Sunday, May 31, 2020

The rigged game, and how to feint

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This meme just seemed appropriate. 


I have a lot to do today, but wanted to quickly explore the game. 


Here's how it works. People who should be on the same team appear to be split. There are those who think Trump's rhetoric on China and the WHO is right, and we must stand up to them. This group tends to believe that, as a result, Trump's actual actions constitute good strategy.

Then there's the camp that think nothing Trump says can ever be correct, and therefore we shouldn't stand against China, as this could create "a new cold war". They also tend to view the WHO as mostly good, rather than mostly political.

Both sides are partially wrong. Rhetorically, the Trump administration is mostly correct. Leaving aside "they gutted American industry" - no, we did that to ourselves - and talk of excluding whole groups of Chinese citizens, it's not wrong to point out that China is planning to treat Hong Kong as just another Chinese province, and that they've basically taken control of the WHO.

The CCP is on the brink of committing an unthinkable atrocity and have already committed many others. The WHO is a political organization that prioritizes factional battles over actually helping people. Hong Kongers do need assurance of assistance, both locally and as potential refugees. These issues do need to be dealt with and can't be buried under talk of "engagement" with a government that simply cannot be trusted to keep its promises.


But strategically, Trump is wrong. Ending Hong Kong's special status makes sense in terms of ensuring that China doesn't benefit from Hong Kong while oppressing it. But China's ultimate goal is to make Hong Kong unimportant, an extension of Shenzhen rather than a distinct cultural and economic entity. The CCP so clearly wants to promote cities like Shanghai as finance hubs and gateways to China, and I doubt hey've realized that this won't be appealing to much of the world. Hong Kong's relative wealth and visibility make it difficult to control when its residents rebel against CCP brutality. Shanghai, on the other hand, is basically obedient.

On this front, I don't know what to say. The game is rigged. There is no right move. End Hong Kong's special status, and you hand China something that helps them destroy Hong Kong. Keep it in place, and you let China off the hook and help them economically, after all of the horrors they have perpetuated. Someone clearly foresaw this choice when thinking through their government's possible actions - and it wasn't anyone in the Trump administration. China had this in the bag before we even knew we were in a game.

This is basic strategy and it was not foregone that the CCP would figure it out first. In any case, it makes me absolutely furious that the US really should have known that this was the CCP's endgame. After all, Taiwan and Hong Kong have been ringing the warning bells since at least since 2014. The day the first Hong Kong bookseller was attacked was the day the US should have started figuring out what the end game might look like.

Instead, they ignored all of the Asian voices who honestly tried to raise the alarm - when I say that Taiwan has been trying to warn the world about the CCP Virus, I don't just mean COVID19. It's one of the fatal flaws of the West that they just don't seem to hear non-Western voices warning about a rising Nazi-like threat in their own backyard and boom, now we've got a Sudetenland situation.

The proposed exclusion of some Chinese students from the US is also a no-win strategy. CCP incursion into global (including Western) academia is a real thing and genuine security threat, and it's well-known that the CCP has a say in which students can go abroad, asking some to collect information in return for tuition paid. Banning Chinese students who studied at Chinese military universities as undergraduates (not all Chinese students, or even most, as some have claimed) seems to make sense.

But let's remember that the students themselves are not tied to any known wrongdoing, and security protocols already exist. If this is a threat it is probably not a highly pressing one - meaning it's showy but of negligible consequence - and that Trump wanted to institute a much broader ban in 2018, long before the Hong Kong protests began. Banning Chinese students as a broad category is a long-term goal of the Trump administration and many Republicans. It's not really about Hong Kong.

There are other things that can be done. Institute stricter security. Ban Confucius Institutes. End CCP funding for academic titles and other programs. You can enforce rules - which I am sure already exist - barring student groups from harassing other students and disbanding any groups that engage in such behavior. Why broadly target Chinese students?

In any case, Trump's rhetoric on Hong Kong doesn't exonerate him from the inherent racism of his administration, and doing everything he can to target Chinese students as a group, rather than looking for institutional ways to counter CCP threats, shows this.

How do we know they are racist, despite talk of helping Hong Kong refugees?  I mean - [gestures vaguely at Minneapolis]. But also, a big chunk of Trump's 2016 campaign was predicated on stoking racism-based fears of refugees, especially from majority Muslim and Latin American countries. Then, once in office, he defunded many refugee resettlement programs and slashed the number of refugees allowed in.  Don't delude yourself that Republicans care about "refugees" as a whole.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't help Hong Kong refugees. We absolutely should. But we should help refugees, from anywhere, period. Trump never wanted to do that, and he's not going to. 


Finally, withdrawing from the WHO is not the way to fix problems inherent to the WHO. I spent a short amount of time supporting the US defunding that absolute joke of an organization, but honestly, the US is just conceding ground here. The WHO is garbage and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus should be removed from office, if not in jail. But it is still an organization that the rest of the world broadly believes in, for some reason, and China will simply be able to control it better. Not necessarily through funding, but through building up a block of allies:




(Go read the whole thread)

This rebranding of "authoritarian nations" as "the Global South" (a possibly once helpful way of thinking about the world which I think has lost its luster) is a part of what keeps the dumber among liberals still believing in them. 


A big chunk of China's argument for why it should be considered next global leader is that unlike the evil, imperialist, Western United States, China represents a new and better orientation away from the primacy of Western (and therefore historically imperialist) interests in the world. 

