Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The Personal and the Political: An IELTS Story


Massive structures can make individuals feel small.

Less than a year ago, I sat down for a meeting with my coworkers at one of the purveyors of the IELTS exams in Taiwan. I was in the hot seat for offering my frank opinion on the IELTS Partnership's decision to bend over for the CCP and list Taiwan as "Taiwan, China" on their online registration site. I was an examiner at the time; the fact that I am discussing this publicly now means I no longer am. 

I had assessed IELTS's cowardly, dictator-appeasing and politically-charged choice with exactly the sort of candor that those who know me might expect; more than a few profanities were unleashed. I am not sorry about this, and frankly, that's not the reason why things turned out the way they did. 

After several (non-profane) letters of complaint, I had already cut back my work as an examiner to the minimum necessary to maintain my certification in the hope that one day the organization would "see the light" and I could work for them in good conscience again. But I was fuming inside; it ate at my guts like swallowing battery acid. Working for a soulless corporate behemoth that I wasn't even making much money from made me feel reckless (it's hard to find public information but I have it on good authority that IELTS examiners in Southeast Asia, where the cost of living is generally lower than Taiwan, are paid more per candidate than examiners in Taiwan). The corporate superstructure of the testing industrial complex didn't care about Taiwan, so why should I care about them?

So I rolled the dice. I knew there was a recorder on when I unloaded on a sympathetic coworker. I knew it was most likely that nobody who cared would hear that recording, but that there was a small chance someone would. I considered it something akin to an act of protest. I even said "yeah this is all being recorded," so I knew what I was doing. Of course, I ensured that no candidates were within earshot; I always strove to be professional around them, as they'd paid for the (very expensive) test and had pinned their hopes for the future on it. 

I'm not much of a gambler, but it seems I struck the jackpot: someone did hear it, which is how I found myself explaining to even more coworkers why I did what I did. 

I don't want to give too many details of an off-the-record conversation, but I came away realizing that my Taiwanese colleagues agreed with my fundamental stance and the ethical difficulties that came with working for such a company, even if they could not condone the way I'd chosen to vent my frustrations. After all, they had jobs that they wanted or perhaps needed to keep. 

To be honest, I was willing to sign the disciplinary letter I knew I'd receive for what I'd said in the office. I'd knowingly broken the rules, I'd made my point, but I liked them -- my coworkers. I knew that the higher echelons of the testing industrial complex might be rotten, but they were not. 

Eventually, the letter arrived. That was when I found out that I was also being ordered to take down a blog post on this topic, despite the fact that I did not identify myself as an examiner in it or any other posts at that time (examiners are not permitted to reveal their status on public platforms). Simply writing about this topic under my name was enough: if I wanted to keep examining, I would have to take down not only the post they'd found, but any other posts as well

I would have signed the letter if it had just been about my outburst at the office; it was a contained incident, not a wider act of free speech. Although I understand that plenty of companies require their employees and contractors not to talk about work issues on social media, I wasn't willing to zipper my own mouth for them. 

In fact, part of my contract required that I not harm the "integrity" of the IELTS exam or IELTS Partnership. Since I felt that their politically-motivated act of cowardice, which insulted the Taiwanese candidates they were charging for the exam, was itself a degradation of the "integrity" of the organization, I wondered exactly what "integrity" my silence and complicity would be helping  to maintain. If I'd decided to debase myself and delete posts whose truth I believed in -- to destroy my own sense of integrity -- I would have been able to continue.

But I said no, and told them why. When my examiner status was rescinded, I appealed, but not to try and get my "job" back. That didn't matter. Appealing requires more people in the organization to confront the issue, and frankly simply gave me the chance to escalate my protest. Being a thorn in their side was the real win. 

This happened in late 2020. I've been sitting on it for ages. Why write about it now? 

Partly it's because the issue of foreign companies standing up to China is back in the news, with Uyghur slavery being linked to Xinjiang cotton. It's time we discussed IELTS's complicity in Chinese bullying of Taiwan again. The issue has got this experience back on my mind.

But the truth is, I also waited because I do worry what the consequences will be for my former coworkers; the good people who were (quietly) on my side. They also defended another examiner who got in trouble for his own writing about this issue, more successfully. Is it worth it to continue speaking up about a larger organization mistreating Taiwan when it could result in Taiwanese citizens -- good people, whom I know personally -- facing repercussions?

I don't know. Speaking up feels like an act of privilege: I get to say my piece, and if there are consequences, I won't be the one to bear them. It was a privilege to have the resources to walk away from that job. Not everyone can. 

But it's unclear that a single post on a blog with regional popularity will make any sort of consequential impact, and not speaking up means allowing a larger systemic rot to fester without trying to keep public attention on it. If nobody speaks up, nothing is ever said.

So, please consider this an attempt to find some sort of middle ground. The original intent was to write something more damning, a call to action. I won't. As much as I dislike the IELTS Partnership, from a personal standpoint, I cannot do that to Taiwanese people who care about this country and were good to me, who are just trying to make a living.

I won't tell you which purveyor is involved (there's more than one). I won't tell you not to examine for IELTS. I even considered not stating their name, as TOEFL does the same thing, but it doesn't matter: my previous posts identify the organization in question. I would still warn potential examiners that any attempt to express an opinion about IELTS -- including their treatment of Taiwan -- could land you in trouble. If you care about standing up for Taiwan, this may be a dealbreaker for you. They can get political, but you can't.

If you can accept company policy and perhaps stand up for Taiwan in other ways, that's your choice and you shouldn't be judged for it.

There may come a time when I regret writing this; standing up publicly for your political beliefs can have repercussions down the road. Perhaps one day my finances will be dire and I'll need a job, and this post will stand in the way. Perhaps the political climate will grow so dangerous due to CCP influence that I'll have to make a hard choice. Perhaps good people will face consequences I never intended, and I'll feel the personal pull to take it down. I wouldn't want to be judged for that either. 

Regardless of what happens, remember the Big Bad here is also the big organization and the testing industrial complex in general, not the individuals who just want to keep their jobs in a difficult world. 

Saturday, March 27, 2021

When it comes to foreign residents, Taipei should be a thought leader on Taiwan’s vaccine roll-out

I usually try to choose a photo that has some sort of symbolic or creative connection to the content. I couldn’t find one for this short piece, so please enjoy some temple vegetables. 

Since coronavirus vaccines have been rolling out around the world, there have been concerns and discussions about how vaccine distribution would happen in Taiwan. More than a few members of the foreign community have expressed doubt that we would be included in vaccine distribution plans, even though we’re taxpayers who contribute to National Health Insurance just as citizens do. I’ve even heard some people surmise that we’ll somehow get vaccines if our “home” countries airlift them to their consulates in Taiwan! (I can only scratch my head at that logic).

