Monday, September 28, 2020

The CCP is a black hole that makes me question my own values


This is a piece of street art I found - the artist is Mr. Ogay

Last week, I began a blog post about Chinese apps WeChat and TikTok being banned from purchase in app stores in the US, but never finished it. Partly I just couldn’t maintain a focus as it’s not clearly related enough to Taiwan, my core writing topic, and partly I felt like everything I had to say on the issue tapped into a deeper question:

In so many areas where China is concerned, I find myself going against my political instincts and nature to support certain actions and policies that, generally speaking, I would otherwise oppose. Why is that? 

For example, I am generally against banning apps or access to communication platforms. However, in the case of WeChat and TikTok, I’m ambivalent, with a slight lean toward supporting the ban (despite despising Donald Trump’s administration with not just my bones, but my guts, skin, blood and waste matter). 

I’m not moved by arguments that it denies ‘freedom of speech’ to some communities; freedom of speech is not available on WeChat or even TikTok thanks to Chinese censorship. The only difference is that in the US you may become a person of interest with your post deleted. In China, your post being deleted is the best possible outcome; you could have your account suspended or be shoved in a truck and carted off to a gulag. I’m slightly moved by the argument that it cuts off people in China from loved ones abroad, but ultimately that’s China’s problem: they’re the ones that made it impossible to use just about any other platform (that they don’t control). So why are people mad at the US, not China, for a situation China created? It makes about as much sense as admonishing Taiwan for “provoking China” or “raising tensions” when China is the one creating the tensions and choosing to react with anger. 

I’m especially not moved by the argument that corporate surveillance of our data in other countries is just as bad as CCP surveillance on WeChat. Sure, it sucks, but it’s not equivalent. FaceCreamCo may be harvesting my data trying to sell me face cream, and I hate that, but FaceCreamCo isn’t going to cart me off to a literal gulag if I speak out against this. Even politically, whatever the US government may be doing with our data, we are able to write about that, debate it, disagree with it, insult our leaders — and generally speaking, we can expect that we won’t be threatened and we certainly won’t end up in a re-education camp or be dragged out to a field and shot. (There is a social media moderation problem which censors women and people of color but not white men, however.)

That alone shows you the two issues are simply not the same and should not be compared this way. The reason is simple: what else is the US supposed to do? Allow apps that are basically thinly-disguised hostile government surveillance and malware to operate within their borders, potentially harming people in their country, including their citizens? What’s the better option here?

Anyway, this isn’t the first time I’ve gone against the logical conclusions of my own values where China is concerned. For instance, I’m also generally anti-war and anti-military. On principle, for instance, I oppose the US maintaining the largest military force in the world, by several orders of magnitude, and spending so much on it as American citizens suffer due to insufficient social and community services, crumbling or insufficient public infrastructure and an utter joke of a social safety net, despite rather high taxes (I’m fine with higher taxes, but I want the money to be spent thoughtfully and effectively). 

In theory, I’m against the US getting over-involved in just about any conflict abroad, as we always seem to make such a mess of it while proclaiming that we’re promoting American “values” or “exceptionalism” or whatever the term du jour is, despite the fact that the values in question are universal (human rights, including the right to self-determination) and the US is not exceptional in any good way. 

And yet, I am in favor of US military assistance to Taiwan. I know that my own values as well as the brutal history of US involvement in foreign conflicts, plus the sheer horror of our bloated military, should cause me to oppose it, but I don’t. Taiwan needs friends, and can’t exactly choose its backup. If that means hoping a military industrial complex that horrifies me in every other way will have Taiwan’s back in case it needs to fight the PLA...then that’s what it means. 

In general, I’m also anti-violence. I prefer peaceful resolutions, having grown up watching revolution over bloody revolution fail to deliver a better life for the people of any given place. At the same time, I’ve watched countries that have slowly progressed and improved despite having to make some tough compromises that affect the lives of real people make real progress — Taiwan among them. 

However, I’ve come to realize that fists don’t stop tanks, period. We can talk all we want about how Taiwan should be anti-war but still resist China. But that’s not going to work if China is hell-bent on a war. Refusing US assistance is akin to telling China that this is a fight they can win, and it’s foolish to think they won’t try. They won’t particularly care that such moves would create a state of prolonged internal conflict that would make Syria blush — this is a government that is quite comfortable with literal genocide. 

Then there are the economic issues. I’m no communist, and am barely socialist. That is to say, I’m anti-corporate and anti-crony capitalist, and have never been happy working for any sort of large multinational entity, and I support strong social programs and careful regulations as companies can basically never be trusted, but I’m not anti-free market. 

So when the whole US pork controversy hit Taiwan (again, sigh), my instinct was to think “you all are saying this will be good for the Taiwanese economy, but pork prices are already low, good products are available, and it will certainly hurt Taiwanese farmers”. 

But, in a bigger picture sense, I have to admit that what Tsai is doing probably is best for Taiwan. Taiwan Report summarized the issue well: meat imports are not the only thing potentially on the table. (If that’s all it was, I would probably oppose it). It’s that Tsai has it quite right that Taiwan is too economically dependent on China, and a big reason for that is the lack of trade agreements with other countries, a situation that is mostly the fault of CCP bullying on an international scale. Say yes to pork, and that could open the door to more important agreements. Free trade isn’t always good for all involved, but in this particular case it actually is, for Taiwan: it’s an opportunity to bolster economic ties with the US and, through that, signal to other countries that working with Taiwan may be possible even in the face of Chinese fury. 

Taiwan independence advocates (so, almost everybody who cares about Taiwan, and certainly everybody worth listening to) and anti-KMTers have been saying for years that getting too close to China is bad for Taiwan, directly opposing the KMT line that the only way forward is for China and Taiwan to deepen ties. The KMT is wrong, but those who oppose them also tend to oppose every other workable option that would keep Taiwan’s economy robust because they sound scary and not protectionist enough. How do you find alternatives to economic ties with China, if you’re not willing to seriously discuss economic ties with anyone else, in any ways that matter?

