Sunday, January 29, 2023

It's OK to not love China


     Flame me if you want, but I will never add an "I love China, but" to any of my opinions

I have to get something off my chest. A dark confession, the opposite of what I feel is expected of me. You see, as much as I feel expected to say otherwise, I don't love China. 

When favorably discussing Taiwanese independence, sovereignty or identity, or saying anything negative about the CCP, it seems as though so many people feel the need to insert a little "I love China, but..." or "I deeply love the people and culture of China, however..." Sometimes this is a single sentence header; sometimes it stretches out to cover an entire paragraph detailing some positive experience or perspective on China as a country, to emphasize the differentiation of the nation and people from the government. 

Here are just a few random examples from a quick search:

That's all fine, if you truly "love China" no one should stop you from saying so, but I don't love China. 

I certainly understand this, however. I've even engaged in it. One doesn't want to imply dislike or hatred of a group of people, or aim derision at an entire nation in all its complexities. Of course, engaging in "Screw China!" rhetoric is fundamentally racist, when China is a vast, complex nation full of everyday people who don't deserve to be lumped in with their genocidal government. 

Nobody actively insists this is a necessary addition to what one really wants to say, but I see it so often and feel compelled to include it. The consequence is often being labeled a "China-hater" (China as in the country, not the government) or worse, of perpetuating anti-Asian hate. Of course, tankies, aggressive Han supremacist trolls and CCP shills (both paid and unpaid) will accuse pro-Taiwan advocates and CCP critics of all of this anyway, but it feels like a necessary preliminary step to defend oneself.

But here's the thing. 

I truly don't love China. 

I've felt unspoken pressure to preface pro-Taiwan advocacy or criticism of the brutal, genocidal, authoritarian CCP with exhortations that are simply not sincere. And there's a strong likelihood that I'll attract criticism for simply being honest about this. 

Let's be clear: I don't hate China, either. I certainly don't hate Chinese citizens.  It's ridiculous to hate a whole nation -- no place, especially not one so large, complex and diverse in cultures, languages and history, could possibly deserve an opinion so simplistic and dismissive.

As someone who has lived in China and returned several times since, I simply have no specific affection for the country. Although I can never know what it's like to be Chinese or be a PRC citizen, I've experienced some version of life in China, and not in the big east coast cities (I've visited those, but my actual life there was in Guizhou). That experience resulted in mixed feelings.

Chinese histories -- the many histories of the regions now considered China -- are fascinating. The many cultures of China are, too. I've fallen out of love with the Mandarin language, but am enthusiastic about learning Taiwanese. Clearly Sinitic languages are of great interest to me. There are plenty of astounding things to see in China. I've seen them and been astounded. To touch on more everyday matters, the food is great (usually -- it's not always prepared well, as in any country) and the people are generally pretty nice. Daily life, at least for an expat, was fairly safe when I lived there.

But you know what else I experienced in China? Horrendous misogyny, aimed not at me but at Chinese women I knew. Their stories aren't really mine to tell, but I am pretty sure this attitude isn't anecdotal

I may have felt safe enough on the streets, .but I didn't feel the same way expressing any kind of opinion. That included fairly anodyne ones like "I think Taiwanese should get to decide if they want to be part of the PRC", which isn't even close to the pro-independence diehard that I am today. In contrast to Taiwan where one can freely discuss 228 or the White Terror, I never mentioned Tiananmen Square, because I knew I couldn't. Mail sometimes arrived pre-opened. People occasionally told me controversial opinions, such as "I was at Tiananmen Square so I know how fucked up things are", "We're not allowed to fully practice Uyghur culture, they are our oppressors" and "I'd like to protest the government but they'd just kill us." 

I kept those confessions to myself while in China -- what other choice was there?

That's not even getting into how sick the pollution made me, multiple times, nor the trouble of accessing actual international news. 

There were so many reasons why I chose to leave at the end of my year in China, but stuck around in Taiwan. My first six months in Taiwan were rough, but I felt a budding affection for the country which only grew. In China, that feeling never came.

In fact, the part of China I liked most was East Turkestan (known to some as Xinjiang), where people don't like the CCP, aren't Chinese and don't seem to really want to be part of China. I feel nothing but grief for what has happened there since my visit so many years ago. 

I've lived in four countries in my life -- the United States, China, India and Taiwan. I feel affection for India despite its flaws, and actually do love Taiwan. I chose to settle here, after all. My feelings about the US are more positive than about China, but I wouldn't say I "love" it. I can't say why China was my least favorite place to live, or why it didn't capture my affection in the same way as other places I've intentionally moved to. India is hardly perfect, and Taiwan has its negatives. But China just didn't do it for me.

Life there wasn't all all awful. There was good and bad, and those bad experiences above were balanced somewhat by positive ones. I made friends, began learning Mandarin, ate some amazing food, saw some stupendous scenic, cultural and historic sites. Very few experiences are all bad. And that's how I feel about China: good and bad.  

Honestly, regardless of what I think about any given government, I feel fairly neutral towards most countries. At best, I've enjoyed traveling in them and learning about them, but I wouldn't describe my emotions towards them as "love". I went to Sri Lanka and enjoyed it immensely, but that's about it. I went to Myanmar and had many positive experiences, but I wouldn't say I felt "love". Our honeymoon was a bus trip from Panama to Guatemala. It was amazing, and each country fascinating in its own way. But do I "love" Nicaragua? I wouldn't say so. I do care about people, but feel no clear need to love a country absent some specific yet ineffable catalyst.

Countries are countries -- they all have their good and bad points, some have more good than bad, and most have intractable problems but also things to like. People are also just people: most are good, many are nice, a few are rotten. That's true anywhere in the world you go. Even general safety is linked not to how "good" people are, but more to economic factors. 

So why, exactly, should I "love" China? What does it matter that I lived there? What does it matter that I live in Taiwan now? And what does it matter that I'm pro-Taiwan? I still don't have to "love" China in order to criticize it, and I'm sick of feeling tacit pressure to say I do. 

It feels like pre-emptive self-defense, as though one needs to justify supporting for Taiwan, Tibet or East Turkestan. As though one needs  a caveat in order to oppose the Uyghur genocide, or criticize the CCP. But I neither want nor need to prove myself, to add an insincere caveat, to speak the truth about other countries like Taiwan, and other cultures like Tibetan and Uyghur.

The case for Taiwan, among others, is just and right all on its own. It's time to stop falling over ourselves to proclaim "love" for China just because CCP shills will twist support for these causes into "anti-Asian hate" or "you're racist against Chinese people!" when that's simply not the case. 

I do hate the CCP: they certainly have no business running a country given all they've done to harm China (and then claim credit when they stop or reverse just some of the harm they themselves inflicted). They should be shunted out of existence. Xi Jinping should face charges before an international court for crimes against humanity and spend the rest of his life not as the dictator of the world's most populous country, but alone in a deep dark hole. I cannot describe the degree to which I loathe that government. 

But there are many governments I don't care for. Many run countries I like quite a bit, or feel neutrally toward! I appreciate Indian democracy but acknowledge the flaws of the Indian government (certainly I'm no fan of the BJP). The US government has some obvious problems. Taiwan has an admirable democracy but the government sometimes makes me feel like bashing my head against a wall. At least they're democracies, though. The CCP -- brutal, non-democratic but ultimately not the only factor in my feelings about China -- is an entirely different thing. 

But you know what? Whatever. I don't love China. I don't love China! It feels so freeing to just be honest about that. Living there had its upsides and drawbacks, but in the end the drawbacks outweigh the upsides, and I have no regrets about choosing never to return. I do miss things like 酸辣米皮 -- Guizhou-style hot and sour flat noodles. It's a shame I will probably never again see places I actually did love, such as East Turkestan, the Miao areas around Kaili, and Hong Kong. But I don't think China is a safe destination for public supporters of Taiwan. Oh well. 

