Sunday, November 27, 2022

Notes on that Big Kylo Energy in Taipei

I absolutely borrowed the idea for using this movie still from someone else, but my sentiments are exactly the same. Very little about yesterday was a surprise to me, but it still hurts when the city you call home decides that the least qualified candidate, who worships his Mass Murder Grandpa and Even Mass Murderier Great Grandpa, should be mayor. 

I respect the democratic process and all, the people have spoken. I happen to disagree with their choice -- I'm really not a fan of Mass Murder Grandpa -- but hey, that's democracy. The losers lost with grace, lowering the voting age should have passed but didn't, and I'm not feeling great about it today.

You won't get any super original takes here: I don't comment as much on elections anymore because there are people out there (like Courtney Donovan Smith and Nathan Batto) who do a better job. All I have are some notes.

First, more people voted to lower the voting age than voted against it, but it still didn't have enough overall "yes" votes to pass. I happen to think that this isn't just the KMT perfunctorily 'agreeing' with the DPP to take the wind out of their electoral issue sails. It's very difficult to change things when voting is already skewed in favor of older people, and those older people very much have an unjustified "kids these days!" view. Plus, they know perfectly well that those "kids" mostly won't vote for the conservative hucksters they want in office. Progressives have shown they can sweep individual elections, but systemic change is far more difficult to implement. 

On the reasons why the vote broke down as it did, the best take I've found is Wen-ti Sung's on Twitter. Here's a long snippet, organized into paragraphs:

DPP main progressive agenda this electoral cycle is lowering voting age to 18, hoping to use it to paint rival KMT as conservative boomers.

But this got neutralized politically, 'coz this time KMT actually agrees, ('coz KMT didn't want to make it a political cleavage issue & lose young voters for nothing). DPP then defaults back to its TW nationalism card. But it faces diminishing utility, as it's been DPP's main weapon in 2014, 2016, and 2020. Fourth time is not the charm. DPP then tries intense negative campaigning against the opposition (to be sure KMT does a lot of negative campaigning, too). This includes DPP's repeat questioning of 2 opposition mayor candidates' past records, e.g. alleged misuse of government research grants, misappropriation of parliamentary assistants' overtime pay, etc.

The logic is simple: If you can't win on your own merits, then try to disqualify/discredit your opponents, so you win by default. That playbook backfired -- it's never a good look to see ruling party (Establishment) to play the tired mudslinging game.

It heightens voter fatigue. For weeks on end that's all the voters hear about. That dilutes DPP's  agenda, and it became unclear what the DPP stands for beyond non-stop dirt, day in and day out, and a chaotic status quo of petty politics.

Again, DPP and KMT are both at fault for non-stop negative campaigning this year. But voters rightfully judge the ruling party DPP by higher standards, because of what Spiderman said: "with greater power comes greater responsibility."

Frustrated voters are not going to be pro status-quo, pro-incumbent voters. This means low voter turnout on DPP's side, whereas the hungry KMT voters, after 6 years in the wilderness, couldn't wait to show up on voting day to win one back.

Election results in many cities suggest KMT votes turn out in slightly above average levels, while DPP significantly underperforms its baseline in many cities. (still awaiting final official data of course)

This is not about China, however. If it's about Chinese economic coercion, then since 1) a lot of it is targeted at Taiwanese agricultural produce, and 2) Southern Taiwan is the agricultural hub, one would expect the South to swing the hardest against the DPP, no? But that is not the case. Southern Taiwan is the DPP's only stronghold left this weekend. So DPP's crushing defeat is not about China, but about DPP's own failure to set a positive agenda and maintain party unity.  Self-inflicted wound.

Just a little side-note before we continue: solid, rational thinking like this from a Taiwanese and Taiwan-based expert should be more prevalent in international media. Perhaps y'all can stop interviewing just the same three white folks and start including voices like these? The ideas are more original, analysis better, and it's a fully-informed Taiwanese perspective. All those US-based folks seem to get issues like Taiwan/China exactly backwards, constantly, without taking into account, let alone respecting, the choices Taiwan is making for itself with the same information about China.

More people like Sung and less...whomever, please.

What disappoints me the most isn't that popular incumbents won re-election (Hou in New Taipei and Lu in Taichung). We knew that would happen. I'm not sure how good of a job Lu's done, but she doesn't seem to have performed terribly, either. Hou is extremely popular in New Taipei, and Lin Chia-long isn't even that popular within the DPP (I'm not a huge fan -- he's not the worst, but he's not the best). But I do wonder exactly what Hou has done for New Taipei, because I leave Taipei proper often and haven't really seen any improvements in the big donut. Am I wrong here, or is he mostly popular as a personality? Because I don't see that he's a particularly good mayor. 

Pan-greens like to talk about Hou as the guy responsible for the death of Nylon Deng. And I do indeed think he has some culpability: he was "just following orders", sure, but he had the capacity even then to know right from wrong, surely he had the ability to know that Deng was a 'you'll never take me alive' type of person, and he chose to do the wrong thing. I don't think he should be expelled from society or anything like that, but I also don't think he should be mayor of a major city. 

