Monday, February 15, 2021

The reasons for Taiwan’s low birth rate remain simple


I was in Tainan over the weekend — I have no specific post about it because I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary, but I’ll share a few pictures. A lot of the temples there have those wooden plaques you can write a wish on, pray, and then hang your wish on a board or tree. If you actually stop to read other people’s wishes (and I do), you’ll notice that one of the most common is to “marry and have kids” or “have a little treasure as soon as possible”. Health, peace, love, family and career/financial success are also popular, for obvious reasons. 

But it struck me — for a country with a population that the news keeps saying doesn’t want to procreate, a lot of people sure do want to procreate. 

In fact, recent statistics show that Taiwan’s birthrate has continued to fall, remaining at or near the bottom of global fertility rankings. There’s some variation, with numbers being higher in Changhua, the outlying islands, Taoyuan and to a lesser extent, Hsinchu.

I wrote about this a very long time ago. The article probably sucks and I don't feel like going back to read it again, but I think it’s time to take another look. Mostly, I want to point out that people do want to have children. The question isn’t how to change people's attitudes; it’s how to make what most people already want possible. Shaming them simply won't work, as this Taipei Times article rightly points out.


Tricky Taipei has already published a good piece focusing on the availability of fertility treatments to unmarried people and same-sex couples, so I won’t cover that here. (I also hit this topic in 2016, so there's no need to repeat). The gist: anyone can freeze their eggs, but one must be legally married to a person of the opposite sex to pursue treatments like IVF. That’s not right and it really must change.


For those who aren’t seeking fertility treatments, however, the reasons why the fertility rate is low should be pretty obvious. Here's a brief recap:

1.) Salaries are too low

When you think about the cost of having children compared to Taiwan’s famously stagnant salaries, would you want to constantly worry that you can’t pay bills or raise them the way you want? 

2.) Housing costs are too high

It’s not unusual to want to own your own home before starting a family, or be close to that goal. Although it feels like new apartment complexes are going up constantly, they’re often half-empty, with many units acting as tax shelters or investment properties, not living spaces. Everyday people can’t afford enough space to raise a family comfortably close enough to work and school, so they delay having children. 

3.) Working hours are too long

In other words, when you’re grinding yourself to a pulp a hundred hours a week for some crappy boss, you just don’t have the energy to bone down.

In addition, if you're a double income household but don’t have family who can help, but both parents work, childcare is expensive. This is probably why so many parents pay for cram schools: most of the time, it feels like fancy daycare because that’s exactly what it is. 

4.) Straight-up sexism

Adding to this, a lot of Taiwanese women describe the country’s pretty strong maternity leave policies as “看得到但是吃不到” — we can see it, but we can’t eat it. In theory it's guaranteed, but we can’t access it. I work with a lot of career-minded professionals and over and over, the women tell me that they absolutely face passive-aggressive (or just plain aggressive) repercussions at work for taking their full allotted maternity leave, or are discriminated against in hiring because employers fear they’ll have children soon. 

And, of course, the gender wage and work gaps don't help. Taiwanese women still earn less than men and typically 'female' jobs tend to be lower-to-middle white collar. Women who feel satisfied with their pay and career trajectory are probably more likely to feel ready to have children. 


5.) People are marrying later

Single parenthood is fairly rare in Taiwan, although of course it happens. The government actively discourages it -- the abortion laws are intentionally eugenicist, not egalitarian.

With people mostly intending to have children after marriage, getting married later means fewer years to have children. That's a good thing. Personally, I don’t think my sense of self was fully settled until I was over 25, and I was closer to 30 before I felt mature enough to actually make a marriage work. There's even research backing this up, so it's probably true for a lot of people. In the past this could be papered over somewhat with traditional gender and family expectations, though I would bet just as many marriages were what we’d now call ‘failed’ in the past, even if divorce was not accessible.

6.) Lifestyles are changing

This isn’t a bad thing. It’s not wrong to want to live in a desirable area near work and school, with enough space, near but not with family, as Taiwanese youth are coming to realize the benefits of some privacy. It’s not wrong to want some of the trappings of a good life for your family — everything from travel to new clothes when you need them to not stressing about bills to sending your kids to good schools. Stagnant salaries mean fewer children, period.


7.) Gender roles are changing

Women have known for awhile that having more children means more work for them, if their husbands don’t step up. This is especially true if your support network can't step up to help. Some women have the desire and ability to be stay-at-home mothers, but even for families who can afford it, not every woman wants to give up her career, even if the hours are punishing. Can you blame them for not wanting to take on more in a society with this kind of work culture, where men still do far less housework than women?

This is also why people are marrying later: in the past perhaps one didn’t get as much of a say over what their married life would look like, because expectations were so set. Men earned money, and women could work (often running the most important parts of the family business) but had to do all of the traditional ‘women’s’ work, too. Even the Taiwanese feminist movement of the 1970s accepted this. Now, people want to marry a partner, not a role.

An interesting aside: the birth rate doesn't seem to be affected that much by educational attainment. There's a  drop-off in bearing children between female Master's and PhD holders, and a dip for women with Master's degrees in their twenties, but otherwise, the birth rate for women with Master's degrees in their 30s and 40s exceeds those with college degrees. This is likely because they delayed having those children, so the uptick in births appears in higher age categories.


This explains a lot

This is probably why Changhua and the outlying islands and, to a lesser extent, Taoyuan and Hsinchu, have higher fertility rates. I can't prove this, but in my experience the outlying islands are more conservative generally, so expectations of gender roles and family life may not have changed as much. Plus, young people who stay instead of moving to Taiwan likely live near family.

Changhua has some good things going for it, and the Taichung job market isn’t far away. And, again, if you’ve decided to raise a family in Changhua, it’s likely because you want to be near your own family support network. Hsinchu has comparably lower housing costs relative to higher science park salaries, and Taoyuan is commutable to both Hsinchu and Taipei, as well as being its own logistics hub due to the airport.

So what can we do?

Personally, I’m not sure constantly growing the population is the best way forward. Taiwan has limited space, and it’s already densely packed. Other solutions to deal with a super-aged society until population can level off would probably be better, but I don’t have any to offer beyond increased assistance to seniors. 

And of course, the statistics could be improved immediately if we just created a path for dual nationality for all immigrants, including the majority who are workers from Southeast Asia. 

But let’s say we do want more babies in Taiwan. How do we get people to have them?

Family subsidies are an acceptable start, but they are insufficient and don't seem to be working well. Measures to promote increased wages and lower work hours — yes, both of these, at the same time — would have a stronger impact, but it's hard to say what would achieve this and how enforceable it would be. Crappy bosses wouldn't like it because they would have to hire the number of people actually needed to get the work done and pay them fairly, but the goal would also be to reduce the number of bosses who can get away with being crappy. 


Affordable housing is something that can be addressed immediately. Instead of big infrastructure projects (I’m looking at you, F***ing Taipei Dome and every unnecessary new "Aerotropolis" and science park plan) while greenlighting housing  nobody can afford to live in, why not focus on affordable housing, renovate unoccupied urban structures and incentivize (not force) private construction companies to build human shelter, not tax shelter? At the same time, create or expand a mortgage or deposit subsidy for people with dependent children that can help them buy a first or larger home. 

Affordable childcare would help too. France has a subsidized “crèche” system; why can’t Taiwan? While we're at it, increase the availability of low-cost or free public pre-school, and create more engaging after-school programs for children that don't involve sitting at a desk for a few more hours memorizing facts to regurgitate on tests.

Finally, the government can and must listen to gender equality thought leaders. With progressive laws that don’t stigmatize or render inaccessible single or same-sex couple parenthood, enforcing gender equality laws and a strong “step it up, men (and bosses)” message, chances are we can make Taiwan a society where having more children is once again an appealing choice for women. 

Some of these changes would be complex and difficult, but others would be relatively straightforward. Some do require an outlay of political capital: reasonable work hours and pay will anger employers used to exploiting workers, and some of those companies skate by on razor-thin margins. Homeowners and development companies won't want to see the value of their properties decrease as housing becomes more affordable.

While I do understand the reasons behind such push-back, the changes that would actually solve the birth rate problem will also result in greater socioeconomic and gender equality. A robust middle class creates appealing conditions for people to grow their families. Funny how that works, eh? I'm not particularly sympathetic to those who resist because they thrive on inequality, keeping salaries low and housing prices high.

The government has a choice here: either take the necessary steps to actually address the low birth rate and face the inevitable resistance head-on, or don't -- but then don't whine that young people aren't having children because the financial and housing security they need is out of reach.

Most people do want children. There is no problem with young people’s attitudes and even if there were, they’re not going to change so all we can do is work with them. So we need to look at society for what it is and create targeted solutions that actually address the underlying issues that cause people to decide against having more children.

Friday, February 12, 2021

For English teachers in Taiwan, is it "Lunar New Year" or "Chinese New Year"?


I hear that other cultures celebrate Taiwanese New Year as well. Apparently it's also a thing in China. 
(Please don't take this meme too seriously). 

Just a quick one for the first day of the Lunar New Year. 

When I first arrived in Taiwan, I called it Chinese New Year or CNY. Then I realized that wasn't the best term, as many cultures outside of China -- including Taiwanese culture -- also celebrate this holiday, and it's probably not good practice to tie it to China. It also ties in with CCP attempts to co-opt every cultural touchstone they see as "Chinese", promote it as theirs alone, and force people who don't identify as Chinese to accept Chineseness. Gross.

Like most people who go through this phase, I landed on Lunar New Year, and I still think that's the best choice. Only once has someone pointed out that it's technically decided by the the farmers'/luni-solar calendar, not the "lunar" calendar, but honestly, the goal is to pick a culturally neutral term and I'm not sure we need to go down a deep rabbit hole to find one. Plus, such arguments are usually a tad disingenuous; the people who make them often want to keep "Chinese New Year" as the common term by de-legitimizing everything else. 

(If you want to call it Lunisolar New Year, I certainly won't stop you.)

However, I quickly became a massive prig about Lunar New Year, to the point of correcting other people who said "Chinese New Year". I regret this. It's my holiday or part of my culture. I had no right to be correcting anyone for whom it is.

That didn't work either, though. A lot of students and trainees whom I knew didn't identify as Chinese and wanted to be able to talk about their cultures without having to link them to China still called it "Chinese New Year" for lack of a better term, especially as the word "Chinese" doesn't appear in any rendering of the holiday's name in any Sinitic language that I know of. The issue wasn't thinking that was the best word, it was an absence of alternatives -- a linguistic information gap. Some hadn't learned the word "lunar" yet.

I now recommend my current approach. I call it Lunar New Year,  clarify the word "lunar" if there's any confusion, and explain why if the context is right. When someone calls it "Chinese New Year" and I'm in a situation where it's clear my suggestion wouldn't be unwelcome, I point out that "Lunar New Year" is an option and why if necessary. Then I follow that up with "...but you can call it what you want" or "you can choose". 

The idea behind this is that language is a toolbox, and people who choose to take a language class (or study to become a teacher -- my main job these days is training) want those tools. They don't want or need to be told what to call things from their own culture in a foreign language. So instead of pushing cultural information -- forcing learners to accept that New Year is "Chinese" or not depending on your whims as a language authority -- it provides language information that can help them make their own choice. It raises awareness and offers options rather than providing a single 'way'. 

This also provides room for the argument for "Lunar New Year" to be persuasive enough on its own merits, not because it was pushed on anyone. It also opens up that space for Taiwanese learners of English to discuss the issue themselves and either choose to disagree or come to a resolution. Plenty of Taiwanese activists are already doing this work; "Lunar New Year" was not a term invented by foreigners. If they want to push harder for Lunar New Year, they have a better foundation to do so than someone who's not from here. We can support them but I don't know that we can ever be them. 

If a student or trainee continues to use "Chinese New Year", do I flinch a bit? Deep down in my heart of hearts, yes. Taiwan is my home and I do have opinions about it, as I've lived here a long time and have many local connections. But can we really call ourselves conscientious teachers of a language with an undeniably problematic history if we foist those opinions on people actually from the cultures we live in? The tools we offer can never be neutral, but they can be imbued with choice and their non-neutrality can be acknowledged.

So, I try not to show an outward reaction, even as I continue to call it Lunar New Year.

In other words, in the Year of the Ox, let's keep fighting CCP bullshit, but without resorting to their tactics of cultural imperialism. "Lunar New Year" will probably win out, because the case for it is sufficiently persuasive without your having to tell anyone what to think. 

Monday, February 8, 2021

Let's talk about immigration and quadruple standards (again)


An exhibit at the former Japanese Naval Guesthouse in Taipei, now an art gallery, featuring work by Taiwanese artists alongside artifacts from South and Southeast Asia.

I was recently quoted extensively in this Hong Kong Free Press article about the ongoing fight for dual nationality in Taiwan. I think overall the piece is quite good. 

The article covers some important points: even people born here to parents who don't have Chinese or Taiwanese ancestry can't get dual nationality. There is simply no pathway. Until just a few years ago that meant potentially being forced to leave the only country you've ever called home because there was no visa available. Now, that issue's been somewhat addressed by allowing such children to get permanent residency. Other streamlining has occurred, which helps, but still doesn't -- and can't -- address many key issues. 

We can't vote, usually get turned down for anything requiring a credit line, and aren't eligible for any number of benefits that will likely grow more necessary as we age (a lot of senior citizen benefits are not available to us regardless no matter how long we've paid taxes). Our ability to be fully included on the labor insurance pension plan was only recently instated, as well. 

However, there are a few things from my interview that didn't make it in, and I'd like to discuss them here.

It's been pointed out that the piece ignores the Southeast Asian community, and yes, it does. I brought up the issue of foreign blue-collar labor, not because I think I can speak for anyone, but because I was being interviewed. That segues into my first point.

Many people note the "double standard" of Taiwan's nationality laws: most countries either allow everyone or no one to have multiple nationalities. In fact, it's a quadruple standard.

People with the right ancestry can have multiple nationalities without issue. People with so-called "elite" jobs can get dual nationality. People like me can get permanent residency but not dual nationality. And treated worst of all, blue-collar foreign workers (who make up a large percentage of the Southeast Asian immigrant community) have no access to permanent residency, nor do labor and residency laws protect them adequately. 

This is both racist and classist on the part of the Taiwanese government. Although there are explanations for why the piece focused on APRC holders, it would have been good to include a section on the extra barriers that exist for most immigrants to Taiwan, with a related interview. 

My second point is related: it creates a system where your human worth is tied entirely to your job. But, as Preston points out in the article, being a good citizen is about more than what job you do, and it's a bit of a straitjacket to insist that "worthy" people must hold a narrow range of positions: 

“They’re using it as a rewards system....It’s basically a very exclusive club, but there’s more to good citizens than just being an elite member of society."

It stifles the sorts of contributions that may be good for Taiwan, but don't come with a specific title attached. 

It's also a reminder to those of us who have APRCs that consistently advocating for and supporting immigrant communities with less privilege is important. 

The truth is, even if I get a PhD someday, I don't particularly want to be a professor -- the job I would need to qualify. I think my personal contribution is more impactful as a teacher trainer, because I work with local teachers, who can then do what they think is best with their professional development in their context. 

The usual comeback to this is that "the government chose to incentivize the sort of people it wants to immigrate". Okay, but that's still a "you are only worth your job title" attitude, and in any case, the government has also been saying that it wants qualified teachers and teacher trainers for it's EMI/CLIL-based initiative to improve English language proficiency. In other words, I am exactly the sort of person they say they want. Beyond that, while the government may not say they want blue-collar labor, such labor is vital to Taiwan and they know it.

Another rejoinder I often hear is that Taiwan is a "monoculture", it's not a place where anyone from anywhere could potentially come to call themselves Taiwanese. I will leave aside the "being Taiwanese" aspect, because even if I get dual nationality someday, I don't intend to call myself that. I do think the term still has cultural connotations that just don't apply to me. 

There are two things wrong with the "monoculture" argument. First, the original citizenship law was written in China in the 1920s. It was never intended to apply to just Taiwan, and certainly wasn't tailored to or even appropriate for any concept of Taiwan as a nation. Now, the vast majority of Taiwanese either identify solely as Taiwanese, or prioritize Taiwanese identity. There is a distinct sense of a unique Taiwanese culture, heritage and history, separate from China. As Kerim noted: 

As a researcher of Taiwanese indigenous culture and languages, Friedman said there was also an ideological reason for allowing more foreigners to hold dual citizenship. “I would very much like to see Taiwan move away from the ethno-nationalistic view that citizenship in Taiwan is associated with being Chinese… I would like to see more diverse kinds of Taiwanese people.”

“I think Taiwan’s future as an independent country also depends on de-linking Taiwanese identity from ‘Chinese-ness’… So as a personal act, becoming a Taiwanese citizen myself is a step in that direction,” he said.

If descendants of the Chinese diaspora who have never even visited Taiwan, whose ancestors may have never visited either (or only stopped here briefly after leaving China in the 1940s) are eligible for "ROC" nationality -- something I don't begrudge, by the way -- then it's not about that distinct Taiwanese culture. It's about race, and specifically being 'from China'. But Taiwan doesn't identify as part of China! 

So, is being Taiwanese something separate from being Chinese, or not? If not, then why is the ancestral requirement paramount? If so, how does that square with what polls say about Taiwanese identity

Creating a pathway to nationality for who have built a life in Taiwan despite their ancestry 
can create a foundation for a nation that exists as a civic partnership rather than an ethno-state and cement a national identity distinct from China. It helps Taiwan move away from difficult, tired and frankly outdated arguments -- ethnic nationalism is so twentieth century! (Even with places like Tibet and East Turkestan, I don't think they deserve independence because they are not Han Chinese. I think they deserve it because the Chinese government treats them like crap.) 

In short, a pathway not based on bloodline contributes to a national ethos that makes sense and is consistent with the sort of country Taiwan says it wants to be. Some may fear an erosion of national identity, but out of over half a million foreign residents, only a fraction intend to stay permanently, and it's likely not all of those would go for dual nationality. In other words, those who want this pathway are already here, and for any newcomers the process would likely take around a decade: the number I hear mentioned most often is 5 years post-APRC, which itself takes at least five years. It wouldn't likely create a flood of newcomers, and I don't think Taiwanese identity is so weak that people who've stayed a decade could possibly threaten it. 

The second problem with the 'monoculture' argument is that historically it just isn't true. Taiwan has always been an international crossroads, and has seen waves of settlers, colonizers and immigrants, who generally weren't welcome at first (and some of whom did great damage -- and yes, I'm looking at powerful members of the KMT diaspora). Everyone with ancestral ties to China -- that is, most of the population -- is descended from settlers. More recently, intercultural families, often with a mother from Southeast Asia, are common in Taiwan. I've been too busy with work to find good data on this, but here's a 2010 article that put the number at one in ten Taiwanese children with a foreign parent, down from one in seven in the early 2000s

What happens to the children and grandchildren of these waves of immigrants? Honestly...they come to identify as Taiwanese. They adapt to local culture, and local culture adapts to them. 

I don't ever expect to be considered 'the same' as a local, and I doubt I could fully assimilate if I wanted to. I can't deny that my race and the privilege that comes with it as well as the culture I was born into create differences that I doubt can be fully bridged. However, this is my home. Period. 

There's one final point worth making: the 'social consensus' argument. As non-voters, we can't force the government to do anything, nor can we force the public to agree with this vision of Taiwan that includes us. 

But do we have to? Most Taiwanese who ask me if I have citizenship are shocked to learn it's not available to me without an unconscionable sacrifice (the ability to return to care for aging family in the US should I need to). I doubt most are even aware that the quadruple standard exists. How can society be against something it doesn't even realize is an issue?

I do worry that one of the issues is a willingness to consider people like me for dual nationality, but not the people who are hurt the most by the quadruple standard -- the Southeast Asian foreign worker community. That will have to be addressed in the coming years.

The government could do something about all of this. They could end these pointless calculations of 'worthiness' based on one's job. All I can say is that I hope, in my lifetime, that they do. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Hot New Tips For Talking About China With "Nuance"!

Hey, China Hands. Feelin’ down? Like it’s really hard to defend a regime that is accused of genocide, cultural oppression and warmongering? Are you finding it difficult to reconcile your “Believe Women” stance with your ardent desire not to believe women who say they were repeatedly raped while detained in CCP-run concentration camps? Would you do anything to get your “everyone who doesn’t love the CCP is racist” mojo back?

Never fear — you can always call for “nuanced debate” on issues such as threatening invasion and straight-up massacre, and accuse those who wrongly criticize the CCP of “lacking nuance”. 

“But there are so many critics these days,” you might say. “How do you actually insist all of them debate with ‘nuance’? Surely someone will figure out that I am literally defending genocide!” 

Well, you’re in luck! At Lao Ren Cha, we’re here to help. We’ve done the research, asked the experts and compiled some of our hottest tips for accusing everyone who disagrees with your pro-CCP stance of “lacking nuance”.

Before we get started, let’s review the Golden Rule of Nuance: the person who calls for it can never lack nuance themselves. Afraid that someone will say your thinking is about as deep as a sheet of paper? That your “China isn’t so bad, it’s all the other countries that are terrible, in every way” argument is clunky and boorish? Don’t worry — just play the Nuance card early, so nobody can say it about you! 

Here are some more Hot Tips how you can keep an online fight going far longer than it ever needs to, sowing annoyance and division in your wake: 

1.) Spout "facts" and be really hostile when people check them, but require incontrovertible verification for every piece of evidence you don't like. Ensure that no verification is sufficient to convince you, including video evidence. All "facts" that don't meet your impossible standards of proof simply do not exist!

2.) "Whataboutism" is your best friend! Utilize this argument early and often. Try to make it plausible, for example, pointing out real flaws in Western countries such as the US prison system or Australian detention centers on Nauru. TIP! China can criticize these things about other countries without acknowledging the genocide it’s perpetrating, but other countries cannot criticize China. 

3.) Call everyone who disagrees with you a neoliberal or a capitalist -- or both. In fact, go with both. It helps if you claim that standing for Taiwan means supporting “the Nationalists”. It doesn’t matter if they do or not. 

4.) "Boomer", "White feminist" and "Karen" are useful terms to describe certain behaviors of privileged White people. Nevermind that though, be sure to call everyone who disagrees with you one of these, whether or not they are applicable. "White Left" is also a good choice. A lot of people actually are racists so that works too, and pairs well with disingenuously conflating criticism of the CCP with criticism of every Chinese person.

5.) Cite your experience in "the real China". Bonus points if that experience was exclusively in Beijing or Shanghai.

6.) Talk about imperialism and colonialism a lot, and sound really good doing it. Only apply your fairly strong anti-imperialist/decolonization arguments to the West, as no government that's not Western is capable of either of these or any of their evils.

7.) Use your most heartfelt voice to claim that the only way to stop genocide and systemic rape is through "engagement", if we just "engage" then the CCP will stop all the genociding and rape. Anyone who disagrees with that is, again, a racist.

8.) If you can't work in Confucius or "5,000 years" of something, at least make sure to say that China "lifted millions out of poverty". Do not mention who put them into poverty.

9.) Use metaphors that don't quite work. A good choice is comparing Taiwan to Hawaii. Neither the actual status of Taiwan compared to Hawaii nor how others in the debate feel about Hawaiian independence matter. It should always be assumed that Taiwan is not currently independent.

10.) Racism directed at Asians in Western countries is a real problem, and should be both noted and opposed wherever it occurs. Don’t worry about whether it’s relevant to the discussion at hand though — be sure to use this as a rejoinder to every criticism of China whether it's applicable or not.

11.) The Culture Argument: if the discussion is about whether Tibet and East Turkestan should be part of China, point out that China is a multicultural and diverse society. If the discussion is about Taiwan or Hong Kong, point out that they are the "same culture", "same civilization" or "same blood" as Chinese (even though arguably none of these are true, it doesn't matter) and therefore should be a part of China. These two views are completely reconcilable if you push them forcefully enough!  

Warning! Don't overuse this argument or They might come to the conclusion that none of these are a good argument for why a nation should exist in a particular way, and start to consider civic partnership as an alternative. You do not want this! Try instead to direct them to arguments about "culture", "history", "civilization" and best of all, "genetics", despite the fact that you both know they're irrelevant. 

12.) Appeal To Authority! Here’s an example of how that works: The Lancet publishes papers that conflate Taiwanese and Chinese medical data and refuses to retract it, so haughtily claim that they’re The Lancet so how could they possibly be wrong?

13.) The Catch-22: if Taiwan doesn’t want to be a part of China, why do they still call themselves “the Republic of China”? If they want to be independent, they need to change that. If they change the name of their country and China reacts angrily, be sure to criticize them as “troublemakers” who are “provoking China”. 

Important Note! What Taiwanese actually think doesn’t matter. This also applies to Tibetans, Uyghurs and Hong Kongers. 

14.) Use simple mnemonic devices to recall key arguments in a flash. For example, if you’re in the heat of battle, just remember the TAP rule: Taiwan Always Provokes. Nothing China does is ever provocation, they’re just angry because Taiwan doesn’t accept that China claims their country. Taiwan should just calm down about it. But if Taiwan tries to bolster its defensive capabilities, that’s PROVOCATION and it’s WRONG because it might anger China. 

Advanced Level Nuance

Are you an expert nuance-haver? Leave the rookie arguments to the rookies and show off your top-tier skills with these Advanced Tips! These are especially effective and confusing because you can make it sound like you're actually an ally. Wowza! A few people might see through your concern trolling, but don't worry -- most won't. 

15.) Claim to oppose the CCP but ensure that all of your individual statements actually kind of support them. A good choice here is saying that you’d prefer Taiwan not be annexed by China or that the genocide in East Turkestan should stop, but that there is nothing any Western country can or should do about it at any level (from sanctions to refusing to negotiate to providing defensive assistance) because they are “evil”. Do not offer any other viable solutions. 

Bonus Points if you then complain that other countries don’t do enough to support these causes.

16.) Write about it! Be sure to use classic “negs” like calling Taiwan a “self-ruled island” (it is acceptable to call it “a vibrant democracy” so people will think you are even-handed, but do not use any other complimentary descriptors). Quote Chinese state media without context or criticism, get quotes from the same six analysts — I mean they’re basically the same six quotes over and over anyway — and try not to include any contrary voices. If you absolutely must include a Taiwanese voice, ensure that the person is not an activist or lawmaker who supports de jure independence. After all, the KMT has plenty of people who will give you a pro-China quote! Who cares if they’re not in power and their platforms don’t reflect public opinion?

17.) Use hypotheticals when the real-world data doesn’t support you. Do the majority of Taiwanese identify as solely Taiwanese? Do the vast majority prioritize Taiwanese identity? Is there essentially no support for unification? Ignore it all and say things like ‘tyranny of the majority’ or “but if 52% of people want independence and 48% don’t, should you break up a country over that?” Be sure to ignore the fact that Taiwan is already sovereign. 

18.) Remember, dismissing everything as “Western propaganda” is a rookie mistake, and you do Advanced Nuance! If you are pushed into a corner where you cannot say you don’t believe women in China who claim to be raped, but believing them means criticizing the CCP, say something like “it’s complicated”. Anyone who says it’s actually quite simple just doesn’t understand Advanced Nuance. 

Don’t Forget! Refuse to acknowledge that your equivocating response to women in China who recount systemic sexual abuse when you quite reasonably advocate believing women everywhere else is in any way hypocritical or racist. 

19.) Destroy from within! There are lots of ways to do this, providing plenty of opportunities for customization. Here’s an old classic: a lot of right-wingers claim to support Hong Kong, Taiwan and East Turkestan — hypocritically, but this isn’t about them. Be sure to call anyone who also supports these things right-wingers regardless of their actual politics. 

20.) Is the despised outgoing administration doing a few things that are actually good for Taiwan, Hong Kong and East Turkestan? Are you worried the incoming administration won’t be strong on those same issues? Be sure to say that the outgoing folk are “sabotaging” or “complicating” the incoming ones, even when the new administration makes no indication that that’s the case. 

Bonus Nuance Tip! 

Remember, only other people engage in colorism, never you. If a person of Chinese heritage defends genocide or invading other countries, that person is always right and should always be taken seriously. If a non-Chinese person argues back that genocide is wrong, tell them that they have no right to an opinion on genocide being wrong. 

Happy Nuancing!

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Book Review: Spinning Karma

Sit back and brainstorm: off the top of your head, how many comedy novels about Taiwan or set in Taiwan can you think of, which are available in English? 

Until recently, for me the answer was ‘none’. Ghost Month has its amusing moments, but it’s more of a mystery thriller. Some travel writing and memoirs have fun anecdotes, but none is a proper comedy in the style of, say, Tom Robbins. Local literature in English translation can sometimes have droll moments, but Taiwanese writing tends overall to lean more into garden-path reflections than straight-up hijinx. 

Of that number (zero), how many of those novels are Buddhist comedies?

Well, zero times any number...

Enter Spinning Karma. Written Joshua Samuel Brown, best known for his work on the Lonely Planet guides and certified Foreigner Who Has Spent A Long Time In Taiwan, this light and lovely but also thoughtfully-written comedy is exactly the right choice if you want a distraction from...well *gestures around vaguely* you know. This. 

Quick disclosure: this review isn’t sponsored — I’m writing it because I feel like it. But, Joshua is a good friend.

The plot of Spinning Karma does an excellent job of, well, whirling around and then spinning back on itself. It starts with the story of “Rinpoche Schwartz”, a guy whose Staten Island accent I can straight-up hear through the page but who has somehow managed to become the head of a semi-legitimate Buddhist organization that originated with a disgraced ‘70s sex cult (don’t ask; just read.) It’s attracted a few true believers but has otherwise faded into obscurity since losing the sex-cult stuff and getting more into the Buddhism — some of it seemingly real, some of it explicitly admitted by our narrator to be pure bullshit. 

From there, a series of events takes our blue-collar Buddhist master to Taiwan, where yet another series of events give Rinpoche Schwartz a half-baked idea to get more followers. Despite his best (okay, not his best) efforts to avoid an international incident, It’s never quite clear to what extent Schwartz fully aware of what he’s doing and to what extent he’s just propelled by a cluster of subconscious impulses that he just sort of gives into, one after the other. This is what makes him an interesting protagonist: is he a wholly cognizant scheister, a two-bit con man in a track suit, or is he a well-meaning doof being strung along by his own karma? It’s impossible to say. 

From here, all I’ll tell you is to read on for the craziness to unfold. Don’t miss a few little neatly-wrapped gifts that Brown has left scattered in the text: not just the old-school Monty Python reference and the droll reaction to it by a well-meaning think tank liberal type, but those in the know should take note of what Schwartz’s daughter-in-law says about their cat. 

In the end, as the title implies, the karma you spin out does tend to come back around to get you...just not always in the next lifetime, and certainly not in the ways you expect. The story ends with echoes, or perhaps mirror images, of how it began, which is probably from some sort of Buddhist parable that I know nothing about. 

What I found most interesting about Spinning Karma was the way that it holds everyone accountable and doesn’t tiptoe around clear wrongdoing. And yet, Brown humanizes each character, while not pretending that, say, China is a wonderful country of openness and tolerance, or that the mainstream media is a whirling cesspool spinning its own narratives that shape how we, an uncritically consuming public, see the world. Without diving into both-sidesism, Brown points out that even characters with the best of intentions can sometimes do things that have consequences they haven’t really thought through. This is especially true of every media personality. Of all of them, I most appreciate the cameo by Taiwan’s famous Next Animation news cartoons, which informs the design of the cover art. 

The novel also hints at a deeper truth: religion is what you get out of it. If you’re a huckster who knows what he’s dealing is an ultimately meaningless spiritual mash-up, then that’s what you’ll deliver, and that’s all it will be to you. (That’s pretty much all religion has ever been to me, to be honest, and that probably won’t change.) But if you get something from it and deepen your understanding of yourself through spiritual practice, and how you move in the world, that in itself gives it meaning. What such a person deals out may have the power to be more impactful, all because of how it emanates from them. 

Or as one of my favorite — and quite old — songs goes: 

Only on a true return could you find that you never left 

(What’s missing?)

Counting on an unpredictable tide for deliverance

(It’s right in front of you)

Swallow every verse and rhyme just to find

That the secret’s to embrace yourself.

Or something. I guess. 

Don’t take from this that Spinning Karma is War and Peace. At it’s heart it’s exactly what it aims to be: a light, fun Buddhist comedy set mostly in Taiwan, that is also an excellent escapist novel for a pleasant evening with your favorite drink. 

If I have any criticism at all, it’s that the text implies that Schwartz wanders from Ximen to Tianmu on foot (only Tianmu is named but Ximen certainly features), which any Taipei resident will know is impossible. That’s OK though, perhaps we just skip the boring part where he takes the MRT. Oh yes, and a government official grabs his coat to go Taipei in June. 

If that’s all I have to say against the novel, it must be quite a fun read indeed. My verdict: buy it! Pour a glass of wine and dig in. 

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Pompeo's Taiwan moves will be defined by the Biden administration's reaction to them


I literally put it on my calendar. I am so excited that my grammar was slightly off! 
(Calendar by Taiwanreporter -- they're nice, you should buy them)

I'd intended for my next post to be a light and lovely review of Spinning Karma, a new "Buddhist comedy" novel by Lonely Planet author (and personal friend) Joshua Samuel Brown. But, things are happening and it seems before we get to the escapist fun the world desperately needs, we have to talk about Mike Pompeo. 

I pretty much never want to talk about Mike Pompeo and am looking forward to the day when I don't have to anymore, so I don't really want to do this. I'll try to keep it short. 

In what DW has called a "flurry of activity" before leaving office, the State Department under Pompeo has been wrapping up all sorts of policy agenda items, some horrific and one quite good. The better actions included stating openly that "Taiwan is not a part of China", announcing (and later canceling, amid a stack of other cancellations) the visit of the US ambassador to the UN to Taiwan, and most importantly, lifting self-imposed restrictions on how the US deals with Taiwan, which he said were always more about placating Beijing than any sort of useful policy within the context of US-Taiwan relations. 

Although it's not directly related, I also want to point out that bipartisan support for Taiwan remains strong, as they have been 
 pushing the State Department to actively address the US's Taiwan policy. (Edit: writing this late at night, I initially got that backwards. It's fixed here.) In that context, Pompeo's actions on Taiwan seem to be a positive response to continuing bipartisan efforts to improve US-Taiwan relations.

What's more,  a recently declassified document from the NSC states US intentions to help Taiwan develop an asymmetric defense strategy, strengthen ties with Taiwan (which it lists among "allies and partners"), curb Chinese aggression towards "allies and partners" (presumably including Taiwan) and defend the "first island chain, including Taiwan".  So the US has had a pretty strong, albeit classified, stance on Taiwan since at least 2018. 

That's worth knowing: whatever you think of Pompeo's recent moves, they were backed up by concrete policy that went beyond him, not showmanship. When erstwhile anti-CCP allies in Asia such as Ted Cruz betray the causes they claim to support, it's easy to assume that allies, especially right-wing ones, will always let one down. That's only sometimes true.

Some are saying Pompeo's moves are a much-needed change in US-China and US-Taiwan policy: that movements in the right direction are boons regardless of where they come from. Some say that he's doing Biden a favor by relieving the next Secretary of State -- almost certainly Antony Blinken -- of the question of whether to make these moves. Others believe that Taiwan continues to be a gamepiece in an inartfully-executed US-China spat, which would be nothing new. Still others call these moves "landmines" or "sabotage" for the incoming Biden administration. I can't read the piece fully because I don't subscribe to Foreign Policy, but one view is that it amounts to opportunism and politicization, potentially turning Taiwan into a Republican issue (honestly, though, if some see it that way, that ship has already sailed. If they don't, these moves aren't likely to change that). 

I personally agree with those who say policy advancements on Taiwan are a good thing overall, but would have been better in Pompeo's tenure at a less-volatile time, making these changes normalized enough that it would be difficult for the Biden administration to overturn them. 

But, I'll honestly take it over their doing nothing. Besides, given everything above, I am willing to give Pompeo the benefit of the doubt on this. I am choosing to believe that he genuinely believes he is doing the right thing, perhaps not for Taiwan's sake, but for whatever policy objective he wants to accomplish through supporting Taiwan. This is despite knowing that Taiwan is the one issue he's right about, and that on the whole I'll be overjoyed to see him go. That his moves have all been symbolic, unofficial or non-binding further give me the impression that he's attempting not to force the incoming administration into any immediate action that China might choose to be offended by, but rather laying out for the next administration what he thinks they should do on this particular issue.

In fact, if they'd done more at this late hour, and forced Biden's cabinet on a path that they may have wanted to negotiate in their own way, I'd be more likely to think that the goal was to sabotage the Democrats. These fairly mild moves, only seen as revolutionary because China has convinced the world that any kindness to Taiwan is an unforgivable affront when it need not be, hint that they are likely not backed by malicious intent. 

Other moves support this view, such as banning imports of certain products from East Turkestan (Xinjiang), where China is thought to be enslaving Uighurs in labor camps. China is furious about every single one of these policy announcements, and the US knows that, yet it's choosing to do the right thing anyway. If "upsetting relations with China" is the only goal, you'd just do whatever you wanted to accomplish that, like set a bunch of tariffs that US consumers would end up paying for (I do believe the move was politically justified; I also don't believe it worked well). 

That appears to have been Trump's goal at one time, in between calling Xi Jinping a "very good friend" and having all sorts of other things going on under the table, but I don't think it's Pompeo's. You wouldn't make a series of justified, ethically above-board moves that specifically target the areas where the Chinese government have been acting abhorrently, to the point of committing human rights atrocities, if you just wanted to 'own the libs'. 

Trump, of course gets no such benefit of any doubt from me. The only reason I think he can find Taiwan on a map is because he allegedly compared it to the tip of a pen. It's been clear for awhile that the Trump administration's Taiwan policy has had nothing to do with Trump himself, and we are better for it. 

Where does that leave us in US-Taiwan relations, then? 

With a week before the inauguration, it leaves us with the Biden administration. Whether Pompeo's actions on Taiwan are intentional "landmines", parting shots at China just because, or a bridge to improved Taiwan policy across administrations and partisan lines lies entirely with how the State Department under Biden reacts to them. 

If Blinken and "Indo-Pacific Coordinator"  Kurt Campbell -- presumably -- do nothing to reverse these moves and do not default to the old self-censorship model of China appeasement, then Pompeo's actions will have been bipartisan, because both parties will have followed through on them. If the incoming Democrat-led Congress reacts favorably to the State Department's nudge on Taiwan policy, then that nudge will also have been bipartisan. Because the moves in question are unofficial, symbolic or non-binding, there is already bipartisan support for Taiwan in Congress, and the declassified NSC documents have just clarified for the world that standing by Taiwan matters, it will be fairly easy for Biden, Blinken and Campbell to do just that. In fact, to not do that would amount to a partisan repudiation for the sake of repudiation: there is no ethical or even logical reason why they should. 

Biden has said the US should strengthen ties with Taiwan. Blinken has said this relationship should be strong. I'm less sure of Obama-era Campbell -- his signature Pivot to Asia was quite weak on Taiwan --  but I am assured by good sources that he did what he could for Taiwan given the Obama administration's tepid approach to the country. I'm not displeased with incoming NSC head Jake Sullivan, either. "Asia experts" believe he will take a more competitive approach to China and hey, he's not Evan Medeiros. 

With this team, it seems clear that Biden is signaling that despite doubts about his willingness to stand up to the CCP and engage critically with China, that his intention is to do better than the Obama administration. Despite Pompeo's blustering about "a second Trump administration" soon after the election, I find it hard to believe that he and his people haven't talked at all to the incoming team. Quietly taking up a few last-minute improvements in Taiwan policy by the outgoing administration -- one bright light in a sea of disgrace and ignominy -- would be quite imaginable indeed, if not probable. 

To sum up, and preferably never discuss Mike Pompeo again, these moves are not necessarily intentional or unintentional landmines. They are not necessarily an attempt to sow discord or make things difficult for Biden and his cabinet.

Pompeo's recent moves are in line with previous State Department moves under his leadership, bipartisan Congressional support, the NSC and things the incoming Biden administration have said themselves. In that context, they don't look like sabotage. 

Like Taiwan's de jure status, what Pompeo's actions will amount to is currently undetermined. No reasonable person would disagree that support for Taiwan must be bipartisan, but whether or not these moves destroy that or to lay the framework for a Taiwan policy that bridges administrations rests entirely with how Biden's people react to them. They are only "landmines" and "sabotage" if the Biden team treats them as such. The only reason to describe improvements in Taiwan policy this way is if you object to the timing. I get that, but it's ultimately a fairly minor objection.

So they'd better react to them well. With Trump on his way out, we can finally get back to holding Democrats fully accountable rather than voting for literally anyone else to get the nightmare to end. I honestly cannot wait.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

A Bilingual By 2030 Throwdown


Bilingual by 2030 is a complicated topic on its own terms alone. Using it as a hook on which to hang your favorite opinion without discussing the merits of the actual policy is not the way to go with this.