I support Taiwan and Taiwanese independence. Taiwan is a country. Taiwan has a unique history and culture, and most Taiwanese do not identify as Chinese. China has no business claiming Taiwan and is absolutely in the wrong for threatening a bloody, violent war. Period. They are the provocateurs -- the only provocateurs. Not Taiwan, not the United States. 

That same government will tell you that this stance is akin to hating China as a country, which is essentially the same as anti-Asian racism. That is a lie, and I reject it. 

The CCP should fall, though nobody but the people of China can make that happen. I want only good things for Chinese citizens, but don't know how to support them. I wish I did. 

All of that is true, and also, I don't love China. 

Friday, January 27, 2023

The Fissure


When I first moved to Taiwan, I didn't have a lot of free time. Like most buxibans, my first workplace expected six-day work weeks. A coworker rightly described this sort of job as "not really being teachers, it's the education industry equivalent of working at The Gap." He wasn't wrong.

The only real upside was public holidays: on those preposterous work/school "make up days", we didn't have Saturday classes. Feeling a bit trapped in Taipei -- you can't really do much when you work six days a week -- I decided to use one of these to check out Taroko Gorge. 

I did this with the wisdom and forethought of a turnip. I used none of my intelligence in applying my experiences in China to my expectations for Taiwan. Namely, that one can turn up close to a destination and pay someone a small amount of money to just take you there. So, instead of getting off the train at Hualien and taking the bus through the gorge like any other young person on a budget, I hopped off at Xincheng because it's geographically much closer to Taroko. 

I found no transport and walked -- walked! -- the several kilometers to the park entrance. I even walked most of the Shakadang Trail. Realizing my mistake, I then grabbed the bus to Hualien and got a bed in a hostel, having seen almost none of the actual gorge. I did get a very nice view of Asia Cement's, um, cement garden. Local children laughed at me. I deserved it. 

Years later, I told students what I’d done. They laughed at me too. I still deserved it. 

“Never do this!” I said. 

“We never would,” one of them shot back. 

On my next trip, we hired a taxi. I wanted to go to the Qingshui cliffs in addition to Taroko, but he wouldn't take us. My Mandarin wasn't good enough yet to really communicate much. It rained, and I had a headache. On the third trip, I rented a car with friends and for whatever reason we ended up driving over the North Cross-Island Highway first (don't ask). It was gorgeous, but we were too tired the next day to truly appreciate the beauty of our actual destination. We picked out a random local hotel with terrible beds and thin walls; someone was having a great time spanking their boyfriend in the next room. Good for them, but not fun for us.

We drove back, in the rain, over the cliffs but it was getting late and we didn't really get to appreciate those, either. 

Years later, despite all that bad luck, I wanted to take my in-laws. They'd been to Taiwan a few times but never really gotten to see the country's natural beauty. So we bought tickets -- to Hualien this time -- on the Puyuma Express and I hired a private driver through KKDay who promised to include the cliffs. I asked local friends for a hotel recommendation, and booked Just Sleep. We had a marvelous time, and I was able to manage the family trip in Mandarin with no issue. I was able to replicate this travel itinerary with my sister years later. This time, our KKDay-booked driver was named Bread. Not Brad (I asked). He wanted the universe to fill his life with bread, he explained. 

This little walk through time is metaphorically related to what I want to say, but I'll let you decide on exactly how.

But here is where it begins: while my sister and I gazed up at those impossibly steep marble walls, I reflected on all the criticism I’ve heard recently about Taiwan.

The traffic is horrible. Raising a family in Taiwan’s drudgery-heavy work culture is so impossible that many people either aren’t doing it, or have moved abroad. Salaries are too low. The banking system has long been the subject of mockery. There is no real path to citizenship for most of us permanent folks

Friends complain (quite rightly) that “make-up days” for extra days off are ridiculous; Taiwanese people already have some of the longest working hours in the world — just give them the day off! Even my sister, who used to live here, said that she left initially because she felt she’d “outgrown” Taipei. What she seems to have meant was that there were no useful career opportunities, and that meant it was time to go.

Worst of all, I remember watching coverage of abuses against migrant workers in Qatar preceding the World Cup and couldn't help but think, the system we're all pointing fingers at there doesn't sound much different from what goes on in Taiwan. It's a glaring issue, and the main systematic problem that makes it impossible to say that Taiwan is a wholly wonderful country.

I considered all of the upcoming critical posts that I haven’t written yet. They’re pretty diverse — one discusses the new and absolutely hellish system for sending packages abroad. Another is more personal, about health issues I’ve been facing that are somewhat related to my reduced blogging output. 

Is Taiwan really that bad? I thought. Is it so horrible that people are pushing to get out, and nothing works as it should?

It’s difficult to accept this, even when the various criticisms are either correct, or debatable but not wrong per se. Traffic problems really don’t compare well to, say, Japan. The banking system is indeed archaic; I’m unlikely to ever be a homeowner because I’m seen as more of a flight risk than some rich Taiwanese asshole who actually would flee the country to avoid debt. Like I could do that! I’ll probably never be a citizen and am not satisfied with “change is slow” explanations. Salaries are low. Work culture is unacceptable. People do leave. Career opportunities are not particularly robust. Even as a teacher — the easiest career path for an English L1 user — I could make more in many other countries in Asia. I stay in Taiwan because I want to be in Taiwan. 

But then I look up again at all that beauty and have a hard time accepting that it really is that bad. Of course, I’m not Taiwanese and I’ll never know what it’s like to live here as a local. The closest I’ll ever get is an approximation as a person with a middle-class income (and no local support beyond the friends I’ve made). 

Despite issues surrounding citizenship and securing the basics of a normal middle class life — like, say, a mortgage — it’s hard to argue that Taiwan has been bad. I can’t imagine I ever would have become a teacher, let alone a teacher trainer, in the US. In Taiwan I’ve built a career I’m happy with, enjoyed a wonderful marriage, made good friends both local and foreign, and had the opportunity to travel extensively. 

Of course, as a foreigner, I can never say that’s the whole story. There’s surely some selection bias, but local friends and students have also expressed a love for Taiwan that’s impervious to criticism. Life is more affordable here than Singapore or Japan, they say. Some have lived in China for a stint, or spent extensive time there for business. It sucks, they say. Taiwan is so much better. No one harasses you for being Taiwanese or not wanting to be part of China. They ask how Americans cope with our garbage “health care system”. 

“We mostly don’t,” I say. “Basically either you’re lucky or you die too soon.”

They ask how we cope with Gun Culture. 

“We mostly don’t,” I repeat. “If you’re white you’re probably fine. Otherwise every day, every traffic stop, every public festival, is a gamble.” 

“Yikes,” they reply. They’re right. 

Compared to China’s authoritarianism, Japan’s sexism, Singapore’s cost of living, and America’s various dangers, unruly traffic just…doesn’t seem that bad? The banking system is annoying but not life-destroying. I don’t know what to say about low pay and horrendous work culture. But it’s not like other countries are problem-free. Most say they have no real desire to leave Taiwan. It’s not perfect but it’s a pretty good place to live, they insist. They don’t think it’s puzzling that I’d leave the US and decide to live here. 

That said, it’s not as though the criticisms are incorrect. Every last one makes a salient point. 

And yet, despite all this plus my own personal criticisms, I just can’t bring myself to spend all day slamming Taiwan. I visit other countries, including the country of my birth, and in most ways, Taiwan compares favorably. Occasionally I land in other cities that, in another life, I might have considered home. Istanbul was glorious (but as an Armenian, I’m just not sure how I’d feel about it long-term). I’m writing this from Mexico City. I could live here, but ultimately I know I won’t leave Taiwan. 

