Saturday, August 31, 2019

Being a democracy activist in Asia is an act of extreme courage

Screen Shot 2019-08-31 at 12.19.45 AM

Asia woke up this morning to the news that several Hong Kong activists were being arrested or attacked for their alleged roles in the ongoing protest movement there. Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow Ting, Andy Chan, Jimmy Sham, Althea Suen and more (including some pro-democracy lawmakers) have been targeted in various ways - cornered and beaten, shoved into private cars and taken to police stations to face charges or arrested at the airport before a planned trip abroad. One activist was released from police custody and then attacked.

These are only the high-profile arrests. Hundreds more have been quietly arrested in previous weeks:

Notably, the Civil Human Rights Front march that Jimmy Sham was likely involved in organizing hasn't taken place yet. 

What that means is that these activists are being targeted - arrested or beaten - in some cases for things that China Hong Kong anticipates their doing, not things they have already allegedly done.

I cannot stress this enough. It's full-on Minority Report, as a friend put it: arresting someone for a "crime" that has not been committed (yet, allegedly, not that a peaceful march is a crime at all.)

That's not the sort of thing well-functioning societies do; it's the sort of thing fascist states do. It's White Terror. It's pre-massacre. If that alarms you, it should. 

The march has been officially canceled but I'll be very interested to see what actually happens tomorrow. 

These demonstrations are officially 'leaderless', and while organizers certainly exist, it sure looks to me like the Chinese Hong Kong government just decided to go after former protest leaders and other activists almost randomly, either assuming that they must be somehow involved or not caring and just looking to arrest some public pro-democracy figures on whatever charges they could drum up. 

In fact, there are serious doubts as to whether Joshua Wong had a leading role in the Wan Chai demonstration:

That this sudden crackdown on pro-democracy activists happened right before this weekend's planned march hints at China Hong Kong's true intentions: not to actually bring 'leaders' of these demonstrations 'to justice', but rather to scare demonstrators into ending the movement.

Add to this the detention in China of British Consulate employee Simon Cheng on unclear grounds (Cheng has since been released) and the disappearance of Taiwanese activist Morrison Lee after entering Shenzhen (in China) from Taiwan, and you've got yourself quite the 'crackdown' list indeed. What's more, with Cathay Pacific now stating that any employee who protests this weekend or joins the planned general strike next week may face termination, other companies are likely to follow suit. Even more than that, there are rumors of Hong Kong locking down its Internet access much in the way China does its own.

Perhaps most terrifying of all, Lizard Person Chief Executive Carrie Lam said that "all laws" were on the table as possible tools to end the protests. This includes the absolutely terrifying Emergency Regulations Ordinance, which is basically a state of Martial Law:

Such regulations grant a wide range of powers, including on arrests, detentions and deportations, the control of ports and all transport, the appropriation of property, and authorising the entry and search of premises and the censorship and suppression of publications and communications. 
The ordinance also allows the chief executive to decide on the penalties for the offences drawn under the emergency regulations, with a maximum of life imprisonment.

All of this was done by the Hong Kong government officially, but we know who's really running the show. To wit:

The Chinese central government rejected Lam’s proposal to withdraw the extradition bill and ordered her not to yield to any of the protesters’ other demands at that time, three individuals with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.... 
Beijing’s rebuff of Lam’s proposal for how to resolve the crisis, detailed for the first time by Reuters, represents concrete evidence of the extent to which China is controlling the Hong Kong government’s response to the unrest.

Of course, it's unclear what China hopes to gain by escalating rather than choosing a path that would bring peace (do not think for a moment that they couldn't choose such a path; they just don't want to. Don't pretend that Beijing is not responsible for its own choices.)

Is it a trap to provoke protesters into actions that could be spun by Chinese state media as "violence" and used as justification for further crackdowns?

Or, perhaps China Hong Kong isn't sure at all what to do about a leaderless protest with very specific demands - including the one thing they are completely opposed to offering (that is, true democracy) - is desperate to stop it, has started panicking and has started randomly arresting figureheads thinking they're all the same kind of 'roaches' anyway. Or, perhaps,  China Hong Kong law enforcement really is stupid enough to believe that these arrests along with talk of 'emergency powers', random attacks and disappearances and more will 'scare' democracy activists away and end the protests. (It won't.)

I don't know, and I'll be watching social media carefully this weekend just like everyone else to find out what the effects will be.

Given all of this, all I can say is - it takes guts of steel to be a democracy activist in Asia these days. Not a dilettante at a keyboard like me, but the ones in gas masks on the streets, the ones likely to be arrested, attacked or disappeared. That's true regardless of where you come from in Asia, and is especially true in Hong Kong now.

It's dangerous to travel, as you never know which countries might detain you at China's request as Thailand did with Joshua Wong. A Taiwanese activist friend of mine has said that as a result, he worries about travel to other parts of Asia. The Philippines, an ostensibly democratic nation, is turning 'death squads' on political activists. Constant threat of attack, detainment or disappearance bring both pride and anguish to their families. Taiwanese and Hong Kong activists now disappear in China regularly - Lee Ming-che, Simon Cheng, Morrison Lee - those who are banned from China got the better deal than those allowed to enter only to be thrown in a cell.

And yet, the protests must go on. The activism must continue. Having guts of steel is necessary, because giving in is not an option. They are not wrong - China is - and it's therefore on China to do the right thing. (They won't.)

For a part of the world that is relatively politically stable (well, outside China) and well-developed, it's an absolute tragedy that this is what one risks when one stands up for the basic right of self-determination, even in the Asian countries that protect such rights.