I actually do believe in protecting local industry, generally — if that can be shown to be the better path in that particular instance. I don’t want Taiwan to be a hub for major international conglomerates as I’ve seen that create sickening inequality almost everywhere it’s happened, from New York to Silicon Valley to Singapore to Hong Kong. 

And I do think the US starting out with agricultural products (which is bound to create opposition in Taiwan where so much of the history — even recently — is tied to the land) rather than just offering to open up more general trade talks is kind of a dick move. And yet, when it’s all stacked on the scales, I find myself supporting any move that helps wriggle Taiwan out of Chinese co-dependency and towards other international ties. 

These are just three examples: banning apps, military assistance from horrible people, and economic issues. I could add a fourth — opposing talking to right-wing figures in the West even if they support Taiwan —  but I’ve spilled so many words examining that particular issue that I don’t particularly wish to revisit it. Generally speaking, I’ve come over to the side of supporting bipartisan endeavors, not because I think people like Ted Cruz are acceptable (they are not; I’d spit on Cruz if I came face-to-face with him) but because I’ve realized that it’s better if support for Taiwan transcended electoral politics. That goes both ways: hoping the left and center will come around, but also not tying all Western support for Taiwan to their successful elections. 

So, the final question is why. Are my principles just not strong enough? Do I claim to have certain values and then abandon them the second they become inconvenient? Or are my beliefs more tied to ends than means — means matter to an extent, but are some compromises not acceptable if the outcome is preferable? I can’t rule out the former, it would be self-serving to say it shouldn’t be a concern. But overall, hopefully the latter holds more sway: just as a person who believes in peace won’t necessarily say it’s wrong to punch a Nazi, maneuvering Taiwan into a better international position may require me to accept a few choices that I otherwise would not support. 

Anyone who says, for instance, that they support peaceful protest but won’t abandon a cause just because a protest for it grew violent should understand this. I won’t abandon paths that I think are in Taiwan’s best interest just because the means don’t always fall within my most rigid principles, because the key principle I hold dear is that Taiwan deserves recognition and de jure sovereignty. Period. 

And, to bring this all back to China, the enemy also matters (and make no mistake, the CCP is an enemy). When an enemy can be negotiated with, one should negotiate. When non-violence is possible, it should be pursued. We should stand by local business and not be taken in by big money when that can be done without remaining economically tethered to an active, vicious enemy. 

Another way to put this is fundamental values vs. beliefs. I believe in peace, diplomacy, finding solutions, civil disobedience while avoiding violence. Self-determination and human rights as universal (not just Western) concepts, however, are core values. It's best for the means to align with my beliefs (diplomacy, non-violence), but at the end of the day, when a choice must be made, I'll stick with my core values. Taiwan won't get to choose if China starts a war, and if it does, it's more important to me to defend sovereignty and human rights in Taiwan than to refuse to fight because war is bad. Forming opinions about CCP hasn't corrupted that process, it's clarified it. 

But the CCP is so truly awful, so unacceptable, so threatening and so utterly disgusting that the full horror of their actions, from the missiles pointed at Taipei to the cultural and literal genocides in Tibet and Xinjiang, creates a black hole of evil that warps everything around it. It can’t be negotiated with, it does not respect non-violence, and it absolutely will try to use economic blackmail to force Taiwan’s hand. It will exploit party politics and foreign culture wars for its own benefit. That is the stuff the CCP is made of. There is no good in it. 

Even today, your average peace-loving or anti-war person will admit that it was necessary to, say, fight the Nazis. That appeasement was wrong and brought us nothing good. This is how I feel about China. And that’s what the CCP are — Nazis. You can’t negotiate with Nazis, you can only fight them. Frankly, you might not get a choice. 

Appeasement didn’t work then, it won’t work now, and that means that I have to adjust the principles I hold when it comes to everything else, because to Taiwan, it’s a threat unlike anything else. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Reflection Eternal


I mentioned in my last post that there would be more ‘headspace’ and casual blogging on here, at least until I get my bearings. And I mean that — it’s been a couple weeks but I still feel like I’ve just stepped off a Gravitron or a Tilt-a-Whirl, and all I can do is roll with that. I’ve done a lot of sleeping, and teacher training has picked up (ask me someday about my Kaohsiung Hell Week conducting EMI/EML training for university professors just before the dissertation was due; I used my incidentals’ allowance to buy a bottle of whiskey that I drained over several evenings of editing after full days of training. At least the hotel was pretty nice). I still haven’t gotten back into my normal rhythms; the research tabs I closed when I hit ‘submit’ have not been supplanted by the news tabs I used to open every day. Mostly, I rest. 

In the meantime, I just turned 40, and we celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary. For Lao Ren Cha, this means I’ve been blogging for the full measure of my 30s. I do expect that will stretch to my 40s, but what that will look like remains to be seen. Generally I don’t put much stock in life changing much just because one celebrates a milestone birthday, but I have to admit that for me, it seems to have been the case every time. I turned 20 in India, on a semester abroad that changed the trajectory of my life. I celebrated 30 in Costa Rica, on our honeymoon. We were just passing through; in fact we did a one-month bus trip from Panama to Guatemala, and it’s a testament to how long this blog has been running that I wrote about it! I celebrated 40 right here in Taiwan, 10 years married, dissertation just submitted, living a good life with far more stability than I’d ever imagined possible. The road ahead once again looks different on the other side of that Big 0 birthday.

That brings me to the real point: what’s been going on in my headspace. A few years ago I toyed with the idea of taking my writing in a more serious direction. I even wrote about it, though I can’t find that post now. It seemed like a good idea at the time, though being in grad school, I didn’t have much time to actually pursue that, though I did take steps to raise the overall level of discourse here, though I made a few exceptions when I was especially infuriated. 

Now, I honestly must say I’m happy I never went in that direction. That work matters, but there are plenty of people already doing that, many of them are quite good. There’s not much more I can add as yet another voice. Even when it comes to blogging, I do it because I enjoy it, but I don’t pretend it has a major impact beyond the relatively small bubble of people who already care about Taiwan. That’s not to say I think I’ve had no impact; perhaps there's been a small amount.

