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. 


Unknown said...

It is an old problem. Just consider the Cairo Conference of 1943 where FDR offered Taiwan to China (Chiang Kai-Shek) in exchange for China not seeking a separate peace with Imperial Japan. FDR needed Stalin to stay in the war against Nazi Germany. At the same time, he wanted India to be free of British colonial rule and Korea to resume as independent. The problem is of short term convenience for the present generation with later generations to suffer from old unsolved problems. India split first into two and then three countries. Stalin and Truman could not agree on which Koreans should run Korea and they split the baby. Today, both Pakistan and India are nuclear armed and Pakistan seems to gravitate toward China while India seems to be gravitating toward the US as Sri Lanka hosts Chinese military interests and the US seems to be a collision course with China over Taiwan, with Japan and Australia likely to get some fallout. One uses you and this is the price of convenience, political sloth and incompetence. Taiwan just happens to be the victim of the international community's effort to flatter itself by making the legal system pleasant for Xin Jin Ping.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

Yes, but it's worth pointing out that Chiang had wanted to ask for Taiwan for awhile, and was also encouraged to do so by others in the KMT -- if Chiang hadn't asked for Taiwan in Cairo, FDR would not likely have offered it of his own volition. The desire to go after Taiwan and declare it Chinese started with CKS and it's screwed up Taiwan ever since.