I also agree with Sung -- this is about not just local issues but the DPP's poor campaigning, and definitively not about China  -- because the DPP incumbent who came closest to losing was Tainan's Huang, and he's not everyone's favorite within the DPP. Re-electing him on a slim margin (for Tainan) is much more likely to be dissatisfaction with the DPP generally, because if there is any city in Taiwan that doesn't f***k with the KMT or pro-China rhetoric, it's Tainan.

I'd like to move there, actually. Or Kaohsiung. I get along well with southerners, and am not looking forward to four years of whatever the Chiang machine is bringing to Taipei.

That brings me back to the newly-elected Kylo Re---I mean Chiang Wan-an. People say voting, especially in mid-terms, is based more on identity and family tradition than whether the candidate is actually good. (In national elections this also plays a role but I think young people sick of Grandpa's bullshit opinions might be a bit more serious about not voting for the Appease China party).

I know more than one person who received multiple messages from their deep blue family about how they must vote KMT. Because they're my friends and I happen to get along with people who lean green well (again, not a fan of Mass Murder Grandpa, but very much a fan of Taiwan), I know they didn't necessarily listen. But surely, some adult offspring did.

And Donovan (linked above) is correct that Chiang had a much bigger get-out-the-vote machine. I heard rumors among local friends that the DPP had "sacrificed" Chen when it became clear he was unlikely to win. I'm not sure about that, but certainly all the noise trucks and hype men annoying me across Taipei were KMT. The DPP left me blissfully in peace. You'd think that would count for something -- Mayor No-Trucks seems like a fantastic pick, and that's not sarcasm -- but apparently not. 

What truly, deeply bothers me, however, is that none of this seems to have much at all to do with competence or qualifications. I don't think Hou is the worst mayor, but he's not the best. Chiang has legislative experience, but he's easily the least qualified candidate. Or as Nathan Batto put it: 

Chen did briefly make an argument that I think he should have hammered more throughout the campaign. Chiang Wan-an, he said, looks new, shiny, and different, but the people behind him are the same old KMT party hacks who have disappointed you again and again.

When I switched over to Chiang’s rally, he was enthusiastically making Chen’s point. The lineup of speakers included former mayor Hau Lung-pin, former deputy mayor Ou Chin-teh, former New Taipei and Kaohsiung deputy mayor Lee Si-chuan, former Taipei Education Bureau chief (and current legislator) Lin I-hua, the head of the KMT legislative caucus Tseng Ming-tsung, Chiang himself, Chiang’s wife, and KMT party chair Eric Chu. That’s a whole slew of old KMT warhorses who don’t exactly exude new ideas.

I know that I can't say much about what the people chose. I don't even get to vote! But I can't help but think they chose something that seemed like a statement, seemed like something new, a young, fresh guy. What they really chose is same-old-same-old, with the same (literally) old hacks informing the same-old "good for the Boss Class" ideas. Plus, an idolized Mass Murder Grandpa. The KMT tends to win not just because they might have a real edge in local elections, but because they've never truly been held accountable in Taiwan for the horrors they perpetrated. And that's in part because again, voting is skewed in favor of old folks, and some of those old folks either weren't affected by those horrors, purposely ignored them, or are actively culpable for decades of oppression.

And again, changing that requires systemic shifts, which are difficult to pull off because it's not one party campaigning for and the other against, but a whole system of people who don't want the "wrong" guy elected -- and who want to control their grandkids and are increasingly pushing against their own irrelevance. 

Some grandkids push against this, some don't, but ultimately the system is skewed and it fights to remain so.

Let's end on a hopeful note. I'll soon be writing about one other thing I noticed this year: multiple friends who have no Taiwanese ancestry but became Taiwanese, who voted, mostly for the first time, in this election. The number of people I know personally who've managed this is fewer than ten, but this is the first year that it's not zero, or perhaps one. 

That's a tiny change. Miniscule. Makes no difference to the current environment. But I'm choosing to see a single rivulet as evidence of a coming shift. Not "foreigners en masse becoming Taiwanese and voting", but the Taiwanese electorate continuing to move away from the past and toward a more open and more diverse future. 

It's not much, but it's all I've got and I will cling to it. 

Sunday, November 13, 2022

I don't want to care about Chiang Wan-an's ancestry (and a Hakka-sponsored KMT rally)

I hadn't planned on attending a Chiang Wan-an rally today. In fact, I wore my Chthonic t-shirt that has a stylized 獨 (independence) under the band name, which immediately gave away that I'm certainly no supporter.

Sadly, I was fated to be there. For weeks I'd planned on attending the Da'an Forest Park free market to give away an IKEA bag full of stuff we no longer need. The Hakka Support Association (客家後援會) just happened to be hosting a Chiang rally at the amphitheater at the same time. I had no choice but to listen to utter bollocks for an hour and a half. 

As you can see, while cropped photos can make it look like the rally was packed, it wasn't really. 

Most of what I listened to was some guy -- I didn't catch who it was -- going on a spittle-flecked rager about how horrible President Tsai, Chen Shih-chung and Huang Shan-shan were. They're all horrible, apparently, because of reasons. (I couldn't make out what the reasons were, and while that could be a fault with my Mandarin, I don't think that's why.) 