My silence on this topic was intentional. Although the government has made some missteps which do get corrected on occasion regarding the foreign community in the recent past, their inclusion of foreign residents and stranded visitors in pandemic prevention efforts has been admirable. Just about the only complaint I have was cutting off our access to e-gate, which, while annoying and illogical, is a fairly minor inconvenience. Even the missteps at least have a chance of being corrected, as the Youbike kerfuffle was.

It made sense to give them the benefit of the doubt that a similar level of consideration for foreign residents would be shown in the vaccination rollout, and make no comment until the government’s policies became more clear. It also seemed to be the kind, calm thing to do in an era shot through with uncertainty and anxiety.

Now, it looks like we have the beginning of an answer. At least for Taipei, Mayor Ko has said that foreign residents will be treated the same as citizens in the vaccination effort.

That’s only for one city, which means no such assurances have been made public for foreigners residing outside Taipei. It also means those who ended up staying longer than expected on extended visas and other non-resident foreigners are likely not included; that was always going to be the case, frankly, although perhaps a self-paid option will eventually become available. 

My hope is that Taipei will act as a thought leader to the rest of Taiwan, and other cities will follow Taipei’s example. It seems likely to me that they will. 

This would be the logical move. Foreign residents, by definition, are people who have made their life in Taiwan, temporarily or permanently. We are no more or less a potential disease vector than citizens, meaning that we should be treated essentially the same for health purposes, especially as we pay into National Health Insurance. Many foreign residents have chosen to stay put through the pandemic, myself included. 

However, eventually as the rest of the world calms down we’re going to want to visit our loved ones abroad; presumably many Taiwanese are hoping to do the same. Many travel just as often as we do. It would be extremely irresponsible from a public health perspective to not ensure residents who will eventually start traveling again are vaccinated, leaving them to sort it out on their own, in countries of citizenship where they may not have, say, a permanent address or health insurance. 

It looks like Taipei, at least, has made it official. They’ve clarified that they understand the importance of including foreign residents in public health initiatives. Let’s hope for the good news that other cities will soon be following suit. 

Friday, March 26, 2021

The Test is the Tumor


From a recently-closed exhibit at Tainan Art Museum

In a typical apartment in greater Taipei, my student and I chat about her week before looking at her school work and IELTS preparation. If an interesting subject comes up we dive a little deeper, to give her some practice articulating independent ideas. Even when I know things she doesn't, I prompt her to make rational guesses to get there on her own. She's pretty good at this and can communicate with very little problem, understanding and responding to natural spoken English at a fairly natural pace.

The tests she takes at her prestigious Taipei high school mostly consist of multiple-choice gap fills of complex grammar and lexis into long paragraphs, or translation. She's good at this too -- better than I would be in a foreign language -- but sometimes they include lexis she's never learned. I ask how her teacher conducts English class. "She has us read the paragraphs out loud. Then she translates them into Chinese for us, and we take notes on the parts we don't understand in English." Does she ever make you speak at all? "Sometimes to answer a question, like what's the answer to #3." Does she ever speak to her peers in English? "Never." Has she ever been asked to express a single idea, or even a sentence, that she created in her own head? "Absolutely not."

She takes a lot of these tests, as preparation for The Big Test. Or rather, Big Tests, because they appear to proliferate like tumors in a failing organ. Not a single one of these tests, Big or Small, includes any sort of actual foreign language communication.

In the part of Taipei that exists in the ether (that is, an online community), someone theorizes that English proficiency in Taiwan is low because Taiwanese are "shy" and "embarrassed" to make mistakes, speak out, take risks, whatever. That certainly is an easy explanation: things could be better, but, you know, culture.

Seven years ago this month, a group of activists stormed their own parliament, occupying it for weeks in order to protest the undemocratic passage of a trade pact. They barricaded doors, shouted, set up systems to stop the occupation from devolving into chaos, and held their ground until someone from the government responded. Some estimate that between 200,000-500,000 Taiwanese took to the streets to support them (my personal estimate is toward the higher end; I was in that crowd.) 

That occupation and the rally it inspired was unusual in its size, but Taiwanese people have been heading downtown to scream at their government ever since they could do so without getting shot (and sometimes even when they couldn't). That doesn't sound very shy or embarrassed to me. 

So this points to an issue not with culture, but with the tests. My student, the great communicator? The exams don't test that. If communication is the goal, they lack basic content and construct validity, because they do not test for communicative competence. There are no oral exams and the written portion is minimal. 

But the tests really matter in ways we can't dismiss -- they determine not only what schools you can attend, but what you can major in. Although they are worthless, the doors they open aren't: it's no wonder people take them seriously.

This curdles into negative washback. I can only speak authoritatively on English language proficiency, where the exams don't test communicative ability. So every school curriculum, almost every teacher syllabus, every class, every page of pointless multiple-choice and gap-fill homework, every metastasization of mock tests before the Big Test(s) all aim to help students not to learn English, but to do well on the test. And then people wonder why English is treated like a school subject rather than a communication tool.

Think of all the bad teaching, kids not learning, parents' traditional thinking, Taiwanese don't like to communicate in English, schools don't teach critical thinking, student don't think English class is useful that you hear. They're like nausea, tiredness and chronic pain: they're all symptoms stemming from the same source: the tests.

The tests are the tumors. You can treat the symptoms -- we need better coursebooks! More teacher training! -- and there might be some improvement, but it won't excise the cancer that's causing the problems.

But that's culture too! I hear you shouting. It's, y'know, Confucian! Traditional! That's how culture works -- it happens once in ancient history and then it never changes!

But it's not. Research among English language teachers in Taiwan has shown that they are aware of more modern teaching methods, and  elementary school teachers are more willing to implement them. Junior high and high school teachers also report willingness, but say that the necessity of preparing students for the major exams is the key reason why they don't do so. Researchers studying English language teaching programs in Taiwan also point out that English teaching curricula and government initiatives are based on outdated assumptions of how and why English is taught and learned. (Incidentally, I have met Drs. Kao, Tsou and Chen, and they all strike me as an exceptional scholars. If you care about English learning in Taiwan, you should be paying attention to their work.)

Anecdotally, I know that Chen is right about schoolteachers being open to communicative teaching approaches in principle. One of my jobs entails working with them; to be fair, the ones who sign up are a self-selecting group of particularly engaged teachers. As we collaborate, it becomes clear that they're already familiar with the core concepts underpinning communication and core-skills oriented professional development. And yet they're also frustrated. With large class sizes and looming exams, how can any of it be practically applied in the classroom? They'd love to teach towards better English language communication, but how can they when that's not on any of the tests, and the tests really matter?

