Thursday, April 30, 2020

Spikey

Untitled


It feels like there's too much blood - or mucus, or something - rushing to one side of my head, so I turn over to see if my inner liquids right themselves. They don't. I lie there, trying to latch onto a daydream peaceful enough that it can become a night dream, and feel them drip right down to the other side. I'm thirsty - there won't be sleep without water. Not enough liquids? Then I have to pee - too many? Everything's off.

I know the night view of this apartment by heart, and in a story that romanticized artistic poverty, it would be a dump. It's not. Spacious for two people, with attractive floors and natural light, decorated with all of the beautiful things - no, items - we've collected on our travels around the world.

In that other “artistic poverty” life, I'm single or in a dramatic enactment of a relationship; in this one, I've been peacefully married so long I'm verging on matronly. We live in an upscale neighborhood, though in Taipei those divisions are not always evident. In Taipei I make a decent living as a teacher trainer of mostly local English teachers, and we like the life we can afford. I'm good at it, I enjoy it, and it's meaningful, useful work. 


I consider how, in the country of my birth, I'd be barely eking out a living, either as a teacher trainer or in some office job I'd never care about enough to excel at.

Padding across the living room, I slide open a screen on my living room window. The shunt it makes is the only sound in the courtyard, aside from some light rain. When I can't sleep, I like to look to the buildings across the treetops and see what lights are on. There are no signs of movement in the lit apartments; I recall that mine is dark.

Then I check on Spikey. I have no idea what kind of plant she is - it's a she, don't argue with me about this. Spikey has grown trunk-like woody stems with formidable thorns that resist all pruning. You can’t even really touch them. These twist around the bars of the iron grates so common to Taipei windows, even though ours are entirely unnecessary on the 7th floor. Each end of her prickly tentacles is capped with a crown of green leaves and a sprinkle of yellow flowers. They’re not much, but they’re hers.

I don't know how she got there. I'd tried growing rosemary, thyme, basil, mint, orchids, some kind of ivy, even succulents - and they all withered (well, one of the succulents was blown away in a typhoon). Only the plants the former tenant left behind survived my black thumb. I suppose one of these graveyard pots was left fallow with dirt and a little Spikey seed decided it would be a nice place to live. Unlike everything I tried to intentionally cultivate, she blossomed. So I let her stay. She seems to prefer neglect, so I throw her a bit of water now and then but otherwise leave her be.

Spikey isn’t a plant you’d want, and sitting up there wrapped around a 7th-story window grate, I doubt anyone in the silent courtyard below has ever noticed her. In a well-tended garden - say, in an immaculately-kept suburban lawn in the US - she’d have been dug out and left to rot on a pile of weeds. Rough, difficult and a bit uncompromising, she'd never be mistaken for a prize cultivar. It's not in her DNA. Certainly, she’d have never been given the time to put out those little yellow flowers.

Here, she may not belong exactly but I like to think she’s grateful that somewhere in the quirky, busy, and at times seemingly disorganized or charmingly dilapidated city of crumbling brick, corrugated iron and stained concrete, there’s a corner where she can grow, and nobody minds.

There are plenty of carefully cultivated green spaces in the city, with weeded grass and shaped hedges. But there are also cracks and crevices and mismatched sidewalks, old pots and patches of soil where plants like Spikey can grow.


I can't see them with the light off, but on one wall hangs a hand-painted vegetable-dye batik of Hindu gods, all facing the tree of life which grows lusciously between them, which I bought on a trip to India years ago. On the other, among other vintage treasures, a slice of rough natural wood with a bit of calligraphy: 閑庭百花發 - in a quiet courtyard, a hundred flowers bloom.

The lit apartments are still devoid of life, but I wonder who else is shuffling around in the dark ones. A bit of city night-light draws a weird rhombus on my ceiling, intercut with shadows from the window grate and leaves from my surviving plants. I set my water down on the coffee table. This causes one of my cats - the black one, invisible in this low light - to wake up and blink at me with glow-in-the-dark eyes. He trills a little “prrt” and settles back down. He doesn't care about my mismatched t-shirt and pajama bottoms, my greasy face or my fuzzy hair. A light breeze rustles Spikey’s leaves. I get up, down a sleeping pill, and attempt to go back to sleep.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Academia Sinica, Foreigners and KMT Lies

Untitled
From the Academia Sinica's history museum, I present:
A visualization of the KMT's beef with Fan Yun


Something really interesting popped up yesterday - well, interesting to me.

Back in March, some DPP lawmakers called for Academia Sinica's name to be changed, as "Sinica" means "Chinese" and, well, Taiwan is not a part of China - think "Academia Taiwanica". DPP party list legislator Fan Yun (范雲), formerly of the Social Democratic Party, has been one of the strongest voices calling for this change.

Considering Academia Sinica's very "Republic of China" roots (it was founded in Nanjing in the 1920s and moved to Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War), this would be quite a statement indeed.