Then some flag bearers and lion dancers welcomed Chiang onstage. Apparently Eric Chu was there as well, which I failed to notice from a distance, but he's not exactly Mr. Remarkable so that's fine. 

Chiang mostly talked about how important Hakka culture was to him and that Hakka language and history should be preserved, which is fine. Hakka culture is great! He said he supported it as legislator by encouraging "relevant laws", though I didn't catch what those laws were. 

His specific opinions, proposals and ideas were, well, lacking. He mentioned the new MRT line to Xizhi, which anyone elected would be trying to accomplish, and how northern Taiwan is now too expensive for the youth, which everyone already knows. That's more or less it.

That's not surprising: there isn't a lot of substance to his campaign. Even posters with actual promises on them are frustrating to read: 

Edited: I've had a longer look at this poster (it's very context-specific) and the three promises aren't as vague as I'd initially thought. The first says the rule for urban renewal will switch from 100% resident approval rate to 80%, the second that the amount of required public space in new developments will change (I'm not clear how) and the third -- well, I had to ask a friend about that as it's not clearly worded. But apparently the idea is they can 'force' or 'require' people in places slated for development or urban renewal to accept these new policies.

The policies themselves benefit mostly wealthy property owners.

He then went on to pull a strategy straight out of the skanky Republican playbook by pre-emptively accusing the other candidates of intending to "reverse the election", saying he was in a critical moment (true of all candidates), and "on thin ice" (which isn't true -- it's a tight race but again, it's tight for everyone.)

Oh yes, and he did the one thing I wish he really wouldn't do. The one weird trick that has caused my opinion on him to shift from apathy -- just another unqualified vacuous KMT hack who doesn't deserve the office he's likely to win -- he started leveraging his (purported) ancestral connection to the Chiang dictators, Chiang Ching-kuo in particular. (Chiang Kai-shek's name is political poison, as it should be). 

I missed this part because I was petting a cute dog, which was frankly more engaging than Chiang's speech, but according to the Liberty Times, he said he'd "uphold the spirit of Chiang Ching-kuo, diligently loving the people and serving residents step by step". 

Of course, Chiang Ching-kuo didn't love the people of Taiwan. He instigated major infrastructure projects, but he was also the head of secret police and absolutely knew that many of the people his own government sent to prison weren't getting fair trials. He actively helped to carry out the White Terror. According to the News Lens:

Jay Taylor, author of the Chiang the younger’s most well-known English language biography, “The Generalissimo’s Son,” notes that his subject was, according to those around him, an empathetic man who genuinely cared for the common people....However, the author confesses that this side of his personality was at odds with the reign of terror he inflicted upon the Taiwanese population as head of the National Security Bureau (NSB) after the KMT reforms of the early 1950s. His seemingly gentle and pliable nature also does not negate, in the minds of many who fought for Taiwanese democracy, his role in crushing dissent, both at home and abroad, throughout the period of martial law.

It's unclear what role Chiang Ching-kuo might have played in 228, but there's evidence that he did indeed have a role:

Defense Minister Bai Chongxi (白崇禧) arrived in Taiwan with the generalissimo's son, Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), and wired a message to Chiang Kai-shek that "order is mostly restored, and we are in pursuit of the last remaining rebels that joined forces with armed thugs.”
Does that sound like a guy who "loved the people and cared for residents step by step"?  Because to me, he sounds like a butcher, and Chiang Wan-an is calling on him as a model of public officialdom. 

Let me be blunt: that's fucked up.

This isn't the first time he's talked up the family, either. Here's just one example. From the Taipei Times:

Former presidents Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and his son Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) protected the Republic of China and contributed greatly to the development of Taiwan during the Cold War era, an achievement that should be the goal of any political party in Taiwan, Chiang Wan-an said.

The article cites Chiang's suggestion regarding the name of Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall as "forward thinking", but this sounds pretty backward to me.

He also actively leverages the connection

In January, he said that his name “Wan-an” was given to him by his grandfather — former president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) — as a reminder of his ancestral roots. On more than one occasion, he stated that he has always been proud of being a Chiang, and that he would follow in his ancestors’ — Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and Chiang Ching-kuo — footsteps to make Taiwan a better place. He further underscored this lineage by placing an artistic image of himself with Chiang Ching-kuo, side-by-side, on his mayoral campaign flags.

I know people who know Chiang Wan-an, and hear that is a nice guy in person. I don't doubt that's true. But he's not qualified to be mayor, and even if he were, calling on Chiang Ching-kuo as the sort of leader he'd want to emulate is absolutely not on. 

To be clear, I would feel this way even if he weren't legally recognized as the former dictator's grandson. If you care about all that, here's a great Twitter thread by Taiwan resident David Demes. 

But I don't really, because you can't help who your ancestors are. You can, however, control how you react to and discuss their legacy. On both fronts, Chiang has mostly failed: he's tied himself to brutal dictators. Butchers. Some of the worst criminals of history. Not just by taking the name, but in the way he talks about Chiang Ching-kuo's "loving" nature and treating him like an idol, when the man was absolutely a mass murderer. 