That said, over the past few years, I’ve watched Taiwan smash more soft power wins in everything from health care to music. Attention to Taiwan’s situation has even been raised in birdwatching communities. These successes in telling Taiwan’s story to the world came from people working in their respective fields who also happen to care about Taiwan. 

And what do I do as a profession, not a hobby? Teacher training. Over the past few years, I’ve come to realize that I’ve had more impact helping my students to tell their own stories - and the story of Taiwan - and in raising the skill level of Taiwanese teachers of English so that they can do the same, if they wish than I could ever have through writing alone. In short, in most places where I feel I’ve made a positive contribution, it’s been behind the scenes, helping to elevate Taiwanese voices. While I have no issue using my own to speak out as well, I’ve come to realize that it’s not where my most meaningful work lies. 

Nothing clarified this more than writing my dissertation. I interviewed six teacher trainers, a mix of Taiwanese or foreign, and the foreign ones mostly develop local teachers. I focused specifically on intercultural communication, looking at the extent and methods that these teacher educators reported using if/when they incorporated intercultural communicative competence (ICC) in their teacher development work. Within that, I took a critical look at what ICC means, or might mean, for Taiwan in terms of Taiwan’s political situation as well as critical cultural issues and awareness. In short, what is Taiwan’s story and how do teacher educators here contribute to helping people to tell it to the world? 

Through this, I came to appreciate the extent to which both Taiwanese and long-term resident foreign teacher educators truly care about Taiwan, and contribute in their own ways to advocating for this country. Most of them had something to say about Taiwan, what it stands for, and what it has to contribute — and how the world would be better off knowing more about it. It’s something I have also been involved in, in a professional capacity, and it’s clear that’s where I can have the biggest impact in the years ahead. 

I will still blog, of course. I’ll still cover Taiwanese politics and issues from my perspective. I enjoy it, and it will continue to be a hobby -- I'm writing something about the US WeChat ban now, though it's neither as fun nor as true to what's actually in my head as this post. Perhaps I will have a few more moments of making small differences through it. Who knows? Writing is important too, but I’ve come to realize through completing a graduate program that I can contribute more in different ways. 

That’s good though - it means that I can use this space to be more creative rather than just straight politics all the time; in fact, I’ve always thought of myself as more a creative non-fiction writer than any sort of journalist or analyst. And, of course, I hope to elevate more Taiwanese voices. I enjoyed editing the two guest posts I had the opportunity to put up, and would like to do more of that.

So, if the general tenor in this space seems different, there’s a reason for that.

This is also a call to all of you, my readers (yes, all twelve of you). Look at what you already do — your life, your career, your field — and figure out how you can contribute to Taiwan that way. What soft power impact can you have, in your respective fields?

Sunday, September 20, 2020

It's very hard to stand for Taiwan and work for a corporation at the same time


Let me say at the outset of this post that post-dissertation life has been a mishmash. That's where my headspace is at, so until the fog clears, I'll probably be writing more like a casual blogger. Not only did work pick up immediately after I submitted the thesis, but I've come to realize that I need to take at least one year off, and probably more than that, from academic work and not even think about the possibility of a PhD for now, just to keep myself on an even keel. (To be clear, a few people have thought I was doing a PhD but in the UK, a "dissertation" is for a Master's). I realized when I hit that 'submit' button that I've been engaged in some sort of high-level teacher training since 2013, whether for a professional or academic degree, and it's time to stop for a bit and breathe. It's time to think about how I can put all of that challenging, time-consuming and expensive training to good use contributing to Taiwan. 

Anyway, let's talk about corporations, and how much they suck. I won't give too many details now, but I'm currently embroiled in a battle with one of my (former) employers over my political speech, and Lao Ren Cha as a blog is directly related. I'll tell the whole story when it's finally over. For now, the main issue is that I criticized the political position taken by a large corporate entity that I used to have a professional association with, and was essentially fired for it. They had changed their website to say "Taiwan, China" instead of "Taiwan", and I spoke out. I complained in the office -- an act I was willing to agree not to do again -- and here, without revealing exactly what my association with them was. 

Frankly, I only continued to do minimal work for them after this change because I genuinely like my coworkers in the Taiwan office, who are generally (if not unanimously) on my side. I hoped that continuing to shine a light on the issue, along with the Taipei office itself expressing strong disapproval, would eventually cause them to see the lack of logic and moral integrity in their choice to take a political stance, and change it back. That didn't happen - instead, I was told I would have to remove any posts mentioning the organization. I refused, and continue to refuse. The reason is simple: in Taiwan, despite any contracts one may have signed promising not to criticize one's employer, it's actually protected speech to criticize them publicly for political reasons, which I did. The linked article specifically discusses unions -- I'm not a member of a union, but honestly, that protection should cover all professional relationships. 

I don't expect I'll ever work for that corporation again. Despite this, I appealed the decision on ethical principles. I want them, as much as possible, to face the full measure of their actions. I won't quit - they will have to fire me. It's deeply unacceptable to me that an employer might take a political position (especially that Taiwan is a part of China) at the behest of the Chinese government, and then insist its employees are not allowed to publicly disagree with this in any way. If they can take a political position, so can their workers, even if that position directly criticizes the employer. If an employer doesn't like that, the simple solution is not to take a political position at all, especially an ethically bankrupt one like calling Taiwan "China". 

This particular corporate entity, which I will name once my appeal has gone through (and is most likely rejected), doesn't stop at restricting the speech of people who openly admit to having some sort of relationship with them. There's another post out there, by another person, criticizing them for the same reason. That writer never explicitly states that they work with the company, and is written only under their first name, with no photograph. And yet, that person also faced a disciplinary interview and was asked to remove all reference to the company in their post - effectively, their political speech was being censored at the risk of losing their job. The outcome of that is still unclear, but I have a feeling I'll be writing about it in time. 

Despite this, I still believe that when political speech intrinsically includes a criticism of an entity, it is impossible to separate the political belief and its expression from the right to free speech. 