Why? Seriously, why, despite all the valid criticism? Well, I often get asked why I came to Taiwan, and I can’t answer that. I was curious, and not planning to live there forever. That changed, and I can answer why I chose to stay. 

My ideal home would have a few key points in its favor: it has to be a democracy with basic human rights enshrined in law (I understand that no country on earth makes these rights perfectly accessible). I tried living in a country that lacked this -- China -- and it turned out to be untenable.  Taiwan isn’t perfect in this regard (no country in the world is), but it's on a trajectory of progress.

I also want to feel comfortable as a woman. All countries struggle with endemic sexism, but compared to the rest of Asia, Taiwan offers pretty solid women's equality.

Health care is important too; I left the US in part because I didn't want to wake up one day and find out The Machine decided I was too poor and deserved to die.

I want to live in what might typically be called an advanced or developed country (I don’t think a politically correct way of expressing this exists). Maybe I’m a bit of a princess, but I do want to live somewhere where things generally work. 

And, of course, I want to live in a country that is at least making progress toward liberal ideals. I don't think any country has actually gotten there yet, but again, compared to the rest of Asia, Taiwan is doing alright.

Taiwan checks all those boxes. It’s not perfect, but it’s not the screaming shithole many portray it to be. And over the years, as my local competencies have improved, and my understanding of Taiwan increased, I feel far more affection for the country than dislike. That’s true even when I have sincere criticisms. 

Back in the early 20th century, my problematic fave described her first view of Taiwan: 

Formosa, that little-known island in the typhoon-infested South China Sea, so well called by its early Portuguese discoverers - as its name implies - "the beautiful". Indeed, it was the beauty of Formosa that first attracted me....I shall never forget the first glimpse that I caught of the island as I passed it...there it lay, in the light of the tropical sunrise, glowing and shimmering like a great emerald, with an apparent vividness of green that I had never seen before, even in the tropics. During the greater part of the day it remained in sight, apparently floating slowly past - an emerald on a turquoise bed…

Most likely, she was off the coast not far from the gorge I was standing in when I began to think about all of this. After all, is there a more beautiful sight of the Taiwanese coast than the Qingshui cliffs?

It’s preposterous to dismiss valid criticisms of a country because, hey, there are some beautiful views! At the same time, it’s exactly those views that can make one feel ever so small compared to the ebb and flow of history.

Considering the ways Taiwan rose from inheriting mostly disadvantages, told one authoritarian government to get bent, is now refusing to bend to another, and still managed to (more or less) get rich with (again, more or less) low wealth inequality, it's hard to declare that it's really so awful. 

I want to except human rights abuses against migrant workers here, as there is simply no excusing that. Everything else is as terrible as it is valid, but I have a hard time thinking of a country that doesn't have problems that are equally horrifying, or worse. Like any other country, Taiwan isn't perfect or terrible; it's messy and complicated and difficult to put into words. 

Of course I'd say all this: I chose Taiwan, and choose it every day I wake up in Taipei. I wasn't born here, and a big chunk of my life is steeped in white privilege. Theoretically, I could leave.

But then my local friends run businesses, cultivate interests, fall in love, get married and have children here. Plenty of people I know have left for a time to study or work, but I rarely meet people who want to build a whole new permanent life abroad. They seem more proud of Taiwan's success than they are interested in bashing it.

That doesn't mean there's no need to address the problems that do exist, just that Taiwan simply isn't an intractable garbage heap. 

In other words, maybe Taiwan isn't always great, but it isn't all bad, either. 

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Book Review: The Membranes

I cracked open the slim 2021 translation of Chi Ta-wei’s The Membranes on a transpacific flight, after a fairly rough but ultimately successful check-in experience. The flight itself was fine; other than the unuseable headphones, it was if anything an above-average experience. I was excited to see family and take a fun side-trip to Mexico. But, after two leg-aching hours of standing in various lines, some of which could have been avoided if Asiana Airlines had merely redeployed their human staff to check passengers in rather than forcing them through a robotic self check-in, I had to wonder — did I love travel, or hate it? 

There’s no actual duality here. The experiences, good and bad, don’t really matter. How I feel about them. Quite literally, what the experience ultimately means is all in my head.

Protected or trapped by a membrane of lightweight material as we arc across continents, I abandoned the movie and turned to the book. Originally written in the 1990s but only recently translated, The Membranes seemed like both a glimpse into the past — almost like historical science fiction — as well as a semi-dystopian glimpse into an imagined future for humanity.

The Membranes reads more like a novella than a novel, and takes just a few hours to read. It’s a very “quiet” novel: not much dialogue, mostly taking place inside the head of the main character, Momo. It uses the conflicted relationship between Momo and her mother on the even of Momo’s thirtieth birthday to explore an imagined society in the year 2100 in which climate change has ruined the surface and humans live under domes in the sea — one of many ‘membrane’ themes in the book, emphasizing its internality. 

How Momo, an introverted woman running a skincare salon (well, there’s more to that but I won’t spoil it) interacts with the world — or doesn’t — shows readers what life under the sea is like. Real animal pets are rare, as are plants and animals that humans didn’t deem useful. Skincare specialists are practically celebrities in an appearance-obsessed society and cyborgs who may or may not have human-like intelligence fight wars for humans on the surface. Mega-corporations with friendly faces but ultimately monopolistic goals matter more than people. The role of those corporations in perpetuating human-created “-isms” is explored as well. The ultimate membrane, in a move that surprised me, turns out not to be a hollow capitalist skincare thing, but something far more insidious. 

For a novel written in the 90s, The Membranes is visionary in its queer progressivism, as well. Beyond the usual critiques of unchecked capitalism, there isn’t a single straight couple among the handful of characters. Two women adopting a daughter is so normal that the narrative itself doesn’t remark on it. Rather like The Expanse, it shows a world where the petty shit we shouldn’t be fighting over now —  like who and how people choose to love — has mostly been resolved, but powerful government and corporate interests (with the corporate ones being ultimately more powerful). It turns racism on its head by showing a world where white people, seen as inferior as their melanin-reduced skin cannot afford sufficient protection against the sun, are excluded from major institutions. It includes technology that was rare or theoretical in the 90s, such as cloud computing, portable devices and micro-trackers, but which in 2023 are now seen as a normal part of life. 

Transgenderism is treated as normal and unremarkable as well; the novel lingers on it only slightly longer, ultimately deciding that gender goes beyond biology and gender binaries are restrictive rather than helpful.

Remember, again, that this was written in the 1990s. In 2023 it’s fairly normal to explore these topics. In the 90s, in Asia, this was radical stuff. If it reminds you of Chiu Miao-jin in length, style and referencing…it should. I suspect that’s intentional. Chi and Chiu were writing around the same time, and probably ran in many of the same circles. Unlike Chiu, Chi, fortunately, is still with us. 

And, of course, the novel is quietly, well, Taiwanese. Or rather, a dream of what Taiwan could be, or was hoped to be, by 2100 (if Taiwan existed in a dome under the sea, that is). In the early 1990s, just a few years out from the death of Nylon Deng, mentioning “huge” monuments such as plaques commemorating the 228 Incident was a bold, even radical statement. Showing Taiwan as the key financial hub of Southeast Asia while slyly referencing Taiwan’s complicated but ultimately special relationship with Japan, was an imaginative projection of hopes for the future. Some of these things came more or less true, some not — 228 Incident recognition is normalized now, but Taiwan never quite became a regional hub.

I’ve been avoiding the key point of The Membranes, because it’s so hard to talk about it without spoiling the big twist. The peaches Momo loves to eat, the method of Momo’s birth (referencing both Chinese and Japanese folk tales and idioms), the undersea domes — these are not the only membranes in the novel. Early in the narrative we learn that Momo had a devastating childhood illness that she barely survived. She had a custom-made android friend whose role is left obscure. Ultimately, we’re forced to ask ourselves first whether artificial intelligence should be considered human, and then whether a human brain in an android body is trapping the android in the human, or the human in the android.

Then, there’s a less predictable twist, which I won’t begin to spoil. I will say what it asks of you: to consider whether what your brain experiences is the real world, and whether it matters if it’s what you know. Are your emotions real and complex if they are in reaction to ultimately false events? Is it right to have your fate decided for you, and is it worth it to hand so much power to massive corporations in exchange for astounding technological advances? Do they make our lives better, or worse?

If there’s one criticism I have of the book, it’s that it was too short, and a little impersonal. Much of it read as a summary of a story, rather than a story itself. It could have been three times as long, or longer, as it explored Momo’s life and the lead-up to her thirtieth birthday in real time rather than a sort of gloss of what happened and is happening in the story. I understand why it was written this way — it all becomes clear when you hear the full story of what happened when Momo was ten, making a full, deep moment-by-moment story hard to tell from her perspective. But, hey, I just think it could have been longer and more richly developed: a novel, rather than a novella. 

That said, Taiwanese literature in general tends to be a little too meandering for me, more about scenes and impressions rather than a clear story or forward-moving plot. Chi avoids this, telling a quickly-driven narrative in a terse and succinct — perhaps overly succinct — way. 

Ultimately, however, you should read The Membranes. If you’re inclined to think that Taiwan is a wholly conservative culture, or that there’s not enough literary creativity or progressive politics, Chi Ta-wei’s novel should quickly disabuse you. It also tells us something else: we need more Taiwanese literature in translation — and to not call it Chinese, but Taiwanese — and not 30 years after it is originally published.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

The Newest Taiwanese


A long and unclear path

As the November elections neared, the social media posts piled up. Things like "Can't wait to vote for the first time in Taiwan!" and "Voting in my first Taiwanese election!"

A few years ago, I didn't know many dual citizens who were not born Taiwanese, and of them not a single one who could vote. As the shadows grew long on 2022, however, it became clear that something had shifted. Changes to the laws surrounding dual nationality enacted in 2017 were starting to bear some modest fruit: a small but significant minority of people I know were posting last month about how excited they were to vote in a Taiwanese election for the first time.

I was genuinely happy for them, in that friendly envious way that bears no ill will. To me, they represented small dots of light: these friends, for example, don't all come from the same background. Some work in business, some are academics, some in tech, and some do work for the government. Most have indeed acquired dual nationality, although one chose to renounce their original citizenship. Before 2017, there was essentially no path to dual nationality if one had no Taiwanese heritage. Post-naturalization, one could petition to regain their original citizenship, but not all countries grant it (the United States certainly doesn't). Or, finding Jesus and building a life as a missionary was always an option: perhaps as a nonagenarian the government might bestow the honor.

Now, anyone deemed a "foreign senior professional" -- a classification that differs from Gold Card-eligible "foreign special professionals" -- has a pathway to becoming Taiwanese. The eligibility requirements remain restrictive -- perhaps unfairly so -- but at least there is a path.

I thought, with the election well behind us, that it would be interesting to talk to some of these newest citizens about what it was like to acquire citizenship, what challenges they faced and how it felt to vote. Some agreed to have their real names published; others asked to remain anonymous.

Participating in Democracy

The first thing that jumped out from everyone I talked to was a passion for participating in the democratic process. Ben Homnick, formerly a vice president at a technology company in Taiwan, summarized it well: "I think it finally hit home," he said, "when I was walking back from the voting booth, and I realized that I finally have the ability to participate in the political process of the place that I’ve been calling home for more than ten years. Whether or not I agree with the outcome of the election, at least I have some measurable amount of responsibility for what those outcomes are."

Kerim Friedman, a professor at National Donghwa University, said he found personal meaning in voting for the first time. "For me, voting is kind of an important civic ritual," he said. "I’ve watched Taiwan, I came here for the first time in 1991 right after it had just democratized, so watching Taiwan’s transition to democracy has been a major part of my life intellectually and personally, having been here observing it."

"I was in tears," said Uma, who gave up her original nationality. (Uma is a pseudonym; she preferred to remain anonymous.) "I left [my native country] when I was a kid, I've never actually been back during elections." Uma's country of origin doesn't allow absentee voting. "I've always wanted to be part of the democratic process."

Jerome Keating, voting for his first time in Taiwan put it this way, "If you believe in democracy, and care for the place where you live, you want to be part of the process." 

Some voting experiences were more neutral. Another friend, "Ted" (a pseudonym), works in the tech industry. He said he expected voting to "feel like a triumphant rite of passage." But when actually going through with it, he described the process as "largely confusing and empty. Despite spending many hours preparing, there was much that was novel. There were a lot of assumptions they didn't explain -- I didn't realize you couldn't take anything into the booth with you and I didn't realize the city council was FTPT [first past the post] with a multi-member district. The ballot doesn't list party affiliation...even though I prepared, I didn't know the numbers of my candidates, and was a bit lost without the parties [as there was no guide allowed in the voting booth]."

Uma agreed. Although she speaks Mandarin, she believes that "Taiwan needs to have more information for people who don’t speak Chinese. People didn’t know how many council people to vote for, and I wasn’t the only one. I asked how many people to vote for, and they said just one. And I was glad I asked that question."

Friedman described the process as "remarkably quick." He said, "You take all these papers and stamp them and put them in the boxes. I was surprised, I’ve voted in the states. It’s also often in schools in New York City, but I’ve always had to wait on line. There was no line at all, it was just in and out." 

Friedman had no issue as a foreigner voting for the first time. "I twas all very cute and they stamped me, as I was at the counter and they were stamping me, the two women were speaking Chinese and I heard something about foreigners but they were all nice and polite and it was very quick."

Homnick and Uma also described the process as very fast. Uma added that with more and more foreigners gaining the right to vote, election workers didn't appear to be very surprised by her presence. There are guides -- Uma mentioned that there's a guide outside the booths that describes what is a valid or invalid vote, and the boxes where you place the various ballots are all color-coded, and there are people around to tell you what to do. Before the election, all eligible voters receive a newspaper-like bundle describing the candidates, with a picture, party affiliation and space for each to extol their platforms. The same paper is also displayed at the polling place.

However, that doesn't necessarily mean the process will be clear to dual nationals. "One Taiwanese guy tore his up, he was on the news. Two new immigrants form Hong Kong they brought theirs out. They were brought to the police station," Uma said.

Despite some of these issues, the overall feeling was jubilant. "In the US we’re so used to doing this. But inTaiwan [if you can't vote], you feel like you’re a passenger. You’re watching the election with your friends on election night, you’re kind of passive about it. Actually having some skin in the game, it feels different," Homnick observed. 

"I was definitely elated to put my vote in," Keating added.

Becoming 'The Newest Taiwanese'

The actual process of getting Taiwanese citizenship and emotions around acquiring it seemed to influence how these new citizens felt about participating in the 2022 election. 

Ted said he "didn't expect citizenship would change" how he felt or how his life worked. "I just wanted to belong. Boy, was I wrong. I feel like a totally different person. The US has fully become 'the old country'," he said. 

One example is his attitude toward US policies. "I noticed that it made me way more ambivalent," he continued. "I wouldn't say my US politics have changed. I like Millenial socialism in theory, but find actual Millenial socialists a bit much. But it just takes up way less headspace than it used to."

For Ted, the most important change has been his ability to open businesses and protect his partner. "We are unable to marry as his home country doesn't recognize same-sex marriage, so instead of having a marriage, I have a business that sponsors his ARC."

