Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Xi Jinping is probably a terrible parent, given the way he treats Taiwan

Another day, another repetition of China's old line that if Taiwan would just agree to unify with China, that their rights would be assured under the "one country two systems" framework.

The article is strong, and includes analysis from experts who mostly actually seem to know what they are talking about. It avoids the incorrect use of "reunification", which not many reports on the issue do. It's clear that a.) Taiwanese are not likely to ever embrace unification (meaning that if it ever happens, it will be annexation, not unification); b.) things aren't great in Hong Kong; and c.) that Taiwan has "everything to lose and nothing to gain" from unification with China.

There are a few flaws, such as not dissecting Jeanne-Pierre Cabestan's assertion that Beijing's offered "reward" is "sweeter" than previous offers when in fact it's just the same old crap, and using the phrase "tensions could rise" rather than clearly identifying China as the source of tensions. But, it's good work overall and I don't want to dwell on these small nitpicks.

Instead, seeing as Xi Dada routinely treats Taiwan as a recalcitrant child (Taiwan is not China's child, but this is how he sees it), I have to wonder what kind of Dad he is exactly. Does he treat his own kid this way?

I can only imagine that conversations in the Xi household go something like this: 

Xi Dada: "Honey, come give your Dad a foot rub."

Formosa: "Ew. No. That's gross, you're gross, your feet smell and I'm not going to do it."

Xi Dada: "Come on, don't you want to give me a foot rub?"

Formosa: "I literally just said I don't want to do that."

Xi Dada: "If you give me a foot rub, I'll let you take out the garbage!"

Formosa: "Um, I don't want to take out the garbage or rub your feet. I especially don't want to rub your feet so that I can take out the garbage."

Xi Dada: "Oh, honey, but...if you give me a foot rub, you can take out the garbage! Won't that be great?"

Formosa: "Did you not hear me say two seconds ago that I don't want to take out the garbage?"

Xi Jinping: "If you take out the garbage, you can take out your own garbage with my garbage."

Formosa: "I only have a little garbage. I can take it out myself. You have a ton of garbage. I would be totally buried in it. That's disgusting and I said no."

Xi Jinping: "But honey...don't you want to take out the garbage? You can do that if you rub my feet!"

Formosa: "For the last fucking time, I don't want to give you a foot rub, and I don't want to take out the garbage, so why would I agree to give you a foot rub so I can do another thing I don't want to do?"

Xi Jinping: "Why are you so difficult? This is a wound on our family! It's a matter of family pride that we all agree on."

Formosa: "I don't agree with that and never really said I did."

Xi Jinping: "You used to say that!"

Formosa: "Back when I was forced to. Now I'm not. I never actually believed it and you know that. To be frank, I'm not even sure you're my real Dad."

Xi Jinping: "But I'm offering you so much! I keep sweetening the deal and you keep turning me down!"

Formosa: "What makes it sweeter?"

Xi Jinping: "If you give me a footrub, you can...take out...the...garbage!"

Formosa: "That's not sweeter, that's the same thing you offered me before and it's terrible."

Xi Jinping: "Your cousin gave me a foot rub and took out the garbage and he loves it!"

Formosa: "No he doesn't! You forced him to give you a foot rub and take out the garbage and now he smells like your feet and is covered in garbage!"

Xi Jinping: "That's not true."

Cousin Hong Kong: "That's true."

Xi Jinping: "This is a wound to our family pride!" 

International Media: "Oh no! Tensions the China household!"

Formosa: "Um, I just live nearby and I don't know why this jackass says he's my 'Dad', so - - "

International Media: "Shhh!" 

Xi Dada: "A WOUND ON OUR FAMILY PRIDE!! We as a family can never be truly happy until Formosa rubs my feet and gets her reward of taking out the garbage! That's what everyone wants!"

Formosa: "No, it's not what anyone but you - - oh whatever. I'm not going to do it but I'm done telling you why."

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Why Chinese government spying is the scariest sort: an explainer

I'm in the US for the holidays, and a segment came on some silly morning show (they're all silly) about how China is "revolutionizing" shopping and payment through cell phone payment apps at a far higher rate than the US. Or, as the silly hosts of this silly program described it, "China is decades ahead of the US in shopping technology".