I discussed this issue with a friend who works for a large corporation. She complained that her employer also takes a pro-China stance and does not support the protests or fight for democracy and freedom in Hong Kong, because China is such a big market. Some high-level people have quit over this, but she said there is a feeling that one can't publicly state, under one's own name, that they disagree. It may not even be acceptable to simply state that you support Hong Kong under your own name, without mentioning where you work, if you can be linked publicly with your workplace in other areas. We discussed Cathay Pacific, and how rank-and-file employees can be barred from expressing political opinions in their private life (and how even higher-ups who want to stand by them face scrutiny or may feel they have no choice but to resign). We discussed how the reality is grim: some big boss types might take that bullet, but most won't. China's a big market. They'd rather risk the moral and ethical (and in some places, legal) dubiousness of firing employees rather than stand up to a genocidal government, even as they know it's wrong. 

So how do you hold down a corporate job or even contract, knowing that at any moment your political beliefs could make it impossible for you to continue working there? How do you support yourself? 

I've managed to build a pretty solid freelance career with mostly local employers who would not take action against me for my political beliefs -- pretty much all of them are aware of how I feel, and being local, they generally would not take a pro-China political position as a company. This more corporate contract job was just one of many, and my income from them was not large. I can afford to lose it, which means I can afford to stand by my beliefs and my principles. Not everyone can, though, and I wish I had a better answer for those who can't just refuse or quit. 

It's easy to retreat into leftist platitudes like "dismantle corporations", and on some level I agree with that. They suck, and better ways of organizing workforces, services and production exist, from cooperatives to local enterprises. But, that's work that takes generations and we don't have a few generations' worth of time as China grows more aggressive. I could say "don't take corporate jobs" but that's not realistic for many people who need to feed themselves today (anti-corporate sentiment is great but putting food on the table does matter).

I could say the CCP simply needs to fall - and it does! - but that won't solve the more general problem of employers restricting employees' political speech on other issues.

All I can say is this: firing me won't solve the problem, because the problem is their decision to call Taiwan "China". The issue won't go away unless they change their political position rather than fire people who speak out against it. 

And also this: my contract stated that I was obligated to "maintain the integrity" of that organization. But if the organization is displaying a lack of integrity, what exactly are they demanding I maintain?

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Anatomy of a Good Taiwan Article

This isn't new, but you've surely noticed that I've been busy. I don't need to comment on the main points of the article - I have no complaints and it's not current enough. That said, it seems like every time a terrible (or even "okay") piece on Taiwan comes out, it's easy to jump on it and say why it's terrible. 

I thought, why not flip the script and use this very good New York Times article by Edward Wong and break down why it's well-done, as a sort of how-to for people who perhaps don't 'get' Taiwan, but want to. It's not perfect, but the sub-optimal parts can be discussed reasonably. 

Let's start with the title: 

So many great things here: 

1.) The main headline is entirely about Taiwan and the US, prioritizing that relationship over any sort of clown-dancing China is doing on the side

2.) It's positive: there's no fearmongering. One democratic country with a lot of problems but also a lot of power trying to do something positive for a friendly fellow democracy. 

3.) It uses the correct verb: recognize. Taiwan is already sovereign; it is absolutely correct to write about whether other countries recognize that fact or not. The fact itself should not be in question. 

4.) It doesn't mention China in the main headline, and where it does do so, it correctly uses the 'authoritarian' epithet. This is accurate.

5.) There is no language that obfuscates China's choices: no tensions mysteriously raise themselves, China is not passively "angered" by any "moves"

Write more headlines like this when talking about the sovereign democratic nation of Taiwan, please. Write about Taiwan's other key relationships without headlining China or making China look like the victim of others' actions. It's not "a move likely to anger China", China is choosing to be angered by the completely reasonable actions of independent nations. 

Then there's the draw: 

WASHINGTON — A visit to Taiwan by an American cabinet secretary. A sale of advanced torpedoes. Talk of starting negotiations over a potential trade agreement.

All of these are positive things (some may not be a fan of the torpedoes but I implore you to consider the enemy we're fighting - fists alone won't stop them). All of them interesting to readers. There's no need to invoke China in the first sentence to get people to read about Taiwan. 

The Trump administration has taken action in recent weeks to strengthen United States relations with the democratic island of Taiwan and bolster its international standing. The efforts are aimed at highlighting a thriving democracy in Asia and countering China’s attempts to weaken the global diplomatic status of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its territory.

China does make it into the second paragraph, but is properly contextualized: the attempts to harm Taiwan are things China does, they are not actions by Taiwan or the US which cause China to be upset. China's "attempts to weaken the global diplomatic status of Taiwan" (a completely accurate assessment of their actions) compared in the same paragraph agains "highlighting a thriving democracy". This is wonderful - it does away with the charade of 'neutral' reporting in which there are no bad guys, even when there certainly are ("In A Move Likely To Anger The Wolf, Red Riding Hood Arrives At Grandmother's House") and goes with accurate reporting, which at its best is a clear-eyed depiction of a world that certainly has gray areas, but also mostly-bad guys and mostly-good guys, too. 

Wong then points out that Beijing claims Taiwan, which is true. It does away with all the old bombast of "renegade province" which is "to be reunited with the Mainland by force if necessary", wording which is fearmongering -- by force!!! -- and inaccurate (if you call Taiwan a "renegade province" often enough, even if you leave it open to questioning, people will start to think it is in fact a renegade province. It is not.) 

In fact, here's another great thing about this article: 

Check out how many times the word "Mainland" is used - zero! It is entirely possible to write an article all about Taiwan without once implying that Taiwan has some sort of Mainland area which is part of its sense of national identity (it does not). 

I'm not a fan of calling Taiwan an "island" rather than a "country" -- the Sri Lanka rule applies here -- but I'm willing to let it go. 

It gets a little problematic after this: 

That feeds into a bigger campaign by national security officials: to set the United States on a long-term course of competition and confrontation with China that any American president, Democratic or Republican, will find difficult to veer away from in the future.

“Taiwan is the most important thing from a military and credibility point of view,” said Elbridge A. Colby, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development. Mr. Colby wrote the Trump administration’s national defense strategy, which emphasizes competition with China and Russia.

