Monday, February 25, 2019

"If it's Taiwan today, people should ask 'who's next'?": full video of Tsai Ing-wen's CNN interview and comments

So, if you're like and don't have a TV, so can't necessarily watch something when it's on TV, you may be disappointed in the 4 minutes or so of footage across two videos of President Tsai's CNN interview on CNN's official feed.

The good news is that an awesome guy I don't know is here to help! You can watch the full video here.

Apparently two well-known analysts in Taiwan went in on ICRT about the interview (one thinking positively of it, the other negatively), though I haven't listened to the whole thing yet. 

I have a few thoughts myself. Tsai herself, in my opinion, performed admirably. To a Western audience - the people this is actually aimed at - she came across as reasonable, pragmatic, even-keeled and intelligent (all things she truly is). She made a very strong case for Taiwan as a beacon of democracy and freedom, and was very clear on the threat from China and why it should matter to the world, without any 'troublemaking' rhetoric. More time could have been spent on marriage equality  - as far as I can tell, it wasn't mentioned  - though I may have just missed it - to really hammer home the idea of Taiwan as 'liberal beacon in Asia' (it's not that liberal by Western standards but by Asian standards, it kind of is). She also makes a strong case for closer communication and stronger relations with Taiwan, without seeming desperate or begging.

She makes it clear that Taiwan does have its own military capability and can withstand a first wave of attacks. This is essential - we need to show the world that Taiwan does take its defense seriously and would not simply beg the world to defend it as it stood by, helpless and unwilling to stand up for itself.

"If it's Taiwan today, people should ask, 'who's next'?" - I truly don't think one can make a stronger case, and it was delivered succinctly and clearly.

Her point that Taiwan is the only democracy in the Chinese-speaking world, and it produced a female leader, so we need to quit it with thinking women are limited in what they can do is a strong one. By going meta with the 'questions about being a female leader of a country' trope and acknowledging it, with her basically saying 'what I think about such questions don't matter, I have an obligation to answer them until female leaders are totally normalized' (paraphrased), she shows that she always considers her role carefully as a leader rather than giving in to her personal feelings. To Americans who may be sick of seeing the puerile, vengeful, personal spewings of their own president, this is likely to play well.

She showed that she does speak fluent English, but wisely moved back to Mandarin for the more complex questions. This will also play well to a Western audience.

Tsai is quite good at this kind of interview, where she almost certainly prepares careful responses to known topics in advance, and where a questioner prompts her on various topics so she doesn't get too bogged down in technocratic wonkery.

I'll admit that by giving careful answers that kind of evade the meat of the questions asked - on whether Taiwan counts on US support in the face of a Chinese invasion, on whether Trump is an unreliable ally - she does come across as just another 'politician' to some extent. She doesn't really answer these questions, and I would have liked a stronger stance on Taiwanese not favoring unification, now or ever. That said, I think any half-intelligent viewer will understand that her country is in a precarious position. In a situation where a single misplaced word can infuriate China, her 'careful' approach is simply necessary.

All that said, the average Westerner interested enough to watch this interview would, in my estimation, be persuaded that Taiwan is worth taking seriously and its leader is not an 'extremist', an 'ethnic nationalist/separatist' or a hotheaded despot, but the pragmatic, serious, hard-headed and slightly nerdy (okay, very nerdy - that karaoke comment about reading while her friends democratically elected leader of a proud, free society.

That doesn't mean I feel so positive about the whole interview. While I am very pleased with how Tsai presents herself, I'm less of a fan of the historical interludes about the Taiwan-China situation, and some of the language that the interviewer used (namely the terms "reunification" and "mainland").

No one thing the presenter said was wrong, regarding what happened in 1949, the change in diplomatic ties, that Taiwan's official name is the Republic of China, or who the US recognizes as 'the sole China' now and why. No one fact was off-base.

But taken together, it presents an image of Taiwanese history that I can't endorse as accurate: there are several lies of omission that seem like minor details but are in fact pivotal to an accurate telling of Taiwan's story. If included, such details would change the overall narrative of Taiwanese history to such a great degree that leaving them out feels false.

Imagine if, instead of the usual "1949", "two Chinas", "the Republic of China still claims" narrative without any key details, the presenter had said something like this:

"Taiwan had been a Japanese colony until the end of World War II, when the Allied Powers allowed the Republic of China to accept Japan's surrender on their behalf and govern Taiwan, amid some controversy. The Nationalists and their leader, Chiang Kai-shek, who controlled Republic of China, were then defeated by the Communists under Mao Zedong, who founded the People's Republic of China. The Nationalists fled to Taiwan, claiming to be the 'sole' government of the 'true' China. Both leaders of these "two Chinas" were military dictatorships marked by oppression and mass murder. The United States recognized the Republic of China on Taiwan, under Chiang Kai-shek, until the late 1970s, when it switched recognition to the PRC in Beijing. Since then, China has continued on a trajectory of dictatorship while Taiwan has democratized and liberalized, with many Taiwanese no longer identifying as 'Chinese'. Polls in Taiwan show consistent support for a separate Taiwanese national and cultural identity. Some in Washington say that in light of this, it's time to re-assess US policy in the region, which..."

Same basic facts, but with pertinent details centered in the narrative, it tells quite a different story, doesn't it?

But, hey.

We can't get everything we want, so I can only hope that during the 'historical' interludes, American viewers went to the kitchen to get more chips. 

In the end, it doesn't matter as much as Tsai comporting herself well, which she clearly did. Taiwan needs to present a clear case to the world that it is worth taking seriously and aiding if necessary. I never thought I'd say Tsai Ing-wen was the public speaker who could accomplish much of anything (she's not a great speaker), but...I could be wrong. She's exactly the face Taiwan needs to show to the West. 

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Government Proposes Marriage Inequality


While everyone is celebrating the draft same-sex partnership law that has been announced and will move to the legislature for debate, here I am - as always - sucking vinegar and taking names.

That's not to say there's nothing good about the draft law - just that it isn't marriage equality and we can't rightfully call it that. And I wouldn't say I oppose the law, but you won't find me shouting my support from the rooftops either. I hope it passes, but if you want my enthusiasm, well, sorry to disappoint. 

Therefore, while we can say that Taiwan will be the first country to offer some kind of same-sex "marriage", and they even call it  "marriage" in the draft, it's not equal, period.

There are some positives: next-of-kin rights (medical visitation, making medical decisions, inheritances) seem to be included, so previous real-life situations in which someone was in the hospital and their same-sex partner could not visit or make decisions for them, or when someone died and their estate went to their blood family and not the person who was their spouse in all but legal name will be averted. That's a very important big win. We can also assume that this will include the ability to buy insurance together, be on the same medical insurance plans etc. - not as big a deal in Taiwan given the NHI system, but still important.

And, of course, the proposal specifically uses the word "marriage", which does matter. Words mean things; they imply a definition of truth. The Executive Yuan didn't have to use that word - they could have called it something more like "union" or "partnership" but didn't, which sends a strong message. Good.

It is not, however, equal marriage.

At the risk of angering some people (though I'm not at all sorry), some other aspects of this draft law are some big fat Jim Crow bullshit.

Same-sex couples will not gain the right of co-adoption; one spouse may adopt only the biological offspring of the other. That means no adopting orphaned children, and it also creates some very difficult barriers.