Notably, the institution's name in Mandarin (中央研究院) doesn't refer to China at all - it's just the "Central Research Institute", and Fan pointed out that 'Academia Sinica' would most accurately be translated as '中國科學院' in Mandarin. 


Fan Yun made the news again yesterday when she and two other legislators, Wu Lihua (伍麗華) and Lai Pinyu (賴品妤) introduced a motion that all elected academicians "must be ROC citizens", and that if foreigners are elected, they should be "honorary" or in some sort of other category. 

That sounds insane, if you don't know what an academician is in this context, or if you think by "foreigners" they mean "non-Chinese".

An "academician" isn't someone who works for Academia Sinica. It's not a job, it's an honorary lifetime title. There's no payment, and no research requirement. They can be asked by the government to carry out research (but never have), and they can make recommendations to the government on academic policy. That's it, really. As far as I am aware, no-one with no Chinese ethnic heritage has been elected to one of these positions (please correct me if I'm wrong). However, it is quite possible for foreigners of Chinese or Taiwanese heritage to be elected, meaning that Chinese nationals can also be elected.

Old academicians nominate new ones, and I am assured by a reliable source that these senior academicians often tend to be Chinese nationalists (that is, dark blue, pro-China), and nominate quite a few PRC nationals for the role. Because the nomination process doesn't ask about nationality, this has, until now, been an un-examined process.

Fan, Wu and Lai's proposal also stated that:



中研院組織法第四條明訂院士資格為「全國學術界成績卓著人士」,因此院士應該具中華民國國籍。 
Article 4 of the Basic Law of Academia Sinica clearly states that the qualifications of academicians should be "outstanding academicians from around the country", so academicians should have the nationality of the Republic of China.

It makes perfect sense that DPP lawmakers would want to do something about this. What does "from around the country" mean if PRC nationals are being elected to these positions? What country are we talking about?

Allowing non-Taiwanese nationals to be elected but "honorary" (meaning they can't advise the government on academic policy) isn't such a crazy or nationalistic proposition.

Well, here's how the KMT spun it. From their website which was clearly designed by someone's teenage nephew (don't forget to enter your e-mail address for a SUPSCRIPTION):

In addition, the Academia Sinica is slated to elect new academicians in July. As no regulations exist on the nationality of Academia Sinica academicians, many of them don’t possess ROC citizenship. In a meeting of the Legislative Education Committee yesterday, three legislators, including Fan Yun, introduced a motion demanding that in order to ensure that all academicians elected “must be ROC nationals” in the future, the Academia Sinica re-examine its election system for academicians to fully implement nationality checks, and that those without ROC nationality could only be elected as “honorary academicians.”
This motion elicited disputes, with several academicians describing the move as “national isolationism” yesterday. [Emphasis mine].

This makes it sound like Fan wants to bar foreigners from working at Academia Sinica, as it never explains what an academician (a specialized term requiring clarification) is, or does.

UDN's somewhat more informative report echoed this line of "isolationism":

中研院院士陳培哲表示,此一提案顯示台灣「鎖國心態愈來愈嚴重」。他指出,中研院身為台灣最高學術機構,應該「廣招天下英才」,連美國科學院院士也聘國外院士,「台灣人才有多少?」他質疑立委「想讓中研院當一個封閉的單位,還是開放的單位?」 
Chen Peizhe, an Academia Sinica academician, said that this proposal shows Taiwan's "isolationist mentality is getting more and more serious". He pointed out that as the highest academic institution in Taiwan, Academia Sinica should "recruit talent from all over the world." Even the American Academy of Sciences also elect foreign academicians. "How many talented people are there in Taiwan? Is it an open list?" [Emphasis mine].

That's not the only such quote.

The UDN article never once mentions that most of these "foreign" academicians are PRC citizens and "all around the world" means "ethnic Chinese who may hold other citizenships but are mostly from the PRC".

The position, as I understand it, was never meant to "recruit foreign talent". It was conceived of as an internal, national thing. It doesn't pay and it isn't a job, and isn't generally open to people without Chinese ancestry of some kind, so how would changing the process end a flow of foreign talent into Taiwan?

What's more, isn't the KMT bottom line that Taiwan is Chinese, that the ROC is the rightful government of China and that Taiwan is a part of the ROC? So, by that logic, wouldn't they think of PRC nationals as...not really foreigners? It seems that to the KMT, Chinese and Taiwanese are the same, but these PRC nationals suddenly become "foreign talent" from "all over the world" when it's convenient for the KMT to target the DPP.

Hmmm.

UDN also gets the crux of the problem wrong, stating there are no "confidential research" or "academic secrets" that these foreign academicians can "steal" - but of course, that was never the point. The point is, how much influence do academics from China have on Taiwan's top research institution and the recommendations it makes to the government?

Even more importantly, if this title is meant to honor members of this society, the question is, how do we define "this society"? As Greater China? As the ROC? As Taiwan? If the Academia Sinica was originally meant to be a "Chinese" institution, well, that is no longer possible in a Taiwanese context where "this society" no longer considers itself "Chinese" (or rather, is no longer forced to do so, and is no longer ruled by an elite class from China). It would make sense, then, that those named "academician" would be from Taiwan, or at least have a strong connection to it. The pan-blues clearly know they've already lost the battle to define "this society" as "all Chinese", so they're trying to ensure that PRC nationals remain eligible while calling them "foreigners", when they clearly don't really believe that. Again, the KMT is trying to have it both ways: Taiwan and China as one cohesive "Chinese society", and Chinese as "foreigners" for the sake of a convenient attack narrative against the DPP.


In short, it should strike you as odd that the KMT is accusing Fan Yun - and others, but they are clearly targeting Fan here - of "isolationism" under the false pretext that it is keeping out academics "from all over the world" and not "recruiting foreign talent" when the roles being discussed were never intended or even particularly suitable for "foreign talent", almost all of the foreigners in question are Chinese nationals (so, people whom the KMT doesn't generally think of as "foreign" at all) being nominated by their ideologically biased predecessors, and the honor is specifically meant to recognize achievement among the country's own citizens.

Although the UDN article explains this - whereas the KMT brief does not - the reporter never questions the academicians interviewed, nor put quotes like "national isolation" into any sort of context or clarification.


Nothing - truly nothing- about the way the pan-blue media and the KMT are portraying this issue is accurate. It's just another attempt to set up the DPP, and Fan Yun, to look like rabid, xenophobic ethno-nationalists.

I'm not even particularly interested in how Academia Sinica nominates academicians, a position I didn't even know existed until the KMT started ranting about Evil Fan Yun. I am interested in how the media portray these incidents to stir up divisions in Taiwanese society. UDN did a terrible job analyzing a news item, but a fantastic job sourcing a bunch of un-examined quotes with which to attack the DPP.

I'll leave you with this: try Google Translating that UDN article. Every time Academia Sinica comes up in the Mandarin, Google translates it as "the Chinese Academy of Sciences", and every time "national" (國人) comes up, it translates it as "Chinese".

So if you were wondering if these name games matter, they do. 

Thursday, April 16, 2020

When My Worlds Collide: The Chinese Aid/Mount Ararat Dispute

IMG_1806
Looking like a dork on my visit to Khor Virap in 2017


I was going to write about the way the WHO and China have both been slithering among political figures, begging bowls in hand, asking for statements of support for their handling of the CCP Virus. And I will - tomorrow, perhaps.

Today, something else caught my eye.

This is sort of a collision of my worlds: an American of Armenian heritage, whose ancestors fled Turkey, and who has visited both Turkey and Armenia while living in Taiwan and keeping an eye on China.

With that in mind, about a week ago, a tiny diplomatic snafu went unnoticed by most people. It seems that China sent medical supplies and equipment to Armenia, and this was written on the boxes:

高山之巔,長江之濱May Our Friendship Higher Than Mountain Ararat and Longer than Yangtze River

EVGKuItXkAEpnGh
These are the boxes in question

You'll note that the Chinese and English do not quite match. The actual translation of that phrase is "A High Mountain Peak, The Shores of The Yangtze" which sounds like a Chinese idiom but if so, I'm not familiar with it. (Readers?)


This caused a lot of consternation in Turkey, which demanded an explanation for why a mountain which is technically in Turkey, and called Mount Ağrı (Ara), was printed on aid sent to Armenia. IS CHINA DISRESPECTING THE TERRITORIAL SOVEREIGNTY OF TURKEY??!! ...is what I assume they screamed.


IMG_2008
Even on polluted days, you can see the peak of Ararat from Yerevan

China quickly clarified that the packages came from a provincial government in China - Chongqing - and that the Chinese phrasing made no reference to Ararat (which is true). They then said the "English translation was added later", implying that it might have been done by the private company which delivered the aid (which is probably not true, but who knows) - and that China respects Turkey's territorial integrity. As an Armenian, allow me to provide some background, both political and cultural.


IMG_2149
Also I will tell you about brandy
Mount Ararat is highly culturally important to Armenia. It's visible from both Yerevan - the capital, and also just a cool, funky city that you absolutely should visit - and much of the Armenian plain (the monastery of Khor Virap is an excellent place to get a closer look at it). Like Olympus in Greek history, pre-Christian Armenian mythology considered Ararat the home of the gods. One might think this mythology is 'lost', but just as Athens is still named for Athena, plenty of Armenian names derive from these pre-Christian mythological names. For example, Mihran (my great-grandfather's name) is from Mihr, the god of smithing. Getting on the Jesus train didn't change this much: believed to be the landing site of Noah's Ark by those inclined to such beliefs, Armenians essentially transferred Ararat's pagan sacredness to Christianity. Since the Armenian genocide, it has also become a symbol of everything Armenians lost when they were exterminated from lands they had inhabited for centuries. Not just the land, but the culture - I could list several examples of eastern Anatolian cultural touchstones that are claimed by Turkey but may in fact be Armenian in origin, but I'll just point out one - carpets. There is evidence to suggest that "Turkish rugs" are culturally Armenian. And yes, Ararat has been a symbol of Armenian irredentist beliefs. I am unable to speak objectively on this so I won't belabor the point, but much of what is now eastern "Turkey" was heavily populated by Armenians until the genocide. The Treaty of Sevrès gave that land to Armenia, and then the USSR, for purely political reasons, turned around and handed it to Turkey - including Ararat.



IMG_2096
Not joking about the brandy - Winston Churchill apparently drank it
Ararat is on the coat of arms of Armenia. In Yerevan, the statue of "Mother Armenia" faces it (and is surrounded by military accoutrements). Armenia's most famous brandy is named for it. Pins purchased by pilgrims to the various well-known monasteries across Armenia generally depict it. When I visited Armenia and caught my first sight of Ararat, despite knowing how silly it was to have an emotional attachment to a geographical location I had only a tenuous ancestral connection to - my ancestors having lived along the Mediterranean, not near the mountain - I got misty-eyed anyway. I don't know how else to express how important Ararat is to the Armenian people.
0
Armenian pilgrimage pins from my personal collection
(not my pilgrimages - I inherited these from my mom, who collected them despite ever going herself)
So, I can tell you that from an Armenian perspective, referencing Ararat in a gesture of friendship really has very little to do with borders. Yeah, Armenia wants that mountain back. Sure. Won't deny it. But even with the borders as they are, without even expressing an overt wish to change those borders, it is entirely culturally appropriate to reference Ararat in an Armenian context. From that perspective, for Turkey to get mad about it feels a bit like China getting butthurt whenever someone calls Taiwan "Taiwan" or expresses support for Hong Kong.

Imagine having a thing on your country's coat of arms, purposely building your museum to the Armenian Genocide within sight of it, naming your brandy after it, and believing in its religious significance several layers and millenia down, and having another country get all pissy for acknowledging it's important to you, because it's within their borders due to some Soviet political maneuvering. Sounds like that'd feel like crap, right? Well, it does.
IMG_2006
The view of Ararat from the Armenian Genocide museum
Perhaps Taiwanese can understand this. Although the two situations are not exactly parallel, I can only imagine how it must feel to want to claim some aspect of that part of Taiwanese cultural heritage which does have roots in China, only to be told that doing so makes you Chinese by nationality. So you're stuck with either constantly trying to explain your heart, or distancing yourself from that heritage. (This rock and hard place were both intentionally created by China). Imagine being told that huge segments of your history and cultural heritage are wrong. That this thing and that place are actually Turkish and the things you say happened to your ancestors...didn't. Of course, Taiwanese don't have to imagine.

The problem, of course, isn't with emotional attachments to geographical locations. It's with the rabid anger and perpetual glass-hearted offense created by nationalism, abetted by national borders.


IMG_2035
Mother Armenia ain't playin' games
If you've ever wondered why I came to care so much about Taiwan after moving here, despite having no Taiwanese ancestry, it's this: what my ancestors went through and what the ancestors of my Taiwanese friends went through were different, but surely you can see how these conflicts are, in great part, variations on the same old themes of dominance, marginalization and nationalism? And I'm as sick as they are of being told that my heritage isn't allowed to be what I know it is?
IMG_2111
Really not joking about that brandy

I've long thought of Turkish political views as running on a parallel discourse with Chinese perspectives. Both are countries I have enjoyed visiting, meeting absolutely wonderful people and seeing some truly spectacular places. But politically, in Turkey they've convinced themselves that Armenia is the 'bad guy' and the Armenian genocide never happened (false), which is not that different from Chinese views that Taiwanese are the 'splittist' aggressors and Taiwan is their sovereign territory (again, false). I have lamented that these views are baked into the education that Turks and Chinese receive, and acknowledge that it is very difficult to overcome the failings of one's political upbringing.
Now, imagine that there a place which is key to your identity, perhaps even sacred in a quasi-religious sense. It occupies a central place in your cultural consciousness. Imagine being told by another country that not only is it theirs, not yours, but that it's not even particularly important to them. Taiwan, as a part of China, would be...just another province. Geostrategically important, perhaps, but honestly, I could see many Chinese viewing it as just a backwater, a nowhere. That's what it was under the Qing, after all. By Chinese standards, Taipei isn't even that big. I suspect most Taiwanese know this in their bones: Taiwan is everything to them. It's central to their history, identity and culture. To China, it's just hicksville. Yet they dare to pitch a fit whenever Taiwan points out that it's better off on its own. That's Ararat to Turkey. They don't care about it. It's so far east that I suspect Turks generally don't think about it much. It's a nowhere, a backwater. It is not central to their nation or identity the way it is to Armenians. And yet they have the temerity to throw a tantrum when any other nation references that cultural significance to Armenia. If you've gotten this far, you're probably shaking your head thinking "is Lao Ren Cha really saying that China did nothing wrong here?"
IMG_2041
Another view of Ararat from Yerevan
You'll be shocked to hear that Istanbullus don't care much about this mountain, but Yerevanis do. 
Well, I suppose...yes. But even when China is right, of course it's also wrong. Bullying Turkey out of supporting the Uighurs is wrong. And Armenia has quietly become a key node in China's Belt and Road Initiative, which sort of mimics its status as a border state between "east" and "west" (which the Romans and Persians would interfere with in order to snipe at each other from time to time) and stop on the Silk Road. But the BRI is no Silk Road - instead of bandits, there are debt traps. Even if the countries involved don't end up as serfs to China, they'll find themselves at the other end of threats to cut off this or that source of funds - closing a highway, cutting off international students, re-routing shipping, tourism, whatever - if they become to dependent on China. Again, variations on the same old themes.
IMG_2107
I really can't emphasize enough about the brandy

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Of #nnevvy, Subaltern Linguistics and Global Divides (social justice language and authoritarian agendas: Part 2 of Zillions)

EVa8cJ0U0AADuDf-1


Strap in, folks, because this post goes to a few different places.

Anyone who cares about regional politics in Asia and hangs out on Twitter was treated to an absolute delight recently, when the hashtag #nnevvy went stratospheric. The details don't exactly matter - some movie star's girlfriend, named Nevvy, said she was dressing like a "Taiwanese girl", some Chinese Twitter users (and by "users" I mean a combination of real users, paid trolls, and bots) got mad and...honestly, who cares. The trolls look for reasons to get angry, so the actual reasons generally don't matter.

This caused huge numbers of young, progressive, socially-networked Thais to start roasting the Chinese trolls, whose insults about their king, government, level of economic development etc. didn't work. The big joke among Thais, of course, was that they actually love dunking on their government and new king, and basically pulled the century's greatest "Yes, And" on the trolls, trolling them back with Tiananmen Square and insisting Taiwan and Hong Kong were independent. Young people across Asia started getting in on the fun, including scores of Taiwanese. Among them you could find people from India, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines and more all coming together to roast Chinese Internet users (yes, there were several "Avengers, Assemble!" memes, because of course there were).


93257519_225809478698172_6195074412731957248_n


I noticed two things about this, before I get into what I really want to say. First, I adore the sarcastic nihilism, the absolute existential absurdity, of the expert use of "Yes, And". It's an interesting contrast to the deadpan ironic humor of Taiwan, which often veers either into mildly dirty jokes (e.g. intentionally labeling a hair dryer "Blowing With Love") or wordplay.

So if you're ever tempted to go off on some Chad rant about how this or that group of Asians "has no sense of humor", I kindly suggest that you follow the advice of the hair dryer. 






Second, I am loving on the subaltern linguistics of it all. One will still meet English teachers and students who think of "learning English" language as a foreign system to be acquired (Pennycook and others call this langue).

What we saw with #nnevvy, however, was not langue - it was people from across Asia either translanguaging (using their own language and translation tools as necessary to be understood in a second language), or using often-imperfect English in order to negotiate and express meaning - not to 'inner circle' White native speakers, but other non-native speakers, for their own purposes. White-People-English had nothing to do with it. This is parole - language in performance.

The choice of English for these international exchanges occurred naturally in the moment, in the minds of users, but the fact that English was there to be used - enough of them had studied it and younger generations across Asia grow increasingly more adept at it - was neither a natural occurrence nor a neutral one. It was, of course, the role of imperialism both overtly (colonial) and implicitly
 (economic).

But the spread of English on the back of colonialism (both neo- and the regular kind) doesn't mean that it cannot be appropriated, or that its use cannot be empowering. If anything, these days in Asia the linguistic imperialism mantle has switched to Mandarin - again, a change that is neither natural nor neutral, and of dubious benefit. Of course, this is in line with China's attempts to step up to the plate as both regional and global hegemon. With this comes a healthy dose of Han supremacy, and tied to that, linguistic imperialism.

So when a bunch of people from various nations across Asia - some of whom speak Mandarin but many of whom don't - needed to take a collective dump on the regional supremacist jerk and their drone army of bots and trolls, they chose not the language of those bots and trolls (Mandarin), but the choice that has, by circumstance, become more neutral and therefore ripe for appropriation.

Honestly, I'm kind of waiting for the West to figure this out, because so many people seem to think the only flavor available at Ye Olde Supremacy Shoppe is vanilla White. 



EVZ1mGJU4AEbOLM



The main reason I found #nnevvy interesting, however, is how neatly it tears down a construct that the CCP is absolutely desperate to promote: the East-West divide. So many of their arguments - this is how we do things here, you can never understand our 5,000 years of culture, Asian-style democracy (thankfully no longer a buzzword), you're using Western thinking to try to understand Eastern ways but you can't push that imperialism on us! - are predicated on this.

Why? Because Westerners often buy it and then all their Orientalist fantasy "worldliness". Because if a person from "the East" insists it's true, it's difficult for a person from "the West" to contradict them without sounding like an ethnocentrist (this is actually a massive issue in intercultural communication, with no clear answers). Or worst, a "colonizer". Because it gives them a handy platform from which to say "you can't tell us what to do", which they then promptly use to tell the rest of Asia what to do. Because it gives them a region - a bloc of people supposedly "like them" - which they can then dominate without "the West" complaining too much, because to them, it looks like Asians working with Asians which sure seems a lot more PC than Westerners doing the same thing.

This is all cloaked in the language of pan-Asian cooperation - after all, why shouldn't the dominant voices from Asia be Asian? I'd certainly agree with that, when it's meant sincerely.

But, of course, the CCP's actual goal is to become the dominant voice from Asia, not to participate in (or even benignly lead) a cooperative effort. They squash rather than uplift the marginalized voices that are inconvenient to this narrative.

Cultural differences between regions do exist, on a broad scale. But there is no "East" and "West", but rather a variety of communities within each, with their own power and privilege differentials. There are people who believe in freedom, and those who believe in authoritarianism with many shades in between. There are people on an entire spectrum of liberal to conservative, and young people across Asia increasingly differ in values from their elders. They may express it differently, so you might not have noticed, but it's there. 


These ideas straddle "East" and "West", to the point that a little cultural adaptation goes a long way when befriending locals my age or slightly younger, whereas I suspect my Grandma L., were she still alive, would get along quite well with a typical KMT Taiwanese Christian Auntie.

To the extent the idea is useful, it's to demarcate an extremely fuzzy boundary for the purpose of examination, with the hope of deepening knowledge, exploring intersectionality and building inclusivity, not creating new fiefdoms for new pantsless bear-kings.


Basically, you can tell they're full of shit not because they voiced the idea of an "East"-"West" cleavage, but by what they want to accomplish by advancing it.

It also serves the CCP's purpose to convince you this divide means that "democracy" and "human rights" are inherently "Western" and therefore not suitable for "Eastern" people. And boom, you've just been talked out of believing that democracy may not be perfect but it's sure better than dictatorship, that human rights are universal for a reason, or even believing that these are false constructs of "Western" imperialists - imperialism is only "Western" in this worldview, see - there's no Han or Chinese imperialism possible. That's pretty convenient, eh? You've conveniently forgotten how many Asian nations are successful democracies and want to stay that way, including Taiwan! You definitely don't remember that human rights have been defined by an organization - the UN - which has Asian members.

In fact, you may even become convinced that Asian countries, like Taiwan, who ascribe to certain so-called "Western" values and try to build sincere, friendly relations with Western nations are filthy dens of evil capitalist brainwashed colonizer sympathizers. You might start thinking of them as one of the "bad" guys, because they've teamed up with the Evil West and don't want to cooperate with their friendly local hegemon.

If you go down this path, you've talked yourself into believing that you support people across Asia by opposing "Western imperialism", when all you've really done is become a useful idiot for the power that seeks to rule them.


Take one look at #nnevvy, however, and you'll see it's all a ruse. So many people across Asia can't stand the CCP, and can't stand their cyber-armies of rabid nationalists (both the real ones and the bots). I mean, it felt like almost all of Asia just teamed up to take them down, so the idea that they're all on some sort of "same side" and China is simply the munificent and benevolent leader of that "side" is a joke.

Honestly, if you're a long-time reader, you know all this. Even a casual visitor has probably got a clue.

But you'd be shocked how many tankie so-called leftist Westerners there are who still haven't figured this stuff out. They tend to substitute viciousness for evidence, and as such I find them hard to talk to, so I'm not really sure how to help them see the toxicity, authoritarianism, anti-Asian racism and straight-up Orientalism of their views, all cloaked in the 'social justice' language of supporting people of color. All while making excuses to deny those people of color the same rights and freedoms they themselves enjoy.

I have more to say about global divides and suddenly believing ideas like human rights are "relative", but will save those for future posts.

In the meantime: 

Sunday, April 12, 2020

The CCP uses social justice language to advance an authoritarian agenda: Part 1 of Zillions



First, I apologize for not blogging much. It's dissertation time. I said blogs would be more rare, and I meant it. It'll be like this through June, if not longer. But, every once in awhile I can catch a breather, and today is one of those days.

Now, with that aside...

There’s something I want to talk about, which has a lot of associated bits and pieces, which begins and ends with the CCP adopting the language of the social justice left to advance an authoritarian, right-wing agenda. This is the first part of that, let’s see how far I get into a series of posts exploring it further before my dissertation takes.

As everyone in Taiwan knows by now, the Director-General of the WHO, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, accused Taiwan of online attacks that included racism and death threats. I won't summarize: there are plenty of sources for that (New Bloom includes a video link with relevant comments). Some say the director - whom I'll call Tedros as that's how he's referred to on Wikipedia despite (I think) being his given name - accused the Taiwanese government of being behind the attacks. Or, in his exact words: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) knew about the attacks and "didn't disassociate itself" from them.

Which of course it didn't, because why would it need to "disassociate" from the comments of thousands of angry Taiwanese? You only need to do that when the attack is organized. You can tell the difference between this and organized 'cyber armies' because the language used in various posts was novel, not copy-pasted or the same arguments, almost verbatim, again and again. The memes, too, were new and creative in ways that organized troll armies simply cannot (or at least, do not) replicate.

It's almost as though he can't fathom why tens of thousands of Taiwanese people would be furious with him, after he repeatedly denied the existence of their country, ignored early-warning data Taiwan provided, excluded Taiwan from most proceedings, and then peddled (false) Chinese data far too late.

Tedros is not a stupid man. Incompetent, yes, but not stupid. He is capable of understanding the very reasonable explanation behind why he is so reviled in Taiwan. His insistence that this is something else is a choice. It is intentional. It looks quite similar to the tactics the CCP employs when it decides to ignore plain truth and push the narrative it has decided is most convenient.

Were some comments from Taiwanese racist? Almost certainly. I haven't seen them, but racism exists everywhere. However, I've witnessed racism against Southeast Asians in Taiwan and heard stories of racist treatment in Taiwan from friends who are people of color, and I can tell you that the majority of comments were not that: they were attacking Tedros and the WHO for their treatment of Taiwan and poor handling of the coronavirus outbreak - two issues that are now deeply linked.

A lot of the racist comments, it's worth noting, were in Simplified Chinese (or from accounts that only interact with accounts that write in Simplified). A wave of "apologies" from "Taiwanese" (all using identical wording, and all in Simplified) has also since appeared. So, while there was certainly some organic racism in the comments against Tedros, I wonder how much of it was, in fact, organized and planted...by the CCP.

Of course, the CCP has figured out that accusations of racism can, in fact, be weaponized. A person accused of racism defending themselves who is actually guilty of racism sounds exactly like someone who was falsely accused speaking up about it.

Let’s admit it: when you have to defend yourself as definitely not racist!  - very often that just convinces people that you are racist. Only a racist would have to insist they weren't racist, after all. If you're not, it should be obvious. You might be tempted to reach for trite right-wing cliches like "you're playing the race card!" which, honestly, just makes a person sound more racist. Even pointing out that an innocent and a guilty person defending themselves against accusations of racism sound exactly the same, and that such accusations can therefore be weaponized, sounds like a right-wing talking point! There is literally no way out of this discursive cesspit: the only way to go is down.

There are also very reasonable calls for Taiwan to do some self-reflection on the racism that does exist here (both by Han Taiwanese against non-Han Taiwanese, and against foreigners, especially directed at Black and Southeast Asian residents in Taiwan). However, that shifts attention away from the fact that Tedros is intentionally lying about the attacks being 'organized' with the blessing of the Taiwanese government.

Of course, these baseless accusations only take away from the very necessary discussion on real issues of race in Taiwan, but that's also the point.

It will be very difficult indeed to make this point to Western audiences, because generally speaking, racism isn’t weaponized in quite this way. If someone in the West says they are the victim of racist attacks, generally they should be believed. (Exceptions exist: Clarence Thomas comes to mind). You get the occasional White person who insists they’re the victim of racism, but the left usually doesn’t take the bait. They know that racism is prejudice plus power, and that White people have the most power.

I’m not at all sure that this same Western left knows what to do with accusations of racism that don’t involve White people, however. And accusations by a Black person, against a population of Asians, who themselves are marginalized in Asian discourses, supported (and quite possibly created, or at least helped along) by a repressive Asian government that claims to represent a dominant group but in fact doesn’t, in order to attack the democratically-elected government of the marginalized group? When racism exists in that marginalized group, but was not the issue in this particular case? Yikes.

This brings me to the point I really want to make: if you haven't noticed that the CCP has been adopting the language of the social-justice, post-colonial left in order to push what is essentially a right-wing, neo-colonial agenda, you aren't listening. This is just one bomb lobbed from that particular trebuchet.

The point is to deflect the media attention from all the good work Taiwan is doing, pushing their success out of the spotlight by creating a new firestorm for people to pay attention to. This was highlighted by former Sunflower Movement and current DPP member Lin Fei-fan:

我認為理由無他,正是因為台灣正積極協助更多國家的防疫工作,而台灣的防疫成果也正被國際社會肯定。我們不僅輸出手術口罩協助其他國家第一線防疫人員,陳建仁副總統也在昨天接受了國際媒體BBC的專訪分享台灣的防疫經驗。 
台灣正在被國際看見,也被許多國家肯定和感謝,這是中國想要摧毀的一切,也是中國的傳聲筒之所以要攻訐台灣的原因!

My translation:

I think there is no other reason, it is precisely because Taiwan is actively assisting more countries in their epidemic prevention work, and Taiwan ’s epidemic prevention achievements are being recognized by the international community. Not only have we exported surgical masks to assist frontline epidemic prevention staff in other countries, Vice President Chen Chien-jen also accepted an exclusive interview with the BBC yesterday to share Taiwan's experience with epidemic prevention. 
Taiwan is being seen by the world, and it is also being acknowledged and appreciated by many countries. This is everything China wants to destroy, and therefore the reason why China's mouthpiece is attacking Taiwan!" 

Since then, MoFA released the letter it sent to the WHO, and that too has been attacked (either for MoFA “overstepping”, or for them overstating the case that they “tried to warn the WHO” when mostly they were asking for more information, or...whatever.) I’m not particularly interested in this saga (and I’m not the only one). As far as I see it MoFA generally does an amazing job, the letter did raise alarms about what was going on in China, and it shows that Taiwan attempted to use the channels available to it and made no headway. That people are making a big deal over it honestly just feels like more of an attempt to cut down the amount of positive coverage and praise Taiwan is receiving.

The honest truth is that the WHO has done an awful job dealing with thecoronavirus and its refusal to acknowledge Taiwan hinders efforts at protecting global health, while trying to convince the world that it’s done an amazing job. This follows the exact same narrative trajectory of China, and that’s not an accident. While China is still recovering from the outbreak, it continues to try and confuse and destabilize the narrative on Taiwan so the world doesn’t notice that Taiwan has done the best job in the world of handling the pandemic. While the WHO should be focusing on the ongoing global crisis, it’s spending its time challenging Taiwan to fisticuffs because it can’t handle sincere criticism. Again, these matching narratives are not a coincidence.

I want to explore this a lot more, but I’ll save that for the next post.

A lot of people have since pointed out that there’s growing anti-foreigner (and specifically anti-Black, anti-African) racism in China. In fact, it’s always been there but it’s been getting worse thanks to the coronavirus. In Guangzhou, there are reports of exchange students from Africa and other African residents (the city has a fairly large African community) being evicted from hotels, not allowed to buy food, and reduced to sleeping under bridges.

The CCP doesn’t seem to have offered a coherent response, and I tend to agree with those who say it is likely incapable of doing so. Considering that these actions are directly related to the aftermath of coronavirus (plus suddenly forcing people to sleep on the street doesn’t seem like a great move public health-wise even when there’s no global pandemic), you’d think the WHO and Tedros, who are ever so sensitive to issues of racism, and seem to care very deeply about how African people are treated by Asians, would also offer some sort of response or acknowledgement.

You would be wrong.

Compare that to Taiwan, the country accused of  “racism” against Tedros. I spoke out recently regarding businesses in Taiwan discriminating against foreigners. Then, as now, I want to point out that the majority of these businesses changed their policies when approached. Some resisted and had to be complained at rather strongly - calling the discrimination what it was, being told their policies would be publicly blogged about - others were receptive after an initial polite request. Though not all listened to reason, most did.

I didn’t say anything at the time, but while this was happening I reached out to a few friends I have who work in government after one business insisted that “a visiting police unit” suggested such a discriminatory policy, to confirm that this was not a government policy. It certainly was not. (A friend in the Taipei City government actually said, “first, these businesses should be happy to get customers, business is down everywhere. Second, that’s stupid.”)

In fact, I missed it at the time, but it seems Mayor Ko specifically tweeted, asking businesses not to discriminate. Whoever wrote the tweets did not thread them, so I’m just going to post an image:



Although I’d love to have a statement from the national government specifically calling on businesses not to discriminate, this is fantastic, and the issue (mostly) seems to have died down. A few people were denied Airbnb or hotel rooms, but nobody had to sleep under a bridge. Nobody was unable to buy food.

Over in China, reports are that the treatment of Black residents described above is not only not being stopped by the government, but in some cases actively carried out by the police. The Chinese government has offered a few stock phrases - “we treat all foreigners equally” - but not much more than that.

That’s the difference. Those are the facts.

Speaking of “facts”, there’s more I want to say about the CCP using the left’s tendency toward subjectivity and (total) cultural relativism as further excuses for its authoritarian agenda, but I think that’s the subject of a future post.

In the meantime, facts are facts. Don’t be distracted.