You're not going to win over many New York liberals with this, New York Times. It's fine to talk about Trump's approach, though it's quite hard to say that Trump wants only to confront China (the next paragraph talks about how pro-China so much of Trump's narrative is so this feels a bit contradictory) and I don't particularly like the contextualizing of Taiwan as a chess piece dropped into that game of checkers. This piece sings when it talks about Taiwan as itself, and flounders when it tries to turn the whole thing into a "Taiwan as pawn" narrative. Taiwan is so much more than that, and the people in Taiwan certainly have a lot to say about the two big powers duking it out while they sit in the middle just trying to live peacefully with missiles pointed at them. 

It's so off-kilter with the rest of the piece that I wonder if some zealous BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MOVES LIKELY TO ANGER CHINA AMID RISING TENSIONS editor hurked it in there without Wong's consent. 

This paragraph splits the difference uncomfortably: 

Taiwan has been a fraught issue between Washington and Beijing for seven decades, and it is re-emerging as a potential focal point of tensions, as United States national security officials press their campaign against China. The officials also see bolstering Taiwan in a more urgent light given the crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong by Xi Jinping, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party.

There are those mysterious tensions again! Where do they come from? (They come from China. China creates the tensions.) Taiwan again is treated like a barren rock devoid of people with ideas, opinions and desires of their own, being fought over by two foreign bloviators. But it does get better: highlighting Taiwan does indeed help to remind people of what the CCP is doing in China, most visibly in Hong Kong but elsewhere (East Turkestan, Tibet, Inner Mongolia) as well.

It also leaves the reader unclear as to whether Taiwan is a pawn to the US, or a friend. Perhaps by noting this, you can see how unhelpful such "two big guys fighting over a rock in the sea" rhetoric is. It's just not appropriate to the actual situation, and it stands out here among so much other excellent prose. 

I do particularly like this bit: 

President Trump himself admires Mr. Xi and is “particularly dyspeptic about Taiwan,” once comparing it to the tip of a Sharpie marker and China to the Resolute desk, John R. Bolton, the former national security adviser, wrote in his new book. And the president is willing to sacrifice U.S. support for the democratic government for trade relations with China, he added. But campaign strategists have told Mr. Trump that he needs to appear tough on China for re-election purposes, giving pro-Taiwan U.S. officials an opening.

It doesn't make the Taiwan squad look bad -- everyone with an agenda does this, it's normal. What it does, however, is swiftly pop the balloon of inflated ideas that people have about Trump as a friend to Taiwan. He is not. Stop thinking of him as one; he is not our way out of this. He never could be. And he's not nearly as anti-China as some people think. 

President Richard M. Nixon began a process of diplomatic opening in 1971 with Communist-ruled China to get Mao Zedong’s help in countering the Soviet Union. The United States established diplomatic ties with China in 1979 and broke off formal relations with Taiwan, which had been a sanctuary for the Kuomintang, or Nationalists, since their loss in the Chinese civil war 30 years earlier. Every U.S. administration has tried to maintain an ambiguous position on Taiwan based on the “One China” policy.

I don't love this paragraph because it glosses over how brutal and basically just murderous the KMT was during those years. Plus, it says the US broke off ties with "Taiwan". No. It broke off ties with "The Republic of China", represented by the KMT, not Taiwan (Taiwan was not a democracy then so the people didn't get a say in how the KMT portrayed them abroad). There would never have been any need to break off ties with "Taiwan" because "Taiwan" does not claim "China". The Republic of China does, but that framework sucks, yet we can only really get rid of it when China backs down. The US could help with that by...perhaps recognizing or strengthening ties with Taiwan, which it has never done. 

The ambiguity has helped maintain stability across the Taiwan Strait, one of the most militarized areas in the world. But as China has grown stronger and more assertive, and as Mr. Trump has begun dismantling international commitments under his “America First” foreign policy, some U.S. officials and Washington policy experts say the United States’s traditional approach to Taiwan helps hard-liners in Beijing and increases China’s threat to the island’s 24 million people.

This is fine -- I don't love strategic ambiguity, but I accept that this is how it works right now. What is great about this paragraph is that it again points out the many ways in which Trumpism fails Taiwan. Trump is not good for Taiwan, the people working to bolster Taiwan are doing the work. It helps dismantle the narrative that the only good vote for Taiwan is a vote for Trump, when that is clearly not true. Trump's America is incapable of governing itself, let alone assisting Taiwan. We can't have that. The Democrats may have been cooler on Taiwan all these years, but to start to change that you need a firmer foundation of governance in the US, and Trump can never provide that. Otherwise you are literally building a castle on a sand dune. 

Also, while this is the first mention that Taiwan has people on it -- real people with real thoughts about their own country that the world should listen to -- and it comes rather late in the piece for my liking, it is there. That's more than you can say for most articles. 

Those officials, as well as Republican and Democratic lawmakers, aim to do as much as possible to show explicit U.S. support for Taiwan.

I won't paste the whole paragraph because at some point the New York Times might get salty that I'm basically just commenting word-for-word on their content. I figure I have to leave some out in good faith. But this sentence is fantastic: it highlights that Taiwan is a bipartisan issue, and there are Democrats who support it that we can reach out to. 

For those shrieking that Taiwan should never deign to talk to the right, I'm sorry, but no. 'Bipartisan' is not a dirty word in this context. Think about it: do you really want US support for Taiwan to swing like a pendulum every time a new party gets in power? For all that pro-Taiwan legislation that has passed unanimously to suddenly be a point of contention, with fights to get it through? We know what that's like when Republicans support Taiwan but not Democrats, and it would be utter stupidity to insist that only Democrats are acceptable, not Republicans (not even absolutely shitty Republicans whose domestic policies are horrifying, which pretty much all of them are). For those who think neither is acceptable and only "the left" will, okay, I like the left too (mostly - not all of 'em). But the left doesn't have nearly as much popular support as you think and at some point Taiwan is going to need real assistance. Call me when "the left" is capable of providing essential military aid to Taiwan in the event of an invasion. Until then, bye

There are a few paragraphs after this about things the US has done for Taiwan recently or the ways it's stood up to China, which are all good reading. It points out that some of these efforts have failed, which again shows you that as much as you may want a pro-Taiwan savior, Trump is not your guy. 

A core element of U.S.-Taiwan ties is the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which obligates Washington to provide weapons of a “defensive character” to Taiwan.... 
But some administration officials argue the arms sales, and increased transit by U.S. warships through the Taiwan Strait, fall short of what Washington needs to do. They say Washington must make clear to Beijing and Taipei that it would defend Taiwan if the People’s Liberation Army tried an invasion or a blockade. The Taiwan Relations Act does not address that, and past administrations have left the matter vague.

These snippets are solid -- I would have liked a clarification of what the US's One China Policy actually is in there (it doesn't mean the US believes that Taiwan is certainly part of China, it means the US acknowledges the various claims of the two sides and that the matter should be solved peacefully - that's it). But this does good work: it reminds people that the US's stance has never been close to "Taiwan is a part of China".

No matter the policy options, the United States should “make clear its support for Taiwan,” said Shelley Rigger, a political scientist at Davidson College.

But she cautioned that U.S. officials should formulate Taiwan policy based on strengthening the island rather than striking at China.

“It doesn’t seem to get said enough: There’s a certain sense of conflation or confusion of what it means to be helpful to or supportive of or affirming Taiwan versus taking a position that is more challenging to the P.R.C.,” she said, referring to the People’s Republic of China. “How willing are U.S. officials to pull Taiwan into that deteriorating picture, and how willing are they to be attentive to voices that say, ‘Be careful’? Beijing won’t punish Washington, but it can punish Taipei.”

Many articles like this quote some pro-China think-tank dip (like Evan Medeiros) or some CCP-affiliated "expert" in Beijing. I don't always agree with Shelley Rigger -- I am explicitly pro-independence and pro-US support, and take a fundamentally anti-ROC editorial line, and think most US support for Taiwan is valid and affirmative rather than just anti-China challenges. Also, I do think we should be challenging China, what with them being actual literal 21st century fascists, including all the genocide. But maybe an article about Taiwan is not the place for that. 

However, she is a fundamentally pro-Taiwan voice, which is better than quoting some tankie they could have dredged up from the sewer. And she's not wrong here, or at least not entirely. Some actions do indeed challenge China and use Taiwan as a pawn without actually helping them. Voices from Taiwan itself should certainly be listened to. Beijing can more easily punish Taipei than Washington. 

But - as China is determined to see every action that supports or affirms Taiwan as "challenging to China", making it literally impossible to take a pro-Taiwan position that does not "challenge China". That really needs to be said - there's no way forward to support Taiwan that magically won't piss off a country that's decided it will be pissed off by absolutely everything that doesn't go its way. But, it is good to differentiate between challenges to China which China gets angry about, and support for Taiwan...which China gets angry about. 

More good stuff here: 

Some analysts have criticized Mr. Trump for his apparent lack of knowledge of the nuances in the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. In December 2016, before taking office, he and Ms. Tsai talked by telephone — the first time an American president or president-elect had spoken to a Taiwanese leader since 1979. Though pro-Taiwan policy experts in Washington welcomed it as an overdue move, the action created tensions with Beijing that Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, scrambled to defuse. It was clear Mr. Trump had no idea of the import of the call.

I truly cannot stress enough that Donald Trump Is Not Your Friend. He's not a strategic genius who will come bounding in with a sword to defend Taiwan, which he solemnly supports. He gives exactly zero shits about Taiwan, he's not smart enough to be much help, and...he just ain't it. I will say this as many times as Edward Wong's prose allows me to, because he deconstructs the Trump-for-Taiwan mythos so damn well. 

Also great: 

The administration took a restrained approach with Mr. Azar’s visit. Mr. Azar stuck to a carefully calibrated message throughout his three-day trip, referring to Taiwan as a “jurisdiction” and limiting his criticism of the Chinese Communist Party mainly to health-related issues.

U.S. officials said the visit was aimed at highlighting Taiwan’s success in containing the coronavirus outbreak.

China expressed its displeasure by sending two fighter jets across the median line of the Taiwan Strait. On Thursday, China’s military said it had conducted several live combat drills near Taiwan “to safeguard national sovereignty” and implied the exercises were connected to Mr. Azar’s visit.

This sets up Azar's visit for what it was: a totally normal thing for two normal countries to do, that absolutely no reasonable person has any right to be mad about, and China choosing to get mad about it and actively creating tensions over it. 

Ah, so now we know where the tensions come from. 

Let us also now take a moment to close our eyes, breathe in the humid Taipei air - aaaahhh - and note that the phrase "split in 1949" did not appear once in this article. Apparently, you can write an article about Taiwan without it. Wow!

All you have to do is just...not write that. Put your fingers on the keyboard and type literally anything but that, because the ROC and PRC may have split in 1949, but the PRC has never ruled Taiwan, so Taiwan could never have "split" from the China that exists today. (And that's not even getting into how such language obfuscates Taiwan's Japanese colonial past, which didn't officially end until 1952, and which never ended with Japan ceding Taiwan to the ROC. You may have thought that had happened, but I tell you, legit, it did not.)

Who'd have thought it would be so easy?

But something is missing - an actual Taiwanese voice. Most articles like this ignore such voices completely. It's all about what China or the US wants, and nobody who is actually from Taiwan seems to get asked for their thoughts. Fortunately, Wong closes with a powerful one: 

Wang Ting-yu, a legislator from Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party who is on the foreign affairs and national defense committee, said in an interview that Mr. Azar’s trip was “a break for the Taiwan people.” 
He batted away concerns about Taiwan inadvertently getting caught in the crossfire of U.S.-China relations, emphasizing that the island had its own diplomatic and defense strategies. 
“If they want to give us a hand, then we appreciate it,” Mr. Wang said. “But Taiwan won’t be any country’s bargaining chip.”

I wish a Taiwanese voice had been quoted sooner, but it's also a strong choice to end with this, and sums up Taiwan's complicated views on the matter well. Taiwan needs support, Taiwan needs to be heard. Taiwan is capable of governing itself -- and does so fairly well, actually -- and defending itself. Taiwan needs back-up, not a savior. 

Sunday, September 6, 2020

The Basin and the Hill


Flights here arrive at ridiculous hours. We buzzed into town 3am as the hotel driver played a trumpety old song aptly named Yerevan, so we'd know where we were, I guess. It featured the the kind of vocals you'd belt out from a mountaintop. We rounded the main sights at the base of the town - Ararat, which is a brandy distillery, and Noy, which is also a brandy distillery. Then we started to climb.

All of Yerevan is built on a hill. There's a north, south, east and west, but also a top and a bottom. At the top, you'll find the Cascade, a massive limestone staircase and gallery space which echoes Art Deco but is actually Soviet '70s. Above that, where central Yerevan ends, the sword-wielding Mother Armenia. At the bottom is the Ararat distillery, and beyond that, across the border in Turkey, is the actual Mount Ararat. A mountain sacred to Armenians, sitting just opposite a man-made line that is completely open, yet impossible to cross.


In other words, from the top of Yerevan, you can see clear across to another country. 

It was 2017, and I was just about to start graduate school at the University of Exeter. We arrived a month early in this far eastern corner of Europe, because I had always been curious about the country that lays claim to the culture I grew up around.

Although my ancestors were Anatolian Armenians from another mountain down on the Syrian border, and passed on cultural touchstones more reminiscent of the Mediterranean than the Caucasus, my cultural memory threads not only through Antioch, but also Yerevan. They were both places my mother had wanted to visit; she never made it to either. My grandfather's siblings had visited Armenia, but nobody from my mother's generation had. As of now, I'm the only one from mine to have made the trip.

Three years before, I had visited the US to attend the 'leaving ceremony' from the proton therapy center that had obliterated the tumor in my mother's lung. I remember her recovered laugh, renewed energy, refreshed skin, regrown hair. A few months after that, we enjoyed a laughter-filled phone call on my birthday. 

One month after that, she called again. The disease had been driven out of her endometrium, then her lung. Now, it was in her lymphatic system. And that, she didn't say, would be that. But we knew. We never had a real conversation again; she lacked the energy.

I took a bath that night - filled a basin with scalding water and wallowed in it. I put my hands over my face until my vision went watery, so I wouldn't be able to tell which part of that liquid was coming from within, and which from without. The ceiling, painted white, was bubbling up with corrosions called "wall cancer" in Taiwan; spots of warped paint that needed to be scraped away and re-painted regularly. But they always came back.

I coped well, I thought. I did my job. I worked out when I would fly home before that. I called up a counseling service in Taipei, but they wanted me to choose someone from the list of counselors on their website, and there was no mental energy to spare. I had just enough energy for that, and not a drop more, so I never followed through. Because nobody can put that on a calendar, I ended up flying out well before my planned departure date, three hours after a desperate text from my sister. 

In Yerevan, on the verge of postgraduate study, some of the old shadows blew away. Stiff breezes swept from top to bottom and back again through wide streets, lined with trees and the more attractive type of monumental Soviet stone architecture.  Mom would have been delighted - not only visiting a country she'd always hoped she'd get to see herself, but starting down an academic path that she had always believed I would not just take, but excel in.

She had started a PhD program with high hopes, met and married my father, and found herself unexpectedly pregnant with me soon after. She quit, citing flagging interest in her dissertation topic. I've always wondered how true that was -- it's a lot of work and money to raise a baby, and I was colicky and difficult.

Looking out over that effulgent hilltop view, it was easy to get one's bearings. You can see well beyond a full day's journey. Eternity of a sort can be glimpsed, if you believe that Ararat is the home of the Armenian gods. You're a day's drive away from Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia, all in different directions. Because Yerevan is far from other population centers, one can see deeply into the world, but it's rather hard to get to you. 

From that distance, the snowy peak of Ararat looks like a chunk of rough white quartz fixed in the middle-distant sky, like the kind I used to find in the yard of our Hudson Valley farmhouse as a child. On hazy days it appears to float above the city, and you can inspect is folds and enscarpments.


I wanted to tell her about the language, which was familiar to me even though neither of us had learned to speak it. About the informal singing in an ancient church which made me cry even though I'm an atheist. The beauty of flowerpots and jewelry decorated with pomegranates, the rugs, the gusting mineral-scented winds past Soviet-style stone buildings. The round theater, the Fuck Azerbaijan graffiti, and how there's one metro stop at the bottom - Republic Square, which is also round - and another at the top, near the Cascade. I wanted to tell her not just about Tavern Yerevan with its massive portions of lamb-heavy dishes we could not possibly finish, but also the lahmacun shack near the top, all of which reminded me of Nana. Armenia is a stony land; they say that's what makes the brandy so good, and Yerevan is built almost entirely from that stone.


Mom and I shared the same blue eyes; I wanted to tell her that while I had to explain my Armenian heritage in great detail as I don't look the part, that the person who sold me apricot brandy finally conceded that blue-eyed Armenians were possible.

"Blue eyes on an Armenian? I suppose it is possible."

Instead, I wrote postcards to all my relatives.

The truth is, though, that I didn't choose to live on a hill. I chose a basin. It's printed a Taiwanese English textbook somewhere - even adults can recite it to me as though they've memorized it for a test.

It's laid-back - you can wear sneakers to decent restaurants. But it's also dense, a node in a tightly interconnected web not only within the country, but across the region. Almost every walk is a flat and humid one. Sometimes you feel like you're pushing the hot damp air away as you plod along. Tropical plants grope across damp old bricks, pavement tiles don't always match, and the buildings are an eclectic muddle of styles. It smells like urban and jungle, but not quite urban jungle. I love the place.


When I moved here in 2006, I hadn't expected that my mom would only be alive for eight more years. I visited once a year or so, but the truth is, I spent those eight years a continent away. I ask myself - if I had known that...? 

Of course, being able to move abroad at all is a privilege, but that doesn't negate the cost I hadn't even realized I was incurring.

I did well over the next few years. Work and school kept me busy, and my professors were pleased with my work. By 2019, I was nearing the end of the program; only the dissertation remained. I couldn't work on it. Whatever dark peeling bits were scraped away by the winds and views of Yerevan had peeled afresh. I tried walking and just walked aimlessly. I tried working out and cried on the machine. 