That leads me to a darker thought. During the 2016 US presidential campaign, I remember Hillary Clinton making an off-the-cuff remark (spoken, and I can't find video) about how the international affairs landscape had changed since the '90s - she said something like "we all believed it was supposed to be the End of History", admitting through her maudlin tone that it had not and would not come to pass. 

I remember Clinton shrugging it off, like "oh well, guess we got that one wrong", as though that's all there was to it. A scholar wrote a thing, we believed that thing, we acted according to our belief in that thing but...haha funny story, turns out he wasn't quite right that free markets under neoliberal capitalism through globalization and wealth creation would bring about liberal democratic reforms in currently illiberal nations and that didn't actually happen lol  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ !

But sitting here in Asia watching people I follow on social media - and in a few cases have some mutual friends with - be arrested or attacked for things that either haven't been done yet or would not be crimes even if they've committed them, it makes me furious. Beliefs like that led the rest of the world to praise China's rapid (if uneven, unreliably measured and volatile) economic development while not saying much at all about continued political oppression there, their escalating nationalist and fascist rhetoric, including 'moral education', and increasingly aggressive expansionism.

And now that big, mean giant is trying to call the shots in Asia well beyond its own borders, and is actively threatening exactly the democracy activists those '90s wonks would have wanted - nay, expected - to succeed.

Basically, the West's oopsie! on believing that freer markets would lead to freer societies has instead led straight to all of the dangers - including threats to their lives - that these brave activists must now face. Believing in hackneyed political philosophy and acting on that, it turns out, has real consequences.

Most of the blame for the poor current state of freedom and human rights in Asia lies with China. Some lies with a few other nations, but none are as powerful as China. But some of it lies with us - the West. We could have figured out in 1989 - the year of both Fukuyama's essay on The End of History and the Tiananmen Square Massacre - that we couldn't just rely on China to liberalize, and that freedoms must be consistently fought for and sometimes paid for with blood. We could have done right by Hong Kong before 1997, actually giving Hong Kongers a say and a true democracy then, rather than relying on China to do the right thing when it was so very clear that it would not. We could have woken up to the need to stand by Taiwan far earlier (some still haven't woken up).

But we didn't. Oops. And Asia suffered for it. 

Another bit of ‘90s era claptrap that hobbles today’s activists in Asia is the notion of ‘Asian-style democracy’ - relentlessly prompted by people like Lee Kuan-yew. This preposterous notion that it’s OK for democracy in Asia to be a bit more authoritarian and much less free ‘because of culture’ - which is what its rationale boils down to - made it that much harder for the millions in Asia, who never consented to this quasi-authoritarian model of limited democracy, to fight for the same freedoms that Westerners expect and enjoy. And it made life more dangerous for activists working for those goals, and who understand that human rights are not ‘cultural’, but universal. That they exist in large numbers and persist in their goals shows that the ‘different cultures’ argument is ultimately specious. 

Asian strongmen - the ones who benefit from the normalizing of this belief - still use the ‘Asian-style democracy’ argument to justify their tactics, China uses the ‘East-West values’ argument, and some Westerners, especially lefties and liberals, lap it up. It allows them to feel good about themselves for understanding ‘cultural differences’ while offering them an excuse to sit back and do nothing without moral guilt. Meanwhile, people who share their vision in Asia fight, are injured, disappear and die, ignored. 

Alongside ‘the end of history’, the troublesome persistence of the ‘Asian values’ paradigm has actively hurt democracy activism here, and continues to harm them. 

Arguably the logic behind the Handover was rooted somewhat in these beliefs (they were popular notions when it was being negotiated in the ‘80s and ‘90s). And now, Hong Kongers are feeling the result. Bad beliefs aren’t just oopsies. They have consequences. 

And now, thanks in some small part to us,  must be very brave and willing to risk everything to fight for democracy in Asia, and we are going to need a lot of gas masks, a lot of umbrellas, and wave upon wave of courageous people.

It should bother you, then, that the people - many of them young, some even teenagers - who are fighting on the front lines of the battle for democracy against authoritarianism are not fighting just for themselves, but for you. This is the front line but if you think China's not coming to subvert your democratic norms too, you're blinkered. In some cases, they already are. It should bother you a lot that they're fighting for themselves and for you, when you helped create a world where it was necessary for them to stand up in the face of bullets, 'private cars', trumped-up arrest charges, water cannons and tear gas. It should bother you that they're risking their livelihoods and their lives to fix a problem you helped create.

And it should bother you that the rest of the world is not standing with them as much as they should. It takes courage to be a democracy activist in Asia, and even greater courage to continue to fight when the world does not necessarily have your back.

So, fellow Westerners, global middle and upper classes, and political influencers. The next time you pat yourself on the back for buying into something that sounds so very clever, think about how many Joshua Wongs are going to end up disappeared, in jail or dead if you are wrong. Think about how many people might have to be brave because you wanted to think yourself smart. 

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Restaurant Review: The Thali


The Thali
Donghu Road #24-1, Neihu District, Taipei

(Near MRT Donghu)
Reservations recommended, easy to book by messaging them on Facebook

I hadn't gotten a chance to write up the Indian restaurants we've tried recently, but I've finally made a few minutes to get this done and keep my Indian Food in Taipei page up-to-date.'s the first of two reviews (the second, just below, is for Oye Punjabi on Yanji Street).

The Thali is a well-regarded newcomer to the Taipei Indian food scene, though it's a bit far from central Taipei (tip: take the Blue Line to Nangang Exhibition Center and transfer to the brown line - taking the brown directly across Neihu takes forever). We liked it so much, we went twice - once to try their South Indian food, and once for the North Indian-style curries.