I don't care that public perception of the younger dictator is somewhat better than his murderous father. He was still a butcher. He was an awful man. No infrastructure project can fix that. 

I'm a little ambivalent about the whole Chiang Wan-an family saga though, because every time I say "he could just take a DNA test to prove the connection if he really wanted to", I feel a twinge of discomfort. It has 'birther' vibes, except with even less bodily privacy: as a human being, Chiang has every right to decide what he does or doesn't want to do with his genetic material. 

The callbacks to Chiang Ching-kuo would be offensive and disgusting regardless of his parentage, so arguably, it doesn't matter. But Chiang himself makes it matter by bringing it up all the goddamn time. That's a choice

He doesn't have to definitively confirm the connection, but he could choose to stop leveraging it, or could admit that his legally-recognized ancestors were bad people. "You can't choose your ancestors," he might say. 

He didn't do that, today or any other day. He makes the connection. He asks his supporters to care. He pushes people to care, and he does so in the worst possible way. The most offensive way. That -- and not whomever his grandfather was -- is the problem.

I do want to take this a step further: his choice to take the Chiang name was a choice. There are some pretty weird rumors flying around that the family name was changed when Chiang was a minor, that he had no say in it, that it wasn't intended to be used for any political gain. That's not true: he found out about the purported family connection as a teenager, but the change happened in or around 2005, when Chiang would have been roughly 27.

As Focus Taiwan doesn't archive, here's the relevant bit:

Chiang is the son of former KMT Vice Chairman John Chiang (蔣孝嚴), and purported great-grandson of former President Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石). In 2005, John Chiang changed his surname from Chang (章) to Chiang, and his family, including Chiang Wan-an, later followed suit.

This was around the time his father briefly contended for the Taipei mayorship (2006), which he announced at Chiang Ching-kuo's mausoleum. To say that the name change decision wasn't politically motivated is patently ridiculous. Chiang Wan-an's choice to follow suit is less clear, but he got into politics soon after, so it's hard to believe that his motives were meaningfully different.

I don't want to care, but I feel like Chiang is forcing me to care. He didn't have to do it this way. He chose it.

And my conclusion, from Chiang Wan-an shoving his family history in everyone's face, is this: whether or not he's genetically related to Chiang Ching-kuo, he talks about that murderous piece of shit as though he's some sort of heroic example, a person whose values as a government official are noble and worth emulating.

That is wrong, no matter who you are, or who your ancestors are.

I truly did not want to care, but I was made to care, and my opinion of Chiang Wan-an is much worse for it. He had so many choices available when coming to terms with his ancestry. He could have done right by it. He could have recognized the Chiang name for what it really means for Taiwan. 
He might even have won some goodwill from me (as though that matters).

Instead, he picked all the wrong paths, made all the wrong choices. 

He's been described to me in personal terms, by people who know him in a personal capacity, as a friendly guy -- a decent person. He could have looked at his ancestry and decided to handle it in the way a decent person would. I would have respected that a lot. 

He did the opposite.

That's not because of who his grandfather might have been. That's on him.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Untold Herstory: The brutal film that you must see

Imagine a Taiwanese crowdfunded film about female prisoners on Green Island making it into Vieshow Cinemas. So central was crowdfunding that donor were thanked at the end (though some had simple nicknames and others cheeky handles like "1450"). 

Although it was reviewed by the Taipei Times, I hadn't heard of Untold Herstory until a very close friend with a connection to the film sent seven free-ticket vouchers.

Imagine, then, that this friend had offered similar vouchers to other people she knew and was rebuffed. "Let the past be the past," they said. Of course, this attitude only protects the villains of history: the same people who call Untold Herstory "the past" which we should "move beyond" probably lose their minds when removing Chiang Kai-shek's statue from Dead Dictator Memorial Hall is discussed. They so often only want to let some history stay in the past. 

The group I went with included people whose families either were touched by the White Terror, or came close to it. They of course have a rather different take on whether The events of Untold Herstory can be considered history at all, seeing as it hasn't even been a century and the party that committed all those atrocities still exists and runs in elections. Chiang Ching-kuo makes an appearance in the film, though they don't show his face presumably because they couldn't find any actor ugly enough to play him. 

His so-called grandson who is Maury Poviching the hell out of that purported family connection might be the mayor of Taipei in a few weeks. 

Is that really ancient history, or is it relevant right now?


That's the background. On to the movie. 

The Taipei Times covers the way Untold Herstory pays meticulous detail to language use: people speak in various dialects of Mandarin (you can tell which characters don't speak it natively), Taiwanese, Atayal and Japanese. The guards all spoke Cantonese. As such, the film has both Mandarin and English subtitles, which also make it more accessible to an international audience. If your Mandarin subtitle-reading isn't so hot, catch this movie now: it's one of the rare films of this genre to offer English.

I'm not sure that the prisoners of Green Island would have been allowed to speak that much Taiwanese and Japanese without more severe punishment, but then they also said at the beginning that the inmates were all now numbers, not names. Then they continued to use names, because clearly some rules matter more than others, even back in authoritarian Taiwan.

The plotting and general mood is very Taiwanese. I appreciated the nonlinear scenes which set a certain mood of tension, depression, tragedy and chaos. The opening scenes are slightly disorienting, which does a good job portraying what it likely felt to have your world torn asunder as you land on Green Island for a stint in prison.

The overall effect is one of an agglomeration of memories that come together to tell a whole story, but are experienced somewhat out of order, they way you might encounter it in nightmares and PTSD flashbacks. 

Other details lend authenticity: the fact that some of the inmates were indeed refugees from China themselves -- not everyone was from Taiwan, and not everyone was a leftist or home-rule advocate. The authorities running the prison slept with whatever female inmates took their fancy. That the guards were usually but not always cruel. Most people executed were chosen for political reasons, none got a fair trial, and many were hand-picked by Chiang Kai-shek to die.

Upside-down shots from the viewpoint of characters strung up by their legs also imply how justice was absolutely turned on its head: some (though not all) of the characters are actually guilty of the "crimes" they've been sent to Green Island for. The problem is, in any free country they would not be crimes at all. These "crimes" include being a member of a socialist organization, passing newspaper clippings to one another, and merely thinking Taiwan might be better off as an independent state. That they were crimes as defined by a monstrous government only means that justice had been turned asunder. Those that recognized this and suffered mental breakdowns over it were called "crazy". But of course, they were right.

Untold Herstory isn't exactly subtle on the imagery, but I didn't mind that. Every time some KMT officer was unusually cruel or hypocritical, an ROC flag, a picture of Sun Yat-sen or Chiang Kai-shek was prominently displayed in the frame. The music drove home the point. Sone lines -- "I'm not a Communist bandit, I'm just a Taiwanese ox!", "You are a spy if the Commander says you are a spy!" and the double-edged "how can a flag be just a rag?" were heartbreaking. 

And speaking of smiling in the photograph taken of you just before your execution as a form of rebellion? Well, that just broke me. It broke me. This did, too.

The scene at the end is all the more heartbreaking for being out of context and highly metaphorical: I won't spoil it, but someone in our group recognized scenes like these as a trope borrowed from Japanese films.

It was difficult to make Untold Herstory, and friends pointed out that it probably wouldn't have been made at all even 20 years ago. This was not just because society was perhaps not ready for it, but because the real women who lived these experiences did not want to talk about them, with reasonable justification. It's never easy to talk about that kind of pain.

This is why films like Untold Herstory and the book it's based on do need to be discussed in the present. They exist in living memory. They still affect society. And, after all, only those who want to protect the truly guilty -- the people who committed the White Terror which saw these women and so many others tortured and killed -- seem to think it should be "left in the past". 

They are wrong, so prove them wrong. Go see Untold Herstory. Learn about exactly what the KMT did in Taiwan, and why justice was never served, as those criminals were never truly punished for what they did to the people they imprisoned, both Taiwanese and Chinese. That those perpetrators of crimes against humanity -- and now their sons and grandsons, or "grandsons" -- are even still a political party disgusts me. The DPP needs meaningful opposition, but it shouldn't be a gaggle of mass murderers and their descendents.

Then get a drink afterward, because I promise you will not want to go directly home and stew in your thoughts. 

Saturday, November 5, 2022

The anti-war position, and what I no longer hear


I'm not here to start a war with China. This should be obvious. My anti-war position ought not to be considered unconventional, and yet it so often is.

What do I mean? Well, to me, the only sensible anti-war position for Taiwan is to porcupine itself into an undesirable conquest for China -- call it "avoiding war by preparing for war" if you want, but I consider it to be "making the attack that China has fixated on seem as untenable and costly as possible".

This is especially vital when it's become apparent that there is no diplomatic solution acceptable to both China and Taiwan. China will only accept complete authority over Taiwan. Taiwan will never accept any Chinese authority over its sovereignty. There's no middle ground; one side isn't going to get what they want and if we care at all about democratic norms and human rights, that side must be China.

It also means engaging with the international community through any channels that present themselves. This means engagement with the much-reviled United States and normalizing visits from high-level officials. 

It means noticing the difference in China's tone when it's an official visitor they assume the world won't care about, vs. Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi's visit didn't antagonize China: China chose to act aggrievèd when they could have simply...not. If China got poked in the eye, then they picked up the stick and did it to themselves.

It means doing these things even as China whorls and wails and fustigates in anguish that the world would dare to disagree with them that Taiwan is not, indeed, their territory.

If anything deters China from an attempt at brutal annexation, it will be these steps. Preparation, international solidarity, normalization of Taiwan's status (including through unofficial channels), standing firm as the shills and quislings crackle and wail in despair. 

Don't back down, do prepare yourselves, don't let China decide the shape of the fight because they will certainly red-line you into a corner: this is the anti-war position. 

What's the pro-war position -- the support for a series of events that will certainly lead to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan? Appeasing the CPC. Respecting every red line it throws down as sacrosanct. Moving away from international engagement because it's always a "move likely to anger China", not challenging China's attempt to dominate the discourse and lexis of how the world talks about Taiwan ("split in 1949" and "reunification" reporters, I am indeed looking right at you.) Taiwan not preparing itself because that "raises tensions". Insisting that Taiwan's current sovereignty does not constitute independence, when it absolutely does.