I asked a Taiwanese doctor friend for a recommendation so I wouldn't have to navigate the impossible corridors of help alone. The diagnosis was General Anxiety Disorder (but not depression, to my surprise). I told my doctor I'd had migraines and mild insomnia all my life - which is true - and he intimated that I might have had it all this time, with the dissertation merely exacerbating something I'd handled fairly well before.


Perhaps that's true. Certainly, I have always had the associated insecurities. But I know when the peeling started, and the dark began to creep in. 

Back in late 2014, the hospital called the morning after I arrived in the US. "Come right now," they said. 

When it had become clear earlier that she would not make it, someone asked mom what she really wanted. It was to have her family around her. So when the complications from the cancer - too many to name - finally reached her heart, they gave her a high dose of something that would keep her alive long enough for us to get there, but not much longer than that.

We surrounded her, and told her that we loved her. I know she could hear it, because the very last thing she ever did was raise up her arm and make a gesture asking for a hug. So I leaned in over the tubes and bed rails and machines and simply hugged my mother. 

I closed my eyes; it was black. And that was that.

The next morning I stayed entirely under the covers - head and all - for hours longer than necessary. I dozed but didn't dream. It was December, and cloudy. I didn't open my eyes, so I wouldn't be able to tell how much of the darkness came from without, and how much from within.

In 2019, my paralysis in the face of a dissertation seemed to stem from classic perfectionism. You know - the fear that hard work will still produce an imperfect product. This is of course a lifetime indictment on your whole being, so the best way to avoid it is not to work at all. Makes sense.

But if anything, Lao Ren Cha has proven that I'm quite willing to create and publish imperfect work that might be praised, shared, slammed, or ignored. I'm fine with that. So that's not it.

It's that the only thing I want in the world is for Mom to be here for it. There are a lot of complicated feelings wrapped up in completing a thing the vagaries of life prevented your late mother from accomplishing herself, and that she so badly wanted for you.

I want her to know that while we might never have seen eye-to-eye on religion (she was Christian; I was forced for a time but it never really stuck), I try to keep our Armenian cultural connections strong despite being three generations removed. I don't just cook dolma like Nana and pilaf like Grandma, I actually went to Yerevan. I looked across a ridiculous border and saw Mount Ararat with my own eyes. I bought her favorite brandy (Ararat) at the actual distillery and enjoyed every drop.

If I were Christian, I could end on a maudlin note about how our loved ones look down on us from heaven. But I don't believe that. That's not a border I believe anyone can cross. 


"How can you be so connected to Armenian culture, where religion is such an important part of life, and not share the Christian faith?" an uncle once asked. Well, like being a blue-eyed Armenian, it is possible.

With time, I've come to remember that Taipei may be a basin, but I chose to live here. I want to live here, even though in 2006 I didn't know how dear a price I would pay for that.

Yerevan might have views across sealed-off countries and the food of my ancestors, but it's also distant, rarefied, a place I visited - it's not where I live. Taipei, to me, is every little thing we do each day which, added together, make a life. You make your choices and pay your prices without knowing what they'll be in advance. It's a place that says you're free to relax, but where you might find ways to give more than you take, if you're willing to do that work.

I remind myself that this basin also has hills; one of them is a volcano. You can climb them, if you want. They have been painted and mapped beautifully by generations of people who have called this city home. Taipei may be a basin, but it is a geographically stunning one, with more complexity than the label implies. 

I'm still overwhelmed - glomming through life in that basin so humid you have to practically swim through the air. But it's hard and meaningful work. It may come to nothing; then again, it propel me to a situation where I can be of more practical use.

And I've been able, after some time, to excise the rough black stone that settled inside in 2014. It's heavy, but I can hold it in my hands now and examine its facets, its spikes and valleys and worn crevices. In my mind, this rumination takes place at the top of Gold Face Mountain (金面山), one of the peaks above the Taipei basin, although in reality I'm usually at home. 


I've learned that that thing - more like volcanic glass than jet - when turned in the right way, in the sun, there is a hint of fleeting translucence. I can't set it down - I have to carry it with me, probably forever - but at least I can interrogate it, know it, perhaps have a drink with it now and again.

A piece of art on The Cascade which looks a little bit like my drinking buddy,
which is a craggy black rock of bound-up anxieties and griefs

There is news, however. I handed in my dissertation today. I dedicated it to my mother. She's been gone for 5 years now. She would have turned 67 on the day I started writing this. 

It's a weight of a sort off my shoulders, although the stone is still embedded somewhere inside. 

Once I hit the button, I suggested we go to my favorite Japanese restaurant. We ate lushly: duck liver sushi, a scallop stuffed with crab and sea urchin, topped with caviar and wrapped up like a seaweed bao, more than that even. I drank a small bottle of sake on my own, and we teetered into Jason's across the street to buy fancy chocolate for dessert. 

Walking home down a tree-lined street, I recalled what a privilege it was, and is, to live in this city. It's been so good to me -- living here is a part of why I was able to do this degree in the first place. As much as I will try, I don't know how I can ever properly repay that in kind. It's not fair to describe it merely as a basin; that feeling came from me. When one can't get one's head together, it's hard to know sometimes what is inside, and what is out. 

There is, however, a maudlin ending: I know that she would indeed be proud. I do know she would - the Mom who lives in my memories tells me so. 

But the Mom who is on the other side of a border that doesn't have an other side? Well, nobody can know that. 

One might visualize finishing a degree or working through grief as a mountain to climb, with perhaps a view at the top. There's a clear up and down. But it hasn't been that way for me -- it's more like wading through a basin. I'm in a different place now, but at the same altitude. A different point across the same circle. I'm reminded of Vikram Seth's An Equal Music - the narrator's life doesn't have a clear forward trajectory so much as it resembles a fugue, with motifs surfacing and sinking, disappearing for awhile only to resurface; sometimes played in this line of music, sometimes that. Sometimes high, sometimes low. If there's a climax, it's all those motifs coming together, perhaps playing a little louder. It's not some new summit, it's not uncharted territory. It's up and down but ultimately swings around to come back again.

I key up Yerevan on my playlist and try not to think about it too much.