Tuesday, October 26, 2021

John Oliver actually did an episode about Taiwan! How was it?

For months, I've been lobbying Last Week Tonight to do a segment on Taiwan. There was a Facebook group and a petition, which were covered by the Taipei Times. It was a thing, though I didn't always have the energy to give it the momentum it needed, although I did try to provide a steady influx of fun pro-Taiwan memes. Not because the memes should make the show, but because memes get views, likes and shares which would get the actual petition more visibility.

Why Last Week Tonight? I chose them specifically because they did strong segments on China, the Uyghurs and Hong Kong in the past. The Daily Show and The Late Show have blundered on China and Taiwan in the past, getting Taiwan's situation painfully wrong or softballing China. They were not ideal candidates. Oliver handled similar sensitive topics well: he was the guy to do this.

Last night, they actually did the episode! I have no idea if my effort had any impact at all -- perhaps they'd already decided to go this way long before I started any of it. Perhaps they got the idea independently and it was a big, fat coincidence. One of the producers is Taiwanese-American and one of the writers used to live in Kaohsiung, so it's entirely possible this had nothing to do with my petition. 

I just wanted the show to happen. It did. That's the win.

When I started this, there was a lot of support -- thanks to everyone who contributed images, memes and translations, and to the Taipei Times for bumping its visibility! -- but also a lot of unhelpful comments. Some could be ignored completely: I don't care if you think John Oliver and his show are dandies of the pseudo-liberal bourgeoisie. Some just said he wasn't funny, or wasn't 'leftist' enough. But who cares? 

This was the point: Taiwan needs a moment in front of a mainstream Western liberal audience in a fun, easily digestible format. We need to reach the people who will tune into a late night news satire show, but not, say, listen to Tsai Ing-wen on CNN or read an editorial in the Wall Street Journal. We need that because there's just not enough general knowledge about Taiwan out there, there's a global dismissal of the wishes of the Taiwanese people for their own future, and general solidarity can mean political influence: the John Oliver Effect is real.

The show happened, and it got Taiwan in front of a bunch of new viewers. And it was a great show! Because I enjoy dissecting media, I do want to talk about the segment's strong and weak points. But before going down that road, let's all admit that as a whole, it was an unqualified success. It not only got Taiwan in front of a mainstream liberal audience -- which, again, was the key goal -- but it did a highly competent job, too. On the whole I'd give this a 95% out of 100, and that's a damn good appraisal for someone as picky as me about good coverage of Taiwan (I have no time for half-baked analyses and tired ideas recycled as 'new' and certainly no time at all for pro-China takes when China has missiles pointed at my house.) 

Let's start with what they got right, because I want to emphasize that it was indeed excellent. 

The messaging was on-point. Any criticism I have is pretty much meaningless in the face of this all-important triumph. They used Taiwanese voices to make points about Taiwan: not only President Tsai but also Sexy Legislator Freddy Lim screaming "Chinese Fucking Taipei, it's FUCKING BULLSHIT!" That's how you do it. Great job. The ending was superb: how can you go wrong with supporting Taiwan deciding its own future? 

The show got the 'stacks of warplanes' right, and pointed out that they've been electing people who are pretty comfortable calling Taiwan independent. They used amusing media -- butt plugs, John Cena, a WHO representative (figuratively) pretending to have a brain hemorrhage to avoid talking about Taiwan -- to make strong points and showed just how cringey it is for the world to so clearly want to avoid talking about Taiwan for fear of shattering so many glass hearts in China. 

The history was done quite well: I'd give it a 99%. I would not have made it sound as though the Qing governed all of Taiwan (mostly, they didn't -- they held about a third until the final decade or so of their rule), and perhaps 228 deserved a moment. But the White Terror got a lot of time, which frankly it needed. Now millions of Americans who don't know that Taiwan was once a Japanese colony and KMT military rule was horrible, which they might not have known two days ago. 

The murky jungle of communiques and carefully worded agreements and acts was also handled quite well, with the top-notch Kharis Templeman explaining how the US acknowledges but does not necessarily accept the Chinese claim on Taiwan, and that Taiwan's status is undetermined. I've never liked 'strategic ambiguity', and perhaps the fact that it's no longer very ambiguous could have been mentioned. The US has never been clearer! However, a lot of viewers likely thought that the US simply believed Taiwan to be a part of China. Now they know that's not the case. It's a win. 

I'll even take the mascots, because Last Week Tonight loves those. I'll take the bubble tea, even though it feels like an obligatory inclusion. I'll take John Cena even though I literally do not know why he's famous.

So we've got:

Mostly strong history of Taiwan highlighting how it's not particularly Chinese & how awful the KMT was (check)

Freddy Lim screaming that Chinese Fucking Taipei is Fucking Bullshit (check)

Pretty good overview of the current US position (check)

Buttplugs (check)

Mocking cringey White Guys with bad opinions (check)

Tsai Ing-wen saying basically "we are an independent country, we don't need to declare independence" (check)

Taiwan deserves to decide its own future (check)

Guy speaking Taiwanese at the end saying "look I'm just trying to live my life" amid quite a bit of Japanese aesthetic (check -- and love the inclusion of the Taiwanese language!)

I'll take it!

It is worth discussing the weaker aspects, however. If you just wanted to ride the love train, you can stop here -- this is more of an exercise in media dissection than actual criticism. I loved the show, and I want to keep that clear. Even the parts I didn't love achieved their goal, and I love that goal. 

First, let's talk about the way Oliver discusses Tsai's own words. I'm not a huge fan of this: he makes it sound like she's in favor of 'maintaining the status quo' and 'not declaring independence' when that's not exactly what she said. It's true that she chooses her words carefully (she has to), but here are her exact words:

The idea is, we don't have a need to declare ourselves an independent state, we are an independent country.

I suppose it's true that she's 'drawing a line' at a 'declaration of independence', but she didn't say Taiwan would 'stop short' of a formal declaration of independence. She offered an entirely different perspective: that there is no need to declare independence formally, because Taiwan is already independent. Would you need to ask any other country to declare independence formally, when they are already functioning independent states? No. So why would you need to ask it of Taiwan?

That is, honestly, one kind of pro-independence position, and that was the position she was elected on.