These are the lamb samosas but the vegetarian ones look similar

All in all, I give this place top marks for well-made food and being sensitive to customers' spice preferences. If you want milder Indian food, you can request that. If you're a chili fiend like me or just like more spices in general, you can ask for that too.

Right now the South Indian dishes are limited - basically, you can get thalis (it'd be smart to pre-order) and dosa, including masala dosa. Both of these come in super-size iterations as well, though we stuck to the regular-sized masala dosa. It was good - on the papery/crispy side with well-spiced potato filling. The chutneys and sambar were excellent, and I was really happy that the selection included tomato chutney. I know coconut chutney is the classic choice, but I've just been a tomato chutney girl since I discovered it was a thing sometimes served with idli/dosa.

The management says that they plan to roll out more South Indian menu items in the future, but are starting slow in order to ensure quality, which I appreciate. 


We also tried a variety of appetizers - the samosas are great, and they have minced lamb samosa which is rare! We tried both regular and lamb, and liked both, though I have a slight preference for lamb because it's so hard to find. Samosas are served with the classic red-green chutneys (tamarind-date red, and coriander green - though sometimes it's mint). I really appreciated that; a lot of Indian places around the world leave out the tamarind-date, but that's the one I like more.

Not only did it come with tomato chutney, it was good tomato chutney! 

They also have paani puri and dahi puchka, two snacks I always order when they appear on menus. Paani puri requires you to break the fried puffs and put some curried potato and then spiced water inside before popping the whole thing in your mouth. Dahi puchka operates on a similar principle - liquidy stuff in a fried puff that you have to eat immediately - but uses spiced yoghurt instead of water and comes pre-filled.


Plus, they have Kingfisher (when in stock) and falooda! Falooda you guys! Falooda! With its cold milky ice cream and chewy stuff reminiscent of shaved ice, I would assume this favorite of Iranian origin would be a hit in Taiwan but it's actually really hard to find. They have several flavors, including the classic rose (we tried mint and liked it).


On our second trip, we went North Indian, and that was great too. We tried butter chicken - I always have to make sure the butter chicken is good - fish vindaloo and baingan bharta (baingan masala on the menu - it's mashed eggplant curry), with garlic naan. Of course, we always get garlic naan not only because we love it, but because I need to make sure that the naan is made with real garlic, and not that gross, sweet garlic spread. We had a paneer kulcha too, because I hadn't had a good kulcha in a long time.

All of it was excellent - again, the staff were attentive to our spiciness preferences, with the butter chicken being milder and sweeter as is usual. 

This is the paneer kulcha, not the naan (the naan was also good)

The baingan masala was, if anything, hotter than the vindaloo, though we liked it quite a bit (maybe don't ask for this one at maximum hotness, it was almost at my pain threshold, and I have quite a spice tolerance). The vindaloo had clear garlic and vinegar undertones, as a vindaloo should. They make their vindaloo with tomato here - mine uses onions as the sauce base and contains no tomato - but a version that includes tomato version is acceptable.

All in all, a great choice. Perfect if you're in the area, and actually worth going to Neihu for if you're not. 

Restaurant Review: Oye Punjabi


Oye Punjabi
#121 Yanji Street, Taipei
Between MRT Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall and Zhongxiao Dunhua (just north of Zhongxiao Road)

We stumbled across this place in our work neighborhood (I have several work engagements near Yanji Street and it's close to Brendan's main workplace) and are really happy we tried it out, as it seems to be relatively unknown in the Taipei Indian restaurant scene.

Of course, it has already been added to my Indian Food in Taipei page.

At Indian restaurants, we tend to order similar things so we can compare the same dishes across several purveyors (also, they happen to be our favorites). At North Indian places that usually includes a butter chicken - I was especially keen to order it as it's a popular Punjabi dish and this place has "Punjabi" in the name (Balle Balle is also explicitly Punjabi). The best I ever had was in Chandigarh (Haryana), an otherwise not-too-exciting city, though it has the Nek Chand sculpture garden which is pretty cool.

We usually get some sort of samosa appetizer - Oye Punjabi had samosa chaat (yay!) so we got that to start: 


Chaat is a sub-type of Indian snack food, known for being tart (thanks to the amchur powder found in chaat masala) and using a variety of crunchy things, chaat masala with lemon, chutneys and yoghurt. You can sprinkle or cook anything in chaat masala - idli chaat, crunchy cracker-like rounds usually topped with more crunchy things (like puffed rice or sev), papadum, samosa chaat, bhel puri (a favorite)...and then douse it with the chutneys - usually standard red and green - and yoghurt.

I don't get to have samosa chaat often, and this did not disappoint. It was heavy on the chili powder, but that's a good thing, and the yoghurt was nice and tart.

The butter chicken was creamier than I usually see, but as long as it has the requisite spice kick, I'm open to a butter chicken that goes for cream over tomato. The server (who may also be the proprietor, I'm not sure) asked us about our spice preferences in advance, which we appreciated. And she took us seriously - the butter chicken was mild and a bit sweet as it should be - and so creamy it almost reminded me of a sauce I might use for malai kofta - but had spicy undertones and a nice warmth. 


Another thing I really liked about the butter chicken was that it used dark meat, but boneless. (Bone-in butter chicken is common, but much messier to eat. Lean butter chicken is possible, but tends to dry out as white meat often does.) The sauce serving was also generous, giving you something to really douse your naan in.

The garlic naan was good, and on the Q side (a bit chewy, which I prefer). Quite moist and they got the most important thing right - real garlic. 


We went for palak paneer this time as we haven't had that in awhile. I tend to order it out because I can never get my own spinach to retain that bright green color (though mine tastes fine). The paneer serving was generous and it had a good spice level. Overall, I was happy with this (it's hard to wax rhapsodical about a dish as standard as palak paneer but trust me, it was good). 