If it was "the culture" holding Taiwan back, then these teachers' responses would have been quite different, or at least based on different reasoning, and Taiwanese voices would not be advocating for updated approaches to English teaching.

Everything they recommend -- better materials, more classroom resources, orienting foreign language education toward an English as a Lingua Franca, more professional development for teachers -- is useful and necessary. But again, these are treatments for symptoms. Teachers don't teach language communicatively because of the looming exams the students must take. English is treated as a school subject because the test makes it one. Teaching approaches and attitudes toward English are symptoms. The test is the tumor.

It's hard to justify the notion that test-driven learning is somehow endemically Taiwanese. "Ancient" Confucian-style learning did include a great deal of memorization, but the student-teacher relationship also mattered, and the test of true brilliance wasn't whether the  mature student could regurgitate what they'd learned, but whether they could put it into practice. Koxinga wasn't considered a brilliant general -- his other numerous failings notwithstanding -- because he had read The Art of War. It was because he could use that advice effectively in battle. 

Not that it matters. For the period when Taiwan was colonized by the Qing, they did little to develop education in Taiwan. Only the sons of the very wealthy attended Confucian academies, which funneled students into the imperial civil service. "Temple schools" weren't worth much either. Here's Manthorpe in Forbidden Nation telling you how that worked for Taiwan:

There was no encouragement for Taiwanese to re-enter the mainstream of the Chinese civil service, even though tuition was made available in 1686....There is no record of an islander passing the second-degree examinations until 1729. In the entire two hundred years of Qing rule, Taiwan produced only 251 second-degree holders. The third and highest-level civil service examinations were always held in the Chinese capital, Beijing, and there is no record of Taiwanese taking part until 1822, when eleven men from the island sat for the tests; only one qualified to become a government official. As far as can be determined, no Taiwanese civil servant ever worked on the island during the Qing tenure.

Then the Japanese came along and implemented their own educational system, mostly in order to equip Taiwanese to be good workers and obedient colonial subjects, assimilated into the Japanese empire but never co-rulers of their own territory or questioning the Japanese identity imposed upon them. There's a lot of history here, which I'll sum up in a quote about the early Japanese attitude toward education from Tsurumi's Japanese Colonial Education in Taiwan

The policy was to...avoid creating or encouraging any general demand for higher education among Taiwanese. Gotō bluntly told his education personnel that they must take care to see that Taiwanese did not become educated above their stations in life. 

That system turned into one where learning basic literacy and numeracy along with cultural assimilation were the key benchmarks of education. One was never taught to ask too many questions or get too ambitious, although some Taiwanese were able to attain university educations as Japanese rule wore on. When you don't want the general population to think very critically, what happens in the classrooms? The same sort of exam-based regurgitation we see in Taiwan now.

That was the system the KMT inherited when they colonized Taiwan, and to be blunt, they thought it was an excellent brainwashing tool, simply replacing Japanese cultural assimilation with Chinese. The ask-no-questions, just-take-tests orientation was certainly kept in place. I suppose from the KMT's perspective, it saved bullets if people never asked questions in the first place.

What Taiwan has today is essentially that system. Does any of that sound like an education system built from Taiwan's cultural roots? Because to me it seems like a succession of colonizers either ignoring education entirely or imposing their own ideas on what that education should be like. I'm all for immigration, but if immigrants are good for a society, like probiotic yoghurt for your gut, colonizers are carcinogens, like microplastics in your fish.

Do we even know what education through a Taiwanese cultural lens would be like, seeing as it never seems to have been tried? Here's just a taste of what direction this could take:

In addition to being the seventh anniversary of the Sunflower Movement, this month is also the 25th anniversary of Taiwan's first free and full democratic election, a feat that would have been impossible if not for dedicated Taiwanese activists resisting everything that had been shoved down their throats in school. From my student -- the great communicator -- who didn't learn English in school so much as from parents and relatives who spoke it, to these generations of activists who also learned to think critically everywhere but school, it's clear that these ways of learning have a place in the culture here. An education system based on that could be very exciting indeed.

In a society, however, people have a range of beliefs and perceptions. Not long ago, I was talking to a friend in the cafe the Eslite Hsinyi. Her daughter is in high school. and my friend was complaining about the new requirements -- they look at your exam scores but also your "portfolio", which can include just about anything. Things like music lessons or playing a sport tend to fare well. 

"My daughter has to do all of that on top of getting good grades and taking the exam!" she lamented. "It's not fair!"

"I agree it's too much, but the problem is the test," I said. "What's unfair about everything else?"

"It benefits rich families. With the test, if you studied hard, you could do well no matter how poor you were. Everyone had a chance."

I pointed out that this had never been true; for English, the test is not only biased towards students who handle rote memorization well and against those who are simply good communicators, but it also privileges the families who can afford the expensive buxibans that prepare their children for it. We discussed the fact that places at Taiwan's top schools are dominated by the children wealthier urban families (I've seen data for this but can't seem to find it; if I do I'll come back and link). If the tests are "fair" and "any bright child who studies hard can succeed", then that gap should not exist. Yet it does.

The belief that the test is "fair" sits alongside the open secret that you need to pay for expensive buxibans in order to access that "fairness". This is also supported by the industry, which carries significant political clout. If parents believe that their own children might not get the maximum benefit from all that "fairness", and a wealthy special interest group benefits from the continuation of that myth, it can be very hard to fight indeed. Cancer usually is.

The result is hours of physically and mentally unhealthy rote learning on a hamster wheel that nobody seems to know how to stop. My neighbor's children come over for an hour a week of English practice. When we met on Tuesdays, they could barely stay awake, even through games they otherwise tended to enjoy. We switched to Wednesdays and their energy levels improved. I asked why one day, and they told me that their math buxiban ends at 9pm on Mondays, and then they go home and do homework. "We went to bed at one-thirty," they said. And when did they wake up? "Six-twenty." 

Why? "Because this week we have tests every day." Which subjects? "All of them." Are those the big tests? "No, that's next week." So what are these tests? "Practice." 

So when do you actually learn? They shrugged their shoulders. They had understood the question; they just didn't know the answer. 

It would be easy to blame the parents for pushing their kids through such an exhausting, expensive and traumatizing system which doesn't even promote core learning skills, the kids who obediently run that treadmill and the teachers who operate the machinery. It would be easy to castigate them all for not valuing "critical thinking". That's too simplistic, however. They're all just trying to survive in a system none of them can change alone. Their attitudes aren't the problem, they're a symptom. The test is the tumor. 