"Independence" can mean many different things, including believing that there is no need to formally declare what you already are. If the only way to be fully "pro-independence" is to be "in favor of a formal declaration of independence", then that shoves what can and cannot be considered 'pro-independence' to the sidelines. It forces it to remain a fringe opinion and pushes everyone who holds it to sound radical, when it's not and they're not: it's mainstream. Pro-independence supporters are not a fringe element, so defining it to make them so is disingenuous and weak analysis. 

The second weak part was the discussion of the 'status quo'. The poll they cited is not particularly reliable; specifically, the questions are formed in such a way that if you're worried about a war of any kind, many with pro-independence leanings are going to choose 'the status quo'. What they're actually choosing isn't the 'status quo', which is not tenable and not desirable in and of itself. They're choosing sovereignty without war. 

That, again, is a functionally a pro-independence position. Any other interpretation relegates 'independence' to the fringe of Taiwanese political discourse, when it's not. 

While Oliver did mention that 'the status quo' can mean different things to different people, he didn't elaborate. When you talk about the status quo, you really have to point out the conditions under which people are answering: with guns to their heads. Literally, if you consider Chinese missiles and warplanes to just be fancy flying guns.

Who would choose the status quo if they did not have a gun to their head? Perhaps some people -- certainly some internal disputes about the name of the country would have to be worked out -- but I doubt it would be many.

Since 'the status quo' requires that much elaboration to be even remotely clear, I would not have gone with such a weak premise. It just wasn't the best choice if the time wasn't there to elaborate. That was to the segment's detriment. Instead, it's better to pick something that paints a clear picture, shows that there's some internal disagreement but also highlights the strong consensus that exists alongside it: Taiwanese identity. 

Around 70% of Taiwanese identify as solely Taiwanese. About a third identify as Taiwanese and Chinese, with other research showing most of those prioritize Taiwanese identity. About 2% -- less than the margin of error -- identify as solely Chinese.

That shows some internal divergence of opinion while clarifying that there is indeed a consensus, and that it's not to be a part of China, in whatever form that takes. "Status quo" data can be brought in to show that there's a strong preference not to fight a war if at all possible, but that's about all it's good for.

The second part I thought was just 'okay' was the section on Taiwan's armed forces. It's true that recruitment is down, the topic flows clearly from the previous point, and the video is amusing: I imagine that's why the writing team decided to include it. 

However, it has the side effect of once again making Taiwan seem more divided than it is. Nobody reasonable would argue that all Taiwanese are in alignment with their desires for Taiwan's future. I don't think any country can claim that (though many governments try to). But there is a consensus of sorts and it deserved to be sussed out a little more.

The armed forces are not having trouble recruiting because people are unwilling to fight China. Of course, nobody knows what they'd do in a real wartime situation, but polls show that most are, indeed, willing to defend their country. That's the best data we've got, so anyone wanting to imply Taiwanese would not fight needs to do a lot of legwork to prove that as the numbers are not on their side. I suspect most people willing to defend Taiwan aren't joining the military because they figure that if there's a real war, they'll be called up to fight anyway. That's reasonable! 

If ambivalence about China isn't the reason why military recruitment is low, then what is? Mostly that the military doesn't offer a great career path. It's not seen as desirable or something for 'intelligent' people to do, which is a shame when you have a defensive force facing a huge superpower like China. The pay is mediocre, and while you can retire young and get a good pension -- last I heard you could get 50% pay after leaving a military career at 40 -- overall it's just not a prestigious choice. 

The other reason has to do with Taiwan's own history. The military used to be the oppressors. Do you really expect the descendants of people the military routinely detained, disappeared, tortured and killed are going to be signing up in droves to train with them? To fight under that white sun and blue sky symbol that oppressed them for so long? I'm not Taiwanese, but the thought of doing that gives me the shakes. 

The military doesn't have a recruitment problem due to ambivalence about China. They have it because they don't provide attractive career opportunities, and retain some symbolism of an authoritarian past. 

Finally, I wasn't a big fan of starting out by calling Taiwan an "entity" (it's a country) and then using the verb "reunify" (which they do once because Xi Jinping says it -- fine -- but it comes out of Oliver's mouth once too. Less fine). He does, however, use the term "country" later on, which I acknowledged, and the show itself has said they tried to limit usage of "reunify" to parts where they were discussing the Xi/China viewpoint. That's fair. 

Don't take all this criticism too seriously

At the end, the segment sticks the landing. The messaging is on point, and the weaker parts don't detract from it. There are also things I would have included: Taiwan's amazing COVID response (yes, it's still amazing), marriage equality and other progressive credentials and perhaps a little less on the weaker 'status quo' and 'military' sections. 

But as it is, it's great work -- better than I expected from a Western media outlet, and better than anything Last Week Tonight's fellow satire news shows could have offered. Indeed, that's why I chose them for the petition and Facebook page.

I'm not dissecting it to discourage future media from taking on the topic of Taiwan: I'd love it of more of them did, and made an effort as earnest as Last Week Tonight in doing so. As I've said many times, really only friends and Taiwan insiders who already care about this country are likely to read Lao Ren Cha. The wider world won't, because it's a niche blog. So this is for the insiders, to see the segment disassembled and examined. It's not a warning to Western media that they can never do Taiwan well. 

Clearly they can, if they want to. Last Week Tonight just did!

This segment gets the right message in front of the right audience, which simply writing about Taiwan was never going to do. That's a win, and I'll take it.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Book Review -- Taiwan's Green Parties: Alternative Politics in Taiwan

Available from Routledge and on Amazon

Most political research and scholarship on Taiwan focuses on the major political parties, or at least the ones that have something of an election track record. Much energy has been spent dissecting the KMT and DPP from an academic perspective, and I suspect more successful small parties like the TPP and NPP will receive similar scrutiny in the future. Perhaps, given the New Party and People First Party’s erstwhile success, they’ll get some attention too. 

Then there are the tiny parties: the TSU (effectively dormant), the Social Democratic Party (whose only elected official happens to serve in my district), the Trees Party (still around?), the Statebuilding Party (perhaps an interesting subject of inquiry given that their only elected legislator was just recalled), Can’t Stop This Party (composed of Youtubers) the Minkuotang  (MKT, which later merged with another odd little party) and, of course, the Green Party Taiwan (GPT). 

Nobody seems to write about them much, mostly because they’re either quite new or don’t have much political influence. They don’t win a lot of seats, so they don’t get a lot of attention.

