Sunday, January 12, 2020

Taiwan not only rejected China tonight, it rejected populism and demagoguery - and the world should take note

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Yes, historic. It's historic because Tsai not only increased her tally (something previous incumbents have not done), but also netted a record number of total votes for any candidate in the history of Taiwanese elections. And historic because this is the first time the DPP has re-elected a majority in the legislature along with an incumbent presidential candidate.

But there is something else I hope the world will start saying: 



Also, can we please stop calling it "Chinese democracy" or "Confucian/Chinese/whatever values and democracy can mix" (both tweets I've seen tonight) and realize that the results clearly show a desire for the world to see that Taiwan doesn't see itself as Chinese, Taiwanese voters feel an affinity for their unique, Taiwanese culture, and maybe it's time the world listened.

In fact, while China did play a role, can this result please put the world on notice that Taiwan wants to be taken seriously on its own terms, as Taiwan, and media reporting about Taiwan should respect that and stop framing it always, always, always in terms of China? Taiwan is its own thing - its own place with its own culture and history - and that merits respect.

Finally, this election shows that the various causes and pushes for progressive values in Asia - Taiwan independence, marriage equality, Hong Kong self-determination - are all intertwined. You can see that simply by observing the people present outside DPP headquarters tonight. This is why liberals around the world should take note of Taiwan, and support it as they do Hong Kong. It's a different angle of the same fight.

That's really all I wanted to say. I hope the international media picks up on this idea and frames it as "Taiwan shows a better way, Taiwan shows we can defeat populism, divisiveness and disinformation. Taiwan shows that Trump-like figures do not always win."

Who wants to write that story?

Anyway, here are some photos. I'm off to the Maldives tomorrow so that's all you get from me. 







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Friday, January 10, 2020

Some words of calm and comfort on election eve

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On the eve of the election I have no new analysis, no specific insights - really I’m just a massive ball of anxiety. 

As my husband pointed out on Facebook, that’s because we all watched what happened with Trump and Brexit - especially Trump - and although Han is not Trump, he hits some of the same notes and it triggers something in our brain that terrifies us. Terrifying xenophobic populists have shown us around the world that they can get elected, but only Trump was not favored to win before he actually did. It doesn’t matter that this fear is probably unfounded - we’re not allowed to discuss polls at this point but we all know who is likely to be elected tomorrow. It’s something deep inside our lizard brains producing this anxiety...that things could go south, because they have before. 

My Taiwanese friends are also nervous. It’s hard not to be, even when the odds are in our favor.

It probably will be closer than we think. Sure, we all know what the numbers say, but older folks vote in greater numbers and that could skew results in Han’s favor. 

So I want to offer a few words of comfort, or at least try. As much to sooth my self as for you guys, my readers. 

First, let’s remember that if the election that produced Trump had happened under Taiwan’s system, Clinton would have won. The system, in that sense, works in our favor. 

Second, let’s remember that Clinton’s lead over Trump was more tenuous than...well, we’re not allowed to discuss the polls. Trump had a greater chance of winning even under the US’s jacked system than I think Han has in Taiwan. 

Third, it’s astounding to me how Tsai has in fact managed to unite a large swath of the electorate against Han (oh yeah, Han helped to do that to himself as well, and various international events haven’t helped him). I have friends and acquaintances who skew blue or blue-ish, who happily voted for Ma. Some of them even grudgingly voted for Chu, knowing he’d lose. Every last one of them (with one exception) can’t stand Han, and many are switching to Tsai. Some are simply not voting. They may not stay green forever, and this is anecdotal evidence, but it’s a promising thing to observe. She hasn’t united everyone, but I’m amazed at how she’s turned her public relations machine into a mechanism that actually works. What’s more, I’ve met hardly any young people who’ve been turned on by Han, but plenty of older folk who still support Tsai. Han may win the Auntie vote, but he’s not going to get all of them, and he’s going to get far fewer of the youth than he needs. 

I also have to remember that a lot of younger people are talking about how their conservative older relatives will vote. Again this is anecdotal, but the discussion seems to have more urgency and underlying it is a more direct, personal call to action. Watching Thursday’s Han rally solidified it: we’ll probably win but this won’t be an easy victory regardless of the numbers, and if we want to win, we’d better turn out in greater numbers. Han’s people may have thought that inflating the number of attendees for his rally (come on, there is no way 800,000 people showed up - we’re not stupid) would make him look good, but it probably had another effect too. That is, to remind his opponents that, as much as he seems like a joke, he isn’t one. Seeing all those ROC-flag-laden aunties on the MRT surely prodded some people on the fence about voting at all to hustle tomorrow.

In fact, reports indicate that Han has lost, not gained, momentum. It's hard to say given the polling blackout, but I don't think he's showing signs of pulling off an upset. 


It doesn't hurt that Tsai has actual experience and qualifications, and achievements to her name, and Han has none. She has platforms, he has rabble-rousing. That may not necessarily matter to the average Chen, but it doesn't hurt. Plus, while older folks may buy the ROC rah-rah, most Taiwanese simply don't. I hope they realize now and not later that they do not want the Taiwan that Han is promising them; they want the one that Tsai is actively building.

I figure, if the older folks will turn out no matter what, higher turnout overall benefits Tsai, as it means younger voters are casting ballots. And it looks - just from public transport and what people are saying, plus a fine weather forecast - that the turnout will be solid. 

Yes, it worries me that, despite all sorts of scandals doing Han real damage, from his luxury housing to his mistress to the Chinese spy case to the fact that Kaohsiungers just aren’t happy with him, he’s still not a joke. In response, there’s not a lot to throw at Tsai that actually sticks. They can say “the economy is bad” but it’s not. They can say she’s just another DPP chauvinist, but under her tenure the DPP has grown more diverse and inclusive, and shed a lot of the Hoklo chauvinism that characterized their earlier leadership. They can throw sexist attacks at her but I don’t think those will win over people who were already prepared to vote for her (although surely there are sexists who just can’t stand that she has the wrong genitals). 

It also worries me that the KMT seems to be taking a social conservative polarization approach in the countryside, which a lot of liberal-but-blue Taiwan urbanites are unaware of (if they fully understood what was going on, some of them might turn away from the KMT). It’s a clear attempt to win over traditionally DPP voters who do value Taiwan’s sovereignty but can be angered by “scary gay people” and promises of a “better” economy (even though the economy, again, is not bad) into voting against their natural allegiance. 

This is why it’s going to be closer than we think, and Han is no joke. 

On the other end, though, the DPP has managed to put forward some popular candidates, a few of whom are giving headaches to KMT candidates who thought they were safe. The KMT’s own actions recently - not just the party list debacle but the Alex Tsai scandal - have blunted its efforts to pull off an upset. And Taiwan tends to give its presidents - even ones with low approval - 8 years, though the country hasn’t been democratic long enough for that to be assured. (And yes, I am aware that politicians with high approval ratings, such as Chen Shui-bian as Taipei mayor, have gone on to lose). 

Speaking of Alex Tsai, nothing could make me happier than to watch the KMT’s absolutely hilarious amateur hour, as it attempted to tease the release of some last-minute surprise (probably what they believed would be a successful recanting by alleged Chinese spy and Australian asylum seeker Wang Li-qiang) only to have it blow up in their face spectacularly thanks to good reporting in the Australian media. Even KMT diehards I know quite literally spit when they hear Alex Tsai’s name. The diehard Han fans will still turn out for their cabbage man, but this may turn a few people away. 

And speaking of China not helping its own cause, I have to remember that the Beijing establishment tried its damnedest to quash the Hong Kong protest spirit, but pro-China lawmakers were crushed. There is video evidence of them paying elderly protesters to vote. Just because China is trying to interfere doesn’t mean they’ll succeed. 

But at the end of the day, while I am girding my loins in case I get kicked in the teeth again as I did with Trump, I do in fact believe that Tsai will win. 

At least, I need to remind myself of this. I need to keep recanting these points, over and over, to stay calm. 

You see, it’s not just another election where if the guy I don’t like wins, nothing too bad will happen. Considering the turn towards authoritarianism and populism that the world is taking, and China’s increasing threats and attempts to sabotage Taiwan’s democracy, I am not at all sure Taiwan, as the country I consider my home, will survive a Han administration intact. If it makes it through at all, it will be broken and tired, as the US is now. 

I do believe this is sort of a “last chance” for the world. After Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Modi and more (there are a few in Europe...in fact, the whole world is reeling), Taiwan has a chance to stand up to a Trump-like populist and say “this needs to end”. We can show the world that these people can be defeated. We must. It’ll get the world’s attention at least, and it’s vital for the country. 

So stay calm. If you can vote, do so. Am I confident? No - the 2016 US election taught me never to be confident of these things again. But I'm at the best place I can be. 

Chillin’ at the Freddy Lim rally

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Tsai, Freddy Lim and Lin Fei-fan - and I think that's Lai Pin-yu


Update: now with photos! 

I really admire people who have the stomach to attend rallies for the bad guys - I just can’t do it. As in, it directly affects my mental health and I stay away for my own well-being. Considering this, while everyone was reporting on the big Han rally last night, I went over to Freddy Lim’s rally outside Longshan Temple. 

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Lin Fei-fan takes the stage


First, I urge people not to compare these two rallies. Han’s big rally - which absolutely didn’t reach 700,000 people as they claim - was for a presidential candidate who organized attendees from all over the country (that’s not necessarily wrong, it’s just that it’s a national audience - though it’s worth noting that it seems to be the same people bussed everywhere). Lim is a legislative candidate, not a presidential one, and this was a local rally with local flavor. 


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A cute sign for Tsai
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The turnout was solid


In fact, if you compare Freddy’s rally a few weeks ago on the same Ketagalan Boulevard site as Han’s, you’ll note that a (mere) legislative candidate was able to fill the entire boulevard. A presidential candidate did that, and filled most (but not all) of the Jingfu Gate circle - if you look at pictures, there was still space to move around. That’s actually impressive...for Freddy. For Han, this turnout is good - at least it’s not embarrassing - but it actually compares poorly against Lim and Han’s own previous rallies.

How do I know it wasn’t 700,000? The Sunflowers claimed 500,000 - I’m not sure about that number, but whatever - and you couldn’t even approach Jingfu Gate. We were stuck way back by the National Concert Hall. 

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And people seemed genuinely excited for Tsai and Lim


In any case, I headed to Freddy’s rally. As I got off the MRT, I grabbed my Freddy flag - you’re not supposed to wave those on the MRT as political campaigning is banned there, but it was in the way of my keys and metro card - and asked a bunch of Han supporters in front of the door to please let me off the train. Two women carrying ROC/Han flags quite deliberately not only did not move (although there was space, or they could have stepped off the train briefly), but actively blocked me. One sort of arm-nudged her friend to be more in my way! 

I found this behavior extremely rude, especially as I made a particular effort to sound especially polite to them in the beginning. In the end I was unable to get around them, and had to push through. I gave them a sharp “RUDE!” in Chinese as I did. If this is what Han supporters are like, I’m happy to be on the other side. 

The rally itself had a lot more local flavor than the Chthonic concert on Ketagalan. This was surely deliberate strategy. That concert was for general support, and for the youth vote. This was for the uncles and aunties in his actual neighborhood. The music was very old-school Taiwanese, the speeches were full of piss and vinegar (though some were more exciting than others) and were conducted almost entirely in Taiwanese, with a little Mandarin peeking through. Smoke machines, disco lights, background music - this rally had it all. It was less polished than the previous one, and that was entirely intentional. 

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It was extremely crowded, a good turnout for a legislative candidate


The turnout was good - all seats were taken, plus a large standing crowd along the entire perimeter. Freddy goods - stickers, towels, keychains, t-shirts - sold at a good clip. Crucially, the turnout wasn’t just young people. In fact, I was in a sea of middle-aged and older folks who were all enthusiastic. That’s good news for Freddy, who needs this ‘older’ vote to keep Wanhua. These are the folks Lin Yu-fang could depend on, so it’s good to see that Freddy is netting at least some of them. Hopefully enough to win. The rally took up the entire length of Guangzhou Road outside the temple and towards the market at the far end, spilling onto the esplanade leading to the underground market entrance. I was hungry and thirsty, but there was absolutely no way to get to the Family Mart opposite. 


Speakers included legislative candidate Lai Ping-yu (known for her cosplay-inspired campaign), Premier Su Cheng-chang and his his signature raspy voice, DPP Deputy Secretary General and “guy in charge of mobilizing the youth” Lin Fei-fan, former Kaohsiung governor (now Vice Premier, yes? His roles seem to keep changing) Chen Chi-mai, Freddy Lim himself, and of course President Tsai. One of the musicians, who was very young, also spoke but I missed most of this as I was chatting with another young attendee. All of the folks who’ve been making the rounds speaking - Tsai, Lim, Lin - sounded a little hoarse. It’s been a long season. 

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Really, I couldn't even get to the Family Mart


The speeches themselves were better than one might expect. Lin Fei-fan is known for being a good speaker, and he broke out his Taiwanese more than he has in the past (it is one of his native languages but you don’t hear it from him that often, he’s more likely to do public speaking in Mandarin). The gist of his speech - the Mandarin parts I could follow - were that Taiwan and Hong Kong are concurrently locked in a battle against China, and we are not going to let Taiwan become the next Hong Kong. “We don’t yield, we don’t kneel, we don’t walk on our knees,” he said, and I thought that was just great. 

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Outside Longshan Temple



Towards the end he addressed some of the criticisms he’s received taking a position in the DPP, seeing as he’s so well-known for criticizing them. He said, “we know we haven’t done enough, we know we haven’t gone far enough, but we will, please give us a chance to do so” (not an exact translation). 

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Freddy's speech


Typically, “we’re not good enough, we know that and we’ll do better” is not a great campaign tactic, but there’s something very old-school Taiwanese politics (that whole humility game, though it’s often performative) about it, and he’s the right person to deliver that message considering the criticism he’s endured. 



To be honest, I couldn’t follow a lot of the other mostly-Taiwanese speeches, though I think Freddy’s focused a bit more on local issues than he typically has. Tsai’s (in Mandarin) was pretty clear: One Country Two Systems will never work, Taiwan can never give up its sovereignty, the China threat is real, etc. etc.  She did better than usual, speaking with more clarity and emotion and less detachedness, wonkishness and repetitive call-and-response. This was a somewhat enjoyable speech, far more so than the one she gave on Ketagalan at the previous Freddy rally.

In fact, people seemed genuinely excited to see her, and genuinely energized by her speech. That's a win. 

I think the size of the Han rally gave the speakers renewed passion, and pushed them to speak with energy and emotion (well, except Chen Chi-mai, who always sounds a little removed and dorky, but honestly, I like him.) I wouldn’t call it nervousness, but everyone’s on edge as voting begins in a matter of hours. It felt like a final push, because it was one. 

Notably, after the rally ended, a group of Hong Kong protesters raised flags and shouted “Freedom for Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times” in Cantonese, attracting a sizeable crowd. Someone from the Statebuilding Party also waited for the rally to end to take out a microphone as volunteers lifted large posters and gave out tissues and stickers. He delivered an impassioned speech, and while Statebuilding is a little too close to nationalist for my taste, I appreciated their very grassroots, take-to-the-street strategy. In fact, that Hong Kongers and the Statebuilding Party felt this was a good rally to make an appearance made the whole thing feel very democratic. 





After all, all of these issues are connected - Hong Kong, Taiwan, what kind of country we want Taiwan to be - and the official speeches mirrored that. 

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Book Review: My Enemy’s Cherry Tree

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My Enemy's Cherry Tree
By Wang Ting-kuo


I’m still not sure if I liked My Enemy's Cherry Tree or not. Taiwanese literature, rather like some Taiwanese cultural norms, is very good at making a point so subtly and in a way that is so open to interpretation that you can never be sure if you’ve quite got it. I suppose that’s true of a great deal of ‘great literature’, but it feels especially true of writing from this country. 

My Enemy’s Cherry Tree is a little less abstruse than some other Taiwanese writing I’ve read (see: The Stolen Bicycle, which I’m still not sure I really understand). The plot itself is fairly straightforward: a young, struggling couple in love are trying to make a go at life despite having very little material wealth. The unnamed protagonist comes from poverty and Qiuzi, his wife, comes from a farming village famous for bamboo (the name of which I believe is 孟宗竹 in Chinese, 孟宗 sounding a little bit like 夢中, meaning 'in the middle of a dream'). 

They build a life together until she suddenly disappears and he opens a coffeeshop in the spot she said she'd wait for him "every day" if he ever left her. The circumstances around her disappearance are made clear(-ish) in the following pages, as Baixiu, the  daughter of Luo Yi-ming, the wealthy old man implicated in her disappearance. visits the coffeeshop over successive days. She's a reminder, a ghost, a foil. 

The key to the story, or its underlying point, can be found in The Old Man and the Sea, a work which is explicitly referenced midway through the novel. This novel has an old man, and it has a young man who lives near the sea. The old man is wealthy and respected. He has a station in life, and a rich inheritance. The young man is energetic and persistent. He has nothing and comes from nothing, but will fight for everything he has or wants, including a better life, a place to call home, and the wife he loves (or, as I took it, is lustfully obsessed with). They lock in battle as adversaries - not so much knight and dragon, or man and great fish, but yin and yang. 

Neither is defeated; both are destroyed. Of course, you only know for sure that’s happening to the old man when you learn what happens to the gorgeous cherry tree in the backyard of his Japanese-style mansion.

What bothered me about this book, however, is that it’s perfectly clear what destroys the protagonist. But it’s not at all clear what destroys the old man except whatever demons are in his own head. These potential demons are not defined or examined in any depth.

In fact, it’s not even made clear that Mr. Luo did what everyone, including the protagonist, believes he did; it’s all based on extremely circumstantial evidence. There’s an implied comparison between Mr. Luo’s cherry tree and a lonely pine tree struggling to survive on a cliff (another allegory for our protagonist, I suppose), a scene at a bank, a few scenes with Mr. Luo's daughter, Baixiu, and that’s it. We’re just supposed to know that what he says happened, happened (to be fair, Mr. Luo acts as though it did). 

This isn’t just a story of adversaries going (symbolically) head-to-head over a woman who has disappeared. There is a lot being said here about wealth and social class, the ongoing duel between a young generation struggling to put a roof over their heads, while the old is awash in privilege. You might also read it less as a generational struggle and more as a wealth gap between the landed rich and toiling laborers - whom our character dupes into buying overpriced homes, selling that piece of a dream - or urban-rural one. So many old men you might name to one category. So many seas that could stand in for the other. 

Perhaps the battle also takes place between the aging Mr. Luo and his desire to sexually possess a younger woman, and metaphorically regain lost youth and vigor himself. It's not clear, and not meant to be.

Mr. Luo seems to have inherited everything refined, cultured and moneyed about Taiwan’s history, dating back to the Japanese era. Even his given name (Yi-ming) calls to mind the notion that he’s a top name, at the top of the list, the elite. The protagonist was born into all of Taiwan’s struggles - the constant fight for survival of a working-class father supporting an ill wife and young son. Growing loofahs and cooking sweet potatoes in a hand-built brick kiln in a scraggly yard are powerful, ekphrastic visuals of ‘country life’ in Taiwan. Reading this novel, I know exactly what cultural ‘space’ I’m in within Taiwan. The rough-hewn, betel-nut-chewing rich-bumpkin boss with delusions of grandeur is also described perfectly. If you've spent any time in Taiwan, you know exactly what kind of person he is.

You might think from this review that I overall liked the book. In fact, I have a few complaints.

I can’t let this review go without mentioning that the protagonist is, to be honest, kind of a sexist ugh-burger. All the reasons he lists for why he loves Qiuzi come down to some sort of weird fetish for adorable, sweet, youthful naïveté. He likes her frankness, but doesn’t seem to care if she possesses any passion, or talent, or ambition, or even intelligence (though she’s not stupid). For this reason, he’s the exact kind of guy I would avoid, even socially.

I have no idea if the author intended for his character to have this flaw, or if he thinks it’s quite a normal personality trait for a man and didn’t even notice that he’d written a kind of gross character. Even the age difference made me raise my eyebrows - the story has the couple meeting soon after he finishes military service - that should put him in his early-to-mid twenties. She's a waitress in a French restaurant. And yet, later on it says they're ten years apart. Either the author wasn't thinking, or that restaurant employs child labor and the protagonist is a pedophile.

There are scenes later on where he exhibits some rapey tendencies, too - in one scene they’re making love and she tries to climb on top, and he overpowers her with strength he hadn't known he'd possessed. YIKES. The exact words aren't "baby, I don't know my own strength", but they're close enough. The last night they are together, he sexually assaults her. 

And yet he’s surprised and saddened that she left? He doesn’t know why? When he says earlier in the book that she left "for no reason", are we supposed to buy that?

Come on dude. You came *thisclose* to raping your wife. She’s probably better off without you.  

The only question is whether Wang Ting-kuo purposely wrote the character that way, or whether he actually finds his own hero's actions acceptable. Perhaps we're meant to see that he's spinning off insane theories about what his wife did in his own head, when in fact the only reason she left was that she realized her husband was abusive.

Personally, I can't imagine writing a character like that and thinking his actions were normal or acceptable. But so many people take men acting as he did as 'normal male behavior' that I really can't be sure.

The Asia Review of Books says Wang's book has echoes of Murakami. Yes, and Murakami is terrible at creating realistic, grounded women and men who treat women well. Every male Murakami character is a bit of a douche, and every woman a mere foil for the be-penised hero. Do I see echoes of that here? You betcha.

Overall, I enjoyed the meandering, somewhat removed style of writing - some might call it sterile, I call it dream-like. But it is a bit too short, a bit too unclear, and the protagonist a bit too much of a jerk.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

What do we mean when we say “third force”?

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I don't know, this just seems appropriate. 


In the current election season, I’ve noticed a new cluster of third party political figures attempting to refer to themselves as “third force” as a signal to voters that they represent some sort of new political wave. Most of the people actively using this term, or appearing onstage next to people who do, seem to be old guard - say, James Soong and the People First Party (PFP), Terry Gou and his general crappiness, Ko Wen-je and his general crappiness.

Considering that in recent years, the term “third force” has more closely been associated with progressive, pro-independence political parties such as the NPP, I think it’s worth a closer look at what it actually means both historically and in contemporary discourse. Is there room in the meaning of “third force” for non-progressive, generally pro-China parties or is it pure appropriation for political gain? Perhaps the answer is somewhere in between?

The general meaning of the term “third force” in a global sense - that is, beyond Taiwan - simply refers to smaller third parties who are unaffiliated with big-party power blocs, though in practice they often support larger parties or coalitions. What those third parties actually stand for is irrelevant if we take this definition. 

In Taiwan, the term “third force” has been around a lot longer than you’d guess from a quick n’ dirty Google. Results almost exclusively bring up the NPP, and sometimes mention smaller parties at the same end of the political spectrum which either formed or gained social currency - if not actual power - after the 2014 Sunflower movement. 

Dig a little, however, and you’ll find that the idea has been around a lot longer. Around the turn of the millennium, it meant pretty much any third party, with a spike in electoral victories around 2002. The biggest of these was the PFP, which claims to move beyond “green and blue” but is actually just a a satellite pan-blue party. There was also the pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), which currently holds no seats, the pro-unification and generally horrible New Party which holds a few local seats but none on the legislature, and the Green Party which has held a handful of city council seats in the past but never made it to the legislature. 

All of these could be called “third force”, and all of them were founded in the 1990s or early 2000s. All of them have won at least a few seats in the past, at least locally. And yet they have wildly divergent political views.

But, let’s be perfectly honest, that definition of “third force” - any unaffiliated set of third parties which defy a major-party binary - just isn’t what people mean when they use is to refer to Taiwanese politics. 

New Bloom defines “third force” as a veritable Pleiades of post-Sunflower parties and political luminaries - bright young things, newcomers to politics, and as such generally progressive and pro-Taiwan. These would be the New Power Party (NPP), Trees Party and Social Democratic Party (SDP) folks: these parties formed around 2014-2015. 

In one sense, I think this definition has real currency. As someone who impersonates a linguist, I am very much a descriptivist. Words mean what the general societal consensus believes they mean, and it can be very hard to research and clearly define all of their associated connotations and subtler meanings, especially as such meanings are prone to sometimes-rapid evolution. 

Although the explicit meaning of “third force” does not technically require a party to be post-Sunflower, pro-independence or progressive, the current connotation of this term does include these meanings. Such implicit connotation in use - that is, the full extent of the term’s current pragmatic meaning - can’t just be ignored because it’s hard to categorize, or because it has evolved from earlier meanings.

That said, it’s still problematic to use “third force” in this way without examining it further. Other parties that can be said to be in this constellation include Taiwan Radical Wings (now Taiwan Statebuilding Party), which was formed in 2012, before the Sunflower Movement, though it surely drew some of its energy from the pre-Sunflower rumblings of the Wild Strawberries, anti-media monopoly and anti-land expropriation protests - many of those activists went on to become Sunflowers. The Green Party could even be included, and they were founded in 1996!

On the other hand, conservative/pan-blue or straight-up creepy parties like the Minkuotang (now merged with the Congress Party Alliance) formed in the same post-Sunflower wake. The Minkuotang was founded in 2015). There's even creepier Faith and Hope League, a conservative Christian anti-gay party formed 2015 in the wake of the marriage equality wars. Ko Wen-je’s Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) and Chen Shui-bian’s Taiwan Action Party Alliance (TAPA) have formed more recently.

If the term means “political parties formed after 2014”, we have to include them. 

If it means “parties of generally young progressives”, we don’t, but we do have to include the Statebuilding Party and Green Party, which throws the post-2014 connotation into question. 

It’s also worth considering what we call “progressive” - do we include the Labor Party (formed 1989) in that? They are political leftists, but also unificationists. They are not pro-Taiwan.

If we define “third force” as being pro-Taiwan/pro-independence, we don’t have to include them, but we do have to include TAPA, who are not progressive, and the TSU, whom I have anecdotally found to harbor a streak of Hoklo nationalism that I find unpalatable and anti-progressive. Neither party skews young - quite the opposite. 

We also have to consider whether the term includes the independents - most notably Freddy Lim and Hung Tzu-Yung, both of whom left the NPP earlier this year. And, of course, there’s the question of whether one can be truly considered “third force” if they choose a side in the great green-blue divide. Do Lim and Hung, actively campaigning for Tsai Ing-wen, count? How about the SDP now that Fan Yun has gone over to the DPP (they’re not dead though - they still have Miao Poya, their only elected representative). If we can include them, why can’t we include pan-blue parties?

Does it only include political groups that have power or who might influence the current election cycle? If so, I don’t think we can include Trees Party or Green Party, or the TSU at this point. 

You’re probably asking by now - “who cares?” Well, as a linguist impostor, I care. 

But also, how we define the term has political implications. As a friend pointed out, we can’t just use it to mean what we want it to mean, and we can’t just define it to mean “the people we like”, finding excuses to exclude people we don’t like. 

With that said, allow me to define the term to include only the people I like: pro-Taiwan and progressive, skewing young, but not necessarily formed after 2014 and not necessarily directly opposing the major parties. That gives us Green Party, SDP, NPP, Statebuilding Party, Lim and Hung (and their Frontline alliance - more on that later), and the Trees Party. 

Please don’t take my definition too seriously. I don’t have a better one though - all I can say is, don’t apply the term lazily. Don’t just throw it out to describe people you like without examining further what you mean by it. By all means, leave lots of comments with your own ideas of what the term should mean in 2019. 

So what political implications does this have?

From a discourse perspective, if the societally-understood connotation of a term not only has power but is also in a state of flux, that means it will be seen as ‘up for grabs’ by anyone hoping to appropriate it.

If the term is evolving, it makes sense that people vying for power would want to direct its evolution in a direction that benefits them. That’s what we can see with Gou’s use of the term.

If that’s the case - and I believe it is - there’s a concerted and intentional attempt to move “third force” away from its current association with Sunflower ethos, and back toward its earlier meaning of “any third parties who claim to be unaffiliated with the DPP or KMT (but in fact usually are)”. 

I don’t care for this sort of intentional strategizing, but honestly, he’s free to try. If I get to define it in a way that includes only people, parties and beliefs I like, he is free to do the same. I’m not sure it can be called ‘appropriation’ given the term’s history - it sure feels that way, but I have no well-founded basis on which to challenge it. 

I suppose that’s a good thing insofar as the global meaning of “third force” never required newness or progressive ideology, but problematic in that it confuses the pan-blue/pro-China and pan-green/pro-Taiwan sides. I think it would be better to think of these two groups as separate.

It also makes it harder to identify and discuss the liberal-conservative axis. While the pro-China/pro-Taiwan cleavage is still the most enduring and influential split in Taiwanese politics, I still believe there is a purposeful attempt underway to change that.

Finally, looking at who is attempting to gain traction as “third force” can shed some insight on their electoral strategy. 

For example, Donovan Smith recently made fun of James Soong for leaning heavily on the Orchid Island nuclear waste issue. I agree that this seems like an odd strategy given how few people live on Orchid Island. But the Green Party - a “third force” party that actually has access to the term’s new social progressive connotation - does really well on Orchid Island (and nowhere else). I don’t think, therefore, that Soong’s tactic here is just to get Orchid Island voters. I think it’s to encroach on the Green Party vote on Orchid Island (and maybe grab some votes from the KMT too), and through stealing the Green Party’s votes there, get some of their “third force activist” cred to rub off on the PFP. 

To be fair, I don’t think this will work and in any case it’s a waste of time that wouldn’t help the PFP gain much even if it did.

I do think it's significant that Ko (who paints himself and his party as "apolitical"), Soong (who does the same, while going after other third party bases) and Gou (who directly invokes the term "third force") tend to appear together - a uniting of pan-blue, conservative voices trying to bring cohesion to that end of the third party spectrum, and (re)take the moniker "third force"?

On the other end, we have Frontline (前線), a loose alliance of pan-green/progressive candidates from different backgrounds who seem to be trying to bring more unity and cohesion to their own end of the spectrum, especially after the upsets and factionalization that has characterized the past year. Or maybe they're just trying to build a progressive, unified third force without the destructive Huang Kuo-chang element. It's entirely likely that they too are actively trying to hold onto the mantle of "third force" as they face attacks from the TPP and PFP on the pan-blue side as well as TAPA representing the old guard, conservative greens.

Side note: 前線 isn't a great name. It's easily confused with Christian group as well as with Hong Kong Indigenous (本土民主前線) - though I wonder if the similarity to the Hong Kong group's name is intentional.


It also helps us better understand what’s going on with Ko Wen-je and his party. It may seem odd that he started his political career passing himself off as a friend to pro-Taiwan progressives, won the Taipei mayoral election riding the post-Sunflower wave, and then took a turn towards China before his first term was up. We can argue whether he “changed” or whether we just didn’t see it before, and we can ask what supporters the TPP aims to attract. But within that loose Sunflower/Third Force alliance, there were always people who saw the movement not as opposing getting too close to China, but rather the way it was being done. They could be more broadly considered anti-big party corruption. There was also always a contingent (often church-affiliated) who didn’t actually share what we think of as Sunflower social progressivism. 

Someone like Ko wouldn’t necessarily look as gross to them as he does to ‘us’. It makes sense that he’d then get friendly with Soong, who already claims to represent this type of voter. 

In any case, how we define “third force” impacts how we look at third-party politics, liberalism/progressivism, the Sunflower effect and the China cleavage in Taiwan. Use it if you want, but think first about what exactly you mean by it, and whether that's justified. 

Friday, December 27, 2019

Bad backgrounding but good intentions: an eternal problem for Taiwan

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I don't have a related cover photo so please enjoy this rural menagerie


It is so frustrating, honestly, to read a well-intentioned piece that interviews mostly good people (I'm iffy on Jason Hsu) to try to make a point I generally support. Then to open it up and realize it's full of little inaccuracies and bad backgrounding that render it unsharable - and then to see all your friends sharing it, when it's really not that great.

I don't really want to go up against pieces like this as I'd like to see more coverage of what Taiwan and Taiwanese think from the international media. But I can't just blindly support journalism where I think the execution is somewhat poor, either. 


This particular piece by Anna Fifield in the Washington Post gets better towards the end - almost all of my criticisms are aimed at the first half. Let's take a look at a few of these problems, hopefully as an informative tour of how to do a better job writing about Taiwan. 


(I have to run off now - I'll try to populate this with more links to support my points later.)

First, there's the title:

Taiwan’s ‘born independent’ millennials are becoming Xi Jinping’s lost generation

Excuse me, Ms. Fifield.

Taiwan's millenials aren't Xi Jinping's anything.

They are Taiwanese and what they think or do is based on their lives and perspectives, not what Xi Jinping thinks. Xi is irrelevant to their daily existence except as a kind of weird scary dude in the background. Why are we starting this off by framing it through the eyes of China?

But let's not linger on that - often writers don't get to choose the title. This is bad, though, and whoever wrote it should feel bad. 



TAIPEI, Taiwan — The prospect of a “one country, two systems” arrangement for Taiwan — bringing the democratic island under Chinese control while largely preserving its autonomy — has never seemed realistic to lawyer Hsu.

The first issue is fairly minor, but worth noting. "One country, two systems" would not "largely preserve" Taiwan's autonomy. The Chinese Communist Party has already made it clear that to them, "one country, two systems" means Taiwan can keep only the aspects of law and society the CCP deems "legitimate", such as property ownership and personal religious belief (though even the latter is doubtful given how they treat their own people). They have never included "democracy" or "human rights and freedoms" in the model.



With Tsai’s reelection, the divide between millennials who want an independent Taiwan and older generations who have generally been more amenable to Communist-run China will only grow wider. Perhaps irrevocably so.


This isn't wrong on its face - older voters are indeed more likely to vote for pro-China candidates and argue that we need closer ties to "the mainland" (a term that is commonly interchanged with "China" without implying support for unification, but I've noticed has been increasingly aging out of use by younger Taiwanese).

However, not even older Taiwanese are particularly in favor of unification - they've just been convinced that being "closer" to China isn't a Chinese strategy to render Taiwan so economically dependent on China and devoid of global recognition that they could not possibly remain sovereign forever. The younger generation are smart enough to see through this tactic. Some older voters do favor unification as "the ROC re-taking the Mainland". They are delusional.

This is not "perhaps" irrevocable. It is irrevocable. Once the curtain is drawn back it's impossible to un-see the truth.



“Taiwan has not been ruled by China for one day or for one minute or even for one second in our lifetimes,” said Miao, a 31-year-old pro-independence member of Taipei’s City Council, adding that her conservative father is more bothered by her stance toward China than by the fact she’s lesbian.

I hate to criticize Miao Poya as she's one of my personal heroes, but it would have been more accurate to leave off "...in our lifetimes". Taiwan has never been ruled by China as it exists today, and the "China" that held colonial power in Taiwan just cannot be said to be the "same" China (nor was it outright rule - more like colonial control of part of Taiwan) that exists today. Therefore, Taiwan has never been ruled by China, period. 


Unlike many of their grandparents’ generation, who fled the Communists on the mainland seven decades ago, or their parents, who grew up under authoritarian rule, young Taiwanese have never known anything other than democracy and pluralism.

This is not totally untrue - the parents of the current zeitgeist generation knew dictatorship; the youth never did. But it is misleading - "many" is wrong. In fact, only a small minority of their grandparents' generation fled China after losing to the Communists. A few million KMT diaspora showed up. Taiwan already had a population much larger than that - most of today's generation has much deeper ancestral ties to Taiwan. 

Why do articles like this always assume that hardly anybody lived on Taiwan before the KMT showed up? It's true that that wave of refugees had disproportionate privilege once their government colonized Taiwan, and therefore disproportionate impact on 20th century society, but they were in fact a fairly small minority.
Taiwan has been politically separate from the mainland since the nationalist Kuomintang, or KMT, fled to the island when the Communist Party established the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

This is flat-out wrong.

Taiwan and China were politically unified, officially at least, for a few short years in the 1940s. Within two years of the KMT arriving in Taiwan in 1945, unrest kicked up in both Taiwan and China (228 and its aftermath in Taiwan, the civil war in China). By 1949 - just four years later - the ROC had lost control of China, and still could only said to be 'occupiers' of Taiwan as there was no legal basis for their continued rule (an issue which still has not been solved). They were not invited here by Taiwan; they came from a foreign country and set up a government. In effect, they were just another wave of colonizers.

Before that, Taiwan was a colony of Japan. For 50 years. Why do people always forget that?

And before that, it was a colony of the Qing, who were not considered Chinese at the time. It's hard to say definitively that Taiwan could be considered "a part of China" from that history. As I've written:



Arguably, Qing Dynasty China might be considered a Manchu colonial holding, as was Taiwan. Moreover, the Qing only controlled the western part of the island, which for most of that period was not considered a ‘province’ in its own right. Was there one China under the Qing Empire or were there two colonial holdings, Taiwan and China? That’s a discussion worth having for a clear historical perspective.... [note: I've edited this slightly from the original].
It is true that from 1945–1949 the ROC “controlled” both Taiwan and China. Yet China was torn asunder by civil war, and ROC “control” of Taiwan was a postwar occupation conducted at the behest of the wartime allies as their representative....
To boil that complicated history down to “split in 1949” makes it easier to write succinctly, but also implants in readers’ minds the idea that for a significant period of time before 1949, Taiwan and China were part of the same country. That is simply not the case. 

How many times do we have to keep repeating this for well-meaning journalists to get the memo and stop writing about Taiwan as though it had been a part of China before 1949?

Here's my suggestion: "Taiwan, first colonized by the Qing dynasty and later by Japan, was briefly ruled as a part of China from 1945-1949, before the ROC government fled China following their defeat by the Communists."


That's short and accurate, unlike the garbage Washington Post allowed in here.
“This wave of democracy is not stopping,” he [Jason Hsu of the KMT] said. “There is no going back. The KMT is also realizing this. We can have different opinions in how we deal with China, but we all have concerns about democracy.”


Oh, Jason. You are so deluded about your own party and so very, very disappointing. You really don't see how many of them are quiet (or not-so-quiet) annexationists, because they think they would personally benefit? You still don't think Chinese money is pouring in to influence the media and bolster the funding of KMT candidates?

I support the idea that KMTers/pan-blue believers should get a say in pieces like this, so we can juxtapose their views with the pro-Taiwan narrative we know so well as allies. I can see why Hsu is a popular choice - his quotes appeal to moderation and sense, and make the KMT more palatable.

But do the people who quote him realize that his views don't actually represent KMT beliefs more generally, and that he's something of an outsider in his own party? 


Then there's this:
Some 60 percent of Taiwanese ages 20 to 34 now support full independence, up 10 points from a year ago, according to an Academia Sinica poll.

It's not wrong. But more could be said here - the other 40% don't support unification, they support "the status quo". Most people who support that are aware it can't last forever, and some even understand that the longer we continue it, the more time we give China to quietly (or not-so-quietly) attempt to interfere in Taiwan's economic and political systems. Of those, most lean towards eventual independence, not unification.

For almost all Taiwanese, the status quo is independence as Taiwan is sovereign in its current state. The goal for the vast majority has always been independence, with the only question being "what form should it take" and "how long should we wait". It's misleading to imply that support for independence stops at 60%, even though the statement itself is not wrong.

It would also have been smart to note that an even larger number of people identify as only Taiwanese, or as primarily Taiwanese. Those poll numbers exist.


The rest of the article is better - at least, it's good enough that I don't need to pull quotes and tear them down.

But man, in an attempt to clarify for the world that Taiwanese do not see themselves as Chinese and almost certainly never will, they sure got the background on this one wrong.