This attitude can lead to dark outcomes, as well. Years ago someone asked my advice about her teenage nephew. He lived in a far-flung New Taipei suburb and woke up at 5am every day to commute to school in Taipei, an hour and a half each way. Then he'd go to buxiban in Taipei until 10pm, before slogging home and doing homework until well past midnight. Then he'd wake up at 5 and do it all again. Weekends meant more buxiban, and more homework. The college entrance exams were coming, but honestly, she said, it had been going on for years.

She offered more details about their last meeting, which had concerned her greatly. I can't tell that story without being more specific than I feel comfortable with, but his behavior was worrying enough that I advised that he not only see a doctor, but that his parents do something about the untenable school situation. At best, he was dangerously exhausted. 

The concerned aunt fell out of my orbit not long after, and I never found out what happened to her nephew. Regardless of whether my advice triggered any change, I hope he found his way through. 

Why does all of this matter now? I could have written this post at any point over the last 13 years that Lao Ren Cha has existed. 

Well, I'm a foreign language teaching professional, and Bilingual by 2030 has been in the news of late. It seems everyone has an opinion. Can CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) and EMI (English as a Medium of Instruction) succeed? What does it mean to teach English as a tool rather than a school subject? Should be importing foreign teachers, training local ones or both? What support should other foreign and local languages receive? Why does Taiwan need to improve its overall English proficiency at all? What does internationalization mean? How can we ensure the rich-poor and urban-rural divide isn't deepened? What role do critical thinking skills play? (I'm leaving out some of the less thoughtful takes; not everyone with an opinion has actually read the policy document.) 

These questions matter, but every last one of them is asking about treatment of a symptom. If, throughout years of English classes, students are subjected to multiple batteries of tests -- so many tests that they literally don't know when actual learning is meant to occur -- then it doesn't matter if the teachers are foreign or local, trained or not. They will prepare students for those tests. English will be treated as a school subject because the test renders it one. The test is the tumor.

If the goal of the Tsai administration and the Ministry of Education is to improve proficiency and communicative ability, and for Taiwan to be an internationally-accessible country with more global visibility, that won't happen if the assessments of educational attainment don't test proficiency or communicative ability. There are tests that do indeed aim to assess proficiency, such as IELTS. That test is problematic in its own way, but the English language exams students take in public schools don't even try.

It won't matter whether they're pushing general English classes with communicative teaching, or CLIL and EMI. It won't matter that research shows these methods tend to work, especially if they are implemented in earlier grades, although there are several factors influencing this. Students, teachers and parents will resist subject courses in English as long as there's a difficult and competitive test at the end, and preparing for it is slowed down by learning in a second language.

Arguably, the main reason why Taiwanese students spend years in English classes but do not always come out proficient in English comes down to negative washback from the tests. The tests don't assess communicative ability, so communication is not part of the class. The proficiency issues that these methods aim to treat are symptoms. Societal resistance to changing those classroom approaches? A symptom. The test is the tumor. 

No initiative -- not Bilingual by 2030, let alone anything that came before it -- is ever going to be successful if it doesn't treat the tumor.

This is arguably also a crucial time for Taiwan. I pointed out on Taiwan Context that one of the main reasons Taiwan needs English isn't to do business, it's to make itself heard on the international stage. In Pedagogies of Hope and Resistance, the teacher-researchers quote the thoughts of their Palestinian students, who say that they want to learn English to communicate with the West, so that people in other countries would know more about Palestine and their struggle. (Data on such perceptions is inconclusive, but anecdotally, I do see a change.)

Although I don't intend to make a direct analogy between Taiwan and Palestine, that same need exists in Taiwan. Palestinian students don't always learn English for job opportunities, and commentators love to point out that most Taiwanese workers won't need it, either. However, other countries -- such as Taiwan's peers, Japan and South Korea --don't need to constantly prove to the world that they are indeed countries. Taiwan does. To communicate that, its most ardent activists need English, and we can't know where those activists will come from until they're already in the education system.

With China inching closer to a long-threatened invasion, that need to communicate complex ideas about Taiwan's history, society and political situation as a country with the world has never been more urgent. 

But that's not going to happen as long as the language classes students take are oriented towards a series of tests that don't assess that kind of communicative competence. If you want learners to acquire certain skills and knowledge, the assessments the undertake should test what you want them to acquire.

The problem isn't the schools. It's not the parents, or the students. It's not the teachers. It's not "culture" or "society". It's not "traditional" or "Confucian" views of education or insufficient teacher training (though it's true that university teachers don't generally receive much, and that should be addressed). It's not even Bilingual by 2030 or the Ministry of Education. They all exhibit symptoms but they are not the disease.

It's the test. The test is the tumor. 

If the government isn't willing to tackle this, then the tumor will continue to metastasize as we waste time treating symptoms, while telling ourselves that the symptoms are the disease. Then we'll wonder why our organs keep failing.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Sushi marketing gimmick? Big news! The Indigenous reaction? Ignored by the media.

Honestly, I don't really care about the whole salmon sushi marketing gimmick. However, it bears a little investigation.

A little over a hundred people in Taiwan changed their name to include the characters for salmon (鮭魚) in order to get free sushi (with some adding more characters, presumably hoping they'd get more free stuff). Officials pleaded with citizens not to waste government offices' time with this and reminded everyone that only three name changes are allowed under Taiwan law, so any miscalculation could cause the change to be permanent. This allegedly happened to poor Mr. Salmon Hsu, which the Taipei Times still hilariously calls "a man surnamed Hsu" as though we don't all know his given name now. One guy apparently made his name 36 characters long to jokingly include all the free stuff he wants, such as a stay at the Caesar Park Hotel. 

Okay, whatever, time to move on. 

Then I noticed a few posts from Indigenous activists on Facebook pointing out an extremely salient point: for decades, Indigenous Taiwanese have been fighting to get their full traditional names (and if I understand correctly, only their traditional names, without 'Chinese' names) on their National ID cards, and although progress has been made, they have mostly been met with resistance from the government. 

As activist Savungaz Valincinan pointed out, it sure was easy for Taiwanese to change their names to all sorts of ridiculous things for a marketing ploy, including those who added far more characters than the usual character limit of 15 (the character limit for Romanized names is 20).  Indigenous Taiwanese had to fight tirelessly to use their traditional names, some of which may be longer than the character limits, an issue which still causes problems.

And yet the salmon story was picked up by AFP, which caused it to appear in The Guardian, Channel News Asia and Hong Kong Free Press. Taiwan News, Taipei Times and Focus Taiwan also covered it. None mentioned the fact that apparently name changes are easy if you want free sushi, but if you're Indigenous you have to organize and protest for generations to even begin to approach that right. I would not have connected these two issues if not for Indigenous people pointing it out; certainly the media wasn't interested in that angle of the story. 