That has changed with Dafydd Fell’s Taiwan’s Green Parties: Alternative Politics in Taiwan, an insider account of the formation and evolution of the GPT, with ancillary-but-important looks into their frenemies, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the Judean People’s Front Trees Party. 

 “We’re the People’s Front of Judea…listen, the only thing we hate more than the Romans are the Judean People’s Front.”

When reading Taiwan’s Green Parties, I kept thinking about how, well, incestuous Taiwan’s progressive and activist political scene are. Many of the fallouts recounted in the book seem to be just as much the ups and downs of personal friendships — and friendships often end — as they are any real difference in concrete political beliefs or policy ideas. The Trees Party didn’t form because they are different in ideology from the GPT. They formed because they had different approaches to the same ends, and they realized they were being marginalized in the GPT. Imagine finding out you weren’t invited to movie night, because the new guy has convinced everyone you’re awful for always ordering pepperoni pizza instead of only vegetarian options. Yes, we’re talking about you in the group chat.

The Green Party went on to form a brief alliance with the SDP, only to have it fall apart with recriminations on both sides. Again, the SDP and Green Party aren’t really that different in ideology and you can be sure they all know each other. They — and everyone else in their ideological ballpark — all attend the same lectures, readings and protests. They probably go to the same cafes. The DPP can poach them because the DPP has already recruited some of their friends. (Yes, that is how it works.) 

In this respect, the Statebuilding Party seems to be actively forging a different path: forming in southern Taiwan and not necessarily recruiting from the same pool of Taipei cafe-goers. For that alone, they’re worth keeping an eye on, especially as their one legislator has just been recalled. In fact, future comparisons between Statebuilding and GPT might be interesting to consider: of the KMT revenge recalls, the NPP have survived whereas the GPT’s Wang Hao-yu (defected to the DPP right around the time of his recall) and Statebuilding Party’s Chen Po-wei have both gone down. Statebuilding actively avoids recruiting from the same pool of activists but will form alliances with them, whereas GPT can’t seem to form lasting alliances, and doesn’t seem to realize that the frequent poaching they experience is indeed detrimental.

On this claustrophobic theme, it also struck me how small Taiwan politics really is. I’m nobody at all, neither an academic nor an activist, and I’ve personally met enough people mentioned by name in this book that it might take more than one hand to count them. Mostly, we’ve perhaps talked briefly at the same gathering. In one case, a good friend’s name popped up, as it always seems to. 

As for the research itself, it’s impeccable. For details, head to Frozen Garlic’s review. He’s a trained political scientist, I’m not. In more general terms, however, I appreciated how in looking through the GPT’s past, Fell adjusts the benchmarks that might be used to determine whether a party is competitive, and then goes to some length to justify that modification. It has a magnifying effect: from far away, using benchmarks met by parties with records of real electoral success, the GPT looks like a failure from start to finish. Zooming in, however, and adjusting the scale and field accordingly, the ups and downs of the GPT can be better teased out and analyzed. 

Frozen Garlic categorizes these waves as “clear failure,” “dismal failure” and “utter failure”. He’s not wrong, but looking at what factors underpinned each era of various failures still provides a wealth of information on what it’s like to work for a small party, how these parties get funding and how much, how they campaign (or not) and how they interact with each other as well as other parties. 

From that time I met SDP politician Miao Po-ya, who gets a mention in the book. 

The short of it: it’s stressful. It isn’t a way to build an actual paid career — instead, dedicated members find themselves pouring their own funds into keeping the party afloat. It’s a constant balancing act between trying to figure out how to get votes, and sticking to your principles. But then you make that choice, and others in your party strike that balance differently, and that disagreement spills over into disorganization: not just presenting a chaotic face but actually being unable to get their act together. Then the elections come and go and, while perhaps the GPT could have won more if they’d been better able to cooperate and seize very obvious opportunities that came their way, they don’t. Recriminations follow — either their leaders were too focused on votes and blowing up social media, or not nearly focused enough on actually wining votes. People leave. Perhaps they are poached by the DPP, or leave politics, or start a new party. A new era begins…

Through all this, this same group of people seems to be more interested in dissecting ideological differences or severing ties with each other than it does facing any sort of common enemy. This is why they can’t seem to agree on a coherent policy regarding how much support to give the DPP, work with other small parties on their own side to form alliances or even take a clear line on national identity, even though they have one. They can’t work with the ideologically similar SDP, they’ll work with the TPP (often seen as light blue) to attack their ideological cousins the NPP, but one of their candidates did a photo op with an MKT candidate because it made sense vis-a-vis local Hakka clan affiliations — even though the GPT and MKT are worlds apart? Hm. I would question the strategizing, to put it mildly.

Because the GPT tries to be more about ideals than building a political legacy, they not only have very little influence in actual politics -- all of the things the more powerful parties have done in line with the GPT’s ideas don’t seem to have been inspired by the GPT in any direct way). It’s hard to keep committed people this way, however. If there isn’t a realistic path to actual political impact through the GPT, you’re going to get true believers — those are great, but people do need money to live. So only a few of the most committed will actually do the work, and everyone else will float in and out.

Why? Because while they may agree on the politics, there’s a point at which people start focusing on building actual careers. So often, activism takes a backseat. And the ones doing the work complain about how disorganized it is, how branches of the party are withering, how people aren’t showing up. And to be honest, it seems they've got a point.

When someone does get an opportunity — to, say, garner some support from a popular presidential candidate like Tsai Ing-wen, or work in a DPP cabinet in environmental affairs — they face criticism from their original party for selling out. I would ask: are you really sticking to your ideals if you are insisting on paths that will obviously and clearly never lead to getting any of those ideals enshrined in policy? At what point does an idealist act as contrary to their own ideals as they claim the “sellout” does, if they’re always creating their own insurmountable hurdles to getting their ideas injected into popular and influential discourse? 

If a party can’t figure out who your own voters are and where to focus your efforts, is that party indeed showing more ideological purity than those who choose differently, and actually get some change pushed through? What good is ideology if you can't win a lick of influence?

Other than squabbling, factionalism and general disorganization, there was some discussion of the GPT’s actual platforms, and to what extent other parties, activists and voters were even aware of them. One interviewee noted how challenging it was to clarify these positions: when you post a policy analysis and proposals on Facebook you get essentially zero attention. When you post an attack on a hated figure like Han Kuo-yu, the views, likes and comments come pouring in. Other parties seem to think the GPT only cares about the environment, and the GPT doesn’t seem to have done much to counter this except ask people to read their charter. 