Fertility treatments and surrogacy are not easily obtainable by single people in Taiwan; often the treatments are only available to married couples at any price (it's not an issue of these treatments not being covered by NHI; unmarried people are simply banned from accessing them). From the Storm Media piece, the "special law" says that giving these treatments to same sex couples will be "at the competent authorities' discretion", whatever that means. So it may be quite difficult for same-sex couples to even have biological children, if they are denied access by these "competent authorities".

The issue of international marriage is not mentioned in the law, and appears for now to therefore not be covered. Storm Media's link above implies that it will  that it will only be possible to marry a same-sex foreigner if that foreigner's country of citizenship also recognizes same-sex marriage. That's not quite the case, necessarily: it would be quite possible to overrule the prohibition on marrying in this case, citing it as a disruptor of 'public order' in Taiwan. My lawyer friend says he hopes that this is how such cases are interpreted going forward. 

The "religious freedom" clause, which specifically says this marriage bill will not interfere with anyone's right to practice their religion as they wish, is unclear. I'm not opposed to it on its face; if someone wants to believe in some gay-hating sky friend, I think that's kind of dumb and bigoted but I don't think they must be legally mandated to change their (dumb and bigoted) religious beliefs. Freedom of religion is a basic right after all. But, it's unclear whether that will extend to allowing employers to discriminate against LGBT employees, or businesses to discriminate against LGBT customers, on the basis of religion. This needs to be clarified.

There is also a minor difference in the legal age of marriage, but it's more likely that the actual marriage law (rather than this unequal "special law") will be amended so that the age of consent to marry is the same across genders.

And, finally, this "special law" doesn't establish an official "in-law" relationship. I'm not quite sure what that means in practice, but it is a difference.

For all of these reasons, I simply cannot say that Taiwan is on the cusp of marriage equality. There will be some form of marriage with this law - which has not passed yet, by the way, it's just about to reach the legislature now and needs to be debated and voted on - but the fight isn't over.

The good news is that the unequal aspects of this law can be challenged in court, and I have to believe they were designed to be easily toppled. The Council of Grand Justices ruling in May 2017 specifically said that, as all citizens must have access to equal rights, that the right to marry must therefore be equal.

This does not confer equality, and therefore does not quite adhere to the constitutional interpretation ruling, and so is subject to legal challenge on those grounds. I am sure it will be challenged, and there's a strong foundation for making that happen relatively expediently while ensuring that the most egregious withholding of rights (next-of-kin issues) are handled.

It's a step, but I have to admit I grow tired of these half-steps. It happened with dual nationality too (allowing some special magic foreigners to qualify for dual nationality and relegating the rest of us to Garbage Foreigner status).

I know it's hard to convince more conservative factions of society that sweeping change is necessary, but real lives are impacted in the meantime, and it's tiring to be expected to compromise with Granny Bigot (age shouldn't be a factor but public opinion polls show that there is a strong age correlation) while waiting for access to rights (like marriage) and privileges (like dual nationality) that meaningfully change our lives. I get that there are political strategies to consider, but I personally am fine with letting Granny Bigot be upset.

I also don't feel all "rah rah hooray" when I know that this 'special law' is essentially an encouragement to keep fighting, not a summative victory.

The good news is that this is really angering conservative groups in Taiwan. Awesome! I hope all of their kids are gay. (That's not a punishment, it'll make Taiwan more awesome, but it'll also make them mad and make them think they're suffering...and that's great.)

So what can we do in the meantime?

To ensure that Taiwan moves toward actual marriage equality, we can donate to any number of pro-equality groups so that they have the funds to mount legal challenges, for starters. Here's a good place to start.

We can talk to relatives who disagree. Rallies are nice and stickers are great, and so are banners in hipster cafes, but the real change will happen when we start talking to the people in our lives about what equality means and why it matters for Taiwan (and everywhere). That if Taiwan stands for freedom and human rights, this is an essential part of it.

And while I won't tell others they can't celebrate, I'm holding off on my party. I will neither relax nor celebrate until we get actual marriage equality in Taiwan.

Taiwan does a tiny hop over a very low bar to be the most gender-equal country in Asia


I've said a zillion times before - though Google isn't giving me my old post on this - that Taiwan has the best gender equality in Asia, and is easily the best country in Asia to be a woman (either foreign or local).

And apparently my view on this has been corroborated by statistics!

But, I've also been quite clear in the past that Asia isn't exactly a region known for having a fantastic record on gender equality, so saying that Taiwan is "the best" in the region doesn't mean much. I mean, this ranking from a different source rated the Philippines as the 'most gender equal country in Asia' in 2018, It's a country where one can't get divorced (divorce being a right that helps all genders and is necessary in any country working towards gender equality) and can't get an abortion (an essential right of women to control their own bodies). It is not possible to say with a straight face that a country has gender equality when basic rights such as divorce and abortion are not permitted.

The rest of the list is just as much of a joke. None of these countries are places where women, generally, are treated equally or where women have the same opportunities as men.

So, for Taiwan topping the rankings - as determined by an outside body as Taiwan is not in the UN, meaning that no UN statistics where Taiwan would rank significantly are accurate - is nice, but it's not so much clearing a hurdle as doing a little skip in a hopscotch game.

Sure - Taiwan has a high rate of female political representation, higher than many Western countries. The gender discrimination laws for the workplace are quite clear, and when enforceable they actually seem to mean something. Abortion is legal and so is divorce (though the divorce laws are not exactly fully modern). The government is trying to push gender equality. Anecdotally, women seem to have a stronger presence in accounting and finance here than in Western countries. There is a pay gap, but it's less than other Asian countries

The streets are generally safe for women. Being pressured into an arranged marriage would be exceedingly rare, and resources do exist for abused women. It's not even that odd now for women to choose to remain single or not have children. And, of course, we have a female president - something the US has never had. And she's unapologetically single and wore pants at her inauguration: something I'm not sure many Americans would accept, even in 2019.


Domestic violence is a real problem. We have no idea what actual rape statistics are, because most women don't report when they are raped. It's difficult to speak out about sexual violence without pressing charges thanks to Taiwan's insane libel laws. There is a gender wage gap and nobody is really sure how big it is (and it's uneven across different industries). Many women can't afford birth control because it's not covered by national health insurance (even for treatment of other medical issues - not that that should matter!). Unmarried women can't receive fertility treatment, there are some ridiculous laws surrounding abortion (e.g. needing the husband's consent) and divorce (it's difficult to get one if both parties don't agree, with the party who wants the divorce often having to prove their partner did something to justify their ending the marriage). 

Even when serving in some of the nation's highest offices, one might be subjected to utterly preposterous sexist remarks. Women's issues are used by both ends of the political spectrum to score points, without any real desire to see through justice for said women. Important gender equality reforms are often ignored.  There is no rape shield law, at least since the last time I researched that issue. Adultery laws are a straight-up horrorshow. Religious practices often include ingrained sexist beliefs.

And those are just the obvious issues.

So yeah. Great. Okay. We're the most gender equal country in Asia. Woohoo!

But Asia is a pretty gender-unequal place. Female infanticide, the gender pay gap, the employment gap, education gaps, domestic violence, lack of access to basic health and reproductive care: these are all endemic issues in Asia. So, that distinction doesn't exactly mean that Taiwan is killing it in terms of treating women well.

It just means we're treating women a little less badly than other places.

All I can say is that, to be fair, the entire world is a pretty gender-unequal place: women's political participation, for example, is lower in Germany, the US and the UK than it is in Taiwan.

So we treat women a little less badly than most of the rest of the world.

That's good, but we still need to do better.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Where Richard Bush is right, and where he is wrong


Let me start out by saying that I don't think China expert (which somehow includes Taiwan? I mean, being the former AIT chair makes that okay, but they are not the same thing) Richard Bush is a Confucius McDoorknob. We can all agree that he is deeply credible.

So, let me be kind, and start with the ways that his two most recent articles (here and here) are right, before talking about the ways that they aren't.

In the first article, he's quite right that Tsai has been doing an excellent job of managing cross-strait relations, using caution most of the time, but snapping back like a bad-ass she-wolf at the appropriate times. This is just right, and Bush and the US are right to support her:

In my view, one of the reasons that the United States has expressed support for President Tsai and her administration is precisely because she is cautious and careful. She does not take the U.S. commitment for granted and understands the value of close communication.

He's also right that a referendum on de jure Taiwanese independence is a terrible idea.

Frozen Garlic covered why referendums are not the direct-democracy saviors their supporters make them out to be in the context of energy policy; it really covers referendums as a problematic tool more generally, though, and I highly suggest reading it.

Echoing Froze, Bush points out:

When it comes to democratic mechanisms, none is perfect in my view. Whether it is indirect democracy in a legislature or direct democracy through a referendum, distortion and manipulation of the popular will occurs. So a referendum is not necessarily better than other mechanisms.

If referendums are to be employed on routine policy issues, in my view, they should be crafted in a way so the result truly reflects the view of the majority of all citizens. I’m not sure one can say that about the referendums that were held on November 24 last year.

All the more so when the referendum is on questions regarding the fundamental identity of a state and a nation. For these, it is a good thing to set a high bar for authorizing a referendum and passing a referendum. The stakes are so high and the consequences of being wrong are so great, that it is appropriate—even mandatory—to require a broad public consensus through a super-majority for passage. Witness the trouble that Great Britain is now in because only a simple majority of those voting for Brexit was required for passage.

There are other reasons why it's a bad move, as well: first, that it would take a willfully blind person or someone invested in an outcome they are not openly articulating to say that Tsai is not working toward setting the fundamentals in motion for eventual de jure independence. It's not even reasonable to say she's moving too slowly; this is the pace you have to move at when you are threatened by a nasty bully just a few hundred miles away with missiles pointed at you.

It doesn't take a genius to understand that Taiwan has to make choices based in its real situation, not in how it would like the world to be right now.

The only reasonable criticism, then, is that she's not doing a particularly good job of 'selling' her way of doing things to the public. I do understand this is difficult: the deep blues already think this is the GREEN TERROR (it's not, and that phrase doesn't mean anything) and the deep greens are in fantasyland - they'd rather do what feels good than work in concrete ways toward a future for Taiwan. But it does feel as though she hasn't really tried.

So to say that what's needed is a bing-bam-boom REFERENDUM! goes beyond wishful thinking - in some ways it's straight-up childish.

And, of course, it's a bad move because it will probably fail. I mean, look at how easily the tide turned on the referendum to end the use of "Chinese Taipei" (which realistically would have meant applying to stop using that name - there's no way it would have been accepted). All it took was the IOC being a bunch of whiny buttclowns and the Taiwanese Olympic athletes coming out against the change to get the Taiwanese not to vote for a referendum that would have symbolically told the world that they think "Chinese Taipei" is a preposterous name, which it objectively is.

If we can't even pass "what the hell is Chinese Taipei?", how are we going to pass this? We're not. That doesn't mean the Taiwanese electorate doesn't generally support independence; most people do.

And, as much as I hate to admit it, he's right about Taiwan having to take into account the political situation in the US and what they will and will not realistically offer Taiwan.

Yeah I know I just puked in my mouth saying that too, but it doesn't make it untrue.

From the "open letter":

I do not know how firm the Trump administration’s commitment to Taiwan’s defense would be if military conflict were likely. There are certainly those who see Taiwan as a useful asset in its campaign to resist what they regard as China’s revisionist objectives. But valuing Taiwan’s partnership in this way is not the same thing as giving Taiwan, or political forces in Taiwan, a green light to act unilaterally to change the status quo, a principle that remains a central element of U.S. policy.

I do know that President Trump himself is skeptical about any U.S. security commitment to Taiwan. At a meeting of the National Security Council on January 19, 2018, Mr. Trump asked his senior national security team, “even more than [Korea], what do we get from protecting Taiwan?” The implication of that question is the U.S. commitment to Taiwan is not justified, as far as he is concerned. I have seen no evidence that this skepticism has changed. It is consistent with his long-standing opposition to U.S. defense commitments to U.S. friends and allies. 

and from the "let's not invite Tsai to speak" article, which I think was easily the worse of the two:

Make no mistake: The United States should continuously find ways to improve relations with Taiwan. We need to improve our economic relationship and help Taiwan effectively enhance its deterrence against China. That requires engaging Taiwan leaders on how they realistically believe American can help them, not how we think we should help. Forty years of American experience in conducting U.S.-China relations has demonstrated the need to be skillful and sometimes stealthy in our Taiwan diplomacy. Public symbols, deftly deployed, are important in relations with Taiwan, but substance is far more important.

In short, when talking about how to improve the chances of a truly independent future for Taiwan, it is simply smart to consider the US position as Taiwan's most powerful potential ally. I don't like it any more than you do, but whether or not the US will ultimately stand up for Taiwan does matter. At the very least it forces Taiwan to consider what it has at its own disposal when making decisions rather than assuming that its underdog status is so sympathetic and its cause so just (though it is) that of course anyone who truly cares about a free and democratic world will, in the end, stand by us. But that is not at all assured. It's not right and it's not fair, but it is sadly true. 

And, of course, he was smart to point out that the call to invite Tsai to address Congress originated with a group of US Senators, and it's not clear that Tsai herself thinks its a good idea:

The third flaw in this initiative is its disregard for Taiwan’s view. I’m guessing here, but I suspect that the authors did not ask President Tsai if she thought this was a good idea—and, if they did ask, they didn’t listen very carefully to her answer. President Tsai is responsible for the prosperity and safety of 23 million people. She understands that she must maintain some degree of balance between relations with the United States on the one hand and relations with China on the other. Clearly, relations with China are not as good as she might like them to be, but I believe she would not wish to risk a further, serious deterioration in relations with Beijing unless it brought it an extraordinary benefit.

But I have to say, there are a lot of ways in which Bush is straight-up dead-ass what-the-hell wrong.

Starting with the quote above, what's up with the fallacy that Tsai can do much, if anything, about deteriorating relations with Beijing. They're going to treat Taiwan like garbage no matter what she does because they simply don't like her, the DPP, or the Taiwan consensus. Relations are deteriorating because Beijing is deteriorating them, and that's not going to change.

Along these lines, and alongside some pretty solid wisdom, Bush is also selling some Grade A snake oil. Reading these articles is like going to your Harvard-educated doctor who effectively treats an infection with modern medicine, and then recommends you get your humors balanced.

Let's start with the top shelf dippery:

The first aspect is that the proposal touches on the national interests of the United States, specifically its abiding interest in peace and security in the Taiwan area and its longstanding view that neither side of the Taiwan Strait should try unilaterally to change the status quo.


You will recall that President Bush publicly criticized Mr. Chen in December 2003 for trying to unilaterally change the status quo. In September 2007, then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Christensen warned that Mr. Chen was putting Taiwan’s security at stake for the sake of the DPP’s electoral advantage.

These points pre-suppose that the status quo can potentially be changed bilaterally, or in some way other than unilaterally (and that the DPP fights the status quo "for its electoral advantage" rather than because they, and most Taiwanese, actually believe in working toward an independent Taiwan).

This is false.

It's not only false, it's dangerous to buy into. It will never happen. There's no game to play here, no potential winning strategy in which, if Taiwan negotiates with China in just the right way, or plays nice to just the right CCP officials, that there will be a breakthrough and a permanent situation of peace and Taiwan's assured autonomy would tumble from the heavens, rejoice! 

China. Will. NEVER. Agree. To. A. Bilateral. Solution. That. Taiwan. Can. Accept.


Well, unless the CCP falls in an inglorious revolution, but that would create so much instability and uncertainty (a dying CCP who invades Taiwan as a last-ditch effort to distract its own people from the situation about to boil over at home?) that it's not exactly desirable either. Slow reforms and so-called "bloodless" democratization/liberalization are even less likely, at least not on any timeline that will be viable.

That leaves three possible solutions that Bush is assiduously trying to avoid admitting to:

a.) war
b.) perpetual status quo
c.) some non-war-starting way of unilaterally changing the status quo

(The idea of peaceful unification is as much a non-starter as China agreeing bilaterally to Taiwanese independence: Taiwan would never accept it).

War is possible, but quite wisely, nobody (except perhaps China) wants to pursue it, so let's leave it aside. The perpetual status quo is a chimaera. It seems real enough but can't last. There's just no way that Taiwan's current situation is permanently tenable. This is because while the CCP as a whole may not be in any great rush to try to annex Taiwan, Xi Jinping harps on it in a way reminiscent of Chiang Kai-shek before anyone took him seriously. It seems unlikely to me that he'll run China for the rest of his life without at least making an attempt to accomplish it. And yet, the Taiwanese overwhelmingly support independence (whether de facto or de jure). They may vote for politicians who say otherwise, for other reasons, but when those politicians make concrete moves towards integrating with China, watch how their fortunes change.

So what does that leave us? Option C. I have no idea how we cause that to come about, but seeing as I don't see any "bilateral" way of changing anything between Taiwan and China, we can't take any potential future unilateral action off the table.

That Bush wants to imply that this is not Taiwan's reality, and that a bilateral solution may be possible, is dangerous wishful thinking at best, and straight-up snake oil served by gaslight at worst.

And, while I appreciate that Taiwan must take the US's position into consideration, I balk at the implication that we should prioritize the US-China relationship as though it is somehow more important to Taiwan than the question of its own continued sovereignty:

If the president of Taiwan were to speak to a joint meeting of Congress, any U.S. claim that its relations with Taiwan were unofficial would ring completely hollow. China would interpret the move as Washington’s reneging on the fundamental bargain at the heart of U.S.-PRC relations. Although I cannot predict exactly what Beijing would do in response, a radical downgrading of the relationship would be likely. Any hope that President Trump would have of cutting a trade deal with his New Best Friend Xi Jinping would vanish. U.S. requests for Chinese assistance concerning North Korea would fall on very deaf ears. Many sectors of American society that still value the U.S.-China relationship would be hurt. American multinationals that rely on China as a market or production platform would be vulnerable to retaliation, with attendant effects on jobs and profits.

Yeah okay but now you're starting to make it sound as though US corporate profits are Taiwan's chief concern, or that we should be worried about the US-China relationship for its own sake, beyond what it portends for the US-Taiwan relationship (or the Taiwan-China relationship).

We don't. I don't care about a trade deal between the US and China beyond its potential impact on Taiwan, and I don't care about the "fundamental bargain at the heart of US-China relations" because it's a crap bargain. I want US to normalize and make official relations with Taiwan, so why would any Taiwan-prioritizing readers take this paragraph seriously?

I mean, I get it, this is aimed as much at a US political audience as a Taiwan one, but as someone who prioritizes Taiwan, it is deeply unconvincing. Poor babies. It might hurt your profits. Oh noes. Oh wait, I don't care.

Finally, I'll also say that this simply can't be argued with, but is still deeply problematic for reasons explained below:

Also, neither you nor I can control how the Beijing government interprets developments on Taiwan and whether they trigger Article 8 of the Anti-Secession Law.

What bothers me about it is that he comes so close to understanding a deeper truth about China: that they are going to treat Taiwan like crap no matter what, and Taiwan can't control that (the US, in theory, could influence it in some way - if it wanted to. It doesn't.)

But no, he stops there, and then promptly trots out the same old blather implying that Taiwan not only can, but should, play this game with China:

The second flaw in this proposal [for Tsai to address Congress] is Taiwan would suffer. This initiative began in the United States, and Beijing would take the opportunity to pressure and squeeze Taiwan even more than it is already doing. It would likely find ways to get the small number of countries that still maintain diplomatic relations with Taipei to switch to the PRC. Taiwan-directed exercises by China’s People’s Liberation Army would intensify. China’s efforts to interfere in Taiwan’s domestic politics would increase. So, a gesture that senators intended to help Taiwan would only hurt it.

Taiwan is going to "suffer" no matter what. China will "squeeze" Taiwan no matter what. They will try to poach our (well, the ROC's) diplomatic allies no matter what (and I'm not sure how much I care - it's not like those countries recognize Taiwan. They recognize the ROC as China, which is not the same thing really). Taiwan-directed exercises by the PLA will probably intensify no matter what, and Xi's anti-Taiwan rhetoric will escalate no matter what. So while I admire Bush's genuine concern for Taiwan, he's coming at it in not only a wrong, but condescending way - as though we don't see for ourselves that China is already doing the things he is threatening China will do.

Let me repeat:

China is going to increasingly treat Taiwan like garbage no matter what Taiwan does, and there is nothing acceptable to the Taiwanese electorate that Taiwan can do to stop it. 

So if the CCP is going to continue to be a bunch of glass-hearted pissbabies, and they are going to increase their bullying of Taiwan regardless, then dude.

Let them.

And don't buy into the illusory nonsense that if Taiwan just plays footsie in the right way, it can negotiate a better outcome for itself or somehow convince China to stop being such a jag-off. This will never happen.

The only way to win this game is not to play. I support Tsai because, while it looks like she's playing China's game, she in fact has her own deck of cards and is playing her own long hand. China's not even invited to the poker table.

So let's keep not playing. Let's not make any rash moves, and let's stop tearing ourselves apart because some people need to prove that they are more ideologically "pure" rather than seeking realistic, practical solutions that lay the groundwork for a future that includes an independent Taiwan.

But holy mother of god, let's not buy any "but China will be mad and you can't make any unilateral changes!" garbage.

We know better and we will not be fooled.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Taiwan needs more strikes!


As you've no doubt heard if you follow Taiwan news at all, Taiwan ugh China Airlines pilots were on strike until very recently. Notably, while part of the negotiations to end the strike included an annual bonus (de rigueur in most Taiwanese workplaces, so I was surprised to learn that apparently pilots did not receive one? Huh), overall the strike was not about higher pay, better 'perks' or other 'benefits' not related to health and safety.

At the core of their demands were that more pilots be assigned to longer flights, so that total working hours for pilots could be brought down to a reasonable standard that would not leave them overworked and overtired. It also prioritized hiring Taiwanese pilots (including foreign pilots residing in Taiwan) over foreign pilots.

I have no particular opinion about the latter demand, but the former is simply reasonable. Nobody wants an overworked pilot; that's how disasters happen, and let's not forget that until very recently China Airlines had a poor safety record (in recent years things seem to have improved). Although China Airlines says its safety and working hour policies are within international standards, considering said safety record and how overtired pilots can be a factor in plane crashes, I question this.

Besides, it's simply not that culturally ingrained in Taiwan to strike at a particularly busy time for your employer (the strike began over Lunar New Year, one of the busiest travel times in Asia), especially if better compensation is not the employees' core demand. To take an action like this, the pilots themselves must have known that overwork and lack of sufficient cockpit crew was a major issue. The only real rebuttals to these demands were, essentially, "but that would cost money!" (yeah, a safe work and customer environment usually does) and "but we'll lose passengers!" (yup, but you'll lose more if there's a major crash and people will die), which underscores how strong a case the pilots made.

The thing is, this kind of strike has been a fairly rare phenomenon in Taiwan, especially in earlier decades. Up through the 1980s, generally pro-business, anti-labor laws governing collective action made strikes difficult if not impossible (not surprising given the repressive Martial Law political atmosphere more generally), and even in the 1990s, despite some strikes taking place, "legitimate union strikes" were still rare, and difficult to legally carry through. Although strikes have become more politically possible since then, they're still fairly rare, with an exception being the China Airlines flight attendant strike in 2016. (That the ground zero for highly-publicized strikes seems to be China Airlines also points to an anti-labor bent to their workplace culture).

The lack of strikes in previous decades wasn't just about anti-worker labor laws - there is an overall lack of a strong labor movement in Taiwan for a number of reasons. There are surely some cultural reasons for this (think of stereotypical "East Asian" work culture which values hierarchy and collectivism; there's a kernel of truth to it, although Taiwan is certainly more chilled-out than South Korea or Japan in this way).

But, more importantly, it's the result of an intentional political attempt to keep labor from organizing so as to advocate for its own needs. This has been done in a very devious way: not by union-busting or trying to dissuade workers from organizing, but by preemptively creating worker "unions" and "trade associations" that employees in a company or industry may belong to, so as to create the veneer of organized labor, but which is ultimately controlled by the companies or government, not the workers themselves. Such organizations have typically represented the best interests not of the workers but of management (or the government) and did not necessarily take on labor advocacy at all. In fact, what "management" and "the government" might want were not always different, given the history of nationalized industries / state-owned enterprises in Taiwan and how government control of industry and labor was used as a tool for political repression.

Of course, as independent labor movements coalesced, these came into conflict with the old-style "unions", there were disagreements on whether to improve the lot of labor overall or to address specific needs of specific groups of workers's all very complex but essentially, that's the reason why not every political party, group and organization which claims to represent the interests of "labor" is on the same page, or even gets along. For more on this point I recommend Yubin Chiu's chapter on trade union movements in Taiwan's Social Movements under Ma Ying-jeou (I'm sorry that it will probably cost you $50 to buy the book if you wish to do so, though that's better than the earlier price of $150 - and although Chiu obviously comes from a Marxist viewpoint on labor issues, he's good at explaining the fundamentals and historical complexities of trade unionism in Taiwan).

Under such conditions, it's not surprising that the labor movement has not been particularly robust and strikes have been fairly rare in Taiwan.

Anyway, taking all of this together, Taiwan simply needs more strikes.

First, because the typical Westerner's idea of a "strike" seems to involve the workers demanding better compensation. An anti-union libertarian friend of mine has even said that he imagines that only mediocre workers support collective bargaining, because the most talented employees have a strong position from which to negotiate better remuneration - it's only the employees who are not particularly distinguished who need to rely on collective action to improve pay and benefits.

That's wrong for a number of reasons, most notably that it assumes that all collective bargaining is aimed at better compensation for each individual rather than improved working conditions for everyone as a collective whole (it also assumes that more valuable workers don't care about whether their less-highly-performing coworkers are compensated fairly, which isn't always true.) But the flight attendants' and pilots' strikes show that this simply isn't that common a motivation in Taiwan: although compensation played a minor role in these actions, the crux of what the workers in both cases were demanding had to do with overwork and general working conditions.

Although I also support strikes for better collective compensation, there's a moral high ground to striking so that you can do your job better, not just to get more "stuff". Salaries in Taiwan are quite low and organized labor has not made any strong moves to push for better pay overall. There are a lot of hurdles for labor to jump simply in terms of social awareness of this issue: it's still taken as normal that one cannot challenge one's boss; changing jobs more often to garner wage increases rather than asking for a raise at one's current job is still seen as a good strategy; and it's still quite common for workers to defend long hours in the office because they prioritize making more money over having more personal time (even though one could argue that workers deserve both reasonable pay and reasonable hours, the rejoinder is that if management won't even give workers one of these two things, it's unrealistic to expect both).

 Of all the good reasons to strike, strikes in Taiwan seem to happen for the best possible reasons. So, more strikes please.

What's more, modern labor movements in Taiwan tend to be tied to other important social issues -
this labor protest attendee is marching to "end overwork", and also showing his support
for marriage equality

Second, given the cultural and historical reasons outlined above, there's no reason to believe that Taiwan's economy or infrastructure will grind to a halt (as seems to happen regularly in France) due to a large number of strikes. Despite the two prominent China Airlines strikes, they are still seen as a last-ditch strategy by labor unions that have only fairly recently coalesced outside of management control. Without a strong history of striking, it's unlikely to become a popular or even particularly common strategy. I don't foresee any sort of slippery slope here where there's a strike every few weeks over every little issue.

And if workers feel that their complaints are valid enough, and their conditions urgent enough, that this 'last ditch' strategy is necessary, there's probably a good reason for that. More strikes please!

Even if there were a slide into strikes taking place over a greater variety of issues - pay, sex discrimination in the workplace or the gender pay gap (still real problems in Taiwan), long hours - this would overall be a good thing for Taiwan. These are intractable issues that have been allowed to fester. Employers in Taiwan have taken the attitude that "I hired you and pay you, so you have to do everything I ask of you exactly when I ask for it, even if I take up all of your free time and I will take it as a personal affront and loss of face if you challenge me in any way on this or even attempt to discuss your working conditions" for too long. Labor standards are a joke. If strikes are what it takes for management to wake up to the fact that their employees are not their chattel, then more strikes please!

Working conditions, culture and compensation have been problems entrenched in Taiwanese society for far too long, and have arguably hindered Taiwan's economic development overall, as it loses its Millenial generation to better career opportunities, pay and working conditions overseas. Greater labor organization that is not under management control will become easier to attain as workers take stronger collective action, and will be the final step to eradicating the old government/management collusion which has been both historically politically repressive and anti-worker. It has the potential to bring various social movements together (see the image above).

Yet strikes are not likely to become yet another entrenched problem in Taiwanese society given how they are already typically viewed as an action that ought not to be commonly taken.

To put it simply, Taiwan needs more strikes.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Yes, it is hard to fight for Taiwan: Small Sexism Stories

Let me tell you a story. You can probably guess where it happened from my previous posts.

While discussing an issue important to domestic policy in Taiwan, a panel of highly distinguished speakers took turns making some opening remarks, starting with the two women on the panel - both elected representatives in the Legislative Yuan.

Then the men spoke. The first one pointed out Taiwan's low birthrate and made a comment along the lines of how we can't expect Karen [one of the legislators] to have "more babies" to raise the birthrate. Then, seemingly slightly embarrassed, he blundered into a repetition of the same comment that we can't rely on this same legislator to have more children. (I have to hope he was repeating his bad joke in a flustered attempt to sort of prove to himself that his slip wasn't that bad). Another speaker said he served with her on various committees, and so spent "more time with her than her husband".

A friend of mine pointed out that every man on the panel repeated some version of this joke about a comparatively young, attractive female legislator (which shouldn't matter but probably does) having more babies for the sake of Taiwan's dwindling birthrate. I missed these other comments as opening remarks tend to be repetitive and I'd kind of already gotten the point and was making notes about what topics I might bring up.

When the floor opened to the audience, I wondered whether I should say something about how inappropriate this was. Or rather, I knew I should but had no idea how to word it. I had no idea if these men and this legislator have this sort of jokey friendship, but didn't think it mattered if they did; that doesn't excuse the inappropriacy of such public remarks.

And, I will admit with some regret and self-chastisement, I weighed in my head the need to discuss issues of national import when it came to language education and teacher training, with how discussion of these blatantly sexist remarks would detract from that.

Towards the end, another woman affiliated with CG (Corporate Governance) Watch did say something: that Ms. Yu's competence at her job as a legislator "has nothing to do with her ability to have children".

Thank goodness she did say that; someone had to. The audience was supportive; there was a strong round of applause and a few standing ovations (I was one of them). Yu herself looked relieved that someone had said something, though I won't try to interpret beyond that what her private thoughts were. The good news is that the men on the panel also seemed appropriately chastened.

It reminded me that, going forward, I need to do more to be that person, especially if nobody else is standing up and saying something. I do try, but none of us are perfect.

(No, I am not interested in a discussion of whether or not such comments were in fact sexist. They treated Legislator Yu in a particular manner because she was female and able to have children. That means they were sexist, period.)

I've said it before, and I'll say it again - it's hard to support Taiwan as a woman who also values egalitarianism. It was easy to get swept away discussing other issues of importance, and basically find a reason not to discuss the very real instance of sexist language on display at the beginning of that meeting.

What do you do when the people who are your allies in one way show that they have very little regard for your sex/gender in another? Would my points about language education and teacher training have gone unheard if I had been the one to say something? Bringing that up and making an issue of it, however right, may make it more difficult to discuss other issues and may even cause one to lose allies (a lot of men who say sexist things turn hostile when it's pointed out, and may not be willing to work with someone who addresses their behavior for what it is). And it takes time away from discussion of other issues.

And it can hurt the cause. There is unlikely to be any great damage as a result of these comments, the reaction to which hopefully caused the men in question to reflect on their behavior and commit to doing better next time. That's all this relatively minor incident needs, and I must hope or even insist that that happens. But what happens when it's, say, one of the leaders of the progressive cause?

It hurts the whole cause when the incidents are more serious, both in terms of media representation and female involvement - and I personally know than one woman who has shied away from joining progressive causes in Taiwan because of the men they'd have to spend time with. What woman wants to get involved when she knows the men she'll be working with are going to say and do sexist things?

It creates an environment where women are tempted - encouraged or pushed even - to overlook minor or even major instances of sexism in their fight alongside people who are otherwise allies, for the bigger picture, the greater cause. But we can't. It could hurt the reputation of the cause itself, or result in fewer women getting involved. If fewer women get involved, issues pertaining to women within that cause are less likely to be considered. For example, who is going to consider sexism in language education, including pay gaps for English teachers, if not as many women join the initiative this meeting was about, because they felt unwelcome after the remarks of the male panelists?

This meeting should not have been clouded with the comments of the men on the panel. It simply should never have happened. I should not even have to be writing this post, but feel I must.

We all need to go forward remembering that the people who brought down that cloud, who distracted from the main point, were not the woman who spoke up and the others who applauded her, but the men who made the comments in the first place.

Now, let's take this lesson and apply it to Taiwan advocacy in general. If Taiwan supporters in the US government are also sexist sacks of crap, we need to acknowledge that and deal with it, however we can. If women in Taiwan advocacy point out that there is a problem, damn it, listen to them and take it seriously. If someone in the movement is saying or doing sexist things, stop that person. Speak out. Men, you too. All of us. Deal with the small incidents like this one in small ways (a simple call-out and request for reflection will do), and the big ones in big ways.

Don't keep forcing women like me and others who fight for Taiwan to always have to do those mental calculations. It's not right, and you know it.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Making a fuss is worth it: IELTS gets a well-deserved smack for calling Taiwan "China"

Screen Shot 2019-02-11 at 6.37.53 PM
I was banned from commenting on IELTS's Facebook page because they're a bunch of dictator-loving pissbabies,
but I'm glad to see others taking up the fight.

Recently, 46 members of the UK Parliament came together to castigate the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) for changing its designation of "Taiwan" to "Taiwan, China" on its website and admonish them to revert to the original wording. The charge was led by legislators from the UK's version of the Taiwan caucus, and to be frank, is a breath of fresh air in a world that seems all too happy to sell out to China.

While it's highly unlikely that any of them read my post, my other post or my husband's (better) post on this topic, I do think it's worth it to make a stink, even in the tiniest way. As a friend pointed out, all that accumulated stink can sometimes build up to something, and cause people with real power to take action.

And all I can say is that I'm annoyed that my own country's government didn't, as far as I know, do anything similar when TOEFL made the same change.

And that's just the thing - the hardest part of advocating for Taiwan is being utterly powerless. When a major testing organization, which is meant to be apolitical (as language proficiency testing shouldn't have blatant political biases) makes such a political move for obviously profit-driven motives, a lot of damage is done. The more organizations with 'prestige' give in to China's demands for how to refer to Taiwan, the likelier it is that everyday people around the world will see that wording and just automatically file 'Taiwan' under 'a part of China' - and there's very little that people like me can do about it or only a very limited sphere in which we can raise a fuss. Or worse, if the topic ever comes up, they'll point to organizations like IELTS and say "oh, look - but IELTS calls it China, so there must be something to that!" and stop listening to reason when people like me, who as individuals don't have the cachet of a generally well-respected organization, point out the clear issues with such logic.

It's also simply psychologically damaging to Taiwanese people, who have to see their country referred to as "China" all over the place, with very little recourse and no warning as to when it might happen or where it might pop up.

These things do matter - the war over what things are called, what language is used. When every major company, organization and website calls Taiwan "China", people start thinking of Taiwan as, well, China. 

It's also difficult to keep up the fight because, to be honest, we lose so goddamn often. It's brutal, it's neverending, it's a psychological beatdown (which is part of the reason why China does it). It's really a thing of beauty to see that we cut deep on this one, and perhaps (perhaps?) a group of MPs will be able to accomplish what people like me simply cannot. Do I dare hope for more? Reader, I dare: perhaps this isn't just a speck of light on a bleak horizon when it comes to IELTS, but a sign that the tide could turn.

And, of course, it's personally challenging as well. As I've written, I have some work through IELTS, the nature of which I'm not allowed to publicly reveal (of course, by telling you that, I've essentially revealed it, and since I'm furious at IELTS, I don't even care.) Fighting this has taken a toll on my income, as I now sign up to do work for them as little as possible, when I used to do it pretty regularly, for pretty decent pay. I had to proactively decide that principles were more important than cash, and I was privileged to even have the choice open to me. It stands to hurt my future plans as well - there's a fair chance I'll do a PhD in the United Kingdom, as full-time study is the only way to get funded. Doing IELTS work would theoretically be better-paid than a lot of other things I could do to bolster my funds while there, but if I'm committed to my principles, it's not really open to me. It takes a hard, personal toll.

Alongside that is how difficult it is to get other people involved. I know the local administrative staff is upset about the change as well, but their entire full-time jobs depend on working for IELTS. I have the ability to tell IELTS to take a hike, but they don't. Other foreigners who do similar work are either tepid about fighting back (thinking it's too much trouble) or not financially able to cut into their work.

It's a brutal, brutal slog. More often than not, we lose. But sometimes we don't, and we're on the right side.

Make no mistake, IELTS's decision was evil, and they deserve a smackdown for getting political about such a sensitive issue. I'm just happy to see it was delivered.

And IELTS, if you're reading this...

...screw you. 

Saturday, February 9, 2019

If a "bilingual", "globally-oriented" Taiwan is the way forward, immigration reform for educators is imperative

Just a quick thought at the end of Lunar New Year that struck me as I chatted about my life in Taiwan with a friendly British couple on the beach. Links to come later as I can't easily add them on an iPad. 

They asked me if dual nationality in Taiwan was even possible, or if I would have to give up my original nationality to get it. I told them sincerely I was happy that recent changes to the immigration laws in Taiwan created a pathway, but dismayed that the path was entirely too narrow and impossible - as an educator, I'd have to be a university professor (assistant or associate - I forget which because that's so far off for me that it doesn't matter yet.) I mentioned that I have friends at prestigious institutions like Academia Sinica who have been told that this is interpreted (incorrectly) to mean "when you have tenure", so they won't even write the necessary letters for their academics until that happens. 

"Imagine," I said, "having to get tenure at Academia Sinica before you even qualified as an educator!" 

It was the same thing I'd told Legislator Karen Yu just a few weeks ago. 

My husband joined in, "It seems like a rule that was put in place with very little thought - like some people in a room just decided that sounded good, but which has a huge effect on people's lives that the folks in that room are totally unaware of."

And I've come to realize, as those whole "bilingual country" and "English as a second official language" talk starts slowly creaking its wheels towards actual action, that if the government is serious about it, that immigration laws, especially for educators, simply need to be loosened. Now. 

The usual pushback to people upset that they don't qualify for dual nationality in Taiwan (like me!) is "this is the set of talents/skills that the government has decided it needs, that's why it's comparatively for someone in STEM to jump through the hoops, but difficult for teachers. They want STEM workers but don't need so many teachers. Deal with it!" 

This is of course nonsense, though I do acquiesce that this is what the government *thinks* are the skills it needs to attract to Taiwan. What's horseshit is the notion that Taiwan actually needs more talented foreign STEM professionals. Taiwan has reams and reams of local STEM talent, the best of whom are leaving Taiwan due to low pay and poor working conditions. (and even so, if anything there's a surplus of engineers and IT professionals. Perhaps pay would go up if they were more scarce.) Foreigners aren't going to take those jobs in any great number because the jobs aren't very good; what it needs is to provide attractive enough opportunities to get its own talent to stay, and perhaps some foreigners as well. Taiwan is not a developing country; what it would take to satisfy top Taiwanese talent is not far off from what it would take to attract foreigners. Expectations don't differ that much. 

But what Taiwan actually does need - or will need in the coming years - is talented educators. It's true that there is a surplus of not-very-well-trained "English teachers". While I support a way forward for them in the field that involves better apprenticeship and training than what is on offer now, they are not the ones I mean. We have a lot of those (too many, in fact) and not enough trained and experienced foreign educators - whether you have a teaching license, a Delta or a postgraduate degree. Among those who are here, a disproportionate amount are English teachers or non-specialized teachers of young learners; teachers who specialize in other subjects are harder to come by. We have even fewer experienced language teacher trainers - and I don't just mean among foreigners. There aren't that many options for teacher training in English among locals either. 

The government seems to have realized this - the talk at the meeting before Lunar New Year focused at times on this need. But they don't seem to have realized that if that is the talent Taiwan must attract, then one of the best ways to get those already here to stay and attract new professionals is to make it easier not just to move here, but to stay. That is, to further amend immigration laws so that teachers who want to build a career here have a hope of staying on as citizens, someday, if they wish. 

If we're going to really go ahead with a "globally oriented Taiwan" - that is, a country where English is integrated culturally to a degree that eases the road to greater internationalization, which is the actual goal - Taiwan is going to need more than a handful of professors who currently qualify. 

They are going to need teacher trainers (you know, like me). Not just to train up foreign teachers, but locals as well (which is what I focus on). No country actually achieves the level of 'bilingualism' that the government says it aspires to with foreign teachers alone: you'll notice that English medium teachers in countries like Singapore, India, Hong Kong (I'm calling it a country and don't care what you think) and the Philippines are overwhelmingly local. They're going to need advisors, translators, editors and tutors. They are going to need English proficiency test examiners (even though tests like IELTS suck for political reasons and you should not take them if you can avoid it.) 

And yes, they're going to need just regular teachers. Not just English teachers; if Tainan is any indication, this push is going to go hand-in-hand with a bilingual education model, where regular subjects are taught in English. This model isn't particularly common in Taiwan, although schools with multilingual curricula exist; educators who are familiar with it will be needed, and a number of them will be foreign. Teacher training programs and certification courses will hopefully become more readily available in Taiwan - I have high hopes for international standard pre-service certifications, including those run by Cambridge and Trinity. But those require trainers, and to get to a point where locals can do those jobs (as such training does not currently exist in Taiwan), we'll need foreign teacher trainers. 

So, it makes absolutely no sense, from this moment forward, for the government to imply through its immigration law that it does need foreign engineers but it doesn't need teachers. It makes no sense to set the bar for educators so ridiculously high that almost no-one meets it, and to predicate it on a job some valuable educators may not even want. 

Personally, while I think I'd be a fine academic, I find a lot of meaning in teacher training, especially training up non-native speaker teachers. This is a real contribution to Taiwan - but to become yet another university professor teaching the same old academic writing and speaking classes? That is also meaningful, but we have a lot of them already. Are more of those what Taiwan really needs, at a time when it will be gearing up to train a bunch of new teachers in modern methods that are not currently common here?

Many of us are already here, and have made Taiwan our home. We want to stay and contribute, and one of the best ways the government can ensure that we do is to make it feasible for educators to gain dual nationality. Taiwan is a fine place to live as well; surely some newcomers will want to stay. 

It's time for Taiwan to truly open the door to them, and amend its immigration policy to reflect the talent it says it needs. 

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Typical American: a book that isn't about Taiwan, or is it?

This wasn't meant to be my next book review. It was supposed to be Social Movements Under Ma Ying-jeou, but I finished that the day before flying out for Lunar New Year, and didn't bring it with me. Being highly academic, it's the sort of book you need to refer to as you write about it, so that'll have to wait until I return to Taiwan. 

Instead, let me tell you about a book that's not about Taiwan at all, except that I think it sorta kinda is. I brought only fiction on this trip, including a book I'd picked up secondhand years ago, but never read: Gish Jen's Typical American. Having already read its sequel, Mona in the Promised Land, some years ago, as well as several of her other works and knew her to be an engaging author, so it was a solid beach read choice. 

(Contains spoilers - for a book written in 1991, so you can just deal.)

Typical American begins in 1947 in a small town outside Shanghai, and ends in upstate New York not far from where I grew up. The son and daughter of a scholar and former government official are sent to the US under very different circumstances (because, of course, sons are so often treated better than daughters). Theresa, the cleverer of the two, accompanies the daughter of wealthy Shanghai friends, whereas Ralph is sent to graduate school for engineering. Then the Chinese Civil War takes a turn for the worse, their parents disappear, Ralph marries Theresa's companion, Helen. They meet wealthy yet ultimately deceptive Grover Ding and staid, old fashioned Old Chao. They live together, then apart, then together again. 

Taiwan isn't mentioned once (though the Nationalists are; of course the Nationalists and Taiwan are not the same things). But, in a way, it was. 

I don't know if this was Jen's intent, and it was written too long ago - 1991 - for me to feel anything but awkward about asking her. But I can't help but see an allegory well beyond "family from China finds its way in post-War America and has its own experience with the American Dream". But reading some of the language used, which could not have been unintentionally chosen, I have to wonder. 

Think of Old Chao as, well, the well-worn traditions of "ancient China" (his name basically means "Old Dynasty", or is at least a sort of homonym of it, as I don't know what the character would have been.) Now see Grover as everything corrupting about US influence (in terms of culture and family life, but also, perhaps, in terms of international relations). Theresa, a woman born "outside of her time", represents the Republic of China and the hopes leaders had for the Republican era in China. Helen is everything dainty and refined - but also resourceful and plucky - about early twentieth-century urban China (Jen all but says so explicitly on this point). I'm not sure what that makes Ralph, or Old Chao's wife Janis. But I have to say, Ralph's Chinese name - Yi-feng or "strive for the peak" - can not only represent struggling to attain the American Dream but also echoes a lot of language choices of Communist China. 

Okay, so what? Well, Ralph, Helen and Theresa live together at first somewhat peacefully. They are friendly with Old Chao, then Grover Ding throws a wrench in their lives. Theresa moves out angrily - Jen even calls it "exile". When she moves back in with Ralph and Helen - a "reunification", and calls it the hope of all Chinese people (though she doesn't entirely use those  words, "reunification" is straight from the text. This cannot be a coincidence.) At several points in the text, ideas like "once a Chang, always a Chang" and the custom of Chinese families to live together in sprawling compounds are referenced, as how difficult it is for families to splinter and then reunite. That things change and cannot go back to anything like they used to be after a "reunification" (both sides change) also whizzes by readers who lack contextual knowledge. In between, various characters get involved with, then extricated from, then re-involved with Old Chao and Grover. Ralph abuses Helen, Old Chao seemed associated with Ralph but turns out to be most closely tied to Theresa. Ralph either proclaims the house they live in is "his" - he's the "father" (you know, like Confucius) - but at one point realizes it is actually Theresa's (don't ask why; read the book). 

Do you not see it?

Maybe I'm insane, but I see it. 

I don't like it. 

Don't get me wrong, I loved the book. Read straight as a coming-to-America tale and how cultures collide when immigrants chase a foreign dream, it is engaging, thoughtful and mesmerisingly written. The prose draws you in and is elegant both in sound and how it falls on the page. Structures - houses, restaurants - serve as visual symbols for the state of the family. Old books in Chinese make an appearance, as does the game of 'bridge', a loveseat (you know, where love sits) and more. And, for fans of Chinese idioms, the moon makes several appearances in the narrative. You know, in America. A foreign moon. The moon is sometimes big and round as the idiom suggests, sometimes a sliver of a nail.

But...that other narrative, the one I might have just spun out of my own Taiwan-evangelism. 

That one? It glorifies the Nationalists (I assume Jen is aware of their treatment of Taiwan - the theft of Taiwan's wealth, the White Terror, the oppressive and murderous military dictatorship that differed from Mao's mostly in scale). If you read the symbolic elements as I did, it treats the US's severing of recognition of the ROC as a tragedy, not unlike being attacked by a dog and hit by a car. (It was a tragedy, but for reasons nobody realizes; the way Chiang Kai-shek screwed Taiwan out of United Nations membership, the way US foreign policy at the time made sense, but in the decades following did not adequately address Taiwan's democratization and more open recognition of its own unique cultural identity). 

It assumes that there are two sides in this conflict only: the Nationalists and the Communists - that Taiwan as a unique place that had a unique population long before Chiang started crowing about "retrocession" let alone before his government took the island, or he himself set foot on it - simply doesn't exist, or matter. That there is no unique Taiwanese cultural, historical and political identity distinct from China's. 

That "reunification" can not happen - because the two sides that would supposedly 'reunify' had never actually been together (Qing imperialism should not count.) It assumes that Chineseness will mean that, while there might be conflict and a future very different from the past, that these differences have some hope of being bridged. After all, they're all part of one sprawling household, aren't they?

Except they're not. For that take on things to work, both sides have to agree that they are more alike than different, that there is some ineffable "Chineseness" that ought to bind them. 

Forget what politicians have to say to avert a war. Those are words stated at first under a dictatorship, at the tail end of Martial Law, by a government the Taiwanese people had never asked for. Now, they are words not denied under threat, nothing more, though that slowly seems to be changing. Finally.

Do not think that the people of Taiwan believe this. They haven't, for awhile. If you are going to reify 'one Chinese family' as a cultural structure, then everyone in the family has to agree they are in it, and want for that family to be 'reunited'. 

But they don't. They haven't, for who knows how long (pre-democratization public opinion polls are suspect at best; remember what kind of education everyone got. It's very difficult indeed to grow beyond what one has been told all their lives. It's a miracle and a credit to Taiwan that they have done so as quickly as they have.)

In this sense I have to hope that Jen did not intend Typical American to be read this way; that I'm adding all of this in because I'm just nuts. After all, the story is not that different from Jen's parents', just as Mona in the Promised Land is clearly heavily influenced by her own formative years. It could be as simple as that. But Jen produces smart, layered work - so it's possible. If she did, it might represent a nostalgic view from a Chinese perspective, but it belies a lack of understanding of Taiwan. 

If true, this isn't terribly surprising, and isn't Jen's fault. She's not from Taiwan; she was born in the US to Chinese parents. I have not heard that she has spent any meaningful amount of time here. Why would she have insight into the Taiwanese collective psyche? What's more, Typical American was written just before Taiwan's first true - though tentative - steps towards democratization. Nobody without a connection to Taiwan was talking about Taiwanese identity then. So, it's hardly surprising that she focused on history more immediately familiar. 

So where does this land me? Hoping that a book is less deep, not more? Enjoying it for what is immediately clear on the surface, and hoping there are no weeds or sharp rocks lurking below on which my feet and her story might become entangled or scraped?

I guess it does.