Technically, if your name exceeds the character limits, government officials can hand-write it on your card, which they have done for some people. In practice, I don't know how easy it is for Indigenous Taiwanese to actually do this, nor should they have to take special steps to have it done. I would imagine a fair number still face resistance from the bureaucracy, both unintentional (not that that makes it acceptable) and actively aggressive.

A little history: when the Qing colonized Taiwan, Indigenous people who 'assimilated' were 'given' Chinese names. When the Japanese took over that colonial endeavor, Indigenous and Han Taiwanese alike were encouraged to take official Japanese names. When the KMT then took up the mantle of colonizer, Indigenous Taiwanese were forced to change their names back to whatever they had been in Chinese, and if they didn't have such names, they were haphazardly given random names, with several surnames often unthinkingly sprinkled across family units, with no respect for their own naming customs. 

It wasn't until the late 20th century that the government began to allow the use of traditional names on National ID cards, but the character limits remain, and societal prejudice remains, which may cause some Indigenous people to choose not to pursue this. In addition, restoration of a traditional name is limited to one change, whereas Chinese-language names can be changed up to three times, meaning that Indigenous Taiwanese pursuing name restoration still face more restrictions than Mr. Salmon Hsu. 

As Savungaz Valincinan pointed out (linked above), the government has rejected petitions to address this issue because allowing longer names would "create social cognitive difficulties". A robust society should have no issues accepting members of that society as they are with their real names as they are given, so I don't know what social cognitive theory has to do with someone's real traditional name. Something tells me the person who gave that non-response isn't a specialist in the field. Just a hunch. 

Perhaps these so-called "social cognitive difficulties" (lol) could be ameliorated if the media took a greater interest in Indigenous issues, including where they intersect with viral "human interest" news. Perhaps more people would simply be aware that these hypocrisies if they were reported on more. Perhaps "oh haha people are changing their name to salmon for free salmon" isn't just the cute flash-in-the-pan story we can laugh at today and forget tomorrow.

Why don't they? Partly, I think they just don't see it. I wouldn't have seen it if not for the labor of those activists. I freely admit that: I'm not better than anyone else and I'm aware that I have blind spots, even if I don't always know what it is I can't see.

It doesn't affect most people, so the media doesn't pay attention. They may not even realize that they should be paying attention, because it's just not in their worldview. If AFP thought of it at all -- which I doubt happened -- they likely thought the rest of the world would enjoy a lighthearted salmon story but not a real issue affecting the descendants of the original inhabitants of Taiwan. Perhaps when it comes to local reporting, representations of the name rectification movement in Taiwanese news reflect a Han-centric worldview that still considers Indigenous people and issues affecting them as "Other", as scholars noted back in 2012.

Which sure seems like "social cognitive difficulties" creating their own justifications for existence like one giant arc of circular logic.

But journalism on Taiwan would be better if people did notice. Although I now intend to get back in my lane as this issue doesn't affect me, I'd like to encourage them to try. More people won't know that a lot of these issues run deeper unless they're reported more robustly.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Sovereignty is the Dream: A book review of “Forbidden Nation”

This is a good time to announce that Brendan and I have been slowly working through a project: we’ve each been reading a selection of the various history books on Taiwan with an eye to creating a collaborative post discussing all of them, both on their own merits and in relation to each other.  Look for that to be coming out sooner than you’d think. 

In the meantime, here’s a review of one of the seminal texts in general Taiwan history: Jonathan Manthorpe’s Forbidden Nation. 

When you open this book, two things are immediately apparent: first, that Forbidden Nation is not quite chronological. Rather, it frames the middle chapters with the saga of Chen Shui-bian’s re-election in 2004. It opens with Two Shots on Jinhua Road, which tells the story of Chen’s attempted assassination while campaigning with a flair that some might find overly dramatic, but which does engage the reader. The text then re-sets to pre-colonial Taiwan, working its way through the Dutch, Koxinga, the Qing, the Republic of Formosa, the Japanese, the KMT dictatorship and democratization, ending once again with Chen. 

Second, while parts of the narrative do a good job of looking at an issue from multiple perspectives, others read like a straight op-ed. Manthorpe is unapologetically pro-Taiwan and pro-independence, to the point that the very first sentence of the preface reads: "Taiwan is entering an era when the four-hundred-year-old dream of the islands 23 million people to be internationally recognized as sovereign masters of their own house will be won or lost."

I’m willing to accept this, but not because his editorial line reflects my own. Rather, after considering multiple factors, he comes to consistently pro-Taiwan conclusions that I agree are the most accurate depiction of reality. In what ways did the KMT screw up — you’ll be shocked to learn that it was most of them — and where were they successful? Was the Republic of Formosa an expression of Taiwanese identity or not? Did the Japanese treat Taiwan well or not? 

I don’t always agree with him; for example, I’m not sure that their land reform program was as unambiguously successful as he depicts it. But doesn’t give false neutrality or weak-kneed both-sidesism even a single second, and I appreciate that. 

Indeed, in the years since Forbidden Nation was published, Manthorpe was proven to be right. Sovereignty is indeed the greatest dream of Taiwan and now we have the numbers to prove it.

However, it’s far from a perfect text. Brendan noted in his review that the narrative centers non-Taiwanese: you learn more about Robert Swinhoe than Nylon Deng, who doesn’t appear at all. More about Koxinga than Lee Teng-hui (although Lee does get fairly in-depth treatment). More about Soong Mei-ling than Annette Lu. Chen Chu, as far as I remember, is absent completely whereas KMTers, mostly from China, get plenty of attention. There is a lot of discussion of how rebellions were put down, but not much on why the rebellions happened or the internal mechanics of the more notable ones. 

All in all, the narrative is more about the colonizers than the colonized, as though Taiwan is a place that has things done to it (which is indeed part of the historical narrative) and far less a nation that Taiwanese themselves built. Some threads aren’t carried through clearly; your average neophyte reader would never make the connection that Chen Shui-bian had ties to the Kaohsiung Incident, for example. I haven’t done a deeper textual analysis to find actual numbers, but there also aren’t many women mentioned, despite the ways that the women’s rights movement in Taiwan has converged and diverged with the Tangwai and Taiwan independence activism. There’s discussion of how long Taiwanese identity and the home-rule, democracy and independence movements have existed, but nothing on their internal mechanics. The White Lilies are erased entirely. 

The narrative is also very much a “Great Men” view of history. You get a lot of movers, shakers and leaders — most of them not Taiwanese — but no clear sense of how all of this affected everyday people, or how they lived. Indigenous Taiwan is especially short-changed: Manthorpe spends roughly 20 pages on pre-colonial Taiwan, not entirely focused on Indigenous people. Some of the chapter titles are questionable (I think Barbarian Territory is meant to be ironic, and I'm not sure what I think of Pirate Haven), and much of this section focuses on how outsiders -- more Great Men -- viewed Taiwan rather than what life was like here centuries ago. Manthorpe doesn't meaningfully engage with Indigenous perspectives later in the narrative, either.

This is both more than a lot of writers do and less than is necessary. 400 Years of Taiwan History and Taiwan: A Political History gloss over this period as quickly as possible, with the former stating provably incorrect points, such as the idea that struggling Hoklo and Indigenous worked together to fight the elites (nope). A History of Agonies is openly offensive toward Indigenous Taiwanese. A New Illustrated History of Taiwan offers a bit more, covering pre-Dutch Taiwan in about 50 pages. And yet a huge chunk of Forbidden Nation (about 50 pages out of that 250) is dedicated to Koxinga and his descendants. While interesting, I don’t think it merits cutting more modern and possibly more relevant figures from the narrative.

Despite these imperfections, Forbidden Nation does get some things right. Unlike some of the aforementioned texts, which are interesting in situ for the insight they share on a certain kind of outdated pro-independence thought process, Forbidden Nation can be recommended as something closer to a straight history, if that can be said of any text. It’s fairly short — about 250 pages, a length that isn’t too intimidating for anyone first approaching Taiwanese history. Both Taiwan: A New History and A New Illustrated History of Taiwan is that it’s fairly long, and that can be intimidating. The writing style is reasonably engaging, which elevates it above A Political History and A New History, both of which are fairly dry. 

It also hits a lot of the right “beats” — the crucial turning points and notions from Taiwan’s history that underpin its identity. If you want a newcomer to understand a few basic things about Taiwanese history which explain why and how Taiwan became what it is today, this book will provide that. A lot of the arguments those who advocate for Taiwan keep rehashing to people who have opinions not in line with robust historical interpretation (that’s a fancy way to say “anti-Taiwan trolls whose opinions are wrong”) originate in Manthorpe’s text. 

Let’s take a look at some of those “beats”. If I could create a bullet list of things I want people beginning to learn about Taiwan to understand, it would look roughly like this:

1.) China’s claim to Taiwan as an inalienable part of its territory “since antiquity” is entirely false; they cared not at all for it and didn’t even want to keep it initially. 

2.) There is a strong argument for considering Qing control of Taiwan to be colonial. Labeling all rulers of Taiwan except those that come from China as “colonizers” but China as somehow not that plays into the ruse that Taiwan is essentially Chinese. 

3.) The Qing didn’t control all of Taiwan for most of their time here, and certainly didn’t do much to develop it.

4.) The 1895 Republic was a flawed endeavor at best, and not a clear expression of early pro-independence sentiment. However, the rebellions that took place throughout Qing rule indicate that Taiwanese identity and the desire for sovereignty had at least some pre-1947 roots. 

5.) The Japanese colonial era was not a halcyon era. It’s everything that came after it that causes older people to look back with nostalgia - how awful did the KMT have to be that Taiwanese would look back on the way Japan treated them and see that it was comparatively better?

6.) Taiwan was comparatively developed before the KMT showed up, and a lot of the “development” the KMT engaged in was really just cleaning up a mess they themselves made. 

7.) Chiang Kai-shek absolutely knew about 228 and was perfectly aware that his underlings were committing a massacre. He approved of it. 

8.) There were other post-war options for Taiwan; being absorbed by the ROC was rendered likely by the non-binding Cairo Declaration but not inevitable. 

9.) If you actually look at the series of treaties, communiques, assurances etc. both post-war and as the US was switching diplomatic recognition, you’ll see that there’s no basis to claim that Taiwan is legally a part of some inevitable “one China”.

10.) Taiwan was built by Taiwanese. However, if you want to credit outside assistance (the KMT counts as “outside”), then US protection (due to Korean War-related strategic interests) and US aid did more for Taiwan than anyone else.

11.) Taiwan’s path to democracy was painful. They’re not going to give it up and change such a fundamental aspect of their culture just because China wishes it so. It is quite simply never going to happen. (Manthorpe doesn’t say this explicitly but that’s what his narrative builds to). 

12.) And yes, the KMT can also be considered a colonial power in Taiwan. They have treated this country and its identity as just as disposable as the Qing.

...and that’s the thing. Forbidden Nation touches on all of this. It gives you what you need to understand that Taiwanese independence is not a radical notion, it’s a natural outgrowth of the country’s own history. It allows readers to realize that instead of asking how Taiwan could possibly avoid unification with China, we should be asking how it could ever possibly unify peacefully. It’s quite clear that it simply cannot, and will not. 

My final thought: Forbidden Nation is not for people who already have a deep knowledge of Taiwanese history. I learned a few new things, but generally speaking I knew all of the skeins of historical trends and events that, when uncoiled to their full length and woven together, create a picture of Taiwan which simply can’t be denied. If anything, I would have preferred if the parts covering modern Taiwanese history were fleshed out more, with notable local activists and marginalized groups (including women) given more space in the story. 

However, if a newcomer to Taiwan or someone interested in learning more about this country asks for a book recommendation, this will give them the fundamentals and will help defeat those “but isn’t the culture Chinese?” questions before they come up. Because I’m not a fan of the lens through which it tells Taiwan’s story — it can’t all be about Notable Men who usually aren’t Taiwanese! — I’d recommend that potential readers start with Forbidden Nation, but pick up A New Illustrated History of Taiwan afterwards. One for the historical “beats”, and the other to hear all the voices Manthorpe left out and get a clearer idea of what life was actually like in Taiwan throughout history. 

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Despite gains in international visibility, fighting Taiwan’s erasure is a Sisyphean effort (Part 2)

This post is old news tacked on to recent news, but I’m still in the thick of this project, and it’s likely to be at least another week until I have real free time again. It’s also piggybacking on my last post, which explored areas where Taiwan continues to be erased on the international stage. 

Two days ago, UN Women posted a graphic about women in politics, giving Taiwan the same status as China — not listing Taiwan as having a female head of state, and coloring Taiwan red because China is, implying that Taiwan has the same percentage of female parliament members as China. Of course, China’s numbers are fairly low (24.9% female representation — not that I think it matters much in a country where no one makes it to government without being appointed as a loyalist to an ultimately patriarchal regime). Taiwan’s numbers are much higher: 41.59% of Taiwanese legislators are female — that’s 47 out of 113 — and of course, Taiwan has a female head of state. Representation in government ministries is unfortunately far lower. 

What struck me about this wasn’t that a UN organization treated Taiwan this way; they do it all the time. UN Women alone has been the subject of backlash every year for at least the past few years due to its exclusion of Taiwan in its data, or listing Taiwan as a “Province of China”. It wasn’t that this map has included Taiwanese data in previous iterations and is excluding it this year: China has been ramping up its efforts to corner and threaten governments as well as public and private concerns to toe their line on Taiwan. 

I noticed instead that despite all of Taiwan’s gains, this keeps happening. UN Women is just one example. Taiwan becomes an LGBT rights leader in Asia, gets some favorable coverage, and then has its identity erased, labeled as “China”. The protests are so strong that UN Women removes the infographic; notably, they don’t fix it. Then the next year, they pull the same crap again, having learned no lessons. Taiwan elects its first female head of state, one of the first in Asia who isn’t following in the footsteps of a close male relative. 

As unrelated as these issues might seem, I was reminded me of a Bloomberg analysis late last year that ranked Taiwan’s pandemic response the third-best in the world, after New Zealand and Japan. Despite never having lockdowns and suffering far fewer deaths, the ranking was justified due to Taiwan having less access to vaccines and universal health care. Bloomberg creates these “resilience rankings” every month, and the most recent number-crunch placed Taiwan even lower, again primarily due to vaccine access.

This is deeply unfair (although I know they also employ Taiwan allies, and some of their own people have criticized the ranking). The world excluded Taiwan from international organizations and discussions, which surely slowed Taiwan’s ability to acquire vaccines. It even came out later that China was allegedly bullying vaccine purveyors in negotiations with Taiwan. In response, Taiwan began pursuing a domestically-developed vaccine, which is likely to be available as early as this summer, and citizens settled in for a few more months of epidemic prevention measures, showing remarkable resilience in the face of adversity entirely fabricated by its biggest bully. This is all information that Bloomberg could easily obtain, but chooses to ignore. That resilience, apparently, doesn’t count. 

Some analyses and opinions ignored Taiwan entirely, even when calling attention to the way the international media sidelines strong pandemic responses in Asia to center Western examples. When the West does acknowledge Asia, including Taiwan, it’s usually in some “Confucians love to follow orders!” narrative that smacks of orientalism. But instead I’m left asking why this praise of Asia’s crisis handling completely ignores the Asian country who handled it the best. 

To put it another way, the world allowed China to make it difficult for Taiwan to obtain vaccines, and then some walnuts at Bloomberg had the absolute gall to ding Taiwan for being slow to obtain vaccines. 

A more recent Lowy Institute study at least includes metrics countries have more control over, such as how widespread testing is. Taiwan still ranks third, which I still question. The CECCs explanation that the number of false positives that widespread testing would create when there is no evidence of local transmission — and the low death rate backing that up — makes more sense to me than saying a response isn’t as robust because widespread testing isn’t done. It isn’t being done because it’s not necessary! However, this study is overall far better, so I don’t want to distract from my main point by going on about it. 

What am I trying to say here? That there seems to be a pattern — Taiwan makes headlines for doing amazing things. Being a leader in Asia on marriage rights, electing its first female leader, a sterling pandemic response. Then some walnuts somewhere do their absolute best to erase that, either because they are overtly in China’s pocket, or because they’re just not very good at looking at confounding factors in their data. 

So time and time again, Taiwan gets perhaps some favorable coverage, but eventually gets the shaft. People speak up, and perhaps there’s some improvement, perhaps not. Perhaps it makes the news, perhaps not. And then it happens again. It’s a continual process of erasure, and having to fight that erasure. A never ending process of speaking up and insisting on legitimization, a seat at the table. 

For any other country, this wouldn’t be such a problem. Countries are in and out of the news all the time. But nobody questions that those countries are indeed countries. Nobody calls them provinces of other countries. Their membership in international organizations is safe. So issues of exposure and being ‘seen’ are perhaps more urgent for Taiwan, when communicating with a world that more often than not finds its very existence inconvenient. 

It’s so tiring. In the past, the response to UN Women was righteous indignation; angry pro-Taiwan responses forced their hand. This time, there aren’t even 20 comments (as of time of writing) on their Facebook post linking to the offending image. It’s unlikely to get deleted. The last Bloomberg study elicited some furious responses; their new, worse study made fewer waves. Not every slight or micro-aggression will draw Taiwanese Internet ire, but on top of that, it must be so exhausting to have to fight these battles over and over again. They’re not even new battles: it’s the same old unceasing bullshit. And they’re not even with new people: it’s the same organizations again and again. They rarely respond or engage, and despite the hard work of some great allies, they never seem to truly learn. 

Imagine that same political argument you always have with your most annoying relative, but on a global scale, with various governments and media outlets. Now imagine that you have to be on your best behavior with your annoying relatives for those hundreds of arguments on that constantly repeat themselves; losing your temper could create an excuse for your worst bully to set your house on fire. 

I want to end on an optimistic note: coverage of Taiwan has gotten better. Those journalists who are allies are truly allies, and they’ve done so much good. Taiwan has done a lot to gain soft-power wins over the past few years; the efforts of the Tsai administration in this regard should be credited. For any other country, the issues I’m citing here wouldn’t matter. If Bloomberg had ranked Taiwan first and New Zealand third in their study, it wouldn’t remotely hurt New Zealand: chances are they’d be happy with the results. But for Taiwan, acknowledgement is an existential issue. Micro-aggressions have the potential to become macro-issues, and combating them thus requires a lot of energy, quite likely more than any other country’s citizens must expend just to speak up for basic recognition. 

When praising the gains Taiwan has made and the ways in which it has bolstered its presence in the international media, at the very least we should also acknowledge this Sisyphean effort. 

Saturday, March 6, 2021

The Freedom Pineapples have helped, but Taiwan still gets erased in international media


Pineapples aren't actually at their best this time of year, but it's been a good week for wearing this necklace I picked up awhile ago.

First, a quick explanation for why my blogging has trickled off in the past few weeks: I've taken on a project as one very busy cog in a massive research project. If (hopefully when) the results are published, I'll talk about them more. For now, I'll just say that there's a relationship to some of the topics that come up in this episode of Taiwan Context, where I talk at with Donovan Smith about issues in English language education. Perhaps my Facebook friends have seen that I've been hopping around the country -- multiple trips to Tainan and Hsinchu, I'm writing this from Kaohsiung, and I'll be skipping through Taoyuan next week. It's all related, and I'll be excited to share more when I can.

However, this means I spend a lot of time in front of a computer, even when traveling. It's tiring to the eyes and can cause throbbing headaches if I overdo it. After all those hours of writing up long research notes and checking transcripts, I just don't have the eyeball stamina to blog. I'm sorry, and I do expect the pace will pick up soon. 

That aside, let's talk about the good and the bad in the international media regarding Taiwan, starting with the bad so we can savor the good as a sweet, tart dessert. 

After dinner with a friend, I flopped down on the couch in my Kaohsiung hotel to drink tea and channel surf as I don't have a television at home. Not finding anything satisfyingly dumb like one of those wedding dress shows, I settled on DW after flipping past several monks, costume dramas and shopping networks. I let it play in the background as I loafed around, and then promptly sat up and turned it off when I heard this

China was the ONLY major economy to see growth last year.

DW made a similarly clumsy mistake in October, with this:

China is the only industrialized economy that has seen growth in 2020.

That second segment isn't entirely bad, as one commenter calls Taiwan a "country" later on. The point stands, however, that the statements above are simply wrong. 

Assuming one can believe any statistics from China -- and that's a gamble I don't make as a rule -- Taiwan's economy still grew more than China's in 2020 and the country is experiencing a tsunami of demand for semiconductors that frankly, only Taiwan has the technology to make well and fast enough. 

Taiwan is an industrialized country, moreso than China. China's economy highly uneven across every metric I can think of, and while I'm no economist, being a massive economy (#2 in nominal GDP) with mediocre per capita rankings (#71, #79 and #66 in nominal GDP per capita, PPP per capita and GNI per capita respectively) doesn't look great. Taiwan can't beat China on GDP, but on every per capita ranking it comes out better: nominal GDP per capita at #36, GNI per capita at #33, PPP per capita at #20. 

It's just not accurate to say that China was the "only" industrialized country to see growth in 2020. Taiwan's economy not only grew, it beat China for the first time in decades. 

As for being the only "major" economy to grow, it's true that China's economy is bigger than Taiwan's, and China is in the G20 while Taiwan is not (SCMP at least got this right). But being in the G20 is not the final call on what counts as a "major" economy. Can we really say that Country #20 (that would be Turkey or Switzerland, depending on whom you ask) is "big", but Countries #21, #22  and #23 (which is just about where Taiwan falls) is definitively not? 

If you're going to use a general term like "major" -- as opposed to a specific one like "G20 member" -- then it's erasure of Taiwan to ignore the fact that the 22nd largest economy in the world experienced more growth than the one that keeps making the news for growing. (Notably, several developing countries also experienced economic growth, including Guyana, Ethiopia, Egypt, South Sudan, Rwanda and Turkmenistan. The presence of countries on that list which are also facing devastating famine or generally not considered well-governed should demonstrate that growth isn't the only marker that matters). 

China helped COVID19 spread due to its initial cover-ups, yet its economy grew. Taiwan did an excellent job of handling COVID19, and its economy grew more than China's. But China gets the DW shout-out and Taiwan doesn't? This shows we have a long way to go to press for better international media coverage of Taiwan. 

By the way, If you're wondering why I'm crapping on DW and not any of these other news outlets that published the same garbage, it's because I saw it on DW first. But they are just as culpable for bad reporting that erases Taiwan on the global stage. 

In fact, it feels even more sinister than that: if you want to write a story that showcases China's 2020 economic growth and makes it sound like it's the only country to accomplish this, you need to add a modifier in order to do so with even a shred of plausible deniability. So you choose an imperfect one -- "industrialized" or "major" -- allowing you to safely ignore Taiwan and a group of mostly-African developing countries. But you got your nice headline that showcases China, a narrative which I suppose gets more eyeballs and clicks than a dive into why some countries' economies grew in 2020 but others didn't. 

In any case, your priority isn't thoughtful reporting, it's creating a narrative that will get views. It's pushing a "China" story for the sake of pushing a China story more than it's an objective look at what's going on with global economic growth.

That feels manipulative: it leaves readers and viewers with a sense that China is somehow special and unique, when it's not. It denies viewers the chance to learn about and from the African experience with COVID19 and allows you to go right back to ignoring Taiwan, which the international media would usually prefer to do, given the choice.

And now for the dessert

It's not all doom and gloom, however. Bloomberg, SCMP and Nikkei were smart to point out that Taiwan actually outpaced China in 2020, although that's a small number of international media that got it right while outlets like CNN, the Wall Street Journal and BBC mucked it up. 

What did garner more attention? Freedom Pineapples! And to a similar extent, the fact that the whole world seems to be finally realizing that they need Taiwan's semiconductors, so Taiwan has mattered all along. 

As uncreative people around the world throw up their arms and say "well we have to give in to China's demands because we absolutely must trade with them", Taiwan got hit with an import ban on pineapples for some pretty dodgy reasons, and fought back through a government-encouraged campaign for Taiwanese to buy their own pineapples, to the point that domestic pineapple sales have closed the gap in just a few days. 

Riding on Australia's Freedom Wine campaign, Taiwan is helping to show the world that it doesn't need to just lie down and take China's weaponizing of trade. Of course, in 2018 Palau was already pointing us in the right direction. 

Just a few years ago, Taiwan would have freaked out at China suddenly shutting down imports of any given product. The DPP would have yelled about it, and the KMT would have used it to stump their "reasonable" platform that we have to be "friendly" with China so they won't pull these sorts of moves, which is about as likely to be successful as shining the school bully's shoes so he won't shove you in a locker. Now, the DPP says "okay, we'll buy our own damn pineapples", and the KMT has no choice but to get on board. 

At this point, China might want to meditate over how and why pineapples are what definitively proved that Taiwan is neither going to allow itself to be bullied nor annexed.

I don't know that the "let's buy it ourselves" model would work on a large scale, but at least it shows the world what it really means to be on the front line of democracy standing up against authoritarianism -- that and all the jet scrambling. It shows that there are avenues for fighting what looks like an impossible foe, and it's possible to simply refuse to be bullied. It shows that China's strategies can be made to backfire spectacularly, simply by refusing to play their game. And when it comes to those aforementioned semiconductors, it shows that a bullied country like Taiwan, erased internationally and treated like crap by international organizations, can still build a stupendously successful industry. 

But even better for Taiwan, if the country can't get the international media attention it deserves on things like, oh, handling both COVID19 and the economy better than China, then at least it can show the world how to effectively stand up against a bully, while reminding itself that it doesn't need to shine China's shoes. 

It's not enough to counter the damage done by all of the bad journalism cited above, but it's something, and if Taiwan keeps finding creative ways to bolster its own identity while telling China to buzz off, perhaps more people will start to take notice.