Uma, who gave up her original nationality, said she felt like she was "betraying" her native land, and wished she'd perhaps waited longer to see if she qualified under the new regulations. "We did it because my daughter was graduating from school, and she was going to go to the Netherlands for college. She had a logical argument, she wanted to get Taiwanese nationality so she could travel around Europe freely, and didn’t want to go through the visa process," she said. (Uma's original nationality doesn't usually qualify for visas on arrival). "[My daughter] was under 20, and in Taiwan that’s considered not an adult, so one parent needed to do it with her. So I did it."

Homnick described the process as "bittersweet", pointing out that it feels like only a small step in the right direction.

"In some ways it’s the culmination of 13 years in Taiwan and calling this country my own," he observed. "On the other hand, it’s often a publicity stunt. There's always a press release, and they make the giant ID card. It's like, 'hey look how international we are', without always being super international. And I think it’s great personally, obviously there are benefits to having an ID. But does it really serve the purpose of paving the way for more acceptance of dual citizenship? I think it probably does — any sort of cracks in the long-time policies of excluding most immigrants from citizenship are probably a good thing, even if it’s just getting visibility to starting a conversation."

Ted did not experience the publicity 'circus', however. There was no press release and after some thought, he declined to be interviewed by the media.

Friedman also pointed out the narrowness of the path to dual nationality, but added that there is a logical explanation for it. 

"I’d like to see Taiwan become more multicultural," he said. "The vast majority of foreigners in Taiwan are Southeast Asian workers. So if Taiwan did open [dual nationality to more people], they would be the main beneficiaries. If Taiwan were to shift to becoming more of a Southeast Asian country, and more of an immigrant country the way the US and Europe are more immigrant countries....wherever that’s happened, it’s sparked anti-immigrant backlash mostly sparked by false information and false ideas about who immigrants are and their impact on the economy. Most studies show that immigrants are actually good for the economy and don’t cause rises in crime. But you know Taiwan’s media landscape...and you can imagine how that’s going to be spun by the media."

He went on to emphasize that much of this backlash is sparked by political and media disinformation. "Fearmongering from some politicians and the media are going to be a challenge. So I don’t blame the government for being a little cautious."

In terms of the difficulty of actually acquiring dual nationality, experiences varied quite a bit. All encountered challenges, though some, such as Friedman, found the process smoother than others. Some found the challenges, including significant ones, to be less than expected. Others encountered more difficulties than they'd anticipated. The only universal was that no one's journey was entirely without obstacles.

For Homnick, the whole process took about a year and included an initial rejection. "I applied thinking that I had been a vice president with a tech company for awhile, I’d done some open source projects that had to do with TW as well.  I figure that would be enough...the first time I actually got rejected. They were pretty good about giving feedback, they said, 'we felt you didn’t have enough contributions to Taiwan.' It was good of the committee to give me the feedback, even though I think the standards are ridiculous. So I went back, got a bunch more recommendation letters, and really focused my application on contributions to Taiwan." 

He added that some fields seem to provide easier paths to dual nationality than others. Academia in particular, he said, "seems to be one of the reliable ways to get through the committee. You have to be an associate professor, and if you have that you are pretty much greenlit." 

Ted had a more difficult time of it than either Homnick or Friedman, calling the process an "unparalleled chore." He applied through the Ministry of Science and Technology, and submitted his tech portfolio as proof of contributions to Taiwan. He also noted that one has to have Mandarin language proficiency. 

"[For] the second phase review, my local HRO (Household Registration Office) demanded 39 separate documents, including an FBI background check translated into Chinese, verified by TECRO, and then again by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, then notarized, then translated, then notarized again," Ted recounted.  The local office rejected the translation twice...after giving them all that, they said that I wasn't qualified. It took the intervention of my new employer, lawyers, the Ministry of Science and Technology and the National Development Council to convince the HRO to forward the application." 

However, he states that he's not resentful about the process. "I actually thought it would be worse," he quipped. 

Uma also faced challenges as a new citizen. Receiving citizenship doesn't necessarily grant all the rights of citizenship immediately, as she found out to her detriment. 

She said, "There’s a lot of paperwork you need to give up your own nationality. After that, it’s better if you don’t travel for a period, maybe a year. You just have a passport but it does not show your ID card [because] you don’t have a household registration. So you don’t have the visa-free entry to anywhere in that year. If you have to travel, you have to wait two years to get your household registration. So we didn’t travel for that year, and I lost a lot of job opportunities by staying. After one year we got the national ID the household registration and everything, the works. [Since then] it's just been like a Taiwanese citizen [for me]."

While Homnick noted that gathering paperwork was the most time-consuming part of the process, Friedman emphasized that it comes in two steps, and one is smoother than the other. 

"The first step is to get approved as a special foreign professional," he said. "Once that comes through you are allowed to apply for citizenship without having to give up your passport. That’s fairly simple and straightforward. The first part is occupation specific, and each occupation has their own procedures.

As a professor, I go through the Ministry of Education....The fact that you’ve already been given tenure is proof that you’re a special foreign professional. For a filmmaker, unless you’ve won an Academy Award or something. Some of these professions are made for it, like basketball players, or if you have a Plum Blossom APRC [which] is already proof that you are a special foreign professional. There are certain disciplines where it’s much easier to do it than others."

"It’s a little arbitrary," he continued. "But if you happen to be lucky enough to fit into one of these slots — priest, basketball player…then it’s not that hard. Usually if people have problems, it’s because their institutions weren’t supportive of them. I think as time goes on, more and more institutions [will be] willing to do the process."

Uma agreed, saying that "I used to think you have to be 90 years old and build 90 churches to get citizenship, and that’s too hard. Even now they’re not very realistic. Even now, people who’ve really contributed and who really deserve it are falling through the cracks. It’s getting better, Taiwan is like that." 

Homnick added that it seemed as though someone who didn't have specific institutional backing would need to "win a Nobel Prize" to qualify.

Who's a Foreigner? Who Isn't?

Everyone had something to say about how Taiwan regarded them in the context of being newly, officially local, both in general and in the context of last month's election. Most didn't cite ongoing discrimination, however, it bears mentioning that of the people I interviewed, only one was a person of color. 

Friedman said that when he went to vote, "the two women were speaking Chinese and I heard something about foreigners but they were all nice and polite," and that more than voting itself, talking to others about becoming a citizen might have some kind of impact. "But it's hard to know," he admitted. He also noted that he talks about how perceptions of him as an "American Taiwanese" are likely to be quite different than Taiwanese who gain US citizenship and become "Taiwanese Americans". 

In line with Friedman's earlier point that it would benefit Taiwan to be more multicultural, Homnick noted that while he does have neighbors who will sometimes complain or assume the "foreigner" is at fault, the doormen of this building will stand up for him, especially now that he is a citizen. "They'll stand up when people say 'waiguoren'," he said, "they'll say 'he's not a foreigner!'" 

"It's going to take awhile to get over that stuff. Having people who break conceptions of what a Taiwanese person looks like are probably good in the long run. And I think that’s really in the benefit of Taiwan in the long run as well. You look at China which has tried so hard to become this ethnonationalist state, anything Taiwan can do to set themselves apart from that is a good thing." 

Uma described her experience when voting: "I think there are more and more foreign faces with ID cards now, so they’re not that surprised. First they said, 'do you have an ID?' I said yes. I had my ID in hand so they understood I was a citizen."

"I no longer care if people mislabel me as a foreigner, or try to speak English when Chinese would be easier...I have nothing more to prove, but seeing my partner face so much discrimination is heartbreaking. As a foreigner, I always felt like citizens had so much untapped power, but now as a citizen I feel this kind of surreal helplessness. I'm safe, but I cannot extend that safety to others," Ted added.

Homnick also noted discrimination against Southeast Asian immigrants in Taiwan, citing a bulletin in his building requiring families to sequester any domestic workers in their apartments during the pandemic, and not let them leave. "That's definitely illegal," he clarified. "I said, 'if you don't take this down I'm calling the police." (The notice was taken down.) 

While voting and being part of the political process is the most meaningful benefit Homnick says he's derived, the one he feels on a daily basis is having a regular Taiwan identity card. "The biggest quality of life improvement is having the number that works on websites, he said. "Which is funny because they said they were going to solve this issue by standardizing the ID numbers, but their solution didn't fix anything!"

Homnick also noted that access to government subsidies and other services is a major benefit, but that he's never tried to get something like a mortgage. "Some things haven’t changed," he added. "I still get called laowai, waiguoren, people still ask for an ARC. I went to Chunghwa Telecom to renew a contract and they still wanted to see an ARC, and I needed to explain that I don’t have [one]. There’s still some discrimination by banks. It’s more about being born outside of Taiwan."

The November Election

One thing struck me as I talked to this group of new Taiwanese with many divergent experiences: the extent to which they agreed on the November election. 

"Politically, I have way less patience for the KMT than I used to. I was never a tankie, but I was educated by them and felt they had good points on some issues [such as nuclear power]. But I'm not willing to entertain them because I don't trust them to handle China, and if they don't get that through their heads, the party and country will suffer. The Communists might not allow me to leave the way a foreigner could," Ted observed.

Homnick is similarly worried. "I am a lot more wary of China," he said. "I don’t think I’ll ever go back to China. I think the national security law probably applies to me now. Even if it doesn’t, it’s not worth taking the risk. What if they start arbitrarily detaining Taiwan citizens? What happens to citizens if there is some kind of conflict?"

"I didn't have a lot invested in who was elected to the city council," Friedman said. "but I really cared a lot about the referendum [to lower the voting age to 18], and I’m very upset about that. I didn’t expect it to win. I was for it [but] I was shocked by now disinterested and now unmotivated people were to make sure that it passed...for me, it seemed an important measure in terms of Taiwanese democracy. And it’s again something I’ve talked about with my students. I have had students who said they thought they weren’t mature enough to vote. I showed them a map of how in other countries, 16 or 17 year olds might [have voting rights].  'Do you really think you’re less mature?'"

He continued, "Then they started thinking, maybe you have a point. Even young people seem to buy into [the attitude that they shouldn't be voting.] I found that very depressing, I think it’s important for young people to become civically engaged and start participating in the process. Politics shouldn’t be left to just old people either."

Homnick agreed, saying he was "disappointed but not surprised" regarding the election results. "I feel like I don’t have a good understanding of why people vote the way they do. I’m not sure I have a good understanding in the US either. I don’t see why anyone with Chiang in their name is still relevant these days. [My girlfriend said] her friends said they voted for him because he's handsome, or their parents told them to. [But] if you want to pick the most handsome candidate, you have the right to. No matter how I feel about it, it’s your choice. I was disappointed about the referendum on voting age. A lot of the justifications for people voting against that: '18 year olds are not mature enough to make decisions like that.' Well they’re not going to be if you treat them like children!"

Friedman tended to agree regarding the election of Chiang Wan-an as Taipei mayor. "It's hard for me to know how much of a factor it played, it's obvious that Wan-an is cashing in on the Chiang name, which is weird that that would have resonance for people. One argument is 'well, they didn't really vote for him for that reason', [but] the fact that he chose that name didn't hurt him either. It's like in the Philippines with the Marcos family getting re-elected. The parallels are interesting."

"I’m really sad the referendum thing didn’t go through," Uma concurred. "The voting age should be 18. They’re saying there wasn’t proper education about it. There might have been some misinformation as well. People were saying that older people thought that people aged 18-20 could also run for elections as a candidate, and older people didn’t like that, so they voted against it."

Not everyone expressed a specific opinion on candidates, but Uma offered one perspective: "Chen had a town hall for foreigners, when he started [campaigning], when he first announced, and I got to go. And I interacted with him and…I watched him for 900 days. I was very excited to have the possibility of being mayor. So that was quite sad." 

In the end, Friedman and Uma offered up perspectives that perhaps summarized the feeling of participating in a democratic process as citizens rather than foreign residents. 

Although Friedman described voting as "a little anticlimactic", he didn't mean it in a negative way. "For democracy to be kind of boring is a good thing," he said. 

In fact, Friedman pointed to social movements as another vital part of civic engagement and the democratic process. "When the Sunflower movement happened, the students we had comment to university were very politicized. Since [then], that faded into the background, young people seemed less politically involved. It’s interesting, because my general feeling is that the quality of education is improving in Taiwan, and the quality of college students is improving, [but they seem] less politicized...Wage justice, environmental justice -- there are some, but broadly speaking people tend to be more focused on their personal career. Social movements invigorate people and get people involved in politics."

"Because when we say Taiwan is a beacon for democracy in Asia, it’s like the front line against an autocratic country," Uma concluded. "I feel like I’m part of it. And I’m not sure whether it excites me or scares me. Family back home, [ask] 'aren’t you scared of living in Taiwan?" Because the media really hypes up the whole China thing, [such as] when Pelosi came and [China's military drills]. I said’s just like part of our daily lives. It’s something we’re used to...Taiwan is upholding this light of democracy,  and Taiwan is dealing with that on a daily basis. Being part of the voting processes [and] making sure they don’t sell Taiwan out to China is an important part of that." 

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Notes on that Big Kylo Energy in Taipei

I absolutely borrowed the idea for using this movie still from someone else, but my sentiments are exactly the same. Very little about yesterday was a surprise to me, but it still hurts when the city you call home decides that the least qualified candidate, who worships his Mass Murder Grandpa and Even Mass Murderier Great Grandpa, should be mayor. 

I respect the democratic process and all, the people have spoken. I happen to disagree with their choice -- I'm really not a fan of Mass Murder Grandpa -- but hey, that's democracy. The losers lost with grace, lowering the voting age should have passed but didn't, and I'm not feeling great about it today.

You won't get any super original takes here: I don't comment as much on elections anymore because there are people out there (like Courtney Donovan Smith and Nathan Batto) who do a better job. All I have are some notes.

First, more people voted to lower the voting age than voted against it, but it still didn't have enough overall "yes" votes to pass. I happen to think that this isn't just the KMT perfunctorily 'agreeing' with the DPP to take the wind out of their electoral issue sails. It's very difficult to change things when voting is already skewed in favor of older people, and those older people very much have an unjustified "kids these days!" view. Plus, they know perfectly well that those "kids" mostly won't vote for the conservative hucksters they want in office. Progressives have shown they can sweep individual elections, but systemic change is far more difficult to implement. 

On the reasons why the vote broke down as it did, the best take I've found is Wen-ti Sung's on Twitter. Here's a long snippet, organized into paragraphs:

DPP main progressive agenda this electoral cycle is lowering voting age to 18, hoping to use it to paint rival KMT as conservative boomers.

But this got neutralized politically, 'coz this time KMT actually agrees, ('coz KMT didn't want to make it a political cleavage issue & lose young voters for nothing). DPP then defaults back to its TW nationalism card. But it faces diminishing utility, as it's been DPP's main weapon in 2014, 2016, and 2020. Fourth time is not the charm. DPP then tries intense negative campaigning against the opposition (to be sure KMT does a lot of negative campaigning, too). This includes DPP's repeat questioning of 2 opposition mayor candidates' past records, e.g. alleged misuse of government research grants, misappropriation of parliamentary assistants' overtime pay, etc.

The logic is simple: If you can't win on your own merits, then try to disqualify/discredit your opponents, so you win by default. That playbook backfired -- it's never a good look to see ruling party (Establishment) to play the tired mudslinging game.

It heightens voter fatigue. For weeks on end that's all the voters hear about. That dilutes DPP's  agenda, and it became unclear what the DPP stands for beyond non-stop dirt, day in and day out, and a chaotic status quo of petty politics.

Again, DPP and KMT are both at fault for non-stop negative campaigning this year. But voters rightfully judge the ruling party DPP by higher standards, because of what Spiderman said: "with greater power comes greater responsibility."

Frustrated voters are not going to be pro status-quo, pro-incumbent voters. This means low voter turnout on DPP's side, whereas the hungry KMT voters, after 6 years in the wilderness, couldn't wait to show up on voting day to win one back.

Election results in many cities suggest KMT votes turn out in slightly above average levels, while DPP significantly underperforms its baseline in many cities. (still awaiting final official data of course)

This is not about China, however. If it's about Chinese economic coercion, then since 1) a lot of it is targeted at Taiwanese agricultural produce, and 2) Southern Taiwan is the agricultural hub, one would expect the South to swing the hardest against the DPP, no? But that is not the case. Southern Taiwan is the DPP's only stronghold left this weekend. So DPP's crushing defeat is not about China, but about DPP's own failure to set a positive agenda and maintain party unity.  Self-inflicted wound.

Just a little side-note before we continue: solid, rational thinking like this from a Taiwanese and Taiwan-based expert should be more prevalent in international media. Perhaps y'all can stop interviewing just the same three white folks and start including voices like these? The ideas are more original, analysis better, and it's a fully-informed Taiwanese perspective. All those US-based folks seem to get issues like Taiwan/China exactly backwards, constantly, without taking into account, let alone respecting, the choices Taiwan is making for itself with the same information about China.

More people like Sung and less...whomever, please.

What disappoints me the most isn't that popular incumbents won re-election (Hou in New Taipei and Lu in Taichung). We knew that would happen. I'm not sure how good of a job Lu's done, but she doesn't seem to have performed terribly, either. Hou is extremely popular in New Taipei, and Lin Chia-long isn't even that popular within the DPP (I'm not a huge fan -- he's not the worst, but he's not the best). But I do wonder exactly what Hou has done for New Taipei, because I leave Taipei proper often and haven't really seen any improvements in the big donut. Am I wrong here, or is he mostly popular as a personality? Because I don't see that he's a particularly good mayor. 

Pan-greens like to talk about Hou as the guy responsible for the death of Nylon Deng. And I do indeed think he has some culpability: he was "just following orders", sure, but he had the capacity even then to know right from wrong, surely he had the ability to know that Deng was a 'you'll never take me alive' type of person, and he chose to do the wrong thing. I don't think he should be expelled from society or anything like that, but I also don't think he should be mayor of a major city. 

I also agree with Sung -- this is about not just local issues but the DPP's poor campaigning, and definitively not about China  -- because the DPP incumbent who came closest to losing was Tainan's Huang, and he's not everyone's favorite within the DPP. Re-electing him on a slim margin (for Tainan) is much more likely to be dissatisfaction with the DPP generally, because if there is any city in Taiwan that doesn't f***k with the KMT or pro-China rhetoric, it's Tainan.

I'd like to move there, actually. Or Kaohsiung. I get along well with southerners, and am not looking forward to four years of whatever the Chiang machine is bringing to Taipei.

That brings me back to the newly-elected Kylo Re---I mean Chiang Wan-an. People say voting, especially in mid-terms, is based more on identity and family tradition than whether the candidate is actually good. (In national elections this also plays a role but I think young people sick of Grandpa's bullshit opinions might be a bit more serious about not voting for the Appease China party).

I know more than one person who received multiple messages from their deep blue family about how they must vote KMT. Because they're my friends and I happen to get along with people who lean green well (again, not a fan of Mass Murder Grandpa, but very much a fan of Taiwan), I know they didn't necessarily listen. But surely, some adult offspring did.

And Donovan (linked above) is correct that Chiang had a much bigger get-out-the-vote machine. I heard rumors among local friends that the DPP had "sacrificed" Chen when it became clear he was unlikely to win. I'm not sure about that, but certainly all the noise trucks and hype men annoying me across Taipei were KMT. The DPP left me blissfully in peace. You'd think that would count for something -- Mayor No-Trucks seems like a fantastic pick, and that's not sarcasm -- but apparently not. 

What truly, deeply bothers me, however, is that none of this seems to have much at all to do with competence or qualifications. I don't think Hou is the worst mayor, but he's not the best. Chiang has legislative experience, but he's easily the least qualified candidate. Or as Nathan Batto put it: 

Chen did briefly make an argument that I think he should have hammered more throughout the campaign. Chiang Wan-an, he said, looks new, shiny, and different, but the people behind him are the same old KMT party hacks who have disappointed you again and again.

When I switched over to Chiang’s rally, he was enthusiastically making Chen’s point. The lineup of speakers included former mayor Hau Lung-pin, former deputy mayor Ou Chin-teh, former New Taipei and Kaohsiung deputy mayor Lee Si-chuan, former Taipei Education Bureau chief (and current legislator) Lin I-hua, the head of the KMT legislative caucus Tseng Ming-tsung, Chiang himself, Chiang’s wife, and KMT party chair Eric Chu. That’s a whole slew of old KMT warhorses who don’t exactly exude new ideas.

I know that I can't say much about what the people chose. I don't even get to vote! But I can't help but think they chose something that seemed like a statement, seemed like something new, a young, fresh guy. What they really chose is same-old-same-old, with the same (literally) old hacks informing the same-old "good for the Boss Class" ideas. Plus, an idolized Mass Murder Grandpa. The KMT tends to win not just because they might have a real edge in local elections, but because they've never truly been held accountable in Taiwan for the horrors they perpetrated. And that's in part because again, voting is skewed in favor of old folks, and some of those old folks either weren't affected by those horrors, purposely ignored them, or are actively culpable for decades of oppression.

And again, changing that requires systemic shifts, which are difficult to pull off because it's not one party campaigning for and the other against, but a whole system of people who don't want the "wrong" guy elected -- and who want to control their grandkids and are increasingly pushing against their own irrelevance. 

Some grandkids push against this, some don't, but ultimately the system is skewed and it fights to remain so.

Let's end on a hopeful note. I'll soon be writing about one other thing I noticed this year: multiple friends who have no Taiwanese ancestry but became Taiwanese, who voted, mostly for the first time, in this election. The number of people I know personally who've managed this is fewer than ten, but this is the first year that it's not zero, or perhaps one. 

That's a tiny change. Miniscule. Makes no difference to the current environment. But I'm choosing to see a single rivulet as evidence of a coming shift. Not "foreigners en masse becoming Taiwanese and voting", but the Taiwanese electorate continuing to move away from the past and toward a more open and more diverse future. 

It's not much, but it's all I've got and I will cling to it. 

Sunday, November 13, 2022

I don't want to care about Chiang Wan-an's ancestry (and a Hakka-sponsored KMT rally)

I hadn't planned on attending a Chiang Wan-an rally today. In fact, I wore my Chthonic t-shirt that has a stylized 獨 (independence) under the band name, which immediately gave away that I'm certainly no supporter.

Sadly, I was fated to be there. For weeks I'd planned on attending the Da'an Forest Park free market to give away an IKEA bag full of stuff we no longer need. The Hakka Support Association (客家後援會) just happened to be hosting a Chiang rally at the amphitheater at the same time. I had no choice but to listen to utter bollocks for an hour and a half. 

As you can see, while cropped photos can make it look like the rally was packed, it wasn't really. 

Most of what I listened to was some guy -- I didn't catch who it was -- going on a spittle-flecked rager about how horrible President Tsai, Chen Shih-chung and Huang Shan-shan were. They're all horrible, apparently, because of reasons. (I couldn't make out what the reasons were, and while that could be a fault with my Mandarin, I don't think that's why.) 

Then some flag bearers and lion dancers welcomed Chiang onstage. Apparently Eric Chu was there as well, which I failed to notice from a distance, but he's not exactly Mr. Remarkable so that's fine. 