Brendan got a mango lassi which I didn't get a picture of, and I had a hot masala chai, which I drank as the pouring rain came in. It came pre-sugared to a perfect sweetness level, and with a cinnamon stick to stir in there as long as you like until you reach the desired cinnamon level. I like a strong cardamom flavor to my masala chai but the cinnamon stick was such a nice touch that I didn't mind that the main flavor of this cup was, in fact, cinnamon. 


They have gulab jamun as well but we were too stuffed for dessert.

In addition to being conveniently located, it's also affordable (our entire meal came in at just over NT$1,200 which is a good price for that part of town).

All in all, we often meet in this neighborhood for lunch, and I'm sure we'll be putting this on our regular rotation (other favorites include Mamak, Burger Ray, Toasteria and Liquid Bread a little further down, and a few basic Taiwanese places).

Friday, August 16, 2019

In a move likely to anger China, Taiwan exists

Taiwan, which is 100% there

The Trump administration is moving ahead with for an $8 billion sale of F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan despite strong objections from China, a U.S. official and others familiar with the deal said Thursday.

The administration notified Congress late Thursday that it would submit the package for informal review, said the people familiar with the sale who are also aware that China is angered, because everybody is always aware of that. 

Lawmakers from both parties had questioned whether the White House would scuttle the sale because of China's decision to be angry, which they chose to be of their own accord due to the fact that there is an island off the coast of their country called "Taiwan", and it continues to be there. 

Amid tensions with China, the State Department told Congress to expect the arms package to be informally submitted to them by Friday evening, according to a U.S. official and another person familiar with the matter, also noting that Beijing was not pleased that Taiwan has apparently been there this whole time, possibly even before it was founded by Sun Yat-sen in 1911 or possibly Chiang Kai-shek in 1949. 

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee would review the package. They are not expected to raise objections, unlike China, which always seems to have an objection even though Taiwan's current administration under President Tsai Ing-wen has made it clear that they have no desire to instigate conflict with China.

The people familiar with the proposed sale requests [sic] anonymity to discuss a sensitive pending deal. Neither the State Department nor the White House immediately responded to requests for comment. China responded that it had been angered, amid rising tensions. 

China claims Taiwan as a breakaway province, and last month accused the United States of a “vain plot” to arm the island. The Trump administration approved more than $2 billion in lower-level arms sales to Taiwan last month, and allowed Taiwan’s leader, who in fact does have a name, to visit New York.

Taiwan is a 36,193 square kilometer island off the coast of China, which most definitely appears on maps and can also be visited. According to Americans who have been to Taiwan, it is very much a "place" which is "definitely in existence" and "there". The Chinese government does not rule Taiwan, and their current government never has, a fact that not only we seem unaware of as we never publish it in the Washington Post, but also a point the Chinese government itself also appears to be entirely ignorant of. This angers them.

Asked whether leaders in Beijing might consider anger management classes as they appear to choose anger so often and it "might be bad for their health" according to some all foreign officials, China declined to comment, but reiterated that it was "angry" and that tensions were "high". 

Sources knowledgeable on the topic confirm that, although China's anger is their own choice, they are highly unlikely to simply choose not to be angered, despite such a move being entirely feasible. 

China, on the other hand, claims officially that the anger is out of their control. 

"Why does Taiwan do things that make me so angry?" China said, after another day of Taiwan's existence. "I don't want to hurt Taiwan - I love Taiwan - it's just that I don't know my own strength, so Taiwan should be careful. But I love Taiwan so much...if she ever leaves, I'll fucking kill her. That's love."

Approval of the latest sale also comes amid pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, a semiautonomous part of China, and fears that China could launch a military crackdown there. Such a crackdown could embolden Beijing also to confront Taiwan, which has a real government that functions and prints money and has a military and everything. 

Taiwan requested 66 American-made fighter jets, which lawmakers have said is a test of U.S. resolve. Taiwan has a population of over 23 million people, who are all individuals who were born and exist, whose opinions on any matter related to Taiwan we, at the Washington Post, appear never to have asked. We did however ask several China experts and foreign relations specialists based in Beijing. They were all very angry, citing "Taiwan" and "it existing" as reasons. 

The Chinese government accused the Trump administration of “playing the ‘Taiwan card” last month when Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen visited New York. Although it is unclear if there is indeed a card that can be called "the Taiwan card" or what it's made of - paper, wood, or any other material - "Taiwan" itself is indeed a mountainous island with a flat western plain which is not a card, but a place with its own society, culture, government and history, amid rising tensions. 

The People’s Daily newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China, wrote that Washington “should immediately cancel the planned arms sale to Taiwan, stop selling weapons to Taiwan and terminate military contact with Taiwan, and exercise caution and prudence when handling Taiwan-related issues to avoid serious damage to China-U.S. relations and cross-strait peace and stability.”

Nobody asked Taiwan or any Taiwanese media outlets what they thought. Although asking Taiwan what they think about arms sales is likely to anger China, sources close to China say it is "already angered", so further anger may not pose the risks that some analysts who have ties to China warn of. 

Trump took the unusual step of speaking by phone with Tsai in 2016 when he was president-elect, which rocked the delicate U.S. foreign policy stance called the “One China” policy, which it seems quite literally nobody in the US media seems to understand, as it did not actually do that at all. 

“Taiwan’s defense is intrinsically important to the United States, but the timing of this move, amid the trade war and major instability in Hong Kong, is exceptionally precarious,” said Evan Medeiros, former White House senior director for Asia in the Obama administration and a professor at Georgetown University,  in a quote that angered China. “It will make trade negotiations and managing the Hong Kong situation even harder than it already is. The whole situation can be summed up as 'tensions are rising amid rising tensions'."

It is unclear who is behind the rising tensions, but experts like Medeiros warn against drawing a straight line from China's anger to those tensions. "They're probably not related. You see, moves anger China, and tensions rise. That's just how it works."

"Please allow me to explain China to you further," Medeiros continued. "I can tell you a lot about China. They have a Great Wall and a lot of money. I don't know as much about Taiwan. Does that exist?"

Informed that it did, indeed, exist, and was actually quite economically and democratically successful especially given the odds stacked against it, Medeiros declined to comment further, amid rising tensions. 

He added that it would fuel conspiracy theories that the United States is behind the unrest in Hong Kong. These theories already exist and would have existed regardless of any US moves on Taiwan, but that apparently doesn't matter. 

Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was less perturbed. “China never likes U.S. arms sales to Taiwan,” she said. “Will they object? Yes. Is this going to trigger a crisis in the relationship? No. This in and of itself is not going to derail progress on a trade agreement.”

Tsai faces reelection next year and is casting her leadership as a counterpoint to an increasingly repressive and assertive mainland China. This has endeared her to Trump administration officials who are hawkish on China, but Trump’s own views are unclear.

This paragraph should clarify that Taiwan not only exists and has its own democratic political system, but that system differs from China. In fact, even mentioning that the two systems are entirely different is a move likely to anger China. 

Taiwan split from China in 1949 when nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek fled from the Communists led by Mao Zedong and set up a rival government in Taipei. Before that, Taiwan had not been a part of China but did, in fact, exist. Its pre-1949 existence does not appear to matter, however, as it had been a territory of Japan for 50 years previously. Taiwan's existence only counts when it is in relation to China. Absent that relationship, it still exists, but is best not mentioned so as not to anger China.

Beijing continues to view Taiwan as a renegade state that will one day return to China. Although this is an odd perspective to take given that the People's Republic of China has never governed Taiwan, we always include it so as to anger China slightly less.

As of press time, Taiwan continued to exist and China continued to be angered. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Third Force we needed and the Third Force we got

I have no cover image so now is a good a time as any to say that I think my cat looks like Huang Kuo-chang

I said I didn't want to return to party politics for awhile, and I meant it. But then in the span of about 24 hours, Handy Chiu resigned as chair of the New Power Party and legislator Hung Tzu-yung left the party in much the same fashion as Freddy Lim two weeks ago.

There is a lot of speculation floating around about the details of why the NPP seems to be in nuclear meltdown mode, and I'm not able to offer any facts that you can't find elsewhere. What I can offer is bare-faced opinion, so here we go.

In the post-Sunflower era, the nascent Third Force needed two things. The first was to have a more collective structure - lots of people who broadly agree working together with no one 'personality' taking over. The second was to balance idealism with pragmatism. While there are people in the Third Force who would agree with this, unfortunately, they haven't been able to steer the movement in that direction.

The leadership needed to be more pluralistic - at the very least, the stars of the Third Force needed to be people who specifically wanted to cultivate and mentor emerging voices in the movement, so it never got to be too much about a few luminaries but instead continually populated with emerging young talent and new ideas.

There are Third Force public figures who take such a goal seriously, including Lin Fei-fan, the new deputy secretary general of the DPP, who had at one point intentionally stepped out of the spotlight, prioritized connecting with democracy activists across Asia, has shown that the DPP is willing to work with Third Force parties, and has said publicly that one of this goals is to foster and promote new voices so it's not all about certain personalities. (I think that last bit is published somewhere, but regardless he said it publicly at a panel at LSE last summer, which I attended.)

I'd venture that Lim is another such figure - he has sought to work with other legislators in the NPP rather than seeking to control the narrative, has fostered talent within the NPP, and has eschewed power he could have easily grabbed (when Huang Kuo-chang stepped down as party chair, the job was his for the taking. He didn't take it.) He has a slick and well-managed PR machine, but he uses it far differently than Huang. Even Handy Chiu, who wasn't chair of the NPP long enough to make an impression, seemed to seek compromise, discussion and a shared spotlight.

That's the attitude the NPP - and the whole Third Force - needed.

Sadly, that's not what they, or we, got.

Next to these more democratically-minded figures, there's Huang Kuo-chang. I won't sit here blasting the guy, because I don't know him personally (we met once, but only very briefly). But just a quick skim of NPP-related news will make clear that Huang is not only a major personality within the party, but also has a tendency to dominate it. In his lengthy Facebook manifesto, Wu Cheng referenced this explicitly.

I can also say that Huang did (and does) tend to dominate the NPP decision-making process and it did (and does) turn people off. It seems to me - barefaced opinion here - that this is not just that they lack a consensus on better alternatives, but because Huang is a dominant, controlling person. He may have tried to temper this tendency by stepping down as party chair, but it doesn't seem to have worked, and has definitely driven good people away.

So, since the NPP's founding, instead of this lovely utopian vision of collective voices, it feels like there's been a tug-of-war over whether to work towards true consensus, or just let it be the Huang Kuo-chang Show. From whether to push for a host of referendums (too many to link here) that not everyone fully supported to the failed (and pointless) hunger strike to whether or not to cooperate with Ko Wen-je or other Third Force parties, to whether or not to support Tsai's re-election bid, it's been years of Huang wanting to run the show. From what people have told me, there's arrogance aplenty as well.

As you might expect, this has caused people to become disenchanted and walk away. (Lin Fei-fan has said that Huang was not the reason why he didn't join the NPP, and relations between them are strong. I can't say if that's true or just something you say on camera, but I'd argue it doesn't matter - the overall trend is there.) 

That leads us to the second thing the NPP needed to be, but ultimately wasn't: a vanguard for the Third Force that wisely mixed idealism with pragmatism.

I've already said that the central issue with the NPP is a divide not between who supports whom outside of the party, whether that's Mayor Ko Wen-je or President Tsai Ing-wen, or whether or not to push for more referendums or hold a hunger strike or whatever the current 'issue' is, but rather all of these disagreements fall along a fault line of often-foolish idealism (led by Huang Kuo-chang and supported by Hsu Yung-ming) vs. guarded idealistic pragmatism (led by Freddy Lim and supported by Hung Tzu-yung). I could give a hundred examples, but let's just talk about one.

Despite strong arguments for supporting Tsai, Ing-wen for re-election, the NPP was unable to reach a consensus, I gather in great part because Huang was just not having it (he did threaten to leave if the NPP became a 'little green' after all.)

But here's the thing - and I've said this before:

The true progressives need to...realize firstly that not that many Taiwanese are as progressive as they are and their ideas are not shared by a majority of the population. That means more needs to be done to win over society. It means teaming up with the center, even if the center is slow to act. Doing so doesn't mean you have to support the center indefinitely. 
Or, as a very smart friend of mine once said, activists have to realize that change won't happen just because they march, protest, strike, write and occupy. Change happens because they do those things, bring their ideas to the rest of society and show the establishment that their causes enjoy some popularity and can be winning issues. Activism needs friends in the establishment to get things done, and the more progressive members of the Establishment need the activists to get society to care about those issues. In Taiwan, the activists need Tsai, and Tsai needs the activists. 

We're at a critical juncture now, where it's not hyperbole to say "this is do or die for Taiwan". I'll write more about this later, but electing a pro-Taiwan president now, as China is ramping up its disinformation, election interference and aggression campaigns as well as activating its latent networks to bully Taiwan into the fold, is of urgent importance. The top priority now is simple: Han Kuo-yu must be stopped. Lim, Lin and others understand this, and are willing to set aside differences with the less liberal DPP, but Huang and Hsu don't seem to get it. They're clinging to this idealist notion that in 2020, it is possible to undermine Tsai but not have Han win. And that's just not the case. It's fine to keep criticizing Tsai and the DPP, but damn it guys, do that after she wins. 

We needed a Third Force, and an NPP especially, that understood this and took the right side when the chips were down. We needed them to see that Tsai may not be perfect and it's necessary to continue to hold her and her party accountable, but that it would hurt Taiwan far worse to enable Han to win, however indirectly. We needed them to understand that their energy is best spent trying to win people to progressive causes while supporting the best possible viable candidate and establishment ally, rather than assuming they can do what they want because their ideals are obviously the correct ones. (They are, but if most voters don't see it that way, it doesn't matter much, does it?)

Sadly, that's not the NPP we got, and it's unclear that such a consensus will arise from elsewhere. The idealists "won", if by "won" we mean "blew up the party so now it's just Huang And Friends". I don't see a party built that much around one not-terribly-likable personality, which keeps taking hard turns into unrealistic idealism, lasting particularly long. Personality-parties rarely outlast their key figurehead, and overly idealistic ones are likely to perish even sooner.

What have we got, then? A hobbled, bleeding NPP, a few scattered parties that occasionally work together, and a couple of popular legislators who are now independent.

I've said before that the question of whether the NPP would lose relevance if it takes an overly-pragmatic route of becoming a 'little green' by supporting Tsai and the DPP is a moot one: moving away from supporting the DPP at key junctures, turning instead towards more radical platforms, would render it a fringe party, and that's just another kind of irrelevance.

It looks, then, like they're gunning for irrelevance. 

Monday, August 12, 2019

Coffee, hiking and quiet tea fields: a central Taiwan trip that beats Alishan

The view from above Longxing Temple

You know when you just have to stop talking about politics for awhile and write about something that makes you happier? Well, I'm at that point now.

I actually travel around Taiwan fairly frequently; I just don't always get around to writing up my trips on time. Sometimes, I don't write at all - I've probably banged out 5 or 6 posts on Tainan City at this point; I'm not going to write another one unless I do something unusual or new there. There's a stereotype that Taipei-based foreigners rarely leave the city - I can't speak for everyone, but I can say that that accusation doesn't apply to me.

So, I'd like to tell you about our trip to Taiping (太平) - not the mountain in Yilan County (though I've been there too and will write about it eventually), but the small town up the mountain from Meishan in northern Chiayi County. The town itself is tiny and hard to get to - though there is a bus from Meishan - and itself not worth a long trip. But if you have a car and head to some of the hiking in the area, it can be a worthwhile weekend with beauty on par with Alishan, but none of the crowds.


We'd actually come up from Donggang, where we went to the opening day of the 2018 King Boat Festival (another thing I didn't blog as I've blogged it twice already, and written about it for an anthology as well as Taiwan Scene), stopping in Chiayi for some turkey rice. We hired someone to drive us as I was the only one with an international permit, and it was agreed that it wasn't fair for me to do all the driving (though to be honest, I could have).

You'll find in Taiwan that much cheaper than chartering taxis, if you can tap into local networks, there are always retired folks happy to drive you around at reasonable rates. Ask me privately and I'll pass along this guy's information (he doesn't speak English, though).

The road up to Taiping takes you up the Taiping 36 bends on the 162甲 - 36 consecutive hairpin turns with stunning views. I didn't take any photos as I was carsick.

Amber Coffee

Our first stop before heading to our homestay in Taiping was Amber Coffee (琥珀社咖啡莊園) on Meihua Road - a tiny one-lane mountain road, so drive carefully. The owners of Amber realized that the climate up here, good for growing tea, was also great for coffee. The coffee is excellent, and they have tea oil thin noodles and tea oil waffles as well, with indoor and outdoor seating. The view is lovely and it's a worthwhile stop. They also sell coffee beans, tea oil and other products and have a playful black dog. 