This is often cloaked in the language of "engaging China" or "diplomatic solutions" It's called the "anti-war" position, but it's the opposite. It's really just appeasement -- letting China draw its lines wherever it wants like a sugared-up kid with an Etch-a-Sketch and a bad attitude. Telling Taiwan to make itself metaphorically smaller as the lines cut closer, because keeping what it already has also "raises tensions". And somehow, someway, that's read as Taiwan's fault. 

You want a bloody subjugation of Taiwan? Because all that appeasement is exactly how you get it.

All that said, imagine my utter lack of surprise when people -- and this has happened more than once -- shoot back that people like me, with the true anti-war position, are encouraging the war machine over a conflict we won't be fighting, in a nation we won't be defending. 

There's an easy parry for me, personally: it's wrong. I fully intend to stay and defend Taiwan. I'm not sure how, as I'm not much of a fighter, but surely volunteers will be needed to grow sweet potatoes, make Molotovs and do basic nursing. 

But there's a more difficult moral divide here that I'm not sure gets explored enough: the whole insult -- you want to plunge Taiwan into war when you won't be around to fight that war -- begs the question. It assumes that people like me (pro-Taiwan long-term foreigners) generally advocate for war.

But we don't. 

Appeasement is far more likely to lead to that conflict than deterrence. Appeasement is quite literally easing China's way toward invasion. We know this because China, not the US or Taiwan, will start that war when they feel that victory is achievable. Why make it easier for the CPC?

I might not feel this way if a diplomatic solution existed, but none does. So either China is deterred, or there is a war. I prefer that China be deterred: the anti-war position.

There's a third problem, too: deciding to stay and fight or escape is morally fraught. Less so for me -- I don't have children I'd need to get to safety, and my loved ones in the US are well cared-for. But I do worry about how I would be able to afford to live in a war-torn land where I am not a citizen, presumably when my job's just been blown up. I don't have local relatives to help out. I do have friends, but they'll have their own stresses. And it is a rather larger commitment than most people realize: pledging to defend a country that doesn't offer most long-termers dual nationality, which it readily extends to ROC citizens.

And yet, I've said I'll fight, and I stick by that. Perhaps it's wise to stop judging others, though: they have their own moral compasses, and you don't know their circumstances. 

It doesn't do anyone any good to get finger-waggy at long-termers in Taiwan as though it's assumed we'll all run. You don't know what life circumstances are guiding everyone's decisions.

Finally, when long-termers in Taiwan say they believe in international engagement (yes, including with some dodgy people), a strong defense and an understanding that the only way to win the CCP's "red line temper tantrum" games is not to play them, they are echoing the Taiwanese government line. 

I hope you believe that Taiwan can govern itself competently and has the intelligence on the Chinese government that it needs to make these kinds of decisions. So, when foreigners in Taiwan say that China is the aggressor, scoffs at diplomacy, and cannot be trusted, there's a reason for it. We've been living through what that attitude looks like.

We may not be echoing analysts in other countries who have some blinkered ideas about the power of diplomacy with a genocidal dictatorship, but we are echoing stance of the Tsai administration, and the majority of Taiwanese who do say they'll fight. This may not be a reliable indicator of who would actually be on the front lines, but it is a decent gauge of the extent to which Taiwanese people do not want to simply hand their country to China or compromise on their sovereignty.

With all this in mind, I've decided that I simply do not hear this any longer. You want to say I wouldn't fight for Taiwan? Or that any long-termer wouldn't, and thus forfeits the right to an opinion you don't like (but which happens to be in line with the Taiwanese government stance)? 

I think that's stupid, but I won't tell you what you can and can't say.

Yet I'm not interested in hearing it. I expect writing this won't stop people from holding silly opinions, but they're gonna 左耳進右耳出, and that's that. 

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Pill popping nation? Yes, but also Overworked Nation


I've been taking time off blogging for a bit, because there's just too much going on in my life and I don't have energy to deal with it all and keep a blog. What's more, most of what I have to say is a big fat downer guaranteed to not help me win friends or influence anyone, so I'm waiting until I can say it more neutrally. 

Then I read Pill Popping Nation in the Taipei Times this morning, and felt like popping in -- pun very much intended -- with a quick reaction.

Even here, it's going to take me awhile to get to the point. Please bear with me; I'm writing this on the fly when I don't really have the time.

I'm a chronic insomniac, and have been for as long as I can remember. Some of my childhood memories include staring at red-blaring numbers (remember those clunky fake-wood alarm clocks from the '80s?) as they ticked past midnight on a school night, feeling my cat hop onto my bed as Mom's snores in the next room grew deeper, falling half asleep until I dreamed up black snakes under my pillow and jolted me awake, or lying there as the same six bars of some song I didn't even like played over and over in my head. 

Once, I wandered into the kitchen for some water and found Dad awake as well, typing away. I think we were still using real typewriters back then. Turns out staying up late to write runs in the family. 