Chiang mostly talked about how important Hakka culture was to him and that Hakka language and history should be preserved, which is fine. Hakka culture is great! He said he supported it as legislator by encouraging "relevant laws", though I didn't catch what those laws were. 

His specific opinions, proposals and ideas were, well, lacking. He mentioned the new MRT line to Xizhi, which anyone elected would be trying to accomplish, and how northern Taiwan is now too expensive for the youth, which everyone already knows. That's more or less it.

That's not surprising: there isn't a lot of substance to his campaign. Even posters with actual promises on them are frustrating to read: 

Edited: I've had a longer look at this poster (it's very context-specific) and the three promises aren't as vague as I'd initially thought. The first says the rule for urban renewal will switch from 100% resident approval rate to 80%, the second that the amount of required public space in new developments will change (I'm not clear how) and the third -- well, I had to ask a friend about that as it's not clearly worded. But apparently the idea is they can 'force' or 'require' people in places slated for development or urban renewal to accept these new policies.

The policies themselves benefit mostly wealthy property owners.

He then went on to pull a strategy straight out of the skanky Republican playbook by pre-emptively accusing the other candidates of intending to "reverse the election", saying he was in a critical moment (true of all candidates), and "on thin ice" (which isn't true -- it's a tight race but again, it's tight for everyone.)

Oh yes, and he did the one thing I wish he really wouldn't do. The one weird trick that has caused my opinion on him to shift from apathy -- just another unqualified vacuous KMT hack who doesn't deserve the office he's likely to win -- he started leveraging his (purported) ancestral connection to the Chiang dictators, Chiang Ching-kuo in particular. (Chiang Kai-shek's name is political poison, as it should be). 

I missed this part because I was petting a cute dog, which was frankly more engaging than Chiang's speech, but according to the Liberty Times, he said he'd "uphold the spirit of Chiang Ching-kuo, diligently loving the people and serving residents step by step". 

Of course, Chiang Ching-kuo didn't love the people of Taiwan. He instigated major infrastructure projects, but he was also the head of secret police and absolutely knew that many of the people his own government sent to prison weren't getting fair trials. He actively helped to carry out the White Terror. According to the News Lens:

Jay Taylor, author of the Chiang the younger’s most well-known English language biography, “The Generalissimo’s Son,” notes that his subject was, according to those around him, an empathetic man who genuinely cared for the common people....However, the author confesses that this side of his personality was at odds with the reign of terror he inflicted upon the Taiwanese population as head of the National Security Bureau (NSB) after the KMT reforms of the early 1950s. His seemingly gentle and pliable nature also does not negate, in the minds of many who fought for Taiwanese democracy, his role in crushing dissent, both at home and abroad, throughout the period of martial law.

It's unclear what role Chiang Ching-kuo might have played in 228, but there's evidence that he did indeed have a role:

Defense Minister Bai Chongxi (白崇禧) arrived in Taiwan with the generalissimo's son, Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), and wired a message to Chiang Kai-shek that "order is mostly restored, and we are in pursuit of the last remaining rebels that joined forces with armed thugs.”
Does that sound like a guy who "loved the people and cared for residents step by step"?  Because to me, he sounds like a butcher, and Chiang Wan-an is calling on him as a model of public officialdom. 

Let me be blunt: that's fucked up.

This isn't the first time he's talked up the family, either. Here's just one example. From the Taipei Times:

Former presidents Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and his son Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) protected the Republic of China and contributed greatly to the development of Taiwan during the Cold War era, an achievement that should be the goal of any political party in Taiwan, Chiang Wan-an said.

The article cites Chiang's suggestion regarding the name of Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall as "forward thinking", but this sounds pretty backward to me.

He also actively leverages the connection

In January, he said that his name “Wan-an” was given to him by his grandfather — former president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) — as a reminder of his ancestral roots. On more than one occasion, he stated that he has always been proud of being a Chiang, and that he would follow in his ancestors’ — Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and Chiang Ching-kuo — footsteps to make Taiwan a better place. He further underscored this lineage by placing an artistic image of himself with Chiang Ching-kuo, side-by-side, on his mayoral campaign flags.

I know people who know Chiang Wan-an, and hear that is a nice guy in person. I don't doubt that's true. But he's not qualified to be mayor, and even if he were, calling on Chiang Ching-kuo as the sort of leader he'd want to emulate is absolutely not on. 

To be clear, I would feel this way even if he weren't legally recognized as the former dictator's grandson. If you care about all that, here's a great Twitter thread by Taiwan resident David Demes. 

But I don't really, because you can't help who your ancestors are. You can, however, control how you react to and discuss their legacy. On both fronts, Chiang has mostly failed: he's tied himself to brutal dictators. Butchers. Some of the worst criminals of history. Not just by taking the name, but in the way he talks about Chiang Ching-kuo's "loving" nature and treating him like an idol, when the man was absolutely a mass murderer. 

I don't care that public perception of the younger dictator is somewhat better than his murderous father. He was still a butcher. He was an awful man. No infrastructure project can fix that. 

I'm a little ambivalent about the whole Chiang Wan-an family saga though, because every time I say "he could just take a DNA test to prove the connection if he really wanted to", I feel a twinge of discomfort. It has 'birther' vibes, except with even less bodily privacy: as a human being, Chiang has every right to decide what he does or doesn't want to do with his genetic material. 

The callbacks to Chiang Ching-kuo would be offensive and disgusting regardless of his parentage, so arguably, it doesn't matter. But Chiang himself makes it matter by bringing it up all the goddamn time. That's a choice

He doesn't have to definitively confirm the connection, but he could choose to stop leveraging it, or could admit that his legally-recognized ancestors were bad people. "You can't choose your ancestors," he might say. 

He didn't do that, today or any other day. He makes the connection. He asks his supporters to care. He pushes people to care, and he does so in the worst possible way. The most offensive way. That -- and not whomever his grandfather was -- is the problem.

I do want to take this a step further: his choice to take the Chiang name was a choice. There are some pretty weird rumors flying around that the family name was changed when Chiang was a minor, that he had no say in it, that it wasn't intended to be used for any political gain. That's not true: he found out about the purported family connection as a teenager, but the change happened in or around 2005, when Chiang would have been roughly 27.

As Focus Taiwan doesn't archive, here's the relevant bit:

Chiang is the son of former KMT Vice Chairman John Chiang (蔣孝嚴), and purported great-grandson of former President Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石). In 2005, John Chiang changed his surname from Chang (章) to Chiang, and his family, including Chiang Wan-an, later followed suit.

This was around the time his father briefly contended for the Taipei mayorship (2006), which he announced at Chiang Ching-kuo's mausoleum. To say that the name change decision wasn't politically motivated is patently ridiculous. Chiang Wan-an's choice to follow suit is less clear, but he got into politics soon after, so it's hard to believe that his motives were meaningfully different.

I don't want to care, but I feel like Chiang is forcing me to care. He didn't have to do it this way. He chose it.

And my conclusion, from Chiang Wan-an shoving his family history in everyone's face, is this: whether or not he's genetically related to Chiang Ching-kuo, he talks about that murderous piece of shit as though he's some sort of heroic example, a person whose values as a government official are noble and worth emulating.

That is wrong, no matter who you are, or who your ancestors are.

I truly did not want to care, but I was made to care, and my opinion of Chiang Wan-an is much worse for it. He had so many choices available when coming to terms with his ancestry. He could have done right by it. He could have recognized the Chiang name for what it really means for Taiwan. 
He might even have won some goodwill from me (as though that matters).

Instead, he picked all the wrong paths, made all the wrong choices. 

He's been described to me in personal terms, by people who know him in a personal capacity, as a friendly guy -- a decent person. He could have looked at his ancestry and decided to handle it in the way a decent person would. I would have respected that a lot. 

He did the opposite.

That's not because of who his grandfather might have been. That's on him.