I sympathize with this: as a blogger I know what it’s like to see something ultimately meaningless take off, when your favorite or most in-depth work doesn’t. However, every other party of moderate success has figured out this balance. The GPT could do this, if it could set goals, agree on them and work towards them as a cohesive and organized unit. What doesn’t work is telling people to do more work to learn these things. They won’t. It doesn’t matter if they should. They won’t. 

Another thing that jumped out at me while reading Taiwan’s Green Parties, which is an unqualified positive for the GPT: their willingness to engage globally. I don’t just mean their work with the Global Greens, but also intra-party. Robin Winkler is a naturalized Taiwanese citizen who seriously considered running for office more than once (I don’t think any other party has considered running a naturalized citizen, but correct me if I’m wrong). Linda Arrigo headed their international affairs department. While every party is willing to employ foreigners, the GPT seems a breed apart in not just welcoming people like Arrigo and Winkler, but not necessarily thinking of them as different or ‘apart’ simply because they’re not originally from Taiwan. 

All in all, however, Taiwan’s Green Parties is an excellent book — equal parts enjoyable reading and academically grounded — and well worth a read for anyone interested in obscure corners of Taiwanese politics, especially on the left. It's academic, but written engagingly. However, the ideal reader will already have a strong notion of Taiwanese party politics before they pick up this book, so as to properly contextualize the names, small parties and other affiliations that crop up. 

Recommended food pairing for Taiwan’s Green Parties: a pint at your local and lots of popcorn

Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Chen Po-wei recall: a local victory for the KMT at the cost of national goodwill?

I don't have a relevant cover photo, so enjoy a pleasant one.

I'm tired and sad, but I have a few thoughts on the Chen Po-wei (陳柏惟) recall.  Also I was writing this during the big earthquake today so I'm both literally and figuratively all shaken up.

Update: Yep, I didn't think to check the predictive text on his name. Fixed now.

Since I'm just not feeling it today, I'll let someone else -- probably Frozen Garlic -- do the numbers properly. But, from a quick look, it seems that while turnout would have been enough to unseat Chen under the old recall system (it just about topped 50%, which was the old turnout threshold), the signatures needed to recall him would not have been sufficient in the first place. 

But the recall did happen, and he did lose his seat, and I have thoughts.

First, many note that the reformed recall procedures were actually a push from the left -- mostly post-Sunflower Movement activists after a failed attempt to recall the widely-hated legislator Tsai Cheng-yuan (蔡正元). Now, they seem to be used exclusively by the KMT to go after small-party Third Force types, as revenge for the DPP daring to back an ultimately successful recall of Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) from the Kaohsiung mayorship. 

Did the activists pushing for the relaxation of recall procedures know the opposition would use it against them, or did they unwittingly provide the weapon of their own defeat?

From everything I know, it's the former. The groups that pushed for recall reform are not made up of unintelligent people incapable of forethought. Of course they were aware that the KMT would use it against them. So either they thought the KMT's days as a popular party capable of successfully unseating opposition lawmakers were numbered if not over, or they believed so singularly and purely in the fundamental correctness of changing the regulations for the betterment of society that they were willing to face the future obstacles they put in their own way. 

Think Socrates and the hemlock -- the elementary-school history version of it, anyway. 

You can commend these activists for pushing through something they felt was inherently right for society, even knowing they were handing a weapon to the bad guys. I don't. Honestly, if we're not dealing with critical human rights such as freedom of expression, assembly, religion, non-discrimination etc., I just don't think changing the requirements of a recall threshold count is one of those vitally important things. 

Yes, the old thresholds (13% of eligible voter signatures to get a vote, over 50% turnout on that vote) were high, and yes, the Republic of China guarantees citizens the right to recall elections -- it was part of Sun Yat-sen's original philosophy and is enshrined in the constitution. Yes, reform would not have been a bad thing. But did the new ones really need to be so low? Frozen Garlic thinks not, and I agree. The pan-greens and left did not need to stake so much on those specific new rules. Certainly, there's nothing ethically or morally "better" about the current 10% of voters needed to sign a petition and 25% of voters needed to actually recall.

While the pan-blue forces -- and all their patronage networks/gangster friends/local factionistas -- have had a spotty record on actually recalling people, they've also been the only ones trying. Typically, they've targeted not DPP legislators but people from minor parties, succeeding about half them time. Huang Kuo-chang (NPP) and Huang Chieh (now former NPP) survived, Wang Hao-yu (Green Party until just before the recall, then switched to the DPP, which didn't save him) and now Chen did not.

They're going after independent legislator Freddy Lim (林昶佐) next: we'll see what happens.

On the other side, you could say that the pan-greens are trying to use the recall responsibly: they've only turned it on Han Kuo-yu. But Han had dug his own grave: I'm speculating here, but Han probably would have lost re-election on his own. Recalling him saved Kaohsiung from bad governance -- he was pretty clearly not doing his job -- and had a morale-boosting effect for the pan-greens. 

Now that the KMT is consistently using the same recall tools, however, the DPP and Third Force essentially can't. It would become an expensive, time-wasting, pointless game of dueling recalls, which won't foster any goodwill with any voters. 

I'm generally on the Third Force's side in most things. That said, I honestly think reforming the recall procedures as they did was a bad idea and was not worth the eventual cost. I don't care how strongly they believed in it. It wasn't a good call. You do the right thing against your own best interests when it's human rights on the line, when it really matters -- this amounted to shooting themselves in the foot over recall thresholds that could have been lower, but never needed to be that low for any reason pertaining to any greater good. 

There is hope, though. The KMT recalled a young, energetic, high-profile legislator from the left who, while friendly with the DPP, is not the DPP. They attacked him over ractopamine pork, but they're the same party that voted through ractopamine beef: it's just not a valid complaint from them. They said he wasn't doing his job, but unlike with Han, I see no evidence that was actually the case. And he's not only locally prominent, but nationally as the first elected legislator from a small, new, overtly pro-independence party. 

What does the KMT have to offer in Chen's place? More under-the-table politics, more geezers or sons-of-geezers, more gangster-affiliated factional crap in Taichung. More of the same. Nothing inspirational. 