I struggled through adolescence and early adulthood. I rarely excelled at office jobs because flextime wasn't popular in the early 2000s, and the usual 9am start time was deeply incompatible with my rebellious brain chemicals. The anxiety diagnosis came in my late 30s as I was wrapping up graduate school, the ADD diagnosis on its heels. It made sense; my solid academic work was churned out despite my study habits, not because of them.

Sleeping pills worked, and they were available in Taiwan. They were prescribed by a highly-recommended psychiatrist who did take the time to talk to me, so it didn't feel like I was reaching for an easy answer. Then pandemic travel eased slightly and I visited the US in May. Turns out my Dad and I are not the only ones in the family with these issues, and I was introduced to the magic of edibles and CBD tea.

Nothing has ever worked so well as those plant-based solutions. I was anxiety-free for a month. I took no pills. I slept like a child who'd snuck a few too many sips of her parents' drinks. I even wondered if it was New York City easing all my issues. But no -- the solution was herbal all along. And no, I do not mean Chinese medicine (which I've tried to no avail.)

What does any of this have to do with Han Cheung's excellent article?

Well, I know a thing or two about being up all night, most nights, to the point that it affects your concentration and work. I know about hanging out on the couch waiting for the Lendormin to kick in, because if I try to lie in bed all I'll get is a repetitive and unwanted brain concert, six bars for each song.

Frankly, I was surprised to learn that one in five Taiwanese people share the same issues. That number does indeed seem high.

Because I take sleeping pills, I know that the fundamental point of the piece is correct: Taiwan's National Health Insurance is fantastic -- I pay next to nothing for my tiny white solutions -- but it doesn't promote holistic care. My anxiety and insomnia are probably baked in, but if I wanted to figure out what else was going on, if anything, I'd probably have to take two weeks off to see a long list of doctors to have a look at everything from my heart to my ****. There would be no general practitioner guiding me or facilitating any of it.

Not that I'm complaining -- at least it would be affordable. In the US, I'd probably just suffer and get fired a lot because I can't sleep the way a 9-5 job demands, and probably still wouldn't be able to afford adequate medical care. Now, people actually think I'm good at work!

But there's more to the story of a nation of insomniacs than "you need holistic care, not pills". 

You know what this country is? Wonderful, but also overworked. Managers tend not to be particularly flexible; 9am is 9am even if they know you were working on that project until midnight, because they assigned it.

I've had accountants fall asleep in their English class because they were working 9am-2am for months straight. I know people who've gotten emails at three in the morning, and woken up to someone angry that they hadn't responded yet. Kids go to school at 7am and return from after-school school at 10pm. On the weekends they have expensive weekend school. How could one not expect those kids to grow up with severe sleep issues?

Regular business hours appear to be 9-8, or 8-10, or 7-11, or simply It Never Stops. Calling a meeting at 6pm, or handing someone an urgent assignment on Friday night (due Monday!) is so mundane that I can't even give you a specific example. They all glom together like a big goopy ball of exhaustion. 

I don't think office workers take 1pm naps because of some cultural thing. Although daytime naps can mess up a sleep cycle, I think they're common in Taiwan because everyone is overworked all the time. The napping starts in school because the kids are overworked, too.

You'd think exhaustion would help one sleep better, but it does the opposite. 

As for me, well, I'm freelance. I bring it on myself. I'm not tormented by bad managers. I like my work and I like money, so I say yes to everything and work out the scheduling later. But I can't deny what I see in everyone else: they signed up for a regular job and a salary, not to be tormented by garbage management after years of being tormented by taskmaster teachers handing out pointless busywork. 

Truly, I love Taiwan. And yes, holistic treatment matters in reducing dependency on sleeping pills. 

But the solution isn't "acupuncture", "relaxation methods" or "traditional Chinese medicine". 

Those things might help, though I'm not an enthusiastic supporter of TCM

The solution is two simple things that Taiwan is not even close to prepared to do:

The first is a comprehensive overhaul of work culture in Taiwan. Most managers probably know that they are terrible (maybe this is why they have trouble sleeping, too!) Society needs to come together to pressure them to be less so.

The second is to legalize medical marijuana, especially edibles (because smoking is bad for you, period.) At the very least, CBD needs to be made more available. It's a healthier, non-addictive alternative to Xanax and Ambien, which seem to be what most people take. In other words, the most effective herbal remedies are specifically the ones that aren't legal in Taiwan, but should be.

There's no acupuncture or breathing technique strong enough to fix the problem until we address not just the internal factors causing Taiwan's insomnia issue, but the external ones as well.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Taiwan can govern itself, and this should be obvious


My eyes blurred when I saw the picture: Freddy Lim showing off a selfie he'd snapped with former Secretary of State and horror show of a human being, Mike Pompeo. The former advocates for LGBT+ equality, among other things. The latter spends an inordinate amount of time tweeting furiously about "wokeism" in the military, whatever that means. 

Is Pompeo aware of Lim's politics, beyond continuing to support Taiwan's ongoing independence? I have no idea.

Does Lim know about Pompeo's politics, beyond support of Taiwan? Almost certainly yes. I'm including the "almost" only because he hasn't said.

This was disappointing, of course, coming from Lim specifically. I expected it from most politicians, but Lim seems to actually stand for something, and that something is a society very much unlike the bigoted shitfest that Mike Pompeo fantasizes about. When I say they truly only agree on one thing -- Taiwan's sovereignty -- I mean it. 

I've struggled with this publicly in the past. Is it worth having absolute turds as allies when they otherwise promulgate horrifying right-wing values? My heart says no. My brain points out that Taiwan is losing diplomatic allies, not gaining them; official allies Taiwan has aren't exactly staunch supporters so much as checkbook friends; Taiwan has never been more in the world's eye and never enjoyed so much unofficial support; yet it's still not enough as long as Chinese invasion remains a real threat and potential assistance is only tepidly affirmed.

It's a lot to work through. My head aches with it. Yet I've never been able to fully embrace the idea that trash allies are worse than no allies at all. There are many reasons for this, but one sticks out: Taiwan is choosing this. 

Before, all this worry could be mapped along two axes: the degree to which Taiwan needs international support (quite a bit), and the degree to which its supporters have palatable politics in general (some do, many don't). Even this is no easy grid. It goes beyond lack of a clear notion of point at which Taiwan can be picky about its allies; I'm not even sure how to structure the question, or equation, or whatever it is. I think Mike Pompeo is a bigot and I'm tired of having to think about him, but what of the people who think even Nancy Pelosi shouldn't make the cut, because she's too far to the right or to the left for their liking? 

I'd answered that two-sided question with my own split take: you will never hear me praise someone like Mike Pompeo, but I won't stand in the way of what Taiwan needs to do -- and that includes courting support from influential people who can offer tangible help. To be blunt, it means playing nice with US empire because CCP empire is so much worse, and if Taiwan rejects all problematic support, CCP empire will win. Yes, it will.

And I can personally fume about that as much as I want, which changes nothing.

Of course, there was always a third axis to this: Taiwan's choice to accept that support. I do not believe for a single instant that, say, President Tsai is unaware of Mike Pompeo's, uh, portfolio. I know for a fact that at least some of the Taiwanese political figures who engage with him know what he's about. 

The other guys too. Taiwanese voters aren't stupid (or at least not any more so than other countries), and the government they elected isn't doing this blindly. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Marcia Blackburn, Abe Shinzo, et cetera ad nauseam: they know the deal with these people. And I'd make a real cash money bet that they have similar intelligence as the US, so they're aware of the magnitude and type of CCP threats at all times. 

In short, they don't need to be educated by preening Westerners eager to show off how much they know better. Frankly, it's a little offensive to assume Taiwan is ignorant of all this and needs to be told.

It's still difficult, though, because I remain strongly averse to even the whiff of right-wing bigotry. I criticized Freddy Lim for that photo too -- not because I think Taiwan should tell Mike Pompeo to get bent, but because he's Freddy Lim. I actually agree with everyone pointing out these supporters aren't top-notch. I personally wouldn't even shake their hands.

But, at the end of it, if we're going to talk about Taiwanese agency and self-determination, that the Taiwanese people can and should choose their own future, then we must also admit that they chose a government who is choosing to engage with these people. 

That government is far from perfect, but it has been consistently competent, and paid no political price I can see for that engagement. That's as close as we're going to get to proof of a consensus: Taiwan used its agency, decided it needed that support, and chose to engage. And not every Taiwanese person who makes up one speck of that overall national agency is going to be a leftist, or even a liberal. It's always going to be this way, and frankly whether one agrees or not is irrelevant.

Of course, Taiwan being a free society, one can criticize the government all they want. I share some of those criticisms! Criticize away! But the constant pile-on about whom Taiwan should and shouldn't engage with is not only tiring, it's ramped up to the point that it doesn't read like well-meaning criticism anymore. It comes across as I-know-betterism.  You know, hey Taiwan enjoy all that agency and self-determination but be sure to only use it in the ways I approve of! 

Clearly, I'm not a fan. Maybe I used to be, but not anymore.

I can hear the comments now: you wouldn't think this way if the KMT were in charge! 

You're right, I wouldn't. When they were in charge and did a terrible job, I stood with the activists and progressives who pushed for something very much like the Tsai administration. Now the people we supported are in charge, and generally -- some criticisms aside -- I think they're doing a fine job, especially regarding international relations. The people I supported won a bunch of elections and now are competently running the country, and I'm happy about that, and think the other guys wouldn't do as good a job? Yes! Obviously! 

Taiwan as Taiwan (not Chiang Kai-shek's personal ROC pleasure hole) has never been so noticed, so supported, so popular -- and that's thanks to the government everyone is now yelling at for engaging with international supporters they don't like. To be blunt, I don't care for it. In fact, it'd be suicidal for Taiwan. I don't know exactly at what point Taiwan can turn away support, but surely it is not when they still lack formal diplomatic recognition, and only one country in the world has said anything remotely concrete about assisting them if China invades. 

I have one more thing to say: some of us who've been here a long time do support the current government. When we're not fans of the side that got elected, we tend to stand with local opposition. Adhering to this stance even when Taiwan does things we don't personally like -- such as welcome Mike Pