up issues of conflicts of interest, and noted that he "antagonized" China. Slate had its usual awful coverage of Taiwan, where it reiterated Beijing talking points with little context and openly calling it "a bad move". The Guardian did cover both sides, but made the anti-Taiwan side sound far scarier - "destabilizing", "didn't understand", "winging it". That's just a sampling - you can read more about this problem here. And here. 

Imagine that you are a typical Western liberal. You skim one or two news sites - in my case, usually The Guardian, but others as well. If something major is happening relating to Taiwan you click, and you are exposed to a litany of phrases like these:

"antagonizing China"
"China and Taiwan split in 1949..."
"has angered China"
"amid tensions with China"
"The Epoch Times / The Global Times / Xinhua said..." (with no similar quotes from the other side)
"President Xi has said..." (with no corresponding quotes from President Tsai)
"The two sides both claim to be the legitimate government of China" (technically correct but problematic)
"tensions mounted/rose/were caused"
"warmer relations under Ma Ying-jiu"
"relations have cooled since Tsai took office"
"Beijing regards Taiwan as a renegade province"
"not understand...the implications"
"island" (not country)
"eventually reunited with the Mainland"

This is not limited to the Tsai-Trump call - that's merely one example to illustrate a larger point. It's not only no surprise that some people I know - and many Western liberals generally - with no other connection to Taiwan often take the schizophrenic position that China is both not as scary as Taiwan thinks, as well as being scary enough that we must pursue peace in our time at all costs. A return to normalcy, if you will.

More broadly, there is widespread belief that if Taiwan makes any moves at all towards asserting the truth of its status - that is, a sovereign nation - the problem must always be Taiwan. For antagonizing China or destabilizing the situation which is why relations are frozen. 

Why would they think otherwise, though? This is what they read from sources they trust, and therefore this is what they believe.

That is to say, Western education on Taiwan or lack thereof, which I wrote about recently, is not the only problem. Into that void of accurate background knowledge swoops a media all too willing to play up China and dismiss Taiwan, largely unquestioned in part because of that dearth of education on Taiwan. Both of these factors work together to keep the wheels of liberal apathy on Taiwan grinding away.

What I'm trying to say - now in bold! - is that it seems obvious to us that Taiwan is a liberal cause. Democracy, human rights, sovereignty, self-determination, marriage equality, successful industrialization, gains in women's rights, all poised to be destroyed by a hostile, illiberal, undemocratic foreign power. A pro-Taiwan perspective ought to be catnip for Western liberals. 

However, when education on Taiwan is virtually non-existent, and everything above is what Western liberals are reading and generally believing, it is no surprise that we haven't won them over. If we want to win this fight, we have to flip the media script. Right now, we're losing. 

There are so many ways, in fact, that Western, liberal-approved media has failed Taiwan that I'd like to explore as much as I can before we all get bored and go home.

The media mostly presents Taiwan in an unflattering political light

Sometimes, everything is the End of Days. Everything will anger China, everything will set off World War III in the Taiwan Strait. One must ask, by the way, if that is how dire some perceive the cross-Strait situation to be, how is it that they can then turn around and pontificate on how this is the best situation for Taiwan, because it's the only way to ensure peace?

Even when Armageddon is not nigh, there is a clear tendency to be quick to accuse Taiwan of being a "troublemaker", or to imply that this is the case. Any tensions that are raised are the fault of Taiwan for doing exactly what every other sovereign nation does:  trying to sign trade agreements, insisting on its continued freedom, asking that it be allowed to participate - and its own name be used - in international events.

Those "tensions" which are not allegedly raised by Troublemaker Taiwan appear out of thin air, discussed in the passive voice, with no agent. They just are.

Of course, tensions don't appear out of nowhere: the times when they are not assigned to an actor are precisely the times when China is rattling its saber. When China makes destabilizing moves in the region, they are never to blame. 

The true threats are ignored

The thing is, there are serious, extant threats to Taiwan's existence and sovereignty. Thousands of missiles are pointed at us. The United Front is highly active, and the CCP is waging a war of disinformation (that is, "fake news", a concept Western liberals are all too familiar with) on Taiwan, and is quite open about its economic and cultural cooperation initiatives being about the greater goal of political unification. They support "fake civil society" in Taiwan. China routinely ignores previous agreements and treaties in both Taiwan and Hong Kong, engages in military exercises aimed specifically at threatening Taiwan, detains foreign nationals both within and outside its borders for crimes not committed in China, supports gangsters using violence against demonstrators with whom they disagree, and has never renounced the possibility of using force to annex Taiwan. 

These threats are real, and they are terrifying.

And yet, every time there are "tensions" in the Taiwan Strait, the issue is always something Taiwan has done to anger China. None of the real threats above get much airtime, if they get any. As for the real threats, how can one, for example, point to something as United Front work if one doesn't know the United Front exists, because nobody is reporting on it? How can one criticize the war of disinformation, fake civil society or even the missiles if they don't read about them in their favored publications?

No wonder readers think that China treats Taiwan relatively benignly, and therefore when Taiwan "antagonizes" China or does something "destabilizing", or causes relations to be "frozen", the problem might well seem to be Taiwan.

China's perspective gets prime real estate

In many cases, you'd think the media were just regurgitating CCP talking points (and in some cases, I am pretty sure they are doing exactly that). In this case, China's viewpoint is reported but unexamined (calling the Global Times what it is - a state-run tabloid - is insufficient). Here, it is reported in a larger context but yet again unexamined. 

If you were thinking critically, you would wonder why it is that everything the Taiwanese side says is picked apart - if it is reported at all - and yet Beijing gets free quotes without criticism. That is not journalism. It is not neutrality. That is regurgitation.

That nobody questions this is its own problem - why would they, though, when they lack the education on Taiwan to do so, and when the sources they read and other liberals they know are likely to be well-disposed to China, and when they haven't even necessarily come to understand the depths of China's propaganda machine?

The perspective of Taiwan is not included

The same courtesy is not given to Taiwan: the desires of or even known political data about Taiwan are routinely ignored.

It's as though the Taiwanese have no opinion - but of course they do. It's just not included. You might think, from reading the slapdash summaries of Taiwanese history, that the Taiwanese had no will for independence before the 21st century. But of course they did, as far back as the 19th. In one sincere but misleading and poorly-researched example, you might come to the conclusion that, as one friend put it, the Taiwanese had no opinion on anything before pop star Chou Tzu-yu was forced to apologize to China for the stupidest of reasons.

When Taiwan's perspective is included, the talking points covered generally reflect those of the KMT: that Taiwan is the Republic of China and should remain so, that Taiwanese are ultimately Chinese, and that there is "one China" with "different interpretations". When pro-independence sentiments are included, they are attributed solely to the DPP, and not to any portion of the population - as though it is an unpopular platform of a party that managed to win the presidency and legislature regardless.

With many Taiwanese considering Taiwan to already be independent, and even those who express support for the status quo ultimately favoring a solution that leads to independence - with pro-unification beliefs having only single-digit popularity - this is very misleading. The lay reader would be expected to think that the Taiwanese are far more divided on the independence issue than they actually are.

Only recently has this changed in a few places. Note here the language: "proudly democratic Taiwan has shown no interest in being governed by the Communist Party rulers in Beijing." An improvement to be sure, but the article itself, and so many like it, exist to report the views of China with very little space given to the Taiwanese rebuttal beyond this one sentence.

Information on Taiwan is inaccurate or misleading

I'll stick to one example here - the most common one.

The blurb about "Taiwan and China separating in 1949" is common, yet wrong. While the ROC fled to Taiwan in 1949, Taiwan could not have "split" from China in that time, as before 1945 it was a colony of Japan, and was not formally ceded by Japan until the early 1950s. You could make a case that the ROC controlled both Taiwan and China between 1945 and 1949, but even there it gets murky. Japan had not formally ceded Taiwan to the ROC, and in fact under international law the situation is still "unresolved". In terms of de facto control, they started losing it in China as they were consolidating it in Taiwan.

And, of course, the sentence itself is misleading.

Reading these articles, the typical engaged liberal who has no connection to Taiwan nor any need for a deep knowledge of Taiwanese history could not be blamed for thinking that the Japanese colonial era had never happened at all, and that Taiwan has always been Chinese in some way or another. I have met people who believe exactly this, and are surprised to learn otherwise.

This problem can be extended to include all manner of slipshod reporting, from the "1992 Consensus" (those who know what the term means often have no idea that it doesn't actually exist) to pro-Taiwan activists being labeled "anti-China".

In one memorable example, when questioned on word choice, one reporter allegedly said it was due to the "character limit" on his submissions. Of course, if you count the characters in "pro-Taiwan" and compare them to "anti-China", you'll find...


When you add that the incorrect assumptions readers often make about Taiwan - e.g. that it had previously been a part of China for some time - to the language employed refusing to recognize Taiwan as a country but rather an "island", using terms such as "reunify" and even "Mainland" (I do think "Mainland" is a term we need to consign to history), it's no wonder that the average reader of liberal-leaning news publications likely doesn't think that "reunification" is such a big deal, or is hesitant to confidently call it a sovereign nation, even though it is one. Doubling down with talk of "one country two systems" - until recently not a proposition whose viability was questioned in any depth, it was just taken as a potential solution - and the "consensus" on "One China", your average reader could easily be led to believe that there is no reason to believe Taiwan is not ultimately Chinese. 

Good writers on Taiwan aren't writing for the mainstream publications liberals read, and the best news on Taiwan is disseminated only in a small echo chamber

As a prolific writer on Taiwan affairs, I am partly to blame here.

I know Lao Ren Cha only reaches a small audience which mostly already knows Taiwan. Others have their blogs or publications, but let's be honest, as useful as Ketagalan Media, New Bloom, the Taipei TimesThe News Lens International and Taiwan Sentinel (and more) can be, these are not what mainstream liberals are reading. They are great places to write about domestic affairs and local issues. Sometimes, however, I wonder if we - myself included - write in these places to make ourselves feel better, rather than to actually reach that audience in the West.

Yet this is where we are writing, as we watch the Party apparatchiks, Fifty Cent trolls, well-meaning people who don't know what they're talking about, non-specialists who don't actually know Taiwan and various aspects of the United Front churn out piece after piece of drivel which is often accepted for publication.

Even when we branch out to The Diplomat, The Nation and The National Interest, again, this is not where the mainstream is.

How are we going to get our message out if we're not writing in where the people we want to reach are reading?

That's on us and it's time we did something about it.

Journalists and editors don't know what they're talking about

The first is that the reporters are often not experts: it creates a feedback loop of non-experts fact-checking against other media in which reports are filed by other non-experts, edited by editors who are not experts either, so nobody catches the inaccuracies. Major media outlets employ fact-checkers, but they're not particularly useful when they, too, are not experts and therefore are willing to default to the norm. When inaccuracies are pointed out, if anyone cares to make changes, a truly accurate picture of Taiwanese issues still seems to elude the media: they present China as more sympathetic than its aggression merits out of a desire to be "even-handed", not realizing that purported objectivity means nothing if it leads to incorrect narratives.

Then the readers read it, and believe it because the media source itself is reputable, without considering that maybe a part of why they are willing to believe what they read has a lot to do with the Gell-Mann Effect. To them, the journalist writing knows more - perhaps not considering that the journalist in question is still not an ideal source. 

There have been quite a few casualties of this approach: nobody in the media questioned "one country two systems" as a viable framework until recently because nobody else in the industry did, either. Claims that Taiwan-China cooperation was merely economic, or that it was unquestionably a good thing for both sides were taken at face value, because nobody else was reporting on China's very open statements about how every agreement they sign with Taiwan is meant to further an agenda of annexation. The term "reunification" is still not questioned.

Reporters who do know quite a bit about China are often assigned articles on Taiwan, as though their expertise covers both countries (it doesn't). These reporters tend to be stationed in China - if they fly in from Beijing or Shanghai at all, they are here briefly, and never fully capture what's going on. 

This is easy for me to say, but the China experts the media often assumes can write about Taiwan choke on the words.

Reading these reports, someone without background knowledge would not realize that China is threatening Taiwan militarily, that it actively interferes in Taiwan's attempts to form relationships with other countries, or that it is quite open about its "economic cooperation" initiatives having the ultimate goal of annexation. They would see China as an ever-patient world power, indulging troublemaker Taiwan because it can afford to do so.

Journalists and editors are too kind to China

Many of the reporters I criticize above seem predisposed to China - they often choose to live there, and have their own reasons for being interested in the country. Some might be "Old China Hands". They perhaps portray it overly sympathetically for the same reasons why we are more forgiving of our friends' flaws than those of strangers, or perhaps defensively, not wanting to criticize a place they care about. It's a human trait. Then they defend their kind-to-a-dictatorship portrayals as "evenhanded", because they're not rushing to denounce the regime. This is seen as taking a multi-faceted view of a "complex" country.

China is indeed complex, and its issues multi-facted, but when it comes to Taiwan, the story is quite simple: Taiwan is a currently sovereign democracy and wishes to remain that way. China is a dictatorship that insists this not be allowed, yet the current government of China has never controlled Taiwan. Period.

As for editors, despite foreign media banned from publishing in China, many are afraid to anger Beijing for fear of their reporters losing their press credentials, being deported or even detained. And they, too, seem well-disposed to China. Perhaps to many of them, in their offices in the West, China is a "fascinating" foreign country, with an unfortunate government perhaps but ultimately reducible to panda bears, pagodas, temples and qipao dresses. I get it - we liberals love the idea of "respecting foreign cultures", and that is usually a noble and meaningful goal. However, when that idealism interferes with reporting on facts because it's discomfiting to publish pointed criticisms at a foreign culture, we have a problem.

It's difficult to criticize reputable media

Everything else here is fixable, although it will be difficult. I want to end, however, with the one thing I don't know how to fix: the way one comes across to liberals when one criticizes mainstream media, especially media that they personally trust.

In the aftermath of the American election, a huge chunk of our discourse in the West turned its head down and looked right into its own navel.

In the ensuing discussion of Fake News and what it means to trust reputable sources rather than, well, any old website that lacks credibility, proven fact-checking or clear sourcing, all of the liberal favorites I mentioned above came out on top among that particular cohort. It was cool again to trust the New York Times or the Washington Post. You could put your faith in The Guardian or even the BBC.

Of course, the right-wing shot back, calling these sites the "true" Fake News.

I would generally agree with all of this, and I, too, like reputable news sites that have built up credibility and employ known fact-checking and journalistic ethics. I read these sources as well.

However, one casualty of this narrative is that pointed criticism of these mainstream liberal favorites make one sound exactly like the "New York Times is FaKe nEwZ!"-screaming zombies we deplore. Of course I am not trying to say the whole paper is "fake news", just that their reporting on Taiwan is misleading, incomplete or inaccurate. But that's how it reads, especially when we point to a larger problem rather than a single article (and even pointing to a single article is hard, because every other problematic article agrees with it, meaning you can't win).

Even pointing out, to end this at the Tsai-Trump phone call where we began, that perhaps in this one particular case Trump's action was - gasp! - not so bad, perhaps even something that a Western leader should have done a long time ago, makes one sound like a Trump apologist, if not a Trump supporter or someone who thinks Trump can be trusted. Of course I'm not - we're not - but it feels as though the bar for being accepted as a Good Liberal is set at hating every single thing Trump does.

I do hate every single other thing he does, but I simply cannot let go of the fact that on Taiwan, when he picked up that phone, he was doing exactly what I had been wanting a Western leader to do for some time. Did I trust the person doing it to be him? No. Absolutely not, never, forevermore my answer is no. I cannot ignore, however, that no other Western leader would have done it, including the ones I would have trusted to take that phone call.

We can try to correct the media. We can try to get our own work out there. We can write in. We can rebut. We can try to make the media better, and we can try to improve education on Taiwan in the West with what little class time we have.

But this? I don't know how to fix this.