Perhaps the KMT thought this would be a galvanizing moment for them, the way Han's recall was for the pan-greens. But I doubt it: whoever takes Chen's place is going to be a local factional pol, not a nationally-popular figure. They may gain one seat in the legislature, but I don't see this as particularly beneficial for them simply because they have nothing to offer but more of the same. This is unlikely to have much positive effect beyond the actual seat they just opened up.

That it was an obvious revenge recall and not based on any unfitness or incompetence on Chen's part, however, will likely galvanize the exact people they are seeking to demoralize -- the pan-greens. They're pissed. They know what this is and they're gonna fight harder because of it. 

The KMT tried to send the message that if you mess with them, they'll go after your most prominent figures, and sometimes succeed in taking them out. 

The message they actually sent was "we're shitheads and you can't trust us to use the tools of democracy responsibly." Not on a local scale, perhaps. Not in that particular district -- but nationally. 

Imagine a weird gun that, every time you take a shot at an opponent, whether you hit your target or not, also discharges a bullet into your foot. It doesn't take you out completely, but you injure yourself a little more every time you use it. Nobody would ever design such a weapon, but that's how I picture the current state of recalls in Taiwan.

I can only hope that by handing the KMT a potent weapon in recall reform, that the activists who pushed it through will ultimately benefit in an unlikely way: the KMT will use it so much, so viciously and so clearly without grounds or reason, that for every shot they fire at the pan-greens, whether they take someone out or not, they're also shooting themselves in the foot. 

Monday, October 18, 2021

There are only wrong answers when you ask the "Taiwan Question"

Armenian refugees in Athens, taken some time after 1924

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, scholars, diplomats, those generally interested in international politics and people I would call "Ottoman Watchers" -- though the term almost certainly did not exist -- discussed and debated the "Armenian Question" at length. The decline of the Ottoman Empire saw the rise of the "Hamidian massacres" of Armenians in the 1890s and eventually the 1915 genocide perpetrated by the Young Turks.

The ethno-nationalist beliefs of the otherwise liberal-seeming Young Turks was lifted directly from European nationalism, on the rise since the 1840s. The independence and self-determination movements of this emerging nationalist sentiment might be considered a form of liberalism, but strong (conservative) ethno-nationalist currents undercut that. 

While these slaughters took place leading up to the Armenian Genocide, the talkers talked. The dandies dandied. The parlor-chatters parlayed. The salon-occupiers occupied themselves. How to solve the Armenian Question? Whatever was to be done with the Armenians? Those far-away orientals?

(Yes, it's true that I just about the whitest lady who ever whited. I don't deny that or the privilege attached to it, even though an entire branch of my family were considered 'Eastern' until very recently.) 

My ancestors lived and died through that. One of my direct ancestors was a victim, murdered by the Kemalist forces in Smyrna in 1922. Two other direct ancestors died in the refugee camp at Port Said after the successful defense of Musa Dagh in 1915 (although they were too old to have played a part in the actual fighting). Others lost siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. That side of my family is littered with the names of people who died between 1915 and 1922. Except they did not just die -- they were massacred.

My great-great grandfather Hagop, murdered by Kemalists in Smyrna

It was so unspeakably horrific that an old folk song, Nubari Boye (Nubar's Height), went from being a lovely ode from a girl to her sweetheart describing his height, his brow and handsome build to an elegiac song symbolizing the death of so many of those sweethearts.

It seemed the Armenian Question had an answer, at least for the "debaters" in drawing rooms and cafes far away. It wasn't the "right" answer, because that doesn't exist. Their answer, however, appears to have been do
 nothing at all and just let them be slaughtered

But I am sure they were very intellectually stimulating debates indeed. 

My great-great-great grandparents, whom I believe (from what evidence I have) died at the Port Said refugee camp after the Musa Dagh resistance

Now, the Communist Party of China is drawing fire for its "final solution" to the "Taiwan Question". Many have pointed out the similarity in language to the Nazis' "final solution" -- that is, the Holocaust. Something everyone with a heart and soul has agreed should never be allowed to happen again. 

Obviously, this is horrifying. That should not need to be said. I simply cannot believe that whoever wrote in Chinese state-run media that there was a "final solution" to the Taiwan question was unaware of the connotations of that abominable phrase. 

While this has been going on, the other half of that statement hasn't drawn quite as much fire. I understand why: it's just not as powerfully unacceptable as the other term which appears in the same sentence. 

I do want to point it out, however.

The "Armenian Question" was not the only question asked in those decades. There was a "Jewish Question" too. That question was answered in much the same way as the Armenian Question: it was discussed a lot, and then a genocide was ultimately allowed to happen.

An Armenian refugee settlement in Athens after WWI

Even the Ottoman Empire's allies, the Central Powers, did nothing. Germany did nothing, even as their own ambassador, Henry Morgenthau, documented the horrors he saw. He wasn't the only one.

If that's the answer to the question -- discuss it at length as an interesting intellectual debate at a far remove from one's own personal, emotional or empathetic concerns until ultimately there is a slaughter ending in massive and heartbreaking loss of life -- then what are we to make today of the "Taiwan Question"?

Are we going to debate it as an abstract notion in international affairs, or are we going to see that Chinese threats against Taiwan are very real, very violent, and could end in the massacre of millions as an annexationist CCP attempts (and quite possibly succeeds) at subjugating Taiwan, with no rational justification?

Because that is what will happen if we treat this like an abstraction or a debate, but ultimately do little or nothing. That is what China is intending to happen -- they don't even try to hide it. They talk openly about meting out punishment to "Taiwanese independence supporters" and "splittists", knowing full well that most Taiwanese identify as solely Taiwanese and do not support unification, which by China's definition, makes them "splittists". That, again, is millions of people. 

It's not just Chinese media saying this, either. China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs uses the term. Here it is from an American think tank saying they care about "safeguarding peace", while using language that implies anything but. Here's an article from a legal scholar in Singapore using it (it isn't a very good article). That's just the first page of results. 


What will it take to convince the self-important debaters that China is genocidal and means to engage in further massacre?

We're asking the same questions, in the same salons, the same sort of callow bloviators in different hairstyles and clothing. We're doing exactly what people did before: debating at a remove, refusing to actually try to answer the question, until the question gets answered by the wrong people and millions die. 