There are a lot of people who believe (correctly) that white, Western countries became rich in great part from plundering the wealth of the rest of the world, and that this is one of the great tragedies of history. However, there's a tendency to twist that argument around and insist that as imperialism in all its forms is most visibly white, that it can therefore only be white, and therefore anything "non-Western" must be preferable.

Frankly, I see the appeal. Nothing sounds better than re-orienting towards leadership by people of color who can build a more equitable post-colonial world.


Except, of course, China's not doing that. 


T
heir goal is not to break down divisions so that the "Global South" may enjoy the same level of development and well-being as the "Global North", which would include things like human rights. It's to cement its position as the permanent leader of these nations, supporting and replicating its own system of anti-humanitarian, authoritarian repression. It wants supplicants. Serfs. It wants its own colonial empire, cloaked in the language of leftie progressivism. 

The WHO is just a tool in that game. And by withdrawing, we're handing it to them.

Usually I say that when it comes to the CCP, the only way to win the game is not to play, but this is absolutely not what I mean. Opposition is not the same as playing. There are games bigger than those devised by the CCP that are worth playing, and this was one of them.

There are better ways, and if the rest of the world would only listen to Taiwan, perhaps they'd see that.

Rather than flouncing off in a huff and leaving the WHO to China, Taiwan has been trying to raise awareness of its exclusion. That not only helps Taiwan's global visibility, it highlights the ways that the CCP has been slowly taking over international organizations. Engaging, petitioning, speaking out, countering - yes, it feels like playing a game we can't win, but honestly, we got pretty far with it. There was an impact, however unsatisfying in the end.

In fact, one of the reasons I admire President Tsai is that she can look at China's ridiculous carnival games - hoops on an angle, balls that are too big for their buckets, weighted milk bottles, carefully-placed tables of a certain height - and see not just the game, but the rigging. If you can see the rigging, you can begin to devise a strategy to get around it. Tsai does this better than any other leader in the world. 

Even when it comes to issues such as framing the discussion on independence or potentially (maybe) gaining diplomatic recognition, she treads like a trained explosives detector across a minefield, not a tank. Trump? He's a tank with a particularly stupid driver.

She's doing that rather marvelously, and Trump is flailing like the screaming racist baby he is. He may be tough on the CCP, and I do actually think he is right about them, but he doesn't know what to do about it. His strategies will fail, because they were ham-fisted to begin with and certainly didn't take into account what's really going on with these games.

This is why Tsai, not Trump - and not "we have a strategic interest to engage" Merkel (translation: $$$), nor "did well with COVID19 but not so much the CCP Virus" Ardern - is the true leader of the free world. 


There is more that Taiwan can do, which I'd like to explore in a later post. There are reasons why pivoting away from the US and towards an "Asian Century" is not a bad idea, as long as that century does not include the CCP - again, for a later post.

What I'm trying to say here is: when deciding exactly how not to play the CCP's games, there is more strategy involved than people realize. It's not always a simple matter of walking away, because other players and bigger concerns need to be dealt with.

Taiwan has figured this out. One of the best strategies we can adopt is simply to listen to Taiwan and other Asian voices when they warn of encroaching CCP authoritarianism. For liberals, that means curbing the tendency to equate "we want to engage with the world and that includes China" with being a good liberal and global citizen. Good liberals don't pretend modern-day Nazis are acceptable negotiation partners and listen to marginalized voices around the world, not just dominant ones. For conservatives, it means ending racist platforms in all ways and actually paying attention to the voices of people of color, rather than acting like white saviors.

For both sides, just listen. The rest of Asia - and especially Taiwan - is telling you what to do and where the traps are.

When will the US and the rest of the world open its ears?

Friday, May 29, 2020

Taiwan decriminalizes adultery, but there is more to be done

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I don't have a good cover photo so please enjoy these creepy dolls















Just a few hours ago, the constitutional court in Taiwan ruled that adultery - until now a criminal offense in Taiwan - was in violation of the principles of autonomy and proportionality in the ROC constitution. 


Specifically, it was decided that the criminalization of adultery interfered too much with the principle of "sexual autonomy", in that it allowed for the prosecution not just of a married spouse, but of her or her lover, a third party to the marriage. In fact, as the law allowed not only for the prosecution of both the spouse and the lover, but also for the aggrieved to drop charges against their spouse while continuing with the prosecution of their affair partner, it had a tendency to enable "revenge" charges.

This is a key reason why the adultery law was found to be punitive against women more than men: male plaintiffs were more likely to prosecute their wives and wives' affair partners, whereas wives were more likely to drop charges against their husbands (possibly forcing them to stay in the marriage) while continuing to prosecute their husbands' lovers.

The number of women prosecuted relative to men amounts to very few actual people, as only a handful of these cases make it to court. Most allegations of adultery are used as bargaining chips in contentious divorces or worse, to blackmail a spouse into staying. However, with slightly more than half of defendants being women, it still works out to more women than men, and therefore affects women disproportionately.

Furthermore, at the time of the law's passage, views of gender roles and traditional marriage were different from what they are today, so the court found criminalizing extramarital affairs was not in congruence with the society Taiwan is today. Although decriminalization still wasn't something society at large favored, overall over the past few decades gender roles have in fact changed.

Of course, this changing consensus on marriage and gender also includes same-sex marriage. The law never covered same-sex couples, meaning it didn't even pertain to all married couples in Taiwan as of 2019. Rather than ask for the full equality of being included in this law, LGBT activists wisely supported abolishing it altogether.


Most constitutional court interpretations are not publicly announced, so this immediate announcement is unprecedented, and we can only hope the trend will continue.

It's interesting to me that the court arrived at exactly the right interpretation - this law hurt women more than men and in  - when the original law was conceived of to protect women. As the court itself stated, at the time, ideas about gender were very different from what they are now. It was believed that men were far more likely to cheat, and giving an aggrieved wife the ability to sue for damages, put her husband's affair partner in jail (and possibly even her husband) and get a divorce was considered to be a way to "level the playing field"...for women.

It is clear that if this ever was the case, it no longer is, and the court was correct to realize this.

This isn't the end of the story, though. Unilateral no-fault divorce is still hard to obtain in Taiwan - you essentially need a judge to approve it, and they may well not - meaning that if you want a divorce but your spouse won't agree to it, you need to prove fault. One possible "fault" that will allow the divorce to go through is adultery, meaning it is still possible in civil court to punish one's spouse for having an affair, by forcing them to pay damages, and in getting a "more favorable" divorce settlement for the aggrieved spouse.

In fact, one of the judges on the adultery case stated that, as some women, specifically, will feel a "bargaining chip to protect rights and interests" has been taken away, that the amount of damages or what they can claim in a divorce settlement should be raised.

The best way to deal with this isn't just to end adultery as an offense in civil court, although that should also happen. It's to legalize unilateral no-fault divorce. Public buy-in is also important: gaining a public consensus that ending a bad marriage is better than staying in it, and worth more than any amount of monetary payout (this also means pushing for greater wage equality in Taiwan, ensuring that women who get divorced will be able to support themselves).

It also includes fairer custody rulings - unlike the West, children in Taiwan often go to the father in a divorce as they are "his" lineage, not the mother, unless she can "prove fault". Awarding majority custody to the more capable parent is the better solution.

If Justice Hsu's comments are accurate, that buy-in doesn't exist yet, even if there is a consensus on decriminalization.

So, honestly, we're not there yet. But this is a step in the right direction for women in Taiwan as well as Taiwan as a liberal democratic country.


Oh yes, one final punch. For those of you who think the DPP is just as bad as the KMT, I ask: do you think this would have ever happened under a KMT administration? The KMT, whose "young", "reformist" chair (lol - he is neither) voted strongly against same-sex marriage - not the same as criminalized adultery but also a marriage/gender-related issue that is a litmus test for liberal thought?

Of course not. The two parties are not the same. Neither is faultless - no party is, not even the "ideological purists" like the NPP - but one is clearly worse than the other.

You may not love the DPP, and you may not care for Tsai's cautious, quiet, sneaking-up-on-you tactics, but more has been done for liberalism in Taiwanese society under Tsai than any other president and certainly any other KMTer. It will never be all you hoped for, but the country marches ever forward. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Should Taiwan formalize a political asylum process? (Yes.)

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I've used this as a cover photo before, and probably will again.
I hope someday it might actually be true. 

With the resurgence of protests in Hong Kong after China's announcement of a Beijing-imposed national security law which will certainly curtail the relative (but dwindling) freedoms that Hong Kongers currently have, there has been a lot of discussion in Taiwan on the degree of assistance the country can provide to Hong Kong. In particular, the discussion has focused on whether and how Taiwan might go about allowing political refugees to settle in Taiwan.

President Tsai's remarks on the matter, while hitting all the right notes in terms of promising that Taiwan will do what it can, have not offered much in the way of specific plans for this assistance. At the moment, Taiwan has no laws regarding refugees, nor a process for applying for political asylum. Regarding Hong Kong specifically, Article 18 of the Act Governing Relations with Hong Kong and Macau says that Taiwan may "help" residents of these two cities if their political freedom is in danger, but doesn't specify what that "help" would be (nor what would constitute a threat). The act provides special status to Hong Kong and Macau, allowing for greater investment and a popular immigration scheme. I know someone whose family immigrated this way when he was a child, and he holds both ROC nationality and a Hong Kong ID card.

While the TPP (Taiwan People's Party) has proposed amending Article 18 to specifically allow for political asylum (see link above), Tsai is moving cautiously. Previously, the Tsai administration had said that current laws were sufficient to determine whether to allow dissidents to settle in Taiwan on a case-by-case basis, though whether this still holds true is highly questionable. Furthermore, Tsai has announced that Hong Kong's (and presumably Macau's) special status may be revoked, which wouldn't even allow for the vague promise of "help" in the relevant act - Hong Kongers and Macanese would be treated like any other citizens of China.

So, as it stands now, there are surely plenty of Hong Kongers looking at Taiwan as a place they might run to if things get really bad, which they probably will, and Taiwan has no mechanism by which to aid them, despite promising some unclear form of "assistance".

Of course, it's more legally complicated than that, but I really don't want to get into the legal complexities of separating the notion of "Hong Kong" from the notion of "China" (or the PRC) under ROC law. I'm not qualified and honestly, I'm sure if Taiwan really wanted to create a mechanism for Hong Kong refugees, it could do so.

Public opinion in Taiwan remains somewhat divided. I have no data to back this up, but I would guess that most Taiwanese support Hong Kong's struggle in an abstract way. Surely they are aware that China's actions in Hong Kong are a look into the future that the authoritarian hell-state has planned for Taiwan. Surely, when it comes to individuals who need to get out, most Taiwanese would believe that their country should be a safe harbor for them. Surely, many Taiwanese recognize that while Hong Kong may not want 'independence' as much as Taiwan does - it was never part of the protesters' famous 'five demands' - they share a common enemy and their struggles are therefore linked in some way.


However, there are questions regarding the safety of allowing large numbers of refugees in - surely, Beijing would attempt to plant as many agents in that influx as possible. Furthermore, allowing a stream of Hong Kongers, who can naturalize more easily than foreigners like me, to potentially gain the right to vote has some people questioning the wisdom of large-scale resettlement. In theory, enough of them may maintain a 'Chinese' identity (rather than a Taiwanese one) that they'd support unification with China, were it to democratize. For many Taiwanese, however, their identity exists independently of China, meaning they would not support unification under any circumstances and wouldn't appreciate a population of newcomers who might feel differently.

Some Taiwanese might even feel that, until fairly recently, Hong Kongers looked down on Taiwan - while I can't personally comment on this, I can imagine it happening, and do believe it's happened - as sort of 'country cousins' who were relatively less prosperous. Now that Taiwan as emerged as a freer and more equal society, Taiwanese who have experienced this attitude from Hong Kong might be thinking - "oh, you mocked us for decades and now you want our help?"

And, of course, some feel that Taiwan is always expected to give to others, but is castigated when it looks out for its own self-interest and makes decisions that are best for itself as a nation, rather than feeling obligated to always absorb the suffering of others.

Should Taiwan feel obligated to assist Hong Kong, potentially allowing refugees to settle here? No.

Is it the right thing to do anyway? Yes.

Hong Kong is, unfortunately, legally a part of China. Taiwan is not. Taiwanese, by and large, don't identify as Chinese. Hong Kong is beginning to catch up in this regard, but you'll still meet plenty of Hong Kongers who identify as Chinese, especially among the older generations (not so much the younger ones). In that way, Taiwan doesn't 'owe' Hong Kong anything, any more than any other nation - they are two different countries with two different identities, after all. To her credit, Tsai did not use Hong Kong protesters as props during her re-election campaign - the connections between her vision for Taiwan and the struggle for freedom in Hong Kong were made entirely by supporters (and rightly so - but that does not change the fact that this was not Tsai's strategy).

However, Taiwan under Tsai has made it clear that it wants to be a beacon of freedom and democracy in Asia. Tsai has said clearly that Taiwan is independent, and outlined what kind of country it ought to be - one where liberal values can merge with local culture and be the stronger for it. This isn't a question of what Taiwan 'owes' Hong Kong, which is nothing. It's a question of what kind of country Taiwan wants to be.

I do think that liberal democracies should strive to be safe harbors for those persecuted under authoritarian regimes. That means that, while Taiwan isn't specifically obligated to Hong Kong, the liberal democratic world as a whole is. As a part of that world, I hope that Taiwan will see that it would simply be the ethical thing to do. That said, this means that other nations - the UK especially, as they helped create this mess, but not only them - should also step up and support Hong Kong in the same way. After all, while Taiwan and Hong Kong bear the brunt of China's aggressive expansionism, the CCP is a common enemy to us all.

The fear of Chinese 'plants' among fleeing Hong Kongers is real, and reasonable. The CCP will almost certainly try this. However, I have never met a proponent of helping refugees, in any country, who believes that every last one should be allowed in with no vetting process. Vetting processes are rarely discussed, but they do exist in the United States - well, they did back when the United States cared about refugees - as elsewhere. Of course, Taiwan's vetting process needs to be ironclad. Nobody can reasonably argue otherwise. Of course, any political asylum process would have to take into account what's best for Taiwan, first and foremost. Nobody can reasonably argue against that, either.

I'm in favor of rules and procedures surrounding the process, to make it safe and tenable. But to support that, one must support their being a process at all, which there currently isn't.

I'm less worried about a 'loss' of Taiwanese identity. While cultural and identity barriers are often unclear, there is a 'thing' we might label as 'Taiwanese identity'. I couldn't tell you where it begins and ends, but I can say that I'm not included in it, which means the border must exist. But, one thing I have come to love about this country is that identifying as Taiwanese has the potential to be more fluid, as it is a more multicultural society than people realize (just because most of the cultural groups within it look generally 'Asian' does not mean they are the same). It's the sort of country where, perhaps, someday, the words on the welcoming sign at the National Museum of Taiwan History might actually be true:



All those who identify with and are concerned about Taiwan, who love and accept Taiwan, and who wish to live together in this land can declare with a loud voice "I am a Taiwanese". 

This posits a civic rather than ethnic identity (in fact, the entire passage argues against an ethnic identity for Taiwan, both practically and ethically), where perhaps shared cultural norms and perceptions play a part, but shared values do too, and who your parents were doesn't have to matter as much.

I'd like to think that someday, with luck, that this could include me, though I wouldn't be so arrogant as to claim it does now. It has come to include the descendants of the KMT diaspora who wish to claim it, many of whom - especially the younger ones - have come to identify as Taiwanese and support Taiwanese nationhood. So why not Hong Kong refugees and their descendants, too?


That is to say, Hong Kong refugees might not arrive thinking of themselves as Taiwanese, but that does not mean they won't come to identify that way someday. The person I know who emigrated here as a child considers himself Taiwanese, after all.

As for any Hong Kongers' previous superiority complexes, my personal feeling (though I have absolutely no right to insist on this) is that it shouldn't cloud the question. I understand the hard feelings, but Taiwan has proven itself, period. It's shown that it is simply a great nation and open society, and can do great things, it is the inferior of no one, and there is no basis to treat it as such. It's the envy of Asia with its democratic values and the envy of the world in its coronavirus response. The point is clear and it doesn't need to be made through excluding refugees.


That said, the TPP is also wrong: Article 18 isn't the issue. If Taiwan wants to be a model of liberal democracy, and liberal democracies around the world have a moral imperative to accept refugees - which I believe they do - then there should be an asylum process that is theoretically accessible to people from anywhere, not just Hong Kong and Macau.

There is no obligation. Nobody 'owes' anyone anything. Taiwan doesn't 'have to' do this, just as nobody 'has to' help others in need. I understand the source of disquiet or unease surrounding the issue, and I am sympathetic to the concerns of people who don't necessarily support this.

But, considering the kind of country Taiwan clearly wants to be, and the country I truly believe it can be (and in many ways already is), I think it would simply be the right thing to do.

Just do it properly, with proper vetting and other procedures. Taiwan is a capable, successful country. It can surely pull this off. 

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Ten Great Books About Taiwan: or, how to start your Taiwan library

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Yes, I know I can write about Tsai's inauguration. I can write about how Johnny Chiang's promises of KMT reform are disingenuous. I could write about Hong Kong - and re-iterate that this was inevitable, as what Hong Kong wants for itself will never align with China's plans - but I've already cried once over it.

In fact, with my dissertation looming, please don't expect much from me this summer. I do have to get it done, and can't give Lao Ren Cha as much attention as I'd like until it is. On the upside, I have a lot to say about education in Taiwan as a result of my research.

So instead, let's do this.

Brendan has made the very astute point that people who espouse pro-China views (or anti-Taiwan views) tend to want you to unquestioningly accept their bottom lines - whether that's "Taiwan must be the ROC", "Taiwan is a part of China" or "the ROC is the real China and Taiwan is a part of it". The only book recommendation I've actually seen from one of these types is The Generalissimo, a ridiculous hagiography of Chiang Kai-shek.

Whereas if you spend any time with your average pro-Taiwan politics junkie, they'll throw so many book recommendations at you that you won't know where to begin. They'll tear each other's arguments apart, and then rebuild them to be better. They'll swipe at, say, the Hoklo chauvinism or the bad history of a purely Marxist perspective, of previous generations of activists and create something better. All the while, they'll want you to read, read, read. Read things that contradict other things! Talk about the contradictions! Discuss! Read! Learn more! 

Even if I weren't already strongly pro-Taiwan, it seems clear to me that the side that is excited for you to learn more is probably the right one.

With that in mind, it's occurred to me that people who want to learn more may not know where to start. I also have this list in a public Facebook album, and you are cordially invited to join Books About Taiwan: Discussion and Nerdiness.

I aimed for a wide variety of reading material: three memoirs, three works of fiction, three era- or social-issue specific histories and one general history - the one I recommend out of all of the "histories of Taiwan" out there.

If you want to know more about Taiwan but don't know where to start...well, here is where you start:


1.) Green Island 
Shawna Yang Ryan

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Why I love this book: it’s a highly engaging novel that takes the reader through Taiwanese history, starting on 228 (if you don’t know what “228” is, all the more reason to read it) and ending at the SARS outbreak of 2003. The family is fictional but they could easily be an everyday Taiwanese family - and it’s unpretentiously written. It’s highly realistic and was written from a place of deep knowledge, quoting Chinese poetry and taking a cue from Midnight's Children when it comes to the birth of the unnamed protagonist. And, because Taiwanese history can be so heartbreaking, it made me cry a few times.

Why you should read this book: Taiwanese history is complex and often sad, and non-fiction books usually fail to capture the ‘feel’ of it. This is a novel, so there’s a plot that keeps it moving. If you ever wondered what ‘Taiwan’ is really like, as a mood, a palette, an atmosphere - this is the book for you. While the characters are fictional, the historical events they experienced are not, and the experiences they have are quite typical. 21st century Taiwan differs somewhat from the mid-century depictions in this novel - in part because Taiwan is more developed now than it was then - but honestly, the ‘atmosphere’ is still here.
Doris T. Chang 

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Why I love this book: despite weird references to the ‘mainland’ (Taiwan has no mainland) and other quirks of language, this book really clarified for me how Western-style feminism is related to, but not the same as, feminist movements as manifested in different parts of Asia. Unlike many authors, Chang keeps her narrative in Taiwan for the entire 20th century, and discusses women’s movements in Japanese colonial Taiwan (some would start such a narrative in China, and talk only about the Republic of China, which is problematic in light of established Taiwanese identity).

Why you should read this book: this book clarifies that feminism isn’t some new imported idea in Asia or Taiwan. It’s been around  for awhile and been developed by local activists. Taiwanese culture has undergone several phases of women's movements and survived - patriarchy and sexism aren't facets of a culture, they are an external framework of injustice imposed upon cultures. Women’s equality is a human issue, not a Western one.

Also, while academic, it's a slim volume and highly readable. 


3.) Notes of a Crocodile 
Qiu Miaojin

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Why I love this book: the atmosphere of student life in 1990s Taipei, the crocodile allegories (which I liked more than the main story) illustrating what life was like for gay people being both objects of fear and obsessive curiosity if not imitation, the refusing to stereotype any LGBT characters, the description of love as the act of ultimate vulnerability. College kids of different orientations figuring out who they are and what that means against the backdrop of a country figuring out who it is and what it wants. This book explores identity, otherness and finding your way in your early adulthood, as well as the excruciating vulnerability of love, and how some people simply cannot open themselves up for that long.

I didn’t always understand the main character’s motivations, so I never properly reviewed this book as I felt unqualified to do so.

Why you should read this book: for all those reasons. Also, it’s short but impactful. As a straight white foreign resident in Taiwan, it was an appreciated window into the voice (and presumably fictionalized inner life) of a gay Taiwanese woman. I might not know how to review this book properly, but I am grateful for the opportunity to have read it. 


4.) Taiwan's Imagined Geography: Chinese Colonial Travel Writing and Pictures, 1683 to 1895 
Emma Jinhua Teng

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Why I love this book: it’s an engaging non-fiction read from a unique angle: not a straight history of Taiwan but looking at it as seen though the eyes of Chinese colonial writing about it. That word ‘colonial’ is key: the way Taiwan was depicted by these writers - “a ball of mud beyond civilization”, an “island of women”, a frontier barrier wilderness kept more for defense of ‘China’ than any real interest in Taiwan as a place - show how not Chinese Taiwan really was, even when it ‘belonged’ to China.

It brings to mind Chinese attitudes to Taiwan now - and I believe Teng wants us to make that connection.

Why you should read this book: non-fiction this engaging is rare. Also, it offers, through the eyes of Taiwan's Chinese colonizers, a conceptual basis for why a Taiwan is the way it is today. Chinese colonial attitudes have not gone away.




5.) My Fight for a New Taiwan: One Woman's Journey from Prison to Power
Lu Hsiu-lien (Annette) and Ashley Esarey

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This choice narrowly beat out the classic Formosa Betrayed. So why this autobiography of a polarizing political figure rather than a recounting of the 228 Incident so well-known it was made into a movie? Not only because, like her or not, Lu is a Taiwanese voice, but also because 228 is pretty well-covered in other books on this list, and women's experiences tend to get the short shrift overall. Also, George Kerr described what he saw, but Annette Lu changed Taiwan.

Annette Hsiu-lien Lu is a controversial figure in Taiwan politics, and I can't say she is someone who is suited to a leadership role in 21st century Taiwan (among other things, she has outdated views on LGBT issues and marriage, and...well...it would take a long time to explain why she's seen as such a headache. That view of her is not entirely undeserved.)

However, she deserves credit for being a leader of Taiwan's nascent non-party-affiliated feminist movement in the 1970s. Gender equality in Taiwan would not be where it is today without her work then, and she deserves credit for that. She also paved the way for women in political leadership by serving as Chen Shui-bian's vice president. She is one of the few feminist activists in Taiwan to 'take sides' politically and stand against the KMT.

Her autobiography is engagingly written and compulsively readable. Just keep in mind that as an autobiography, it is also something of a hagiography, and does not depict the 21st century complexity of Lu as a person or politician. It is fascinating, however, when she talks about her formative years and her awakening interest in feminism and activism.

You may not like her (I don’t, really) but Taiwan would not be what it is without her.




6.) A New Illustrated History of Taiwan
Wan-yao Chou

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To be honest, in order to choose the best general history of Taiwan, I skimmed all the ones we own. The most concise may be Forbidden Nation, but it focuses too much pn foreign notables in Taiwan and not enough on local efforts. Taiwan: A New History is a bit dry.

Other books - by Taiwanese and more focused on Taiwanese people (such as Taiwan: A History of Agonies and Taiwan's 400 Year History) were written as much as political manifestos as actual histories. They either neglect Indigenous history, are openly offensive towards it, or portray Indigenous-Hoklo relations through a distorted ideological lens that simply isn’t accurate.

Chou is the only writer who centers the Taiwanese in their own history and is most inclusive of Indigenous history.

If you are going to read a general history of Taiwan, I think this is the best choice.
Janet B. Montgomery McGovern

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I can't do this book justice in a short blurb - instead, go read my original review, linked above. Progressive for her time, McGovern was one of the few Westerners invited to live in Taiwan during the early/mid-Japanese colonial era, as a teacher. A trained anthropologist, she spent her free time becoming familiar with - and forming connections with - Indigenous groups that Hoklo and Japanese alike thought were ‘dangerous’ or ‘savage’ (though when one treats Indigenous people as badly as those two groups did, what could one expect?). Despite the name of the book, she describes the people she met with more respect and equanimity than almost anyone of her era.

Plus, she was funny, and a good writer, and an intrepid feminist.


Ed Lin

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I wanted to include at least one fiction novel set in more or less contemporary times (the other two fiction choices were either written in the 1990s, or are mostly about the 20th century) which is a light, easy, fun read that still captures the vibe of Taiwan. 

Ghost Month is that book - there are other great novels out there in English (like Bu San Bu Si, which was also a strong contender as it's quite possibly the best fiction novel about Taiwan written by a non-Taiwanese, but calling that book "a downer" is a massive understatement), but sometimes it’s fun to read an action/mystery in a Taiwanese setting and call it a day. Highly engaging and not as dark or overly metaphorical as a lot of Taiwanese fiction, I think it’s highly accessible to Western audiences, too.

Do you want to know what life in the city I call home is basically like, in the 21st century? It's...kind of like this, with less murder.


Hsiao-ting Lin

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Another historical look at a specific time period, Accidental State looks at the dynamics of the US, China and Taiwan to unravel the threads of why Taiwan has the status it does vis-a-vis nationhood, pointing out that nobody wanted or intended for things to turn out this way, and that Taiwan-as-ROC (or any form of ‘China’) was not a foregone conclusion at the time. It is a lie to say that Taiwanese identity and the independence movement was born in the 1970s - it wasn't. There were home rule movements far, far earlier than that. It is also a lie to say that there was no chance, historically speaking, of a post-war independent Taiwan. It was one of the options on the table, at least briefly.

This is the one to read if you know deep down the KMT is full of trash but aren’t sure of the historical specifics of why, or if you’re confused about the tumultuous decades around WWII. Or if you’re a good-hearted person who is wrong in thinking Taiwan’s destiny must be Chinese, but are willing to read and revisit those beliefs. Or, if you're curious where this whole "Taiwan is eternally Chinese" idea came from (mostly Chiang himself, who managed to convince the Allies that accepting this was in their strategic interest). 

Most of the arguments I’ve had with numpties online could have been avoided if they’d read this book.

It’s not the only source on the era but it is the clearest.



10.) Stories of the Sahara
Sanmao 

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I’ve just started reading this, so don't expect a long review (yet). That said, I feel comfortable recommending it - Sanmao (三毛) is one of the great writers of the 20th century, inspiring a generation of adventurous women in Taiwan and China. But until recently was ignored by English-language publishers. This new translation of her most famous masterwork is compulsively readable. 

*

Now I want to hear from you - what would you add to this list if you could? Was I unfair in choosing Annette Lu over George Kerr? What niche era of history or social change have I overlooked? Which novel did I snub? You tell me!
 

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Comedy wins over nationalist cringe on Youtube, showing humor is more powerful than bad music

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Hah

I'm working through the busiest part of my dissertation right now (which means, again, don't expect much from me through the summer).

But, with what little free time I have, I wanted to showcase just one small example of political discourse that shows, at least unofficially, that Taiwan is winning the public opinion war and getting better at overall political messaging - both intra- and interculturally.

Fanny Liu (劉樂妍), an entertainer from Taiwan who lives and works in China, put out a - um, how to word this gently - not great music video where she sings through the Chinese provinces and how much she loves them all, while extolling the virtues of being in China. These include all sorts of lifestyle perks such as "home delivery", "mobile payment", "bike share", "high speed rail" and "convenience".

Leaving aside the fact that all of these are also available in Taiwan and generally at far higher quality, they don't include things like, say, freedom of speech, human rights, freedom of religion or marriage equality.


Fanny Liu herself is something of a controversial figure. Born in Taiwan to a family from China, she often publishes her views about Taiwan and China on social media - those views generally being pro-China, she's been labeled the "female Huang An" (Huang An is another Taiwanese entertainer who lives in China and espouses pro-unification views. For this reason, he's reasonably well-known in China but much reviled in Taiwan). These views seem to have undergone a rapid radicalization from "why should I have to choose [between being Taiwanese and Chinese]?" (okay), to "the CCP is too democratic, I would shoot Lee Ming-che" (what?) to this video, where she beats up a guy in a green superhero outfit, supposedly because China is so much better than Taiwan, what with all that home delivery and mobile payment, punches him repeatedly in the crotch, takes his little Taiwan sticker and adds it to the rest of China.

So, you know, really classy high-minded art.



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barf

Very soon after, comedian Brian Tseng premiered a parody video in which he, in drag, along with fellow comedians, extol the virtues of all the great places you can live in Taiwan (except Miaoli). Here's the link again.

These virtues include TSMC (which has just announced that it will build its next fab in the US, despite Chinese attempts to dangle economic incentives in front of Taiwanese companies), having doors on our toilets (most bathrooms in Chinese cities do now, but it's not a given), tea eggs (which I am pretty sure is a pun on balls but I'm not sure) and - my personal favorite - better taste in music (than Fanny Liu's nationalist schlock).

There are other shots at the CCP, including references to the Tiananmen Square Massacre (六月四號), lack of freedom of religion (with a reference to Falun Gong) and Taiwan being great for "having very few Communist bootlicker artists" (少數舔共藝人).

My least favorite parts are his reference to the Senkaku islands and a lyric that translates more or less to "everything in your borders is actually legally ours". But, considering that the intent is maximum trolling of China and of Liu, it's best to let this go.

He also re-names some cities in China, such as "Chinese Beijing 中華北京" and "Chinese Shanghai 中華上海", ("we'll help you rectify the names", he sings) in the same way that China forces Taiwan to compete in sporting events as "Chinese Taipei".

The best part? Now if you search for Fanny Liu in Chinese, the top results are heavily inclusive of...Brian.

There's a Rick Santorum joke in there that I will not make. But just know that I thought it.


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Brian's video is genuinely funny, something you can't say for Fanny's ultranationalist cringe-fest. I showed it to a teenage student who didn't know the context of Brian's video, which has far more views than Fanny's, whose only comment was "...but who did she make this for? Did she think this would make Taiwanese like China?"

Exactly right. The producers had to know it wouldn't be popular in Taiwan, YouTube is banned in China, and frankly I can't see this being popular in China either because it's just not very good. I simply don't know what she was trying to accomplish - show her CCP bosses that she's a loyal lapdog?

So how did people react? Well, the numbers don't lie. When I began writing this morning, Brian's video had half a million views, 46,000 likes and just 814 dislikes. Fanny's had about 100,000 views, with less than 200 likes and 9,100 dislikes. After a nice long nap I've come back to my work, and Brian is at 840,000 or so views, with 74,000 or so likes and 1,300 or so dislikes. Fanny's hasn't even cracked 200,000, with 381 likes and 15,000 dislikes. 


 What does this show us?

Not just that satire is a popular political tool, we know that already. But that, in a battle of highly asymmetric resources, comedy and genuinely amusing sarcasm are some of the greatest weapons Taiwan has - something it's good to be reminded of occasionally.

But also that Taiwanese artists and activists have become quite adept at shifting frames in political discourse. For awhile now, they have been taking the nationalist bromides (even the ones dressed up in cotton-candy pop) of China and turning them around into sardonic comedy. I noticed this back when Freddy Lim was not issued an artist visa for Hong Kong due to a lack of "special skill" and he commented that he should "start practicing his backflips". Taiwanese online are expert memelords - which I mean in the best possible way - from their "First Annual Apologize To China Contest" to blanketing China's "Wan Wan, Come Home" message with all sorts of hilarious retorts. When Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus insisted that "racist" attacks against him had come from Taiwan, they created the hashtag #ThisAttackComeFromTaiwan to showcase what they think is great about their country. They contributed to the Milk Tea Alliance, a site of discourse where comedy has given way to a path to a pan-Asian identity that explicitly excludes CCP influence.

In fact, if you still think Taiwan in general "lacks a sense of humor", perhaps you're the one who isn't getting the joke.

Indeed, the best way to re-frame nationalist discourse isn't to lob more nationalist trash - it seems to me that that was how the previous generation of Taiwanese activists handled Chinese saber-rattling, and it didn't work very well. It didn't appeal to the youth (nationalism of that sort rarely does, it's usually your uncles and aunties shouting it), it wasn't particularly interesting discursively, any moreso than any shouty populism is. It handed the CCP a counter-strike that they should have never been given: the ability to label the emergence of Taiwanese identity as "dangerous ethnonationalism" or "Hoklo chauvinism", both within Taiwan and abroad. These labels stuck because there was a kernel of truth in them.

But who can say that Brian Tseng's video is either of these things? You can call it unserious - but that's the point. You can say it spends too much time trolling everything that sucks about China rather than extolling the virtues of Taiwan (it does, but that's why it's not nationalist - it even shit-talks Miaoli!). But you can't say it's not fun. 


What's key here is that this re-framing of the discourse is working. Brian's video premiered last night, and by this morning my teenage student had seen it, and thought it was great. Intra-culturally, it's a uniting force without the baggage of the previous generation's stodgy old populism, which has proven unpopular with the youth.

It also works interculturally. Yes, Taiwan's discourse with China is intercultural, and no, I shouldn't have to explain why. Every time someone like Brian makes a joke video which becomes far more popular than its source material, it shows China (and any Chinese who happen to be watching online) that their schlock doesn't work here. As China attempts to gain influence in Taiwanese mainstream media, the youth turn to people like Brian Tseng, or EyeCTV, and are not engaged by those boring nationalist oldsters. 


Before I end this, I want to point out two other things in that video: first, that the piss-taking of Miaoli is probably more related to Brian's "thing", as a friend pointed out, of criticizing Miaoli's politics. And to be fair, there's a lot to criticize. But, it serves another purpose too. In a red-ruffled nationalist cringe party like Fanny's video, it's imperative to love every single part of your country and talk about how all of it is great, even including entire provinces full of people who actually hate you. You can never admit that in a lot of places, your toilets don't even have doors, let alone care about your country despite this. Everything must be great. The fact that Brian can piss-take Miaoli in a video about Taiwan shows that defending one's distinct identity doesn't require that fakey-fake love for everything. You can love Taiwan, and still think that Miaoli sucks. Anyway, it's still Taiwan.

(I don't think Miaoli as a place sucks, by the way, though he's right about the politics.)

Secondly, the drag was probably for simple comedic effect, to make fun of the "sexy" (though honestly a bit outdated) outfits in Fanny's video. But it serves another, possibly unintended, implicit purpose: to show Taiwan as a country which is more inclusive and open to different expressions of gender. Drag is fairly normal in Taiwan, to the point that it can go beyond being a necessarily political act, and can be, well, for fun. Fanny Liu's brand, in general, is very female-gendered, heteronormative, somewhat sexualized and...frankly, kind of establishment and boring. Brian skewers this beautifully, and in doing so, skewers establishment beliefs as a whole.

Finally, let's remember that authoritarians have terrible taste in music, something that Brian more or less explicitly called out in his video. So their attempts to win over hearts and minds with pop culture has been a failure and will continue to be so - it is simply never going to work. Good art - be it music, comedy or in any other form - comes from either fighting oppression, or having the freedom to be creative. 


That's why Bauhinia Rhapsody is a fantastic song which is still in my regular playlist, and CCP-backed attempts at pro-police "rap" were roundly mocked. It's why I generally like Taiwanese artists that don't sell out to China - and not only because they did not do so, but because their music is actually better - whereas I find the Taiwanese pop which is popular in China, from artists who are welcome in China, to be...about as memorable and akin to "art" as comparing the candy-colored exuberance of Yayoi Kusama to actual cotton candy. One will endure; the other is cheaply available and withers in a light rain. 


But you know what? We knew that too. It seems like the CCP is incapable of figuring that out, because they're incapable of conceiving of, let alone allowing, the freedom for that sort of discourse to flourish.

Well, them, and maybe also Miaoli. 


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