And I made a remark about how that's actually terrifying, because the Chinese government watches essentially everything you do on your cell phone in China, and can and will use it against you. They don't even try to hide it. That everyone I know who is knowledgeable about cybersecurity in any way uses a second dummy cell in China for all of the apps there that come packaged with nasty spyware.

The person I was watching the program with looked duly horrified - after all, the silly segment by that silly host on that silly TV show was making China out to be this amazing technological wonderland of the future (the tone was similar the one taken in this article, but if anything less critical). What I was saying was totally at odds with that.

She came back with "you know, I'm sure the US government does that too, we just don't know about it."

Sure. I mean...kinda. But it's not at all the same thing. I don't blame her for her reaction, by the way - when your exposure to current affairs in China comes entirely from Western media, and mostly Western media that is uncritical about China but highly critical of domestic affairs, interspersed with ads for Shen Yun (with no context whatsoever pointing out that a.) the Chinese government hates them, which is great but also b.) that they are owned by a wealthy cult-like religious organization which is not great), then this would be your natural reaction.

But there is a world of difference, and it's important to know why.

I'm going to come at this from a non-expert, non-academic, non-technical point of view. If you want detailed, professional analysis go somewhere else. I've noticed, however, that the average non-expert finds these issues too dense and daunting and typically doesn't read or fully understand them. Hell, I can't claim to fully understand them (this, for example, is barely readable to me despite being highly important). Instead, I'm hoping to tackle this in a way that helps the average reader comprehend what is so terrifying about China's government surveillance, in particular.

"But the US government does the same thing!" 

This is an issue in that the US government does have some unsettling rights to surveillance and data under the Patriot Act. I don't like it either, and I've had it and other surveillance programs affect me three times that I know of, including having to sign something that allowed the US government to monitor one of my bank accounts in Taiwan, and being unable to open a new IRA in the US.

So, yes, it's creepy and horrible. Please don't categorize me as a defender of the actions of the US government.

But. But! This is really not on the same level as what the Chinese government does.

For reasons explained below, it's doubtful that the US government is directly intervening in what private businesses do, forcing them to put spyware into their devices or app/online offerings. They're not using what data they do collect in the same way as China, and while maddeningly opaque and bureaucratic, the very fact that the US is a democracy with certain freedoms of expression and information means it is still more transparent than China.

Oh yeah, and say what you will about who is watching what you do online, but the US government isn't going to disappear you because you said something online that they don't like. Even if you make suspicious purchases or phone calls, or visit certain sites, you might find yourself detained or questioned, but you won't be disappeared in an unmarked van.

No, you won't. Don't give me any conspiracy theory nonsense. But in China this is a real thing

"The US government could just be putting spyware in our phones too!" 

Maybe. Somehow, though, I doubt it.

As far as I'm aware, the US government doesn't "own" (or have some sort of control over) the various tech companies that make our stuff. The US government can't tell Apple, Google, Paypal, Venmo etc. what to do the way the CCP can tell Huawei, Xiaomi, ZTE, Baidu and Alipay what to do. It's an open secret - if it's a secret at all - that Communist Party members and officials have a controlling stake in those Chinese companies and they almost certainly do have those companies install spyware and other backdoor access to data in their products.

It is not clear at all that the US has the same thing, and I doubt they do.

The US media, for all we deservedly criticize it, is pretty good at rooting out this stuff, investigating it and exposing it in detail. We know that Donald Trump committed tax fraud thanks to an in-depth investigation by the the New York Times, to give just one example.

If the US government were ordering Apple to install spyware into their phones, or ordering Google to have government spyware installed on everyone's phone with every download of the Chrome app, while those companies would certainly not be transparent about it (seeing as they're not transparent about much), it would still likely break in the media eventually. Criticize it all you want - I do! Push the media to be better. But it's a lot better and a lot freer than in many places, including China.

If anything, you should be scared that the Chinese government, not the American government, is putting some scary things into products by non-Chinese companies. Though it's perhaps less likely as they don't actually control these companies, most of the production takes place in China and some of the components of these products are designed/produced by Chinese companies, so it's still a real possibility.

"But the US monitors our financial transactions and punishes us too, through credit scores!" 

I don't care for credit score companies either. I understand why some institutions would want a heads-up as to how well or poorly you are likely to be able to pay your bills from them, but the way scores are calculated is not nearly as transparent as it needs to be, and in some ways is unfair.

