Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Taiwan: A History of Agonies - a review

A History of Agonies alongside symbols of some Taiwanese social movements I have been here to witness
and participate in. It all ties together. 

Anyone who truly loves reading has become so emotionally engaged with a book that it makes them cry, often at the most inconvenient times. It stays with them and affects how they feel, think and interact with the world for some time after the reader has finished with it. Occasionally, this effect is permanent.

This happened with Green Island, a book I highly recommend to everyone and which made me Ugly Cry in my favorite coffee shop, and would say is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand 20th century Taiwan. I expected it would happen with Taiwan: A History of Agonies as well - I mean, the agony is right there in the title. Taiwanese history certainly contains enough tragedy to make anyone with a heart sob for hours.

So, I was surprised when that ended up not being the case.

Please don't misunderstand - it's not that it left me cold, or I found it uninteresting. I certainly had an emotional reaction to reading the words of a Taiwanese person describing what to him was not always "history": Ong Iok-tek lived through much of the events of the later chapters of the book. I was also intellectually engaged in reading history from a decidedly Taiwanese Hoklo nationalist perspective, especially in a book written in the mid-to-late 20th century. A lot has changed vis-a-vis Taiwanese identity since then, and comparing the two was an illuminating exercise. 

I will say that I learned quite a bit. Ong was especially interested in providing as much detail as possible about the various rebellions during the Qing and Japanese eras, because they proved his point that the Taiwanese never took being colonized lying down. I learned a few interesting details about the Zheng era, and quite a few famous names from history whose contributions I hadn't been clear on were discussed. Ong also spends a fair amount of time on every home-rule movement of note, which makes this a good source of knowledge for anyone hoping to refute the ridiculous yet oddly common notion that "Taiwanese identity" did not exist before the 1970s.

It was also interesting to read from that mid-century nationalist perspective. I'm aware of its existence and the general worldview of that generation of pro-Taiwan activists, as well as the generation after them which pushed through to democratization. I am aware of some of the problematic beliefs they often held, from thinking indigenous people were inferior to believing that nobody who came over from China in the 1940s could ever really be Taiwanese (and extending to views on women and homosexuality as well, although these aren't issues that come to the fore in this book - the only thing I remember being striking in that regard was Ong's reference to the "men" who fought and died for Taiwan.) It was quite another thing, however, to read from that perspective in the words of someone who was one of them.

It's not that Ong said much in this vein that I found new or surprising - for example, along with his focus on rebellions and home-rule movements above, he was dismissive of indigenous (mentioned above and to be mentioned again), focused almost exclusively on male luminaries (with a few exceptions), was critical of the Qing but not so much of the Japanese, and wrote from a clearly - but I think entirely deserved - anti-KMT perspective.  I don't recall Taiwanese Hakka being mentioned at all - if they were, it was too brief a reference for me to catch.

I was surprised, however, at his criticism of the 1895 republic, a blip in history that is interesting to me for no particular reason - I think it may be because I just like the flag. It's not that I think the Republic of Formosa deserves effusive praise, but I would have expected a Hoklo nationalist to give it just that. I recall reading that there was a concerted effort to bring back the symbols of that time - particularly the tiger flag - as symbols of the Taiwanese independence movement later. But, instead, he said that the republic's foundation day declaration "lacks style and refinement for a declaration of independence", was pointedly critical of their kowtowing to the Qing emperor, and of the scrambling of many of its leaders to evacuate to China when the whole thing fell apart later that year.

I did enjoy comparing Ong's views to the views of the young "naturally independent" pro-Taiwan generation of today. They have people like him to thank for giving them shoulders to stand on, and they are aware that they are connected to the luminaries of the pro-Taiwan social movements of history, but it is clear they'd find a lot to criticize in his words, especially in his love for Japan and derision of indigenous people.

I really love this tiger flag, it's the best flag

And, finally, I have to admit that this is the first comprehensive history of Taiwan book I've ever read. I've devoured others such as Taiwan's Imagined Geography and Accidental State, but they focus on certain periods. Reading one author bringing it all together was a positive experience.

I didn't cry, however. There is no single reason why. In some places, the writing was a little wooden, which I blame on the translation (I got the distinct feeling that it flowed better in Chinese). How does one start sobbing at lines like this?

Thus, China's relationship with the Kuomintang transfigured itself from a hostile contradiction to a non-hostile contradiction.

Areas where Ong editorialized, even when I agreed, didn't make me stand up and cheer as I thought they might - perhaps because I like my history as un-editorialized as possible. "We Taiwanese are seeking the helping hands from the free camp to rid ourselves of the oppressive rule of the Kuomintang" and similar wording, while I agree with it as an accurate sentiment stemming from the state of affairs when this book was written in the 1970s and to some extent of more modern eras as well, doesn't do anything for the nerdy historian in me. It would have been more powerful to simply present history as it was and let it make the oppression of the KMT very clear.

It could be that the translation was clearly not copyedited by a native-like user of English, as small grammatical mistakes, as well as issues with register and collocation, abounded. A personal favorite:

"The Tai-kang fallen, the fortress was totally isolated. Cheng Ch'eng-kung summoned the Dutch to surrender: 
My Dad opened up this island, Taiwan. Now that I need it, kindly get out!'

That was rather an odd message."

Gee, ya think? 

And, the all-time most amazing phrasing in the world:

"Everything began when the Cairo Declaration made Taiwan a booty for the Kuomintang to claim."

That sort of thing tends to jolt one's mind out of the narrative and back into the real world. 

My lack of emotional outburst might also have been because, although I have sympathy for any person who lived through that period of history in Taiwan, I lost some sympathy for Ong after his derogatory marks about indigenous people (which the editors acknowledged in a preface, but ultimately left in the work so as to preserve it as authentically as possible). To wit:

"When the Taiwanese say that Taiwan belongs to the Taiwanese, some Chinese quibble that Taiwan belongs to the indigenous people and they alone have the right to their land. Behind this line of argument by the Chinese are seen glimpses of their scheming design to label the Taiwanese "aggressors" and shamelessly enjoy their share of the spoils..."

Yo, Ong, I know you're dead and Imma let you finish, but...I think this, or at least I think the country belongs to the "Taiwanese" who are of all different backgrounds including indigenous, and indigenous people have earned certain rights and reparations due to the historical wrongs done to them. And I absolutely detest the Chinese government and see Taiwan as fully independent.

Also, insisting that Taiwan's history is a Hoklo history rather than an indigenous one into which others later entered is actually closer to China's current rhetoric that you are "all Chinese". 

"The indigenes in Taiwan made their living mainly by fishing and hunting and occasionally engaged in farming, though of a rather primitive style." (Ong goes on to quote Georgius Candidius' super racist take on indigenous people, calling the women "complete drudges" and the men "idle by nature"). 

So, no mention of the complex trade networks that the indigenous took part in?  No mention that women often enjoyed higher status in indigenous societies? None of that? Just drudges and idlers?

And worst of all - it makes me want to puke in my mouth a little bit even typing this out:

Those of us who are used to the scenes of American Indians shot and killed in Western movies are liable to wrongly assume that primitive (ed: UGH) aborigines are doomed to fall in number at gunpoint. In reality, however, massacre is not necessarily the main cause of population decline (ed: yes, it was, along with other forms of overt oppression) A decadent sex life may be one of the causes; unsanitary lifestyle another (ed: **** you). Unpreparedness against hunger and contagious diseases also triggered population decline (ed: hunger and contagious diseases wrought by the way in which indigenous were treated by every colonial wave to enter Taiwan, perhaps?

In short, I have nothing good to say about Ong's view of indigenous people, and it was certainly a big part of what hardened me to the rest of the book a bit.

It is telling that he begins the book not with a brief recap of what we know of indigenous life before colonization, but with the Chinese knowledge of the island and then, the Dutch. 

The editors included an explanatory note to essentially apologize for this, and I understand keeping it for reasons of portraying Ong's voice historically accurately, but...this is not the sort of book that is going to deliver an emotional gut-punch, with nonsense like that.

Finally, I found A History of Agonies hard to follow, because names popped up and disappeared regularly, sometimes with scant biographical info, other times just dropped into the narrative. I did not necessarily know who every person was (although to my credit, I had heard of quite a few). It was also difficult to figure out what Ong was talking about sometimes: he spent quite a bit of time talking about the "Ch'ao-chou", "Chu'an-chou" and "Chang-chou" "gangs", and it took me some time to realize that he was talking about people who themselves or whose ancestors had immigrated to Taiwan from Quanzhou or Chaozhou in Fujian (he also mentions "Chang-chou" (Zhangzhou). Perhaps he needn't have used Pinyin, I know that system has its detractors, but the Wade-Giles - as it usually does - makes it difficult for me to figure out how to pronounce certain things and makes a lot of words, to be honest, all look kind of the same. I know my opinion is not universally accepted, but we can all agree that including characters after any words rendered in Chinese or Taiwanese would have been a good, and helpful, idea.

Of course, I knew this because I know a fair bit about Taiwan. Can you imagine how someone reading this as a beginning text on Taiwanese history would even begin to decipher what Ong meant by the "Ch'ao-chou and Chu'an-chou gangs"? Such a reader might think these are gang names rather than the cities of origin of rival groups of Taiwanese immigrants.

This really cemented my overall impression of the book: this is not something to read as a primer or basic history of Taiwan. There must be better options - it will be confusing for neophytes, and overly simplistic for those with background knowledge.

Instead, I would say, by all means read this book, but do so knowing what you're getting into. Read it as a personal perspective, as a specific take on the events of Taiwanese history from the point of view of a certain kind of Taiwanese nationalist of a certain era. In that sense, it is illuminating, but a clear and readable history, I am sorry to say, it is not. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

The world is ending because China is upset: Western liberals, the media and Taiwan

Visual Footage of the Tsai-Trump Phone Call

I woke up and it was the Apocalypse.

Children were wrenched from their parents' arms by bleeding reanimated corpses risen from the depths of Hell. Fiery stallions with coal-red eyes carried an army of Grim Reapers on their backs as the innocent shrieked for mercy. Rivers burned and oceans smoldered. Lifeless bodies hung from trees, their souls hanging inside out from their mouths. Wingèd gray-skinned Hellbeasts sliced through the air, the screams emanating from their long, knife-like beaks striking terror into every living creature as the black-clad sentries of Styx stood silent, unmoving, unscathed. The streets were littered with bones and splinters, some still attached to throbbing chunks of bloodied flesh and meat where they were pulled wholesale from human bodies. The sky was black and poisonous with clouds of sulphurous magma overhead as oilslick-black machines outfitted with insect-like exoskeletons impaled, strangled and violated women in front of their husbands and men in front of their wives with their cold mechanical tentacle appendages.

That is to say, American "President" Donald Trump and Taiwanese President Tsai Ying-wen had had a short, uneventful phone call, and the world subsequently burned as everyone tried to figure out what it all meant. 

Apparently, it meant that Everything Was Over, that Donald Trump had irrevocably angered China, which would lead to world war, economic collapse and global catastrophe.

Of course, what it had meant was that the two presidents had had a phone call, acting like presidents of two sovereign countries, which they both are, rather than pretending the truth is somehow not true so as to avoid the breaking of a billion glass hearts. China got annoyed - almost certainly in part because the way the event was reported legitimized their anger - but things continued much as usual. Cargo ships plowed the ocean carrying the weight of global trade on their backs. US-China policy remained unchanged. Taiwan remained a pariah through no fault of its own, its status an accident of history, a free, industrialized democracy with almost no overt support. The rest of the world formulated a huge chunk of its Asia-Pacific policy to mollify China.

Some organizations did report on this honestly. John Bolton noted that it was time to revisit this policy (paywall - ugh), quite rightly pointing out that the current method of "acknowledging" China's position, selling some arms to Taiwan when we feel like it, doing lots of trade with Taiwan but otherwise telling it to bend over and take it whenever China gets angry, is unrealistic and unfair. The Daily Beast told everyone to just calm down everybody. The National Interest did a middling job, but has had some good recent pieces since. The Diplomat, which few people I know outside of Asia read, had a good piece by J. Michael Cole. Fox News' website ran an article whose viewpoint I agree with. 

Generally, if you consider the editorial line of the sample above, the best reporting not only on this issue but on Taiwan in general has come from conservative sites, or at least those that are not explicitly liberal (The Daily Beast seems to be somewhere in the middle to me, The Diplomat neutral).

Contrast that to the media I, and my liberal friends, generally read. The Washington Post did put out an op-ed dubbing the phone call as "brilliant" (they had other coverage too, which I can't read because I don't subscribe). The New Yorker, however, called it "dangerous" (with a hefty helping of inaccurate "Taiwan and China split in 1949" history thrown in too), acknowledging that there is a case to be made for better Taiwan relations but then capitulating to the same old "China will see this as destabilizing" line. They threw in that "a subset of" conservative analysts felt the call was the right move, a line which, if anything, will turn off liberal readers. The New York Times said he'd hit China's "most sensitive spot", brought up issues of conflicts of interest, and noted that he "antagonized" China. Slate had its usual awful coverage of Taiwan, where it reiterated Beijing talking points with little context and openly calling it "a bad move". The Guardian did cover both sides, but made the anti-Taiwan side sound far scarier - "destabilizing", "didn't understand", "winging it". That's just a sampling - you can read more about this problem here. And here. 

Imagine that you are a typical Western liberal. You skim one or two news sites - in my case, usually The Guardian, but others as well. If something major is happening relating to Taiwan you click, and you are exposed to a litany of phrases like these:

"antagonizing China"
"China and Taiwan split in 1949..."
"has angered China"
"amid tensions with China"
"The Epoch Times / The Global Times / Xinhua said..." (with no similar quotes from the other side)
"President Xi has said..." (with no corresponding quotes from President Tsai)
"The two sides both claim to be the legitimate government of China" (technically correct but problematic)
"tensions mounted/rose/were caused"
"warmer relations under Ma Ying-jiu"
"relations have cooled since Tsai took office"
"Beijing regards Taiwan as a renegade province"
"not understand...the implications"
"island" (not country)
"eventually reunited with the Mainland"

This is not limited to the Tsai-Trump call - that's merely one example to illustrate a larger point. It's not only no surprise that some people I know - and many Western liberals generally - with no other connection to Taiwan often take the schizophrenic position that China is both not as scary as Taiwan thinks, as well as being scary enough that we must pursue peace in our time at all costs. A return to normalcy, if you will.

More broadly, there is widespread belief that if Taiwan makes any moves at all towards asserting the truth of its status - that is, a sovereign nation - the problem must always be Taiwan. For antagonizing China or destabilizing the situation which is why relations are frozen. 

Why would they think otherwise, though? This is what they read from sources they trust, and therefore this is what they believe.

That is to say, Western education on Taiwan or lack thereof, which I wrote about recently, is not the only problem. Into that void of accurate background knowledge swoops a media all too willing to play up China and dismiss Taiwan, largely unquestioned in part because of that dearth of education on Taiwan. Both of these factors work together to keep the wheels of liberal apathy on Taiwan grinding away.

What I'm trying to say - now in bold! - is that it seems obvious to us that Taiwan is a liberal cause. Democracy, human rights, sovereignty, self-determination, marriage equality, successful industrialization, gains in women's rights, all poised to be destroyed by a hostile, illiberal, undemocratic foreign power. A pro-Taiwan perspective ought to be catnip for Western liberals. 

However, when education on Taiwan is virtually non-existent, and everything above is what Western liberals are reading and generally believing, it is no surprise that we haven't won them over. If we want to win this fight, we have to flip the media script. Right now, we're losing. 

There are so many ways, in fact, that Western, liberal-approved media has failed Taiwan that I'd like to explore as much as I can before we all get bored and go home.

The media mostly presents Taiwan in an unflattering political light

Sometimes, everything is the End of Days. Everything will anger China, everything will set off World War III in the Taiwan Strait. One must ask, by the way, if that is how dire some perceive the cross-Strait situation to be, how is it that they can then turn around and pontificate on how this is the best situation for Taiwan, because it's the only way to ensure peace?

Even when Armageddon is not nigh, there is a clear tendency to be quick to accuse Taiwan of being a "troublemaker", or to imply that this is the case. Any tensions that are raised are the fault of Taiwan for doing exactly what every other sovereign nation does:  trying to sign trade agreements, insisting on its continued freedom, asking that it be allowed to participate - and its own name be used - in international events.

Those "tensions" which are not allegedly raised by Troublemaker Taiwan appear out of thin air, discussed in the passive voice, with no agent. They just are.

Of course, tensions don't appear out of nowhere: the times when they are not assigned to an actor are precisely the times when China is rattling its saber. When China makes destabilizing moves in the region, they are never to blame. 

The true threats are ignored

The thing is, there are serious, extant threats to Taiwan's existence and sovereignty. Thousands of missiles are pointed at us. The United Front is highly active, and the CCP is waging a war of disinformation (that is, "fake news", a concept Western liberals are all too familiar with) on Taiwan, and is quite open about its economic and cultural cooperation initiatives being about the greater goal of political unification. They support "fake civil society" in Taiwan. China routinely ignores previous agreements and treaties in both Taiwan and Hong Kong, engages in military exercises aimed specifically at threatening Taiwan, detains foreign nationals both within and outside its borders for crimes not committed in China, supports gangsters using violence against demonstrators with whom they disagree, and has never renounced the possibility of using force to annex Taiwan. 

These threats are real, and they are terrifying.

And yet, every time there are "tensions" in the Taiwan Strait, the issue is always something Taiwan has done to anger China. None of the real threats above get much airtime, if they get any. As for the real threats, how can one, for example, point to something as United Front work if one doesn't know the United Front exists, because nobody is reporting on it? How can one criticize the war of disinformation, fake civil society or even the missiles if they don't read about them in their favored publications?

No wonder readers think that China treats Taiwan relatively benignly, and therefore when Taiwan "antagonizes" China or does something "destabilizing", or causes relations to be "frozen", the problem might well seem to be Taiwan.

China's perspective gets prime real estate

In many cases, you'd think the media were just regurgitating CCP talking points (and in some cases, I am pretty sure they are doing exactly that). In this case, China's viewpoint is reported but unexamined (calling the Global Times what it is - a state-run tabloid - is insufficient). Here, it is reported in a larger context but yet again unexamined. 

If you were thinking critically, you would wonder why it is that everything the Taiwanese side says is picked apart - if it is reported at all - and yet Beijing gets free quotes without criticism. That is not journalism. It is not neutrality. That is regurgitation.

That nobody questions this is its own problem - why would they, though, when they lack the education on Taiwan to do so, and when the sources they read and other liberals they know are likely to be well-disposed to China, and when they haven't even necessarily come to understand the depths of China's propaganda machine?

The perspective of Taiwan is not included

The same courtesy is not given to Taiwan: the desires of or even known political data about Taiwan are routinely ignored.

It's as though the Taiwanese have no opinion - but of course they do. It's just not included. You might think, from reading the slapdash summaries of Taiwanese history, that the Taiwanese had no will for independence before the 21st century. But of course they did, as far back as the 19th. In one sincere but misleading and poorly-researched example, you might come to the conclusion that, as one friend put it, the Taiwanese had no opinion on anything before pop star Chou Tzu-yu was forced to apologize to China for the stupidest of reasons.

When Taiwan's perspective is included, the talking points covered generally reflect those of the KMT: that Taiwan is the Republic of China and should remain so, that Taiwanese are ultimately Chinese, and that there is "one China" with "different interpretations". When pro-independence sentiments are included, they are attributed solely to the DPP, and not to any portion of the population - as though it is an unpopular platform of a party that managed to win the presidency and legislature regardless.

With many Taiwanese considering Taiwan to already be independent, and even those who express support for the status quo ultimately favoring a solution that leads to independence - with pro-unification beliefs having only single-digit popularity - this is very misleading. The lay reader would be expected to think that the Taiwanese are far more divided on the independence issue than they actually are.

Only recently has this changed in a few places. Note here the language: "proudly democratic Taiwan has shown no interest in being governed by the Communist Party rulers in Beijing." An improvement to be sure, but the article itself, and so many like it, exist to report the views of China with very little space given to the Taiwanese rebuttal beyond this one sentence.

Information on Taiwan is inaccurate or misleading

I'll stick to one example here - the most common one.

The blurb about "Taiwan and China separating in 1949" is common, yet wrong. While the ROC fled to Taiwan in 1949, Taiwan could not have "split" from China in that time, as before 1945 it was a colony of Japan, and was not formally ceded by Japan until the early 1950s. You could make a case that the ROC controlled both Taiwan and China between 1945 and 1949, but even there it gets murky. Japan had not formally ceded Taiwan to the ROC, and in fact under international law the situation is still "unresolved". In terms of de facto control, they started losing it in China as they were consolidating it in Taiwan.

And, of course, the sentence itself is misleading.

Reading these articles, the typical engaged liberal who has no connection to Taiwan nor any need for a deep knowledge of Taiwanese history could not be blamed for thinking that the Japanese colonial era had never happened at all, and that Taiwan has always been Chinese in some way or another. I have met people who believe exactly this, and are surprised to learn otherwise.

This problem can be extended to include all manner of slipshod reporting, from the "1992 Consensus" (those who know what the term means often have no idea that it doesn't actually exist) to pro-Taiwan activists being labeled "anti-China".

In one memorable example, when questioned on word choice, one reporter allegedly said it was due to the "character limit" on his submissions. Of course, if you count the characters in "pro-Taiwan" and compare them to "anti-China", you'll find...


When you add that the incorrect assumptions readers often make about Taiwan - e.g. that it had previously been a part of China for some time - to the language employed refusing to recognize Taiwan as a country but rather an "island", using terms such as "reunify" and even "Mainland" (I do think "Mainland" is a term we need to consign to history), it's no wonder that the average reader of liberal-leaning news publications likely doesn't think that "reunification" is such a big deal, or is hesitant to confidently call it a sovereign nation, even though it is one. Doubling down with talk of "one country two systems" - until recently not a proposition whose viability was questioned in any depth, it was just taken as a potential solution - and the "consensus" on "One China", your average reader could easily be led to believe that there is no reason to believe Taiwan is not ultimately Chinese. 

Good writers on Taiwan aren't writing for the mainstream publications liberals read, and the best news on Taiwan is disseminated only in a small echo chamber

As a prolific writer on Taiwan affairs, I am partly to blame here.

I know Lao Ren Cha only reaches a small audience which mostly already knows Taiwan. Others have their blogs or publications, but let's be honest, as useful as Ketagalan Media, New Bloom, the Taipei TimesThe News Lens International and Taiwan Sentinel (and more) can be, these are not what mainstream liberals are reading. They are great places to write about domestic affairs and local issues. Sometimes, however, I wonder if we - myself included - write in these places to make ourselves feel better, rather than to actually reach that audience in the West.

Yet this is where we are writing, as we watch the Party apparatchiks, Fifty Cent trolls, well-meaning people who don't know what they're talking about, non-specialists who don't actually know Taiwan and various aspects of the United Front churn out piece after piece of drivel which is often accepted for publication.

Even when we branch out to The Diplomat, The Nation and The National Interest, again, this is not where the mainstream is.

How are we going to get our message out if we're not writing in where the people we want to reach are reading?

That's on us and it's time we did something about it.

Journalists and editors don't know what they're talking about

The first is that the reporters are often not experts: it creates a feedback loop of non-experts fact-checking against other media in which reports are filed by other non-experts, edited by editors who are not experts either, so nobody catches the inaccuracies. Major media outlets employ fact-checkers, but they're not particularly useful when they, too, are not experts and therefore are willing to default to the norm. When inaccuracies are pointed out, if anyone cares to make changes, a truly accurate picture of Taiwanese issues still seems to elude the media: they present China as more sympathetic than its aggression merits out of a desire to be "even-handed", not realizing that purported objectivity means nothing if it leads to incorrect narratives.

Then the readers read it, and believe it because the media source itself is reputable, without considering that maybe a part of why they are willing to believe what they read has a lot to do with the Gell-Mann Effect. To them, the journalist writing knows more - perhaps not considering that the journalist in question is still not an ideal source. 

There have been quite a few casualties of this approach: nobody in the media questioned "one country two systems" as a viable framework until recently because nobody else in the industry did, either. Claims that Taiwan-China cooperation was merely economic, or that it was unquestionably a good thing for both sides were taken at face value, because nobody else was reporting on China's very open statements about how every agreement they sign with Taiwan is meant to further an agenda of annexation. The term "reunification" is still not questioned.

Reporters who do know quite a bit about China are often assigned articles on Taiwan, as though their expertise covers both countries (it doesn't). These reporters tend to be stationed in China - if they fly in from Beijing or Shanghai at all, they are here briefly, and never fully capture what's going on. 

This is easy for me to say, but the China experts the media often assumes can write about Taiwan choke on the words.

Reading these reports, someone without background knowledge would not realize that China is threatening Taiwan militarily, that it actively interferes in Taiwan's attempts to form relationships with other countries, or that it is quite open about its "economic cooperation" initiatives having the ultimate goal of annexation. They would see China as an ever-patient world power, indulging troublemaker Taiwan because it can afford to do so.

Journalists and editors are too kind to China

Many of the reporters I criticize above seem predisposed to China - they often choose to live there, and have their own reasons for being interested in the country. Some might be "Old China Hands". They perhaps portray it overly sympathetically for the same reasons why we are more forgiving of our friends' flaws than those of strangers, or perhaps defensively, not wanting to criticize a place they care about. It's a human trait. Then they defend their kind-to-a-dictatorship portrayals as "evenhanded", because they're not rushing to denounce the regime. This is seen as taking a multi-faceted view of a "complex" country.

China is indeed complex, and its issues multi-facted, but when it comes to Taiwan, the story is quite simple: Taiwan is a currently sovereign democracy and wishes to remain that way. China is a dictatorship that insists this not be allowed, yet the current government of China has never controlled Taiwan. Period.

As for editors, despite foreign media banned from publishing in China, many are afraid to anger Beijing for fear of their reporters losing their press credentials, being deported or even detained. And they, too, seem well-disposed to China. Perhaps to many of them, in their offices in the West, China is a "fascinating" foreign country, with an unfortunate government perhaps but ultimately reducible to panda bears, pagodas, temples and qipao dresses. I get it - we liberals love the idea of "respecting foreign cultures", and that is usually a noble and meaningful goal. However, when that idealism interferes with reporting on facts because it's discomfiting to publish pointed criticisms at a foreign culture, we have a problem.

It's difficult to criticize reputable media

Everything else here is fixable, although it will be difficult. I want to end, however, with the one thing I don't know how to fix: the way one comes across to liberals when one criticizes mainstream media, especially media that they personally trust.

In the aftermath of the American election, a huge chunk of our discourse in the West turned its head down and looked right into its own navel.

In the ensuing discussion of Fake News and what it means to trust reputable sources rather than, well, any old website that lacks credibility, proven fact-checking or clear sourcing, all of the liberal favorites I mentioned above came out on top among that particular cohort. It was cool again to trust the New York Times or the Washington Post. You could put your faith in The Guardian or even the BBC.

Of course, the right-wing shot back, calling these sites the "true" Fake News.

I would generally agree with all of this, and I, too, like reputable news sites that have built up credibility and employ known fact-checking and journalistic ethics. I read these sources as well.

However, one casualty of this narrative is that pointed criticism of these mainstream liberal favorites make one sound exactly like the "New York Times is FaKe nEwZ!"-screaming zombies we deplore. Of course I am not trying to say the whole paper is "fake news", just that their reporting on Taiwan is misleading, incomplete or inaccurate. But that's how it reads, especially when we point to a larger problem rather than a single article (and even pointing to a single article is hard, because every other problematic article agrees with it, meaning you can't win).

Even pointing out, to end this at the Tsai-Trump phone call where we began, that perhaps in this one particular case Trump's action was - gasp! - not so bad, perhaps even something that a Western leader should have done a long time ago, makes one sound like a Trump apologist, if not a Trump supporter or someone who thinks Trump can be trusted. Of course I'm not - we're not - but it feels as though the bar for being accepted as a Good Liberal is set at hating every single thing Trump does.

I do hate every single other thing he does, but I simply cannot let go of the fact that on Taiwan, when he picked up that phone, he was doing exactly what I had been wanting a Western leader to do for some time. Did I trust the person doing it to be him? No. Absolutely not, never, forevermore my answer is no. I cannot ignore, however, that no other Western leader would have done it, including the ones I would have trusted to take that phone call.

We can try to correct the media. We can try to get our own work out there. We can write in. We can rebut. We can try to make the media better, and we can try to improve education on Taiwan in the West with what little class time we have.

But this? I don't know how to fix this.

My latest for Ketagalan Media: Taiwan needs to do a better job of protecting domestic workers

You may remember my post a few weeks ago about the proposed changes to regulations aimed at protecting foreign blue-collar labor, and my absolute fury over allowing employers in Taiwan who had previously sexually abused a foreign worker to hire one again after after a few years, with a lifetime ban only after repeated offenses.

A few things I've learned since then - Taiwanese women are not protected either (the vast majority of domestic workers in Taiwan are foreign women, however), and although Taiwan has a sex offender registry, it is not open to the public and therefore potential foreign employees at this time have no way of knowing if they are taking a job with a convicted sex offender.

So, I've written up a new piece for Ketagalan Media on this issue. As a foreign woman, albeit one of comparative privilege, it is important to me.

I hope you'll take a look.

Some thoughts on the "Sing China Music Festival" protests and violence

Photo from student activist public posts on Facebook 

Earlier today, a music festival meant to "showcase the talents" of Chinese and Taiwanese musicians and bring them together so they could "learn from each other" (this was the official talking point, anyway) was stopped early as pro-Taiwan protests broke out. At one point, at least one pro-China unificationist, an older man, confronted the protesting students, beating at least one with a stick to the point that he was bleeding profusely and had to be taken to a hospital for treatment.

Update: Taipei Times has by far the best story. This gives a full accounting of what happened before the pro-China people got involved. And here's an article from New Bloom which has some great legwork on the history of Sing China and how its rebranding could well be a part of attempts at cultural unification, as well as background on the backlash against Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je. 

Focus Taiwan ran a "story" in English, with Apple Daily publishing something in Chinese and Freddy Lim commenting on Facebook (also in Chinese). There is also a bilingual report from a Facebook poster here, and a video - do watch the video - here.

Here's another video (which will link to more) showing more of what happened.  It looks pretty clear that the students are not the ones who started the altercation.

The initial protests seemed to have two purposes: on one hand, they were clearly pro-Taiwan protests who did not want this Chinese music festival to take place. You can see that by the flags they are carrying, which are either the Taiwan flag that pro-independence activists use (a green Taiwan on a white field with green sides, looking similar to but not the same as the flag of the Democratic Progressive Party) or the sea green "I support Taiwan independence" banners with Taiwan inside of a stylized whale.

On the other, stated complaints where that the festival monopolized (and damaged) facilities on the NTU campus, including an athletic field that had been off-limits to students for some time to prepare for the festival.

There is also a discussion on constitutional reform (discussed today by Tsai Ying-wen at the DPP Party Congress) and 'students' rights' surrounding this that I'm still trying to unpack, which I'm going to go ahead and admit rather than pretend I understand every aspect of this incident.

Some reports say the protesters originally held tickets to the event, but were blocked from entering. Eventually, the festival was halted well before the scheduled 10pm ending time. Protesters later stormed the stage bearing pro-Taiwan signs. 

Then, near the venue, at least one unificationist counter-protester from the Concentric Patriotism Association (愛國同心會), the same people responsible for violence outside Taipei 101 and for confrontational tactics even when protesting legally, approached, yelled at, threatened and beat one of the pro-Taiwan protesters. (Yes, I am sure it's them as behind him you can see one of their vans covered in Chinese flags in the video).

Photo from student activist public posts on Facebook

According to the Facebook post, the police were called but took over 50 minutes to respond. This is clearly a problem, as it happened in a central location. The time it takes for the police to get a call and send someone does not account for that.

There's a lot to unpack here, so let's take a look.

First, why protest a music festival? Protesting that an unwanted festival is taking facilities away from students is one thing, but why the obvious pro-independence bent?

The most obvious issue, as Taipei Times pointed out, is that despite taking over student facilities including a track and athletic field at NTU, and despite this being billed as a cooperative "sister city" event between Taipei and Shanghai, in fact, the event organizers called National Taiwan University "Taipei City Taiwan University". Some protested that they were not "China Taiwan University", as well. The students - quite rightly in my view - were offended by the event stripping NTU of its real name and status, in the same way that Taiwan is stripped of its real name and dignity and is forced to compete in international sporting events as "Chinese Taipei".

It's also noteworthy that, although similar events have taken place before, in the past they were approved under a KMT-led city government. Now that the KMT is out of power in both Taipei and the national government, people expect better, not more humiliating name changes. Hence the anger at Mayor Ko, who was once seen as a pro-Taiwan politician but whose record on pro-Taiwan issues has since been marred. 

From the Focus Taiwan article, you might be led to believe that this was just an innocuous cultural activity that was halted by thuggish immature students. You would probably be wrong. Although the festival was, according to Focus Taiwan, "legally permitted", it is widely believed to be connected to China's United Front work (the United Front being the amalgamation of Chinese organizations that work together to promote a pro-China and anti-Taiwan worldview - among other things - on a global scale. They do this through a number of means which you can read about here and here). New Bloom (linked above) lays out what this might look like in practice well:

Sing! China, the rebranding of the earlier The Voice of China singing competition, is a well-known Chinese reality television show. What is notable about Sing! China and its predecessor The Voice of China, however, is that the show goes out of its way to feature contestants drawn from “greater China,” including Taiwan and Hong Kong. This is also true of the television show’s judging panel, in which two of the six judges, Jay Chou and Harlem Yu, are Taiwanese. Judge Eason Chan, likewise, hails from Hong Kong, meaning that three out of the show’s six judges are not actually from the China mainland. The notion of “greater China” emphasized in the show goes to great odds to show that its contestants are drawn from all across “greater China”, with contestants oftentimes stating which province they are at the beginning of their self-introduction, and with their home province listed in their profile. Obviously, “Taiwan” is always a “province” of China on Sing! China.

Everyone I've talked to about this believes the festival to be connected to the United Front. Freddy Lim's post also alludes to this. He doesn't use the exact words "United Front" (統派) but he does say "這雖然是學生權益事件,大家也想知道,台大校方與台北市政府,怎麼能夠容許這樣帶有統戰意味、會稱來自「中國台北」的活動,進入校園、進入台北市" - "Although this is a student rights issue, everyone wants to know, how could NTU and the Taipei City government allow such a united front, coming from "Chinese Taipei" activities into the campus and into Taipei?" (Emphasis mine).
I don't think it's an accident that Freddy used words that literally mean "united front" without actually referring to the United Front by name. What I'm saying is, these students, it seems to me, did not just protest a music festival because it happened to be related to China. They protested it because they knew it was just one of the United Front's many tactics in their war of attrition and propaganda against Taiwan. Their mission - disruption of campus facilities or Taiwan independence? - was not confused. In this light, it makes perfect sense. Next, let's look at the Focus Taiwan article, which I am trying very hard to refrain from calling all manner of names. Did one of the oldsters from the Concentric Patriotism Association get a job at CNA or Focus Taiwan? The article paints the festival as innocently as possible - perhaps fair as there is no proof it was anything other than that, but any even halfway intelligent person should be able to deduce that there's more than meets the eye here. But not Focus Taiwan. They say:  

The MAC noted that Sing China Music Festival was a legally permitted activity that was meant to showcase Taiwan's music talent and give young musicians in Taiwan and China a chance to learn from each other.

This is perhaps forgivable, as the bare facts are that it was a permitted festival that, by being allowed by Taipei City and NTU, was obviously "supported" by Taipei in some way.

However, you won't see any mention of the protesters pro-Taiwan stance or the "Taipei City Taiwan University" issue in the article, either. It's purposeful omission is telling.

But if you read the article in its entirety, you'll note that while there is mention of "injuring a student", the writers make it sound as though the injuries were the result of a fight that was instigated by both sides being
confrontational. In fact, every other picture from the pro-Taiwan protest shows a peaceful, albeit disruptive, demonstration. This was not "commotion" caused by "both sides". 

Protesters splashed banners, chanted slogans and stormed onto the stage while supporters of the festival shouted back, creating tension as both sides confronted each other.

Four people were injured during ensuing scuffle, and police arrested a man surnamed Hu on charges of injuring an NTU student. Hu was taken to Da'an Police Station for investigation.

This was pro-China unificationist protesters doing what we already know they do: roughing up anyone who disagrees with them. Note, as well, the implication that the protesters "chanting slogans" and "storming onto the stage" were the instigators, with the unificationists seeming to merely react. Absolutely biased, in the most insidious way. 

If you watch the video, however, while it starts after the beating begins, you'll note that the pro-Taiwan person "confronting" him was saying "What do you want?" (你要什麼?) and "What are you doing?" (你幹嘛) - not something you say if you were a part of the fight starting.

It is also much more serious than simply "injuring" a student. "Injuries" happen when there's a little pushing or shoving. This was a full-on beat-down with a stick that resulting in the student going to the hospital. Nothing that student could have done would have merited being beaten like that. Focus Taiwan makes it sound like maybe they were pushing each other and the student fell. Although the video doesn't go back that far, this seems unlikely.

At the end, you'll also note this little gem:

Li Wenhui (李文輝), Shanghai City's Taiwan affairs chief who was present at the time of protest, kept a low profile and declined to make any comment on the untoward commotion. 

(Rest assured that if they change this wording, I have a screenshot).

Isn't this meant to be a straight news article? I get to editorialize - this is my blog. CNA reporters whose work is appearing in Focus Taiwan don't, or shouldn't. The fact that they ran the "untoward commotion" comment at the end tells you all you need to know about how trustworthy they are as a news source. What right do they have to decide what "commotion" is untoward and what isn't?

I know Focus Taiwan can be somewhat conservative, and CNA even moreso (and also very politically biased), but here's the problem: at the time I wrote this post, other than Yiting Wang's post, this was the only English-language source on what happened available. There weren't multiple sources coming together so that people could consider the event from more than one angle and reach conclusions. Reading this, those who cannot read Chinese might get a very skewed idea of what exactly happened.

This is a problem. If we want more people in the international community to be cognizant of, and care about, Taiwanese affairs, we have to make sure they are aware of these incidents in a fully-informed way. The Focus Taiwan article, if anything, contradicts that goal rather than supporting it.

Finally, a thought.

For all of those people who take a pro-China viewpoint, or tend to clutch their pearls at pro-Taiwan demonstrations and protests, for those who think that the best or more realistic goal is eventual unification, who might even think annexation is acceptable, who think that the Concentric Patriotism Association is just as legitimate as the students who protested today, consider this.

You are on the same side as an old man who beat a student with a stick so badly that he was bleeding from the head and went to the hospital - someone who claims the freedom to protest, but uses it to attempt to aggressively and violently stop others from exercising those same rights. You are on the side that is against freedom, or rather, allowing only one viewpoint to express itself without fear.

If this is what you support, this is the Taiwan you will have should China win. This is just a taste of what authoritarian rule looks like: one side is free to say what it likes and enforce its views, whereas the other is beaten, or in China, kidnapped, tortured, disappeared, or killed.

Is this the Taiwan you want? Where one side is derided and even beaten for protesting whereas the other is free to do the beating, with the police not intervening for nearly an hour? (The police always come quickly, mind you, when the protesters are students or pro-Taiwan. It's, shall we say, odd that they seem to take so long when the call is about the Concentric Patriotism Association).

This is not free speech. This is not freedom of assembly. This is not civil disobedience, and it is certainly not non-violent resistance. It is very violent, and very anti-freedom. If you see a Chinese future for Taiwan, this is what you support.

The Concentric Patriotism Association has the right to protest and demonstrate peacefully. When they have proven again and again that they cannot and will not be peaceful, I think it's time we discussed what measures must be taken to ensure the safety of pro-Taiwan activists. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

A rare restaurant review: mik'sutras / MIK-6


#1 Songjiang Road (on the corner of Weishui Street)
Zhongshan District
Taipei, Taiwan

松江路1-1號 (松江渭水路口)

I don't do a lot of restaurant reviews anymore, but one thing I do intend to keep doing is updating my big post on Indian food in Taipei, and reviewing Indian restaurants as I visit them.

So, I'm happy to write about my first visit to mik'sutras, the 6th business from the always fantastic Mayur Indian Kitchen. It's just to the east of Songjiang Road (松江路), actually on the corner of Weishui (渭水) street with the storefront on Weishui, very near the other Mayur (I think the 2nd one?) near the electronics market.

mik'sutras has more of a bar or club feel, but with restaurant seating. They have a full curry menu - and the curries are great as always - but not the South Indian dishes you can get elsewhere. Eventually, they'll focus more on regional snacks and chaats. They have two gorgeous ovens that are visible to the dining area, and a selection of shisha flavors served in beautiful hookahs (prices vary depending on what you order, with unusual or higher-quality flavors costing more). There is live music and occasional live dancing and performances.

Think of it as a cross between a restaurant and hookah lounge with more of a party atmosphere.


We decided to go there for my birthday, on a Sunday night. It wasn't particularly smoky, but Sunday is a quiet night for any venue, and I would imagine on nights with many hookah smokers it would be more noticeable.

The food was fantastic as always, and they did a great job catering for a large group (we were about 16). We each ordered whatever we wanted and then shared it, with rice and bread for the table - really the only way to do an Indian meal with that large a group. I ordered pork vindaloo, one of my favorite dishes but which is almost impossible to get in Taipei (I often make my own) because the owners of many Indian restaurants are Muslim. Which is fine, I get it, but it means no authentic Goan pork vindaloo for me (the best and most typical vindaloo is generally made with pork - the way the flavor of that particular meat work with the vinegar and spices does matter). It was amazing - fiery but flavorful, not just overpowering heat. I won't lie, I got a little chili high eating it.


Afterwards, those who wanted to smoke did, and we got one of the more expensive mint shishas, served in a gorgeous clear hookah filled with icy water. As people headed out, the last few of us sat around talking, smoking and drinking - it was just a great party, with a low-key end on Sunday night.

I'm not really a smoker, but shisha once a year or so I think is a perfectly acceptable indulgence. I wouldn't make a habit of it and I will never smoke cigarettes (ew!) but I've spent enough time in the Arab-influenced countries of the Mediterranean to enjoy one on occasion.

What a stark contrast to the last time I went to a hookah bar in Taiwan, where the hookah was fine, and the drinks were good and strong, but they charged me for 3 martinis when I'd only had 2 and I didn't notice until the next day (and which I think was deliberate but I can't prove it). They went out of business awhile ago and I say good riddance.

Overall I had a fantastic birthday party - Indian food, hookah, chocolate cake, passionfruit cream puffs, and some friends bought me a copy of Formosa Betrayed which couldn't be a more perfect gift for this particular bookworm!

There are other hookah bars in Taipei now - such as 1000 Nights - but frankly, if you want a good Indian meal and a hookah, mik'sutras is the place for you.






Monday, September 18, 2017

On China's event horizon and screaming into the void


Yesterday was my birthday. I turned...well, ancient. That's fine. As a friend pointed out, life keeps getting better, so there's no reason to complain about not being that young anymore. I did all the things that I love to do: seeing friends, organizing things (I completely cleaned and organized my spice shelf, labeling all of the weirder flavorings I've bought in packets and put in jars - sumac, dried lavender, juniper berries, gentian root, black salt, kalonji...), eating Indian food (we went to mik'sutras, the newest offering from the fantastic Mayur Indian Kitchen - review coming soon) and, of course, attending protests.

So, before dinner, we participated in China! Free Li!, dutifully donning red shirts (mine was emblazoned with University of Exeter, because that's the only red t-shirt I have) and going to the Central Culture Park (中央藝文公園) near Shandao Temple to help spell out the words "China! Free Li!" on the grass.

I don't think I need to pretend I'm a real journalist and cover the particulars of the protest: you can read about that here, here and here. I'm even quoted in Storm Media about it (link in Chinese).

What I want to say is this:

I'm perfectly aware that this protest will amount to exactly nothing. Lee Ming-che's "trial" is a joke, the verdict pre-determined. China has set up a toy train with tracks that only run in one direction, and there is little we can do if we're not in the government to derail it. China is not going to free Lee just because we spelled out letters asking it to, nor is the Taiwanese government going to alter its (probably correct) strategy of working to bring him home in a behind-the-scenes way.

Literally not one thing will change as a result of my or any of us attending yesterday. Lee's case and human rights generally in China are a void into which we scream. We are not heard, and there can be no reply because a reply would require some sort of human or collective conscience or system of ethics, and the Chinese government has proven that it possesses neither. By attending, we primarily make ourselves feel better.


We can "make statements", "send a message", "call on" China, "rally" in support, and all of it is about as useful as writing our statements "calling on China" on construction paper and mailing them in envelopes addressed to "Santa at the North Pole" and waiting for a response.

That's not to say that protests are never useful. Around the world, they have been instrumental in effecting change, although they are rarely the primary force behind that change. The civil rights movement in the United States did not succeed in changing laws and minds primarily because they marched. They succeeded because underneath that a long, hard, quiet campaign of registering black voters, lobbying, petitioning and other forms of less-visible activism created the undercurrent necessary to bring about that change.

What protests do is put all of the activism that actually accomplishes something into the public eye, perhaps providing a catalyst moment, perhaps not, but at least creating some visibility.


The question is, visibility to whom?

The People's Republic of China is a vacuum - a black hole devoid of any sort of moral or ethical rightness - that is trying to suck up everything on its periphery. Black holes don't listen. They can't listen. They lack the humanity to do so. The government of China, while comprised of human beings, is not humane. There can be no visibility in a system where all light is sucked into blackness, where no light escapes.

I don't even think I'm being melodramatic. It is really that bad. The situation is truly that dire. They aim to not only eradicate the concept of human rights in China, but the world. They aim to force the CCP's amoral, ethics-free, humanity-free way of looking at the world onto the rest of us - and we aren't paying attention - we don't see it coming because they're not using guns to do it.

Taiwan is close to China's event horizon, and yet, outside of Taiwan's activist circles few seem to think this is an immediate threat. We aren't going to be sucked in tomorrow, or this year, or even next year, but black holes know nothing but sucking, and they are going to keep sucking until we - and everything we stand for - no longer exists.

Those are the people I want to see this - that is the visibility I desire. They're the ones I want to hear about this case and the more general threat from China. They are the ones who, as they go about their lives - although I thrive on worry and agitation, I wouldn't want to take from anyone the ability to have worry-free days where they are not terrified for the fate of their country at every moment - should keep in mind that this is a more general threat, and to vote and be prepared to fight accordingly.

I want them to know what it would mean to be on China's event horizon - it means a fate similar to that of Hong Kong. Does Taiwan want a shell democracy in which China decides who stands for election, disbarring and even imprisoning anyone whose beliefs don't fit their narrative? Do they want a shell press where journalists and writers theoretically have freedom, but in actuality are kidnapped, tortured and killed by faceless thugs?

 The Chinese government will hear nothing because voids do not hear, they only exist as a place where sound dies. But the people of Taiwan and much of the rest of the world still possess their right minds and senses. They can see and hear. They are the ones I want to reach, the ones I want to start thinking and act accordingly.

I want them to know that these issues exist, and people care about them. I don't want them to think that Lee, or China generally, are not a threat because people are apathetic. I want them and the world to know we are paying attention and perhaps get some of them to pay attention, too.

It is doubtful that the rest of the world will notice this small protest. I wouldn't even expect them to. But if Taiwan notices, and the rest of the world notices that Taiwan's vision of the future is fundamentally incompatible with China's, that will be one positive long-term outcome.

So I didn't attend China Free Li because I thought it would actually help free Lee Ming-che, or because I thought it would send a strong message to China. Fuck China.

I did it to send a strong message to Taiwan. 

So after Miao Poya speaks and while everyone's clapping, I shouted "we love you, Miao Poya!"
I'm not sure if I hope she heard me. 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Red Tide: Taiwan, education and Western liberals

I had lots of great pictures from this protest, and lost all of them. A shame. So I've stolen this from Wikicommons like a scrub and I'm not even sorry. 

On October 10th, 2006, I was sitting in a Starbucks across the street from Taipei Main Station watching an angry wave of red roll by.

I had arrived in Taiwan just one month before, knowing next to nothing about Taiwan but thinking, as young graduates often do, that I knew quite a bit. It went something like this: there were two main parties in the "Republic of China" - the KMT, which I knew about, and the other one, which I didn't. The KMT had been the republicans-in-the-lower-case-sense who had fled from China, establishing themselves in the last vestige of "Free China", which was Taiwan. I hadn't known what Taiwan had been before that, so I assumed it had been Chinese. That must have been accurate, my subconscious surmised, because nobody had corrected me. The KMT had helped to develop the island into an industrialized and prosperous nation, eventually granting the people democracy. About a third of Taiwanese supported "reunification", a third independence, and a third were undecided. The language of Taiwan was Mandarin Chinese, and the people were Chinese. Chiang Kai-shek had been "corrupt", which was unfortunate, but he was much better than Mao Zedong. Because they had fled China, the KMT obviously did not support "reunification", which even then I did not think was a good idea. I didn't know about the other party. The current president was Chen Shui-bian, who was that other party, and who was pretty bad because he'd stolen some money, so the protesters were probably right. I knew that cross-Strait relations was "a complex issue" but ultimately, as the people of Taiwan had no consensus despite having democratized and having no other impediment, the current status quo was in everyone's best interest.

Pretty clear, right? Wow, I sure did know a lot! Practically a PhD-level expert, that was me. Just hand me my diploma.

I considered myself a good liberal: educated, well-traveled, thoughtful, engaged - a reader, talker and thinker. I cared about egalitarianism, justice, freedom and democracy, and simply doing the right thing even if it is to your detriment. I considered myself open-minded. I was secure both in my liberalism and my opinions and knowledge on Taiwan.

After all, this is what I had been taught. This was the entirety of the history of Taiwan that I had learned in my high school Social Studies class, crammed in at the end of a long unit on China. This was the version of history I defended to my teenage students in China when the subject came up. Nobody mentioned Taiwan in college, even though I'd studied International Affairs with a concentration in Asia. My main focus was South Asia, but that was still no excuse. I hadn't thought anything of it at the time, because it hadn't occurred to me that it might be important.

I had taken one course focusing on China in college - Chinese Culture Through Film. The professor was a lovely woman who had studied in Taiwan, but "had actually wanted to go to the Mainland". At the time, China had been closed to visitors, but she "had a Mao suit" that she "wore all the time", and thought of her professors in Taiwan as "doughy, soft capitalists."

While there might have been a thread of bitter irony in there, a knowledge that her earlier belief in the greatness of Mao's socialism had been misguided - to put it kindly - I hadn't picked up on it. I hadn't been to China yet but I felt a wave of sympathy for this viewpoint, because I assumed, being the larger country, that China was "more interesting" and Taiwan a backwater - of course someone would prefer to go to China.

This was what I knew about Taiwan. Therefore, this was all there was to know about Taiwan.

I'd come primarily because, after a lackluster year in China, I thought I'd give the place a try. I figured I'd probably leave in 2-3 years.

So I sat there as an incoming tide of vermilion-shirted marchers engulfed the street, flooding in to the Starbucks, banging drums, shouting for the president to step down, and generally making much merrier than you'd expect at an American protest.

The person I'd planned to meet so we could check out the action together didn't show, so I talked to a few other people there: protesters and regular coffee-drinkers alike about the Red Shirts and Taiwan in general. I don't remember many of the details of that conversation, but I do remember thinking that nothing I was told fit with the paradigm of Taiwanese affairs I'd believed. So these guys were KMT? No, not all of them, but most. So they were the other party? Some of them. So, if Chen's the bad guy, his party is the problematic one, yes? Hmm - in some ways, but not others. If the KMT gave Taiwan democracy, why does he hate them so much? Well...

Why do they hate him?

Wait, so these protesters support "reunification"?
No. Not necessarily. Actually, probably not.

That's the other party?

It wasn't just a different perspective - it didn't have a place at all. It was like trying to run an iPhone app on an old HTC. It made as much sense as coffee with salt or English on a night market t-shirt when one speaks coherent English.

Later, as I picked my way through the vermilion detritus washed up on the sidewalks - little did I know that protesters diligently cleaning up after themselves would become a feature of future Taiwanese social movements, the leaders of which were still in high school or starting college in 2006 - I thought one thing:

I didn't know much about Taiwan at all, and it was time I started really learning.

My name is Jenna Cody. I am a Typical American Liberal, and that is my origin story.

* * *

It's 2017 now. I still read quite a bit on Taiwan. I differ from the typical American liberal in that I've lived abroad for most of my adult life, and in that I am deeply pro-Taiwan: almost everything I thought I knew when I first arrived I have either found to be wrong, partially wrong, or far more complicated than it at first seemed. What might have been correct is now hopelessly out-of-date.

While not anti-China, I see no good argument for trusting the Communists, nor any argument for "unification" when the Taiwanese clearly don't want it, and generally don't identify primarily as Chinese at all. I hang with cool people - real, bona fide experts, advocates and activists - who know things. I've learned a lot, though I wouldn't call myself an expert.

Most Taiwan supporters I know here are liberals by American standards, although our most visible influential allies in the US are conservatives, often right-wing ones at that. This bothers me for a few reasons, the first of which being that the future of Taiwan is a fundamentally progressive one. How could it be otherwise when Taiwan, to cite just one example, will be the first country in Asia to implement marriage equality? I am not sure that social conservatives are the best allies to a country which, on many (though not all) important issues, would be more likely to side with the American left. Beyond that, I worry that their support of Taiwan is more often than not related more to a fear or dislike of China than any real pro-Taiwan sentiment. And, of course, the very idea of preserving the sovereignty of a self-ruled free democracy is fundamentally liberal.

I am not the first to wonder why it is that the American right has taken up the Taiwan cause, whereas the average American liberal, if they take note of the issue at all, either doesn't think it is particularly important or is more actively pro-China than you'd expect.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that in the pro-Taiwan community, how to talk to American liberals about Taiwan is a core issue. Many of us are mystified as to why a pro-Taiwan stance is not immediately recognized as a liberal one: a sovereign nation, a vibrant and engaged democracy in which civil discourse is taken seriously, freedom of expression, national health insurance and recycling as much as possible are so normal that they're taken for granted, human rights are considered fundamental and both women's and LGBT rights have made great strides, the people are committed to peace and think of the US as an important ally rather than a hegemonic threat.

Taiwan is not perfect, but how is this not every liberal's dream?

Not only is Taiwan democratic and free, but it is standing up against everything liberals hate. Just over a hundred miles away, a brutal authoritarian regime regularly violates human rights, torturing and murdering its own people, restricting basic freedoms and acting increasingly expansionist - both in terms of territorial grabbiness, but also intellectually, trying to control the marketplace of ideas not only at home, but abroad.

Every single day - I cannot say this enough - the Taiwanese people wake up and go about their lives, building their country and making it better, refusing to give up or give in, despite a catastrophe-creating number of missiles pointed right at them. And not only do they refuse to surrender their land and their freedom, but they are committed to solving the problem peacefully. This is the very definition of not only liberalism, but also courage. This is probably the single most heart-rending reason why I stay: I could make more money elsewhere, but I believe in Taiwan.

And yet, for whatever reason, liberals who balk at Russia's expansionism and (now, at least) sympathize with the Palestinians couldn't care less about Taiwan. It makes no difference to them that the thickest, richest, freest democracy in Asia is in real danger of being swallowed up by one of the most horrific dictatorships of our lifetime.

I am not the first person to observe this: both Ketagalan Media and J. Michael Cole have covered this issue extensively.

However, nobody yet seems to have publicly asked the question that could lead to an answer:


Why don't liberals care about Taiwan - or worse, why are some actively anti-Taiwan? Why is the best writing on Taiwan often found in conservative news sources, and why do liberals start explaining away their apathy whenever Taiwan is brought up?

If we are going to solve the issue of how to talk to American liberals about Taiwan, first we need to know why they don't care to begin with.

I am not an expert, and I don't claim to have a final answer. I can, however, start the conversation. Once we know why, we can formulate solutions.

I tried to write this in a longer post and got bogged down in how much there was to say, so I've decided to split it up into several posts, and I honestly have no idea when it will be finished.

For now, I want to talk about one of the roots of the problem: education.

It isn't surprising that the average Westerner either doesn't care or has inaccurate knowledge about Taiwan when what they are taught is essentially a condensed version of tired KMT talking points. Although my own teacher was careful to note that Chiang Kai-shek was no saint, the KMT as a whole comes out looking rather spiffy in this whole narrative.

It's also not shocking that people assume that China is speaking the truth when they say that annexing China is "reunification" if one's education only covers Taiwan post-1949, heavily implying that before that date, Taiwan and China had always been united. It borders on a lie of omission, and I'd make a solid bet that the average high school Social Studies teacher (and perhaps a few professors who didn't study the region) actually believes that this was the case, or simply hasn't considered the issue long enough to know that it is an issue at all.

It's easy to think that the two sides both see themselves as "China" when that's how it is taught. To be fair, it was the official view of the two governments for some time - the issue is that the few sentences it would take to point out that the official position of the Republic of China does not reflect the view of the people aren't added to this. It's not a big leap to make the argument that nothing can change because both countries use "China" in their official name, and to therefore think that "reunification" either wouldn't be so bad, or that accomplishing it peacefully is possible.

All sorts of nebulous beliefs might form from the mind of a well-meaning liberal with this kind of education: that there was a meaningful "split" in 1949, and that that split was between "Taiwan and China" rather than "the PRC and the ROC". That the KMT is doing the right thing by pursuing closer ties, because after all they brought about successful democratization in Taiwan. That the DPP, considering this history, are the real "troublemakers" by being so "anti-China" (if one even knows who they are). That "one country two systems" is a strong and workable solution.

And most insidiously, that the Taiwanese, being "from China", speaking Chinese, having "the same history" as China and considering themselves "Chinese" would happily "reunite" with China if only China would liberalize and democratize. The very idea that this will never happen and no amount of liberalization on the part of China will change Taiwan's desire for de jure sovereignty, that there was never and will never be a "One China"  that includes Taiwan, is nearly heresy after a curriculum that hits these points.

If you believe that, then it's easy to jump to believing that the US not only has no moral obligation to stand by Taiwan, but that in fact should actively stand down. That it's better for everyone involved - including the Taiwanese if they are considered at all - if "reunification" happens.

So, perhaps as an adult with such an education, you read about the Tsai-Trump phone call. You are predisposed to thinking the party that "advocates independence" is a troublemaker, and as a good liberal you hate Trump, so of course you are upset. Of course Taiwan is the problem.

You might read about Tsai refusing to acknowledge the "1992 Consensus", which the reporter treats as a real consensus that was made and is valid. Being a good, educated liberal, you Google it to find out what it is. As you've always believed that the two sides considered themselves "China", it's not hard to believe that of course they'd agree on "One China", perhaps "with different interpretations." Through that lens, Tsai's refusal to acknowledge this looks like troublemaking rather than an attempt to correct the narrative.

You certainly don't question what you read in the media, because the media hits all of the points that match up with what you've been taught. This confirmation strikes you as plausible and persuasive. As a good liberal, you tend to believe what people say if it lines up with your education. Insisting that the world is different from what teachers teach and textbooks say - and the media you trust confirms - makes you sound god, a right-winger or worse, a Trump supporter. Heavens no!

Let's take this further - not only is the average liberal reader the beneficiary of this kind of education, if they even got that much, but the reporters who wrote the story were too. They can't write better articles, because they genuinely don't know better. They check their facts perhaps with a think tank or simply looking it up, and come across other references to things like "the 1992 Consensus", again from people who don't necessarily know the whole story themselves. The information validates itself in a feedback loop of inaccuracy that nevertheless comforts everyone in it, from teacher to reporter to reader.

Of course, mileage varies. I have friends who have no connection to Taiwan beyond me who know a fair amount about the issue - they're perhaps aware of the web of assurances and communiques that the decaying shanty that is today's US foreign policy on Taiwan is glued together with. Even they tend not to see why the status quo is a long-term problem for Taiwan, or why "economic cooperation" with China is never only economic cooperation.  On the other end, I've met well-meaning educated liberals who genuinely did not think Taiwan was democratic, or even believed that it was already part of China, in a similar position as Hong Kong.

I realize that I'm speaking from experiences I had in school in the 1990s and early 2000s, but honestly, to hear young Westerners today, I'm not sure much has changed.

I know that Taiwan is not likely to get more time in Western educational curricula, but perhaps it doesn't need it, especially in high school. In my school, we spent about as much time on it as we did Australia, and perhaps more than we did on New Zealand. Australia and Taiwan have a similar population, so that's all that can be expected.

However, the time it is given really must be better used. Unwittingly treating Taiwan like nothing more an extension of the KMT regime, before which nothing that happened there mattered, heavily implying that it has always been Chinese is simply not good enough, and is a huge part of why we struggle to gain liberal support now.

It seems simple to say that teachers simply need to teach the truth - a mention of aboriginal settlement, the truth of Qing colonialism, Japanese colonialism (that in my education this was skipped over completely astounds me even today), a bit more time exploring KMT brutality in Taiwan, and a bit less on China's views of Taiwan which can honestly be summed up in one sentence. A few minutes explaining that the current status of Taiwan under international law is undetermined, and what the US's actual Taiwan policy is. A treatment of the views of the people of Taiwan that...well, that take into account their views at all to begin with, and is also accurate. Not using the term "reunification". Making it clear that the Taiwanese are so against unification not because they're just garrulous or quarrelsome, but because their history really is unique. Less time comparing Chiang to Mao, and more on these other issues. You could do it in the same timeframe.

Of course, it's not that simple. Schoolteachers are not omniscient in their subjects. History or Social Studies teachers won't necessarily know these details themselves, and we honestly can't expect that they will. I would probably make an excellent history or Social Studies teacher, and I don't pretend to be an expert in every territorial conflict around the world. I'm not nearly an expert in Abkhazia or South Ossetia - though I can tell you some - and I have been to Georgia. Recently. 
In universities, however, we really do have to do better. We have to stop assuming that someone studying China is equally qualified to teach or talk about Taiwan. Professors who teach Taiwan-related topics should know what they're talking about. We absolutely must fight Chinese influence in non-Chinese institutions of higher education. This is absolutely not too much to ask. Universities can and must do better.

This must go hand-in-hand with looking squarely in the face of what the Chinese government is and how it operates, and teaching that truth. No more tiptoeing around out of fear of being called "racist" (racism, while a real problem, is not the problem here), no more downplaying Chinese human rights abuses and propaganda and other United Front efforts abroad, making the place seem like a liberal's wet dream of socialism, "ethnic food" and adorable pandas. We can't tell the truth about Taiwan until we tell the truth about China.

With China actively trying to peddle its version of history in Western institutions of higher education, this problem is especially intractable. They're pushing their own red tide on the world, and the problem is, people are swallowing it. How are we to target CPD or the textbooks and other materials when the major textbook manufacturers probably aren't that interested (and themselves may have received just this education), and there is a lobby of pro-China activists who will fight us at every turn and - because those listening to our debate also received this education - are just as likely to think we're the zealots and nutjobs with a weak grasp of the facts, not them.

There are other things we can do, however. Right now, a typical liberal belief is that unity is always better, and that 'nationalism' is generally undesirable. Even too much patriotism is viewed with a bit of suspicion - frankly, rightly so. Nationalism is often assumed to be ethnic nationalism - always a bad thing (and yes, I happen to agree with this) and complexity in the debate of unity vs. separation is often ignored. The idea that one might desire sovereignty for one's nation without it being about ethnicity - which, in Taiwan's case, it isn't - doesn't get much play in educational institutions, and the idea that more unity is not always in everyone's best interest (especially when one of the actors in the scenario has insidious intentions or is blatantly expansionist, as China does and is) is given none at all. Even the idea that the United Nations might be failing in some regards doesn't seem to be a point of discussion in the average classroom.

If we can flip on its head the liberal assumptions that unity is always the best decision for all involved, and that nationalism is inherently ethnic and therefore bad, we might just get enough people thinking about Taiwan in a different way, which could lead to a bigger change.

Maybe I'm hopelessly optimistic, but I have to think something will work.

Looking back on the journey I took from thinking I knew everything to actually knowing some things and knowing that there is so much more I have to learn, I realize that it didn't just come. I had to dig. If all I'd done was read media I trusted and compare that against Wikipedia and the education I'd received, I'd still be here defending, say, the KMT's development policy as the real force behind the Taiwan Miracle (hey, some poorly-informed people still do. Even when they're in graduate school). I might still think the 1992 Consensus was a real thing that had been agreed upon. I might accept without question that Taiwan was fully a part of China for the entirety of the Qing dynasty's possession of it, which I might still assume entailed controlling the entire island.

Occasionally, someone will assume that I was 'indoctrinated' into being so staunchly pro-independence through having 'the wrong kind' of friends. In fact, I came to this on my own after a fair amount of reading and simply living here, seeing for myself what Taiwan was about. I keep the company I do because of the way my beliefs have evolved, not the other way around.

Once or twice, it has been insinuated that I feel this way because "anti-China", "China-hating" or "sinophobe" forces in the West use Western educational curricula to inculcate a fear of China into students like me (I can't think of anything more ridiculous - if anything, Western education is too lenient on modern China and mostly wrong about Taiwan).

In fact, I'd say that if someone had the experience I did, sitting in that Starbucks watching a scarlet tsunami of something they could not at all fit into their pre-set notion of what the world was like, and they'd set out to do something about that, they'd probably end up in more or less the same place I have. Especially if they stuck around.

Really learning about this topic is difficult, not only because Taiwan isn't on the radar of most Westerners, but because both China and the KMT are actively trying to muddy the waters, making clear truths more controversial than they ever needed to be, so that even a reader like me can be accused of having been "brainwashed".

I got out of this miasma of inaccurate learning by living here and really digging. The average Western liberal will never live here, or even visit. While they have the critical tools to dig, they probably won't, not because they refuse to think but because they never even realized there was something to dig for - and, frankly, nobody has the time to be well-read in everything. I can't expect of others what I cannot accomplish myself regarding other parts of the world.

Even if someone does dig, there is so much inaccurate information out there that, after awhile, even the most well-meaning person might start to believe it. That's where fighting inaccuracy in media reporting comes in, which will be the subject of my next post on this topic - whenever that is.