Amber Coffee

The road to Amber Coffee

Tea oil thin noodles

The view from Amber Coffee

As the sun set, we headed back to Taiping for the evening and our driver headed back. We stayed at "Taiping Old House B&B" (太平古厝民宿) in Taiping village, which has futon-style beds on raised wooden floors and a traditional-style courtyard where you can hang out. It's set back from the road a little (you can't easily drive a car in; I'm not sure you can drive in at all, in fact.)

While you can get here by bus from Meishan, the buses don't come often and you won't have any other transportation to good hikes. There are some scenic areas nearby, though. Even more annoyingly, Meishan isn't exactly close to any other transportation networks. There are buses to Chiayi city and Douliu, where you can catch onward buses and trains, but just getting to these cities, which are not that far away geographically, will take hours by bus.

Taiping does have a 'tourist street' with various products for sale, and drivers do come here on day trips. Try going during the week if you can. The good news is that the closest train station on the Alishan railroad is Dulishan (獨立山), which is 6kms away. That means you won't get as many people.

I don't know what Dulishan is like as I haven't been, but it looks like there's another suspension bridge out that way. Theoretically you might be able to get a ride from there to Taiping, though I wouldn't try it. It would be like ending up at one of the smaller stations on the Pingxi Line and hoping to get a taxi. Theoretically possible but deeply unlikely. 

Old House B&B

The next morning our driver picked us up and drove us to Longxing Temple (龍興宮), a sort of down-at-heel but well-known temple in the mountains with hiking trails branching off from - surprisingly enough - behind the outdoor restrooms.

By the way, some local aunties use bitter tea oil, a byproduct of tea production, to make soap. You can buy it at the temple, it's piled up (well-wrapped in plastic) by the restrooms. Take a pack of 3 and put NT$100 in the money box. It's on the honor system. I find it's a great facial soap for oily skin, with the tea oil having anti-bacterial properties. 

IMG_9736 2
Viewpoint along the road to Longxing Temple

More roadside views

If you hike up behind the temple, you get to a scenic lookout facing west, out towards the Taiwan Strait. Our driver said that on a clear day you could see all the way to Penghu. Sadly...


I'm all for de-nuclearization because Taiwan hasn't shown it can capably build and maintain safe nuclear plants, and I don't know what to do with the spent fuel rods. We need renewables. But...are we sure we want to go back to fossil fuels in the meantime? Looking at this, I'm not so sure. It looks suffocating. Ilha Formosa can do better. 

Keep going past the scenic lookout to the left (if I remember correctly), up a tiny, less-used path, and you end up on some old wooden stairs in a bamboo-filled forest trail. There's a sort of summit with a market and a few logs and rocks you can "sort of" sit on, though they're not there for that purpose.

Then, as you reach the top, you see a break in the bamboo up ahead...

Hiking up behind the temple

...and that's where the tea fields start. The other bonus is that your view to the east and the mountains beyond opens up. It's amazing, how different the air quality is. Looking out over the plain towards the strait, it's a sea of wheezy gray. Look east towards the mountains and it's clear and luscious.

You can follow the trails in the tea fields that are made for the farmers and tea-pickers all the way back to Taiping if you want, though there's almost no shade. Bring a hat and sunblock if you head this way. 

No shade

But the views are insane

You can keep going this way for quite some time, if you want.

This is where a lot of your "High Mountain Oolong" really comes from

We stopped for lunch at 嘉義梅山二尖山休閒茶園 (translates to Chiayi Meishan Second Sharp Mountain Tea Recreation Park - bit of a mouthful). Get the chicken with fried ginger - you can eat the ginger. There's also a scenic lookout nearby with a guy who makes coffee on the spot in a portable setup, and he'll bring the coffee to you if you sit outside at the nearby restaurant.

This is a heavily Taiwanese-speaking area, so in addition to there not being much spoken English (if any - we used Mandarin exclusively), a lot of people have thick accents even in Mandarin.

The ginger chicken at 嘉義梅山二尖山休閒茶園

Coffee dude 

This whole area is known as Erjianshan (二尖山), and you can get here by driving or taking - if I remember correctly - the other path leading from behind Longxing Temple, the 二尖山步道, which is fairly easy to find as it's a set of stairs with red railings over more tea fields and very little shade. (I'm not sure if I've got my geography exactly right, but all of these places are near each other. It won't be hard to find your way around, especially if you speak Mandarin or Taiwanese). 

Behind Erjianshan, it's possible to keep going on a pretty easy trail (well-marked, easy to hike, has ups and downs though mostly ups) to Dajianshan (大尖山) on the Chiayi/Yunlin county line. You'll walk through more forest and pass more quiet tea fields, and see perhaps a few hikers - mostly locals out for a day walk. 


There's just one catch - don't come at the wrong time. We passed through as they were spraying one field with insecticide, and the fumes were overpowering.

Another catch - it's difficult to know when spraying time is. 


The view from Dajianshan looking towards the Central Mountains is, as you would expect, stunning. There's only a small break in the foliage, but the scene you get is wonderful.

Try to go early - by late afternoon the pollution starts wafting through the mountains and infesting the valley between this low range and the higher peaks beyond. We suspect this mist is mostly pollution, though slightly less gray: 


Our driver picked us up at the road where the trail ends, near a popular scenic overlook called 二尖山唬爛亭. There are several restaurants, coffeeshops and teahouses in the area with local food and products. 


After our hike we headed back to Taiping to relax for the evening. There aren't many restaurants open after dark in Taiping.

The next morning our driver picked us up at Old House and took us to Douliu in Yunlin County instead of Chiayi - a few stops closer on the train, and we could get some famous Douliu squid thick soup (a favorite of mine). We paid our driver, which came to a few thousand NT each for the three of us - pretty sweet deal for several days of being on call - stowed our bags in lockers at the train station and bought train tickets for an express train leaving a few hours later. The bag stowing was really crucial, as I'd packed for both the heat, sun, beach and festival atmosphere of Donggang, the cold mountain air and hiking.

Then we headed out for dinner in Douliu before catching our train back to Taipei. We arrived late and tired, but happy. 

Friday, August 9, 2019

Hong Kong's in for a weekend of protests, so go check out Taipei's Lennon Wall

The post-it on the right shows a Hong Kong bauhinia with a drawing of Taiwan and says:
"We stand together forever"
Honestly that brought tears to my eyes. To the right, the big characters simply say "freedom". 

I don't have a big post to write here, this is more of a photo essay. 

As you might know already, a Lennon Wall (a wall of pictures, post-its and other written messages inspired by a Beatles-themed wall in Prague) has popped up in Taipei, mimicking several Lennon Walls that have appeared (and are sometimes taken down by pro-China dissenters) in Hong Kong since protests began.


I'm posting it because not everyone is able to go see the wall - a lot of my readers are not in Taipei, or are perhaps simply not able to make it to Gongguan. I want those people to be able to look at the messages of support written for Hong Kong by the people of Taiwan.

I want to say here that anyone who is unable to go to the wall but would like to add a message of support can leave a comment on this post or on Lao Ren Cha's Facebook page (which you are cordially invited to 'like', by the way) with what you want to say, and I will personally go to the wall, post your message of support, and take a photo to send to you. Seriously - I don't live that far away and I'm pretty free next week. Just ask. 


The wall is located near MRT Gongguan Station and National Taiwan University's southwestern edge, in the underpass that lets pedestrians traverse the Roosevelt Road/Xinsheng South Road intersection.

I'm not sure why sticky notes are the vehicle of choice for these sentiments, but my guess is that it's because they're easy - the stickiness is right there - they're cheap, they can go up quickly, they're colorful and they won't cause any damage. I don't know about Hong Kong but in Taipei an added advantage is that people can leave blocks of sticky notes behind for others who'd like to add to the wall but haven't brought materials.


When Brendan went to check it out several days before I did, as I'd been in China, it seemed a lot smaller than it is now. It's absolutely burgeoning with messages now, and I imagine it will only get bigger.

There are volunteers who watch over the wall - after all, Taiwan also has pro-China thugs who tear things like this down out of sheer petty childish vindictiveness. Plus, there are markers, pens and sticky notes made available so anyone can come by and write a message without preparing in advance. 


The messages come from around the world - Brendan and I are not the only foreigners to have left them - in a variety of languages (though mostly Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese and English).

They are mostly in support of Hong Kong and the protests there - many of them pointing out that what happens in Hong Kong affects Taiwan and we are all in this together in the fight for freedom. Some, however, explicitly reference Taiwan and call for Taiwanese de jure independence.

There's some conflict as well: 


That's understandable as many Americans in Taiwan (and many Americans in general!) support Taiwan and Hong Kong, but the governments of some countries have been slow to act or show support. 
And, as you can see, while most of the messages are positive and call for peace and non-violence, others take an (also-justified) angrier tone, lashing out at Carrie Lam, Xi Jin-ping, the KMT and the Hong Kong police. 



A few of them explicitly reference previous social movements in Taiwan and Hong Kong, with pictures depicting yellow umbrellas for Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement and Sunflowers for Taiwan's Sunflower Movement, both of which occurred in 2014.

Those movements, while not entirely successful in changing the political climate long-term in either Taiwan or Hong Kong, have had a lasting impact on activism in both places.


In several places, the five demands of Hong Kong protesters are laid out: 




Some point out that protests have grown less peaceful (mostly in defense as the police have unleashed violence on protesters) because "if peaceful protest worked, we wouldn't have to come out every weekend". 




Others clarify that this fight isn't just about the China extradition bill - Hong Kong wants democracy and it's at a tipping point. The scope of what protesters are fighting for has widened, which is both wonderful and dangerous (and something they were going to have to eventually fight for, which I suspect most people had known already but not necessarily previously articulated.)


Of course, issues facing Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang and other places are intertwined, as all of us are locked in a battle against an expansionist, aggressive, human-rights-abusing dictatorship that seeks to control us: 





Similarities between the KMT in Taiwan and the CCP - and the KMT's closeness with China - are also pointed out. Underneath the Winnie the Pooh (Xi Jin-ping) with a KMT sun on his chest, are the words "don't throw your vote away" (literally "don't vote messily/carelessly"). 


"Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow Taiwan"


This one speaks for itself.


A Cantonese version of "Do You Hear The People Sing" has become a popular protest anthem in Hong Kong. I can't help but draw a connection between the hopelessness of the protest in Les Miserables and the protests in Hong Kong. Though Hong Kongers seem to be doing a better job than Enjolras, Marius & the gang. 









Taoist hexes (I think) being placed on a picture of Carrie Lam. One is about long life, the other says "retrocession for Hong Kong" (back to the UK? Toward independence? I'm not sure). 







This slogan (on the black paper) was popular during Taiwan's Sunflower Movement:

A memorial for the poncho-clad protester killed as a result of being hit with several water cannons early in the protests. Yellow ponchos have also become a symbol of protest for Hong Kong as a result. 

Pens and post-its are available for anyone who comes unprepared.