However, most developed countries have some form of credit score system, and the effects are not as far-reaching.

In China, the social credit system being developed will operate on such a greater scale than any credit scoring system that the two can't be seriously compared. A bad credit score might make it hard to get a credit card or loan (or, if it's bad enough, a bank account), and you may be denied a visa to go abroad by that country's embassy, but it won't stop you from buying flight or train tickets or from getting a passport. China eventually willEven articles trying to downplay the threat are unconvincing. It is very real, and it's the outcomes, not the details, that matter.

Even if the US government is spying on us in the same way and to the same degree that the Chinese government spies on their citizens (and, possibly, us) - which they almost certainly are not -  a system designed to force you to be a "good citizen" is not the outcome and nobody is talking seriously about building one.

If that were to change (and in the Trump era, who knows?) we still have ways of fighting back that Chinese citizens do not. We can still speak openly about it. Journalists can investigate and publish stories. If nobody will publish your story you can publish it yourself (and who knows, you might go viral or at least show up in search results). We can file lawsuits against the government. We can vote the bastards out of office. We can push for better legislation. We can take to the streets. We can fundraise for a series of legal moves, lobbying and awareness campaigns that aim to change the way things are. It's hard to do, but it is possible and, most importantly, all of this is legal.

In China, none of it is. In China, you have no recourse. You can't protest, you can't sue, you can't raise money for these causes, you can't easily investigate (nothing is transparent enough for you to be able to do so - there is no Freedom of Information Act), and you can't vote in any meaningful way.

Also, in the US, it is still possible to exist (though with difficulty) without giving the government access to a lot of your data. You don't need to use any apps that you don't want to, and you can still (mostly) pay in cash for things. In China, I hear time and time again that it is impossible to keep in touch with people without WeChat (a social media app that definitely funnels information to the government, and every expert I know says likely comes packaged with all sorts of spyware quietly downloaded on your phone) or Weibo (same). You can't hail a taxi without a WeChat-related app, and may not even be able to buy anything at department stores or go out to eat.

It's becoming impossible to pay for things in China without some sort of phone payment app like WeChat Pay or Alipay. Taxis will upcharge you to an insane degree, and some places won't take cash at all. You can't function in China without signing up for these payment apps, meaning you cannot exist somewhat anonymously in even the simplest ways. In the US, you still can.

"But Facebook and Google collect our data too!" 

They do, and that sucks. And the data seems to be mostly used for selling ads. Even though, if I have to see ads, I'd rather see ones that might interest me, I don't really want companies to refine how well they can target me to convince me to spend my money through psychological means that I often find deceptive. That said, I can and do ignore them. It is possible to not buy. You can not pay attention to ads or fake news targeted at you (another way that our data was problematically used). You can ignore memes (I do), check sources (I do), and think critically about what you are reading and seeing, where it comes from and why it appeared on your news feed or in your search results. I do.

That data is not being handed to an autocratic government (the US has many flaws, but it is not an authoritarian state. China is) to build a massive social credit system that you can't opt out of and that you can't ignore the way you can a shitty ad or lizard-brain meme. You can choose not to use any apps you don't trust in the US, and you can choose not to believe or pay attention to dodgy things targeted at you.

And we know that data is not being handed over for the same purposes, and we know the US government doesn't control these companies, because if it were, there would be no reason for Google or Facebook executives to testify before Congress.

You don't have any of those options in China, and there is no need (from the government's perspective) for either testimony or transparency. You know why.

"If you have nothing to hide, then you have no reason to fear!" 

Yeah okay um...who determines whether you have nothing to hide? You, or the horrible government that is monitoring you? Who decides if you've done nothing wrong - them or you?

Do you really trust them to agree with you that you have done nothing wrong? All the time?

What happens when you do have a complaint with the government? A legitimate complaint that is nonetheless not allowed? What if your complaint is that they disappeared your daughter, forced you to have an abortion, or expropriated your house without compensation? What if you took a trip to Taiwan and realized that the situation there was completely different from what you'd always been told, and simply wanted to say that honestly? What if you had an 'undesirable' friend who was not a model citizen like you, but you'd known them since childhood, cared about them and knew them to be a good person? What if the only way to boost your own social credit score was to disavow this friend? What if that person wasn't your friend but your brother, or mother? What if merely calling that person from your compromised phone put them in danger?

Even if you'd been a model citizen up to that point, what happens when suddenly you are faced with this choice?

Don't even get me started with "I have nothing to hide."

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Drinking in Taiwan's beer cafes: my latest for Taiwan Scene

I'm in Taiwan Scene writing about expat lives old and new, how the beer and food scene in Taiwan has changed, and what's on offer today from the viewpoint of someone who came to Taiwan long before such options existed. And, of course, drinking lots of (local) beer. Enjoy!

Sorry Kaohsiung, but Barcelona you ain't

The view from the British Consulate at Takao
You're a pretty city, Kaohsiung, and I enjoy visiting you, but you can't justify a tourism tax

So, Big Uncle Dirk Han Kuo-yu is talking about introducing a foreign tourism tax in Kaohsiung. As Taiwan News reported (yes, Taiwan News does report things), the tax would be aimed at foreign tourists, not domestic ones, charging (for example) NT$100/day, typically payable at hotels.

In this way, the plan is modeled on city taxes currently in place in several European cities which are also popular tourist destinations. This year alone, I paid tourism taxes in Lisbon, Porto, Rome and Siena (and may have paid one in Milan; I don't remember.) The taxes in Europe range from €1 (or less) to as much as €3 per day.

With that in mind, Kaohsiung's proposed tax would be at the high end even for major European destinations. Rome, for example, was €3/day. NT$100 is about US$3/day.

I have a few issues with this. I'm not against tourism taxes generally - the infrastructure of many major European cities has to support not only residents but visitors. Despite the adage that "if you want less of something, tax it; if you want more of something, subsidize it", the taxes are low enough that they are unlikely to deter tourists, especially those who've traveled a long way.

That said, such taxes are usually levied in places where tourism is already strong. Dirky-doo wants to 'prioritise tourism' which doesn't seem to be particularly strong in Kaohsiung (some discussion of numbers found below). The effect won't be brushed off as a minor fee, as it generally is in other places where tourism numbers are already massive. It will deter tourists, not promote them. How exactly are these two policies meant to align? Or, perhaps Big Uncle Dirk is full of crap and always has been, and it doesn't matter if his ideas make no sense jointly or severally?

It makes sense that, in addition to bolstering the economy through spending on their visit, that tourists should also contribute directly to the local government for the purpose of maintaining the infrastructure that they themselves strain. How much of this money actually goes to this, however, is not at all clear. For example, this explainer of where Penang's tourist taxes go doesn't look at all as though they do anything useful. I wouldn't want my money going to some committee organizing useless conferences and chartering flights from Wuhan. Some discussions of tourism tax have the revenue going into general government operational funds - also not a strong sell to tourists wondering why they're paying out.

But let's be honest here. It doesn't seem to me that Kaohsiung is a city whose infrastructure is unduly strained by the number of tourists who visit. If anything, tourism numbers there are...okay, but flagging, though the data is a bit outdated here. You can find some more numbers in the various tables here - they're national statistics, not Kaohsiung-specific, and relevant data is spread across several spreadsheets.

But these national numbers for Taiwan can be compared to, say, the number of tourists going to Barcelona, Spain alone (one city - not even all of Spain, let alone all of Europe). Barcelona is a good example as it's a city which is increasingly suffering from a glut of tourists it can't handle, and which locals increasingly don't want to handle. (Barcelona's tourism tax is variable based on the accommodation chosen).

I know you do get tourists, Kaohsiung. But I'm sorry, you are not Barcelona.

Kaohsiung, honey, you don't have massive infrastructure or overcrowding issues the way European cities do. Your public transit system is finally turning a profit (which I'm not even sure public transit needs to do, but isn't a bad thing.) There aren't hordes of foreigners crowding your streets or causing environmental damage. You don't need the money for the same reasons that European cities do.

What's more, I don't really think Kaohsiung has the draws that these other cities do. While its architectural heritage interests me, it's not exactly mind-blowing to your average international visitor. There's no Roman Forum, Sagrada Familia or even Jeronimos Monastery or Sao Jorge castle in Kaohsiung. The city has gotten brighter and lovelier over the years (so Big Uncle Dirk campaigning on it being a dingy old city run into the ground by the DPP is especially offensive to me in how deliberately wrong it is) but it just isn't the sort of wow-bang-sparkle destination that can justify something like a tourism tax.

In fact, it's a really quick way to convince tourists to go to other parts of Taiwan. Most international visitors to Taiwan are Asian, and they don't necessarily have the spending money that tourists to Europe do (the Asians with heaps of cash head west), or if they do, they'll save that for their trip to Rome, not their trip to Kaohsiung.

And, of course, it also leads to a few other questions.

First, how would visitors from China be treated? In the statistical links above, you can see that they are treated separately from other foreign arrivals. Yet they are the biggest group of non-domestic tourists by a very wide margin, so not taxing them would basically invalidate the whole point of the tourism tax to begin with. Dirk is an unabashed unificationist dressed in a populist's clothing and, although I'm speculating here, probably conflates "promoting tourism" with "promoting Chinese tourism", which is apparent given his desire to increase flight connections to China (ignore the dumb headline). I would not at all be surprised if he declared that visitors from China were "domestic" and therefore not subject to the fee.

Second, most other "foreign" visitors to Kaohsiung actually live in other cities in Taiwan, like me, and most visitors overall to the city are domestic (source: see Focus Taiwan link above). Although Big Uncle Dirk says domestic tourists wouldn't be included (which is not the norm in Europe, where all visitors pay as it's essentially a hotel occupancy tax). I have to wonder whether foreign residents, who are technically domestic tourists, would be similarly exempt. I know that if I found out I'd have to pay this tax because I don't look like a domestic tourist...well, see how fast I would not visit Kaohsiung, just on principle (or I'd stay with my friend in Dashe, even though that's a bit far from the city.)

Yes, tourism has a lot of indirect economic benefits; some will say that these are sufficient and it's unnecessary to add a tax on top of what tourists already spend to be in a city. However, these benefits are variable and often have deleterious costs associated with them (same link), are often not much at all if a large number of tourists are on a shoestring budget (say, gap year kids in Thailand or people on cut-rate Chinese group tours). There are also a number of disadvantages including exploitation of local labor and environmental effects, and most tourism dollars appear not to stay in the local economy (ignore the jingoistic headline). This makes sense; for example, in developing countries, labor costs are low relative to what major hotel chains charge for rooms. Most of that money likely goes to the international conglomeration that owns the hotel, not the local economy that the hotel is in, though there may be other economic benefits.

But I don't see how any of it matters for Kaohsiung, a city whose main economic driver is not tourism, and a city which doesn't experience the worst effects of tourism (aside from some slight overcrowding at Shizhiwan and Cijing Island). Why do they need a tourism tax which will drive tourists away, won't be charged to the bulk of tourists because they're domestic, may not be charged to Chinese tourists, and therefore just causes annoyance without much benefit, and arising from no great need?

Friday, December 28, 2018

Taiwan needs to figure out how to treat foreigners better

It pains me to say it, but Taiwan has some deep discrepancies between the human rights ideals it claims to espouse, and how it treats not only its own citizens, but also those who come to Taiwan to study or work.

Instances of Taiwanese universities using the New Southbound Policy as basically a vector for scamming Southeast Asian students are starting to feel not like horrifying exceptions, but the norm. It's happened now with not just Sri Lankan students (news of which broke just months ago) but Indonesian ones as well, at more than a handful of universities.

These universities take government subsidies meant to help them attract students from Southeast Asia, and then use them to pay brokers to bring students over. These students are then assigned jobs in factories, and attend class only a few days a week, if at all. These factory jobs are called "internships", but they aren't learning opportunities - they are basic blue-collar work - and they aren't even allowed for first-year students, and certainly shouldn't be taking up most of one's week, as work is limited to 20 hours/week for foreign students here.

These are scams aimed at getting free labor - or even labor that has paid to be there, as some of these students are paying tuition to do this. They are violations of human rights.

Taiwanese people would not accept this happening to their own citizens, so it disgusts me that it seems to happen so easily to foreigners.

The "university" system here isn't the only vector for abuse - how domestic workers (who are predominantly female) and fishing boat workers (predominantly male) are treated, not to mention regular factory workers, is obscene. 

Taiwan is trying to take a big step forward by reducing its economic dependence on China through re-invigorating ties with Southeast Asia through the New Southbound Policy. But the high-minded ideas of the central government just aren't trickling down to those meant to actually implement it through outreach (including businesses, employers and universities).

Attempting to take advantage of a government policy aimed at improving the country to line one's own pockets is not unique to foreign residents or the New Southbound Policy (certainly this happens in the domestic sphere as well - just ask how property developers circumvent the "green space" law by giving politicians reduced-price apartments they can flip and profit from, or how some local politicians take advantage of local charities). However, I can't help but think in this case, there's an element of racism at play.

If this were happening to Taiwanese, the outcry would be swift and condemning. Instead, the government "will conduct an investigation" (hardly decisive action they need to be taking). This after it's obvious that those in government who set up the programs with universities - if they can even be called that - knew how likely it was that they would try to take advantage of both the government and the foreign students. If they weren't aware of this possibility, they wouldn't have talked to the university presidents in person and warned them off doing exactly this. 

Initiatives like the New Southbound Policy aren't going to work if the people in charge of actually implementing various initiatives are using them merely to take advantage of Southeast Asian people. They're not stupid, guys. They know that there's a lot of racism against Southeast Asians here. They know that these scams exist. They know that they can't necessarily trust these programs. And neither the people nor the governments there are going to stand for it. They are already angry.

I'll say it again: if Taiwan continues to be known for treating Southeast Asians badly, and is seen as using the New Southbound Policy for their own enrichment with little concern for the effect on Southeast Asian people or economies, it's not going to work. The New Southbound Policy will fail, and we'll be stuck with a choice between China strangling our democracy or our economy - exactly the thing we seek to avoid. 

One of the things that has really impressed me about Taiwan is how this country consistently pushes itself to live up to its purported ideals: democracy, freedom, human rights. It's not that other countries don't do that, but Taiwan seems (to me anyway) to make more progress more quickly than other parts of Asia, and the struggle just seems more visible here (and more accessible in terms of being connected or understanding, on a personal level, the bleeding edge of the push for social change.)

But we have to admit that Taiwan, as much as it may be a place one can love deeply and make a commitment to, is far from perfect. That's true not just in terms of how it treats its own citizens, but how it treats foreigners here. It has ideals, but as things stand right now, it simply doesn't live up to them. 

Monday, December 24, 2018

"Naturally independent" doesn't mean what it should

Screen Shot 2018-12-24 at 6.58.14 AM

So, I'm meant to be on vacation after a long slog to finish a huge paper - that's why Lao Ren Cha has been quiet for most of November and December - but I really just feel like writing this.

Much of this idea has been bouncing around in my head for awhile, although it really came together through a conversation over mediocre stir-fry and all you can drink beer with Frozen Garlic. So I'm not sure where my thoughts end and his begin, but then, that's also the beauty of political discussion.

When I heard the occasional cry of "the Sunflower Movement is dead!" after the election last month, at first I felt annoyed. Was it really? Perhaps the massive groundswell of broad support that progressive causes seemed to suddenly be capable of garnering was ephemeral, but the movement itself, to me, lived on. Although the Sunflowers embodied a strong anti-KMT sentiment, one can't really judge the staying power of the Sunflower ethos by whether or not DPP wins elections. The Sunflower Movement may have been an anti-KMT movement, but it wasn't a pro-DPP one.

In any case, a lot of other progressive causes whose mainstream debate blossomed post-2014 have also been pushed forward, though perhaps not as far as we'd hoped. In fact, I noted a number of "Fuck The Government" and other Sunflower-inspired sartorial choices among the marriage equality crowds, creating a tangible visual connection between the two movements.

But...I'm beginning to see the ways it might be true that the 2014 light is dimming, and the shadows of Taiwan's pre-2014 problems growing longer once again, and I know there is some sentiment in activist circles that their efforts have not borne fruit as they'd wished.

Probably one of the key shifts in 2014 was an uptick in the prominence of a "naturally independent" mindset (which the Sunflowers themselves certainly embodied, but it runs deeper than them). That is, the generation of Taiwanese youth, some now well into adulthood, who grew up in the post-authoritarian era and who perceive Taiwanese independence to be so obvious that it is not even a matter of debate.

That hasn't changed; "naturally independent" sentiments remain strong in 2018. But it seemed clear in 2014 that such a mindset included the understanding that if Taiwan was going to be independent, that it would have to reckon not with the relationship it wished it had with China, but with the one it actually had. ECFA and CSSTA were both predicated on the assumption of a safe, fair, unthreatening relationship with a large neighbor state that bore no ill will, and could therefore be negotiated with. It took the Sunflowers to wake the rest of the country up to how untrue these assumptions were, and how threatening China really was. They taught us that the only way to win a game with China is not to play (whether it be word games or economic agreements).

I - and many others, including the friend I had this conversation with - had hoped that people would continue to consider all possible dealings with China through this lens, and wisely choose not to play their game. As I've written, for a brief glimmer of a moment, society at large seemed to understand this.

Sadly, that time seems to have passed. Instead, "naturally independent" seems to once again mean that, because Taiwan is obviously independent, that it can have a relationship with China on its terms. That as it is a normal sovereign state, it can negotiate with China as one.

To take that further, this mindset that China's designs on Taiwan don't matter often translates into a belief that political parties also don't matter because "they're both pretty bad" so "we may as well choose the one who says they can kickstart the economy".

Nevermind that the latter party advocates playing China's game, and sees Taiwan's ultimate fate as being Chinese. That's not important apparently, because "that will never happen, of course Taiwan is independent, we just need to do something about the economy"...I guess? It is so clear to this group of "naturally independent" people that either sliding into an economically dependent death spiral (which is China's real plan) or violent forcible annexation (that'd be China's back-up plan if the death spiral thing doesn't pan out) are unthinkable and therefore...there is no need to think about them. Sadly, they are wrong.

When you slide back into that sort of complacency, electing mayors who openly support (and believe in the existence of) the so-called 1992 Consensus, who are eager to set up cross-strait inter-city ties in defiance of the national government's more restrained China policy, who claim they will "do deals even with North Korea!" like Big Uncle Dirk Han Kuo-yu, to basically think that the KMT's pro-China policy isn't worth considering because it doesn't matter...that's an easy slide further into playing China's game again. That we will never win this game seems to be viewed as irrelevant.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are also the "naturally independent" folks who are so pro-Taiwan that they are also abandoning the DPP, because they see any party that doesn't make a beeline for immediate de jure independence and promise to quickly dismantle the ROC on Taiwan in favor of a new Republic of Taiwan as a party that is "just as bad" as the KMT. While I'm sympathetic to this line of thinking - the ROC sucks! Mere de facto independence sucks too! Immediate Glorious Revolution would feel so good! - I don't think it's the best way to actually meet our goals in the long run, so I find this line of thinking dangerous. Like, "this is how you get President Trump" dangerous.
No matter what, these delusions about China spell trouble. A smart "naturally independent" mindset would acknowledge that Taiwan is very clearly a sovereign state, but also wisely understand that China is big and mean and nasty, and that it doesn't see Taiwan that way. That it's designs on Taiwan are evil, and its traps sticky. And that we have to negotiate with China as things are, not as we wish they were. Such a mindset would understand that there is no moral equivalence between the two parties: that just because one won't immediately flip the table on history, it doesn't mean they are no better than the other, which seeks eventual unification (with the former president even saying so).

Unfortunately, I worry that we're going to need another bloom of social activism in the vein of the White Lilies, the Wild Strawberries or the Sunflowers to get people to understand this again. Maybe the Sweet Osmanthus Movement, the Tung Blossom Movement, or the Betel Flower Movement or whatever floral movement comes next will finally push us to a lasting realization of what it means for Taiwan to truly pursue independence.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Chthonic performance in Hong Kong cancelled, showing again that authoritarians have bad taste in music

Sexy Legislator and Chthonic frontman Freddy Lim, performing at the Taipei pro-marriage equality rally on December 18th in support of three pro-LGBT referendums 

Hong Kong continues its unwilling slide into authoritarianism at the hands of China with the cancellation of a performance by Taiwanese black metal band and all-around great musical act Chthonic. There had been talk on Facebook by the band that it might perform without its frontman/vocalist, Freddy Lim, but even that plan seems to have been cancelled.

Update: apparently Freddy's visa was denied because he lacks "special skills" that are "not available in HKSAR". Freddy responded by saying he was "practicing cartwheels and backflips" (to be better qualified to work in Hong Kong).