Why do we do this? Because answering the question honestly requires one to grapple with the very real paradox: we keep saying we won't let it happen again, but we don't want to go to war to stop it. We know that actually engaging with the threat these questions pose to the lives of millions of people far away means we can't do nothing. And it's so much easier to do nothing, and then debate the next question. Write papers about it, maybe publish books or articles and pretend this is all useful work and helpful fucking debate.

But is it useful work, if it doesn't prevent the next bloody -- literally bloody -- question from being asked?

It is hard to imagine how my ancestors must have felt, hearing about the Armenian Question. I know they heard about it, because even though the people talking about them far away assumed those 'orientals' weren't listening or didn't understand, they fucking did. And I know they did, because they all spoke not just Western Armenian but English, or French, or Arabic, or any combination of these. 

But I can imagine this: they most likely heard about the Armenian Question and thought simply:

I'm not a question. I'm a person.


Although it's hard to say, I believe this is my great-grandmother as a teenager, not long before her father was dragged away in front of her and murdered

It is not as hard to imagine how Taiwanese must feel when people ask the "Taiwan Question."  I'm not Taiwanese, but I do live here. This is my permanent home, I will fight for it, and those missiles are pointed at my house too.

They are not questions. They are people. 

Millions of people who will die unless the world realizes that there is no right way to answer these kinds of questions. Either you do the right thing, or you don't, but debating people's lives as an abstraction as they face an imminent threat to their survival is not useful. It's not even particularly intellectual. It's just cruel.

History repeats itself in other ways, too. The Chinese government denies the current Uyghur Genocide in much the same way the Turkish government insists the Armenian Genocide never happened. But of course it did. I know that not just because I grew up knowing my great-grandmother, a survivor, but extensive documentary evidence (including telegrams) as well as past admissions by the Turkish government that it had: a Turkish court condemned the exiled perpetrators to death in absentia. A monument to the genocide existed in what is not Gezi Park in Istanbul until Kemalists took it down in 1922.

And China will either speak the truth about Taiwan knowing few are really listening, or they'll attempt to lie about it. This is how it goes. This is the fascist playbook.

This descendant of genocide survivors -- except not all of them survived -- has not forgiven the historical figures who talked about the Armenians at length but ultimately did nothing. Who took a goddamn century to even recognize the Armenian Genocide. 


My great-grandfather -- he joined the resistance despite having been a loyal military officer, but ultimately lost a brother and several other relatives in the genocide

And she won't forgive you in the future, if you continue to ask questions that cannot be answered as intellectual exercises, and do nothing until the people you are talking about are slaughtered.

Perhaps it doesn't matter that I won't forgive you, but I can tell you this: history won't forgive you either. 

Me (the older kid) with my great-grandmother. She passed when I was about 13.


A reward for reading through this absolute howl, this scream from the belly: Zepyuri Nman (Like a Zephyr), all about how this guy'll come from the mountains like a gentle breeze and put his sword in his sweetheart's garden. Not joking. Those are the lyrics. Enjoy.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

A long ramble, from Harvard's decision to the earnest roots of bad opinions


I usually choose photos for metaphorical reasons -- I don't have a clear reason why I selected this one but I think it works. Draw your own conclusions.

Anyone reading this has surely heard by now that a popular summer language program that Harvard University held in China until recently is now being moved to Taiwan. The program director cited a chilly attitude from the Beijing host university as well as logistical factors -- for instance, separating the students into two dorms of quite different quality -- for the decision. 

The program offered not just language study but chances to travel around the country and learn about Chinese culture and history. Now, all of that will be happening in Taiwan, which means traveling around this country and learning about its own unique culture and history.

From the New York Times:

The program’s director, Jennifer L. Liu, told The Harvard Crimson that the move had been driven by a perceived lack of friendliness on the part of the Chinese host institution, the Beijing Language and Culture University. Harry J. Pierre, a Harvard spokesman, said, “The planned move of this program from Beijing to Taiwan has been considered for some time and reflects a wide array of operational factors.”

Other people contacted for comment said it was a purely logistical move and that Harvard was not looking to cut its ties in China. That could just be the opinion of one professor, or it could be a band-aid statement. But if it was truly just a logistical move, why say this?

“It is hoped that in the free academic atmosphere of National Taiwan University, we can lay a solid Mandarin foundation for the excellent students of Harvard,” the university said in a statement.

Frankly, however, I don't care what the actual reasons are for the switch. It doesn't really matter. This is going to be a fantastic chance for students interested in the 'Sinophone' world and studying Mandarin to be exposed to Taiwan. Perhaps this is one of the few times that having Mandarin as a main language in Taiwan is actually helpful for the country, rather than just more evidence of KMT-imported cultural and linguistic imperialism. 

This is a no-brainer, but I feel like it's worth spelling out: these sorts of positive experiences and interactions are the backbone of connections to the international community for Taiwan, and they also foster general goodwill among people who might go on to careers or positions of influence where being well-disposed towards Taiwan will be to Taiwan's benefit.

When one encounters something in a positive way and have good experiences with it, whatever values are transmitted or embedded in that experience (intentionally or not) are going to be more likely to influence that person. These can be toward a greater good, or they can be detrimental.

I'm going to go off-topic here to try and make a larger point: a good friend of mine described the negative end of this perfectly once, when discussing the more unfortunate side of how this works. 

Imagine you're this Western guy, you come to Taiwan and you meet a really wonderful woman. She's smart, beautiful, fun, cool -- and you even like her family. They're so welcoming and friendly. You date and maybe marry this woman. And she, along with her whole family, are these deep-blue KMT supporters. You don't speak much Mandarin (maybe you learn it, maybe not, most likely not all that well) so as far as you can tell, whatever they're saying about society must be right, because they're so great, and they're from here. They must know, they're Taiwanese! And they can be trusted because you know they're good people, right? And you don't really understand what TVBS is blathering on about in the background, or if you do you're so used to it that you don't register that they're about as reliable as Fox News. 

So then you go online, or to a social event, and you come across people discussing Taiwanese politics in English. Some are Westerners, some not. And they seem to just really hate all the people your wonderful wife and friendly in-laws like. Perhaps they're even saying KMT voters are terrible -- but they're literally your family! In fact, they don't seem to understand Taiwan at all, because what they're saying sounds so different from the pro-KMT narrative you've picked up from this really positive experience. 

Of course, you defend your wife's and in-laws' views, which you've come to see as reasonable and correct, and you're surprised that all that anger gets spewed at you now. And you're confused about why. Your pan-blue local fam is so nice, and these online haters are so mean, of course you're just going to dig in. 

And poof, you have the odd pro-KMT Westerner who doesn't get why their views on Taiwan are not cool at all, and actually deeply misrepresent Taiwanese history. 

(I use a heterosexual male example here but it's certainly not limited to them. It just seems to be mostly them.)

Now, think of that in terms of China.

You're a college student. You got into Harvard so you're either very smart or very rich (perhaps both, but probably not). You take an interest in Chinese, and sign up for this awesome study abroad program in China. You're aware that China is authoritarian, but you either don't care (if you're rich), or you earnestly don't want to judge people based on their government (if you're smart). 

You go, and you have this amazing time. The Great Wall is stunning! Your Chinese classmates are so friendly! Beijing is so historic! You're learning so much and seeing the world. You take various culture-related classes and fall in love with Chinese culture. You're impressed by the sheer history of it. And all your new friends in China -- who are welcoming and friendly -- also seem to think their government is fine, or at least they don't say it's not. And they're Chinese so they must be right! So your interest in China only deepens based on this amazing experience you've had.  

Then you return to the US and hear all this criticism of China, sometimes by people who've never been to China. You've never been to Taiwan, so you don't have any emotional attachment to it, and anyway in China it was just treated as part of China so you passively absorb that. You think this is ridiculous -- you've been there, it was such an amazing experience, and the portrayal of this "genocidal" and "totalitarian" "surveillance" state doesn't at all match your experience. After all, the government never seemed to be watching you stumble back to your dorm drunk at 4am.

(They probably were, but that's beside the point.)

Of course you feel angry, even speak up. No, we should be deepening our connections with this beautiful country I was so fortunate to visit. We should be engaging them! It's really not so bad! All those critics are so awful, and my Chinese friends are great. So if the critics say there's a genocide but in China I saw no evidence of that, those critics must be wrong or at least it's debatable, right? And Tiananmen was a long time ago, the square looks peaceful now, it's really not a big deal. And look how many people they lifted out of poverty! Does it really matter if it's not a democracy?

And since it's really not so bad, why are people so opposed to Taiwan being governed by China? It's a great country! And Taiwanese speak Mandarin and have the same culture and history, I mean for most of history it was China, right? We really don't need to move to the brink of war over this, do we? And I heard a lot of those "pro-democracy" protesters liked Trump!

I can't say this happens to everyone who studies Mandarin in China, but it's certainly a contributing factor. They go there, have a good experience, and then come back and wonder why everyone's so critical of this "evil" government in a place where they've just had a great time. 

Some might go on to be influential people. Others might go into "Sinology" (hate that word), continue to study Mandarin, or at least retain their connection to China. 

And boom, you get a whole bunch of China experts who are weirdly accommodating and defensive of the absolutely horrific, genocidal Chinese government.

Not all, to be sure. There are those who love the language, cultures and history but not the government, but I've come across enough 'China experts' who will go to bat for the CCP (or at least favor engaging with genocidal dictators) to know it's a thing. 

I'm willing to bet most of them think that their overall pro-China view is part of a larger pro-Asia view, or an integral part of advocacy for Asia. They probably don't realize that China isn't very well-liked in Asia, and standing with other Asian countries is better for the region than being friendly with the CCP.

I also know this because of how close I came to being like that. I didn't formally study Mandarin in China, I just taught English there for a year (whoopty-doo, I know). But I was interested in the country and might've come away feeling more accommodative toward the government if my time there had gone differently. I did have an interesting time, but I wouldn't say it was great. 

I did notice, for example, that I was indeed being monitored to some degree and that made me uneasy.  I got sick a lot, and the pollution was a factor. I made local friends, but I had foreign ones too, and we weren't being shepherded around on a study program. So if one of us felt something was a bit dodgy -- like, oh, realizing that our employer seemed to have far too much knowledge about where we were when not working -- we could touch base and see that we were not imagining things. 

Though I don't talk about it much, I also had a particular experience there that will never leave me. At my going-away party, the younger brother of the school owner got way too drunk and told all the foreigners about how he'd watched his best friend get shot in the head at Tiananmen Square. He'd been there. I'll never know why he told us exactly, but very drunk and these foreigners aren't going to blab and I am subconsciously looking for a way to express this trauma were probably factors.

And I came with an inoculation that so few Americans get from their education system: a Social Studies teacher who actually talked about Taiwan, even though it hadn't been in the curriculum. He'd fought in the Korean War and apparently spent some time here, and kept up with what was going on in the country. So by the time I went to China, I already knew that Taiwan was democratic, that a lot of Taiwanese did not want "unification", that both Chiang and Mao were horrible men who did horrible things, but Mao was worse (or at least, he did horrible things on a grander scale).

So when friendly Chinese people I met would speak of how great their government is, or just treat Taiwan as though it were obviously and irreversibly Chinese, I already knew to smile while inwardly rolling my eyes.

But I could have very easily cultivated a totally different attitude, and be preaching "engaging with China" and "deepening ties" as a Shanghai-based blogger if those cards had not fallen as they did. 

And you'd all hate me. You'd be really mean on social media -- I know I'm mean to the tankies -- and I'd obviously fall back on my amazing experience in China and dismiss you all as haters. My politics lean left and I've worked through a lot of frustration with the slowness of the democratic process, so I might have truly ended up a communist or even a tankie. I hope good sense and a moral compass would've prevented that, but most of us think we have good sense and a moral compass, even those of us who don't. 

Anyway, point is, all that goodwill toward China that program likely fostered among eager Harvarders Harvodians Harvardites Harveoles Harvardi Crimsonosi Cantibrigians (I looked it up) is now going to be fostered toward free, democratic, amazing Taiwan.

And because we can talk about things like Tiananmen Square, Taiwanese identity, Tibet, the Uyghur genocide and more, they'll not only learn the (better, prettier) Traditional characters but also get a more accurate picture of what the rest of Asia really thinks of Chinese aggression.

At the very least, they'll be exposed to a world where the pro-China view is not the default pro-Asia view.


Sunday, October 10, 2021

Xi's speech is a nothingburger, but watch out for the media


I wish the rest of the world would treat the wishes of Taiwan as seriously as they do Xi Jinping's blathering

So, yesterday Xi Jinping gave this big "Taiwan speech" that had been announced well in advance. As my husband pointed out, these speeches are hardly worth paying attention to unless you're seeking confirmation of what you already know, but they're always guaranteed to make headlines. 

What could he possibly say, however, that would be new? He wasn't going to say "the bombing of Taiwan will begin in one hour", nor was he going to say "actually I've decided this whole 'Taiwan' thing is silly and we're just going to let them live in peace". So the only possible roads this thing could take would be a.) moving closer to threatening use of force or b.) moving away from threatening use of force. That's it. 

And that's exactly what happened. It was the same old rhetoric: there must be "reunification", it can take place under "one country two systems" as it has with Hong Kong -- nevermind that Hong Kong is a massive failure that Taiwan should avoid emulating at all costs -- that this is an "internal matter", and that it would be best if it were done by "peaceful means". 

Reading between the lines, Xi is basically saying that they're going to keep up the status quo of shaking a stick at Taiwan and calling it a carrot (as though they think the Taiwanese are not smart enough to tell the difference), they'll keep buzzing Taiwan's ADIZ and they'll keep fuming at international support for Taiwan, but they're not likely to actually start a war right now. I suppose that counts as "good news" these days.

Xi knows that this is how it'll play out, because he's perfectly aware that Taiwanese aren't interested in any kind of unification. They want to avoid a war, and will go to great lengths to maintain peace -- including maintaining the fiction of a 'status quo', when the truth is that Taiwan is already independent -- but actually becoming part of China is off the table. Frankly, it always will be. Once a group of people who have governed themselves competently in a unified territory for a long time have decided they have an identity, a history and a set of more-or-less shared civic values, they are essentially a nation. That's not the sort of thing that regresses back towards submission to some other identity they simply do not hold, under a government they can never accept.

So, he can talk about 'peaceful' unification, but he knows it's not going to happen. This speech was basically an "ok, we won't bomb you...yet". In other words, it was nothing.

The media has emphasized Xi's use of the word "peaceful", but note that he did not exactly renounce the use of force so much as not call upon it. He didn't say China would never use force, but that they'd prefer not to. So, again -- nothing.

None of this is particularly interesting, but it does give me the opportunity to point out that the media is doing what the media always does: ascribe "tensions" to anything but China. Tensions can be raised by Taiwan, or they can pop out of thin air, but as far as the international media is concerned, they never originate from China. 

Here are a few clips. From the BBC:

Despite the recent heightened tensions, relations between China and Taiwan have not deteriorated to levels last seen in 1996 when China tried to disrupt presidential elections with missile tests and the US dispatched aircraft carriers to the region to dissuade them.

Where do the 'heightened tensions' come from, BBC? Tell us!

The BBC also offered us this gem:

Taiwan considers itself a sovereign state, while China views it as a breakaway province.

Please forgive your less-informed readers for not knowing who actually runs Taiwan after reading this, because you certainly both-sidesify this into abstract confusion. 

To be clear: Taiwanese already run Taiwan, they commonly call their country Taiwan (only the KMT beats the "Republic of China" drum and they're neither popular nor in power), they identify as Taiwanese and their government is sovereign. It doesn't consider itself a sovereign state. It is a sovereign state, and in pretending there's a "status quo" issue or something still "undetermined" about that is simply Taiwanese being super conciliatory because they don't want war. "Okay if it stops you from bombing us we'll pretend the issue is not already resolved on our end", when it actually has been for awhile now.

That's it.

From CNN:

The speech comes amid rising military tensions in the Taiwan Strait. Over four days in early October, the Chinese military flew almost 150 fighter jets, nuclear-capable bombers, anti-submarine aircraft and airborne early warning and control planes into Taiwan's Air Defense Identification Zone, according to the island's Defense Ministry.

"Amid rising military tensions"? Who is raising those tensions, CNN? You say it in the next sentence: the Chinese military. Chinese fighter jets. Chinese incursons. Why can't you just say that the tensions are caused by China?

CNN's take is actually worse than the BBC's:


Speaking in the Great Hall of the People to commemorate the 110th anniversary of the revolution that ended the country's last imperial dynasty, Xi said the biggest obstacle to the reunification of China was the "Taiwan independence" force.

Note that in the headline, "reunification" is at least in quotes (acceptable), but here it's presented as-is. Why? Taiwan and the PRC have never been unified. What's this "re-" business?

And who is this "'Taiwan independence' force"? Reading this, you'd think it was a small group of separatists when in fact it's the consensus view of most Taiwanese that they are not a part of China, they are not Chinese in the sense China demands, and they don't wish to be.

From The Guardian:

China’s president, Xi Jinping, has vowed to realise “reunification” with Taiwan by peaceful means, after a week of heightened tensions in the Taiwan strait.

Who is raising the tensions, The Guardian? China. Do your readers a service and just say so.


Tensions across the Taiwan strait have been running high in recent weeks. In the first four days of October, for example, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) sent nearly 150 planes into Taiwan’s air defence identification (ADIZ) zone.

Once again, why do you not ascribe these tensions to China, before immediately describing a series of actions undertaken only by China? Please just call these tensions what they are.

Meanwhile, according to the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, about two dozen US special forces soldiers and an unspecified number of marines have been training Taiwanese forces, in the latest indication of the extent of US involvement in the tensions in the area.


From the Taiwanese side there are no tensions. Taiwan is preparing because China is creating tensions. The US is standing by an important strategic partner under threat from an unreliable, authoritarian, genocidal bully. So say that.

At least The Guardian includes a Taiwanese perspective at the very end, where Premier Su rightly notes that all of these tensions come from China:

Speaking shortly before Xi, Taiwan’s premier, Su Tseng-chang, noted that China had been “flexing its muscles” and causing regional tensions.

But it does feel like they sort of 'tacked on' an alternative viewpoint rather than noting that Su's statement is simply accurate.

Anyone who watches these issues knows that the tensions do, in fact, originate entirely with China. Taiwan wants peace, period. As a friend noted, it would be helpful if China could provide us with a Tension-o-Meter which could tell us the exact level of tensions at any given time, and that meter would be accurate as China is the one who determines the tension level.

It starts and ends with them. Taiwan has done all it can to maintain peace without abrogating its freedom or dignity. Although the international media has done a slightly better job of including the Taiwanese response, and (usually) putting "reunification" in quotes, I'm still waiting for them to report this accurately.

Here, as a little dessert, have some memes: