Friday, June 24, 2016

The China Airlines strike and outdated expat narratives: Confucian values are REALLY not the problem

Something I've learned: I often have thoughts kicking around in my head for awhile, and I try to write blog posts about them, only to find that they come out ponderous, aimless and full of questionable or dull tangents. An important element of focusing my thoughts is to have some sort of catalyst, some it's-happening-now event to bring it all together into what I really want to say.

That bit of navel-gazing aside, for the past month or so a pushback against the conventional expat narrative of Taiwan being bogged down by "Confucian values" has been kicking around in my head - ever since I wrote about how, while bad management is a problem in Taiwan, "Confucian values" aren't what's keeping Taiwanese workers from taking the initiative at work rather than saving their best ideas for their own start-up small businesses. Long work hours and low salaries are because only a fool would share their best ideas with someone who exploits them through overwork and substandard pay. Taiwanese are no more fools than anyone else, so it makes sense that they wouldn't give their best work to bosses who are effectively narcissistic, self-serving nitwits at best and figurative slave masters at worst. (Obviously #notallbosses blah blah blah).

Well, it's taken the China Airlines zeitgeist to prod me into finally posting about it.

If you think "Confucian values" are Taiwan's biggest problem, you haven't been paying attention and your narrative is outdated. The same old story of "Taiwanese workers are passive, they endure long working hours for low pay and don't complain because Confucius or something" simply isn't the case anymore, and if you've been watching the country change, you'd know it hasn't been the case for awhile (if it ever was, though I'd argue the Ma years were notably turgid).

First and foremost, strikes like the China Airlines one in terms of rhetoric and scale don't just pop up out of a society that is passive, supplicant to authority or not actively looking to improve their own and their country's lot. They don't spring fully formed from a "poor exploited Taiwanese who don't even know they're exploited or if they do, they don't fight back" pile of bullshit. They spring from a long-running activist movement that has bracingly modern values at its core (as I have argued), modern enough that we Westerners, who often think we've got the market on progressivism cornered, ought to sit up and pay attention.

This isn't just a big deal because of one strike, this is a big deal because it's been coming for awhile, reveals Taiwanese society to not be some caricature of a cliched 2500-year-old philosophical system, and because it has implications across every industry where laborers are exploited (which is basically every industry, including English teaching. Yes, that too).

By the way, if you read any one thing on the strike, make it the link above.

This has been brewing for awhile - if you stop and talk to any given group of Taiwanese labor, you'll find that they are well aware that they have been exploited for awhile, and society has been collectively, often tacitly, but perceptibly, working on a solution-cum-backlash. You can see it in the increased rhetoric around worker-led (as opposed to "official") unions, in the New Power Party's pro-labor platforms (well, pro-labor for citizens, apparently we foreign workers don't rate and I'm still pissed about that), in the annual demonstrations on Labor Day, in the economic concerns of the student movement, in the very common desire to quit one's exploitative job and strike out on one's own.

Where out-of-touch pontificating expats come up with these tableaux of beaten-down workers who don't know what's best for them, kowtowing to boss, family and religion, I see a country full of people dreaming of something better and knowing full well, in 21st century terms, what that means.

Simply put, people who gather at midnight to announce a pre-meditated strike that almost reminds one of siege warfare (or maybe I've just been watching too much Game of Thrones) and who talk of improving the condition of labor across Taiwan, freeing workers from onerous hours and unacceptably low pay are not only not victims of "Confucian values", they prove that "Confucian values" never were the problem (or never were enough of a problem to put up much of a barrier to the new tide of activism). People who dream of quitting and opening their own businesses, whether they are smaller versions of the businesses they already work for or a total departure down a culinary or artistic road, but are toughing it out for now, are not victims of "Confucian values".

The electorate's increasing willingness to listen to the youth - a concept somewhat (but not entirely) non-Confucian, and the newly-elected political elite's willingness to do the same, even dropping charges against the Executive Yuan occupiers saying that the "values of the Sunflowers have become widely accepted across the country", are further proof. It's such a deep and long-coming sea change that even the newly-minted opposition are trying to co-opt these values in the weirdest, most discordant and least appealing ways. KMT gonna KMT I guess.

The citizenry's increasing willingness to occupy, to demand, to escalate, to take the fight to social media - none of this screams "Confucian values"...the key being that that's not only the case right now, but it proves that it hasn't been the case for awhile, because these sorts of sea changes don't sweep in like tsunamis. They slowly build like earthquake pressure. The only difference is you can't predict earthquakes, but this could be seen coming since the run-up to the Sunflower occupation.

In sort, this is 2016 AD, not 500 BC (and it's kind of insulting to imply that a culture has not sufficiently evolved in those two and a half millenia). The Taiwanese aren't getting their modern values by looking to the West, but by looking within themselves. And they're not chained to a 2500 year-old-philosophy because they are so clearly willing to fight back. I know I'm repeating myself here, but I want to drive that message home.

To go back even further, I'd like to add that if the main problems in Taiwan could really be traced back to "Confucian values", you not only wouldn't have China Airlines workers striking now, the Sunflowers in 2016, and employees who dream of quitting and starting their own companies, you also wouldn't have had several of the pro-democracy and national identity incidents that have defined modern Taiwanese history. There was nothing Confucian about the uprising that led to 228, the Kaohsiung Incident, Nylon Cheng's self-immolation, the dangwai or the White Lilies, either. The willingness to think, talk, plan and finally fight back in spectacular fashion - non-Confucian but wonderfully modern things all - is truly not new to Taiwan.

Because I like to ramble, two more things before I release your eyeballs, if you are still reading.

The first is that if you think Confucianism is all about the big boss beating down the little guy and hierarchical systems of tyranny, whether it's civil or private, you have a cliched and inaccurate view of Confucian thought. I'm no fan of Confucius, I'm more of a "hey guys just chill" Daoist type myself even though I am personally not very chill, but this is absolutely not what Confucius espoused.

He was all about those in power exercising restraint, openmindedness and responsibility. In not just being leaders because they felt entitled to be leaders, but actually leading. Not beating down their underlings because they could, but nurturing them and getting their best work from them. I suspect if he were alive today he'd be a policymaker at best, a self-proclaimed management guru at worst (I strongly dislike management gurus and business cliches).

I mean, take a look at some of his actual "Confucius Says" proverbs. "A tyrannical government is worse than a tiger" (課徵猛於虎) - that could apply not only to an actual government but a figurative management structure. "Bend down thine ear" (Chinese coming when I have access to my hilariously outdated book of Chinese idioms again) - he affirmed the right of leaders to exercise authority, but admonished them to listen to their underlings. His whole philosophy boiled down not to kings beating up subjects or managers beating up workers, but to society moving together in harmony, as if dancing in sync to music (I think he actually said something like that at one point).

I'm still not a fan, but that Confucianism - *actual* Confucianism - is not necessarily a problem in society, if understood and applied correctly. The West doesn't actually have all the answers.

The second is that I just want to say I am blown away by the maturity and adroitness of the activist movement (all of it, from the workers to the students). They remind me not of hippies - though there's a touch of Bob Dylan in them for sure - and not of union strikes or populists but of Gandhi-style nonviolent resistance (and as Gandhi said, there is nothing passive about nonviolent resistance - in that way too they are not held back by "Confucian values" in the more cliched, or even the true, sense. Even in true Confucianism it's on the leaders to do the right thing, there isn't much room for subjects to resist, even nonviolently). Someone has read up on the Indian independence movement, the Civil Rights movement, the LGBT rights movement, the women's suffrage movement, even as the impetus comes from within the strikers and activists themselves.

They are facing their problems with the only route available to them - the only route that has ever actually worked (look at history - it's rare that violence settles things well, though I can think of a few exceptions. Usually, the only way to get something done and build after you tear down the old order is nonviolent resistance). And they know it. I truly admire them for it.

There is absolutely nothing at all Confucian about that.


Pierre said...

“[Confucius] affirmed the right of leaders to exercise authority, but admonished them to listen to their underlings.”

And then his words were used and transformed by the power to lead to what we have today in Taiwan.

I understand you don't want to call that Confucianism, but, well, it comes from Confucianism.

It's a bit like Communism or Libertarianism. In theory, it's perfect, but in practice it's always been a complete disaster (or it will, in the case of Libertarianism).

Confucius said some stuff back then, then people tried to apply the stuff he said, and something got, let's say, lost in translation, and we end up with the Asian/Taiwanese work culture of the 80s/90s/2000s.

As for the flight attendant strike, I found that absolutely awesome, and I really hoped that would spread to other airline companies, but a few days ago I discussed with an Eva Air flight attendant who explained me the work culture in Eva, and that was horrible. Basically, the new employees are everyone else's bitches. They have to do all the chores, have to bow down to whoever has more seniority in the staff (seniority here means someone who arrived at least 1 day before you in Eva), etc. You know, the basic “Take care of people under you” that Confucious was talking about ;)

When you fill out the form to become a Eva Air flight attendant, you are asked if you would be part of a work union. If you don't answer something along the line of "Of course not! Why would I care about my rights as a worker?!", your submission is thrown in the trash (everyone knows that, and it's illegal, yet nothing has been done by the government to prevent it). Of course, thanks to this, there is no Eva Air union, and if you were to join one, Eva would find a way to fire you (without mentioning it's because you're part of a union, of course).

So I guess the social revolution in Taiwan will wait a few more decades :)

Jenna Cody said...

It comes from Confucianism, sure, but it is not actually Confucianism, any more than Republicans' nonsense about American national values and "the founding fathers" are actually what the founding fathers thought or intended, or any more than so-called "men's rights activists" ideas of what feminism is are remotely related to actual feminism. It's a gross corruption, a distending of the actual values which, while I may not agree with them completely (I really am more of a Lao Tzu Daoist type - everybody just find your own path and CHILL) deserve some respect and consideration.