This is obviously nonsense. Chthonic has performed in Hong Kong before; being denied now points to growing CCP influence there, not any 'lack of special skills'. I personally remember Hong Kong as being far more open just a few years ago. Since then, political parties not aligned with China have been targeted and banned, with activists and elected legislators from those parties jailed. While technically freedom of speech remains a right that Hong Kongers may enjoy, in practice that's no longer the case: remember all those bookstores that sold reading material banned in China, specifically books critical of the CCP and its top officials? Those are gone now (though you can still buy the books from street vendors).

It also points to the growing political clout of Chthonic frontman and sexy legislator Freddy Lim, who (according to the article above) was denied a visa to Hong Kong after becoming an elected member of the legislature through the New Power Party. Lim had been to Hong Kong before, as well.

And that brings me to my main point: authoritarians have crap taste in music. I'm sorry, they just do. Chthonic was denied because of what they stand for: they are very pro-independence, and their music is steeped in Taiwanese history and folklore. They don't even sing in Mandarin, and they stand for a number of progressive causes including marriage equality. This scares the CCP - no music that makes any sort of real political statement (Communist propaganda music...doesn't count as music) is terrifying to them.


But music - good music at least - is fundamentally political. It makes a statement, or at least stands for something. Good bands stand for something, even though that might not be evident in individual songs (for example, what Ani DiFranco stands for infuses all of her music, even her love songs which don't have anything directly to do with politics. You could say the same for Joni Mitchell or even groups not immediately identified with political music like The Talking Heads.)

Music under authoritarian regimes, however, can't ever stand for anything. Only - as a friend put it - "Canto-pop and Mando-slush" are acceptable in China. Context-free gunk about only the few topics that can be rendered apolitical - mostly love songs, and a few others including absolute nonsense music - can be allowed. They all sound kind of the same and they're so lightweight, they'd blow away in a light breeze. They tend to be earworms (that's how they hide their lyrical empty calories) but are also interchangeable and, to be frank, forgettable.

So, you wonder why "Mando-slush" all sounds kind of the same, with lyrics you could literally change out for anything because they just don't matter, it's not because people in Mandarin-speaking societies aren't good at creating music or are somehow culturally uncreative. I've heard that before and it's simply not true and frankly kind of racist. It's because in China, they risk their actual lives by being truly creative and writing songs that actually mean something. Outside of China, if they want to be allowed into the lucrative Chinese market, they have to churn out the same kind of tripe. Music with meaning will simply not be allowed in.

To be fair, people tell me that China, and especially Beijing, has a thriving underground hip-hop scene, and I guess I believe them? Maybe? But unless these underground artists are actively risking being 'disappeared' by the government, I can't imagine that what they sing stands for anything, either.

As such, I've noticed that the Taiwanese music I like tends to be banned in China, by artists who don't care if their music is allowed in the market there. They make music to make music, not primarily to make money. All the Taiwanese music I don't like - the love ballad gurgling, the motivational "you can do it!" crap that thinks it's edgy because there's an electric guitar played by a guy with spiky hair, the K-pop imitators, Jay Chou - is allowed in China, and hugely popular there. And it is, to be frank, terrible. All of it. (Yes, I know other people like that stuff. I don't care.)

To sum up, if an authoritarian government finds some music acceptable, that music is probably bad. At the very least, it's the tasteless, sugary white cake of music: unsatisfying, lacking basic nutrition, and will make you metaphorically corpulent and complacent if you consume too much of it.

So, it's no wonder that of all the music in a Chinese language which is popular internationally, Chthonic is one of the best-known outside Asia, for a niche market anyway.

News reports keep calling Chthonic a well-known band "in Asia", but I'd like to point out that, in the international black metal scene, they're quite well-known outside of Asia as well. Pretty much every black metal fan I know, even if they have no connection to Taiwan, knows Chthonic. All of them say the music is top-notch, and they transcend being a 'local act' by a very wide margin. They release English versions of all of their Taiwanese-language songs, Lim has held 'ask me anything'-style live interactive videos in English.

This is because Chthonic stands for something, and they put out genuinely good music because of it. Creativity and meaning are intertwined, and cannot be separated. Without meaning, art has no weight (which might just be why so much public art is forgettable, if not terrible - when you seek not to offend anyone, you inspire no-one). And that's why the same old love ballad recycled a hundred times with lyrics that you could just make up mockingly as you go along, with the parody indistinguishable from the original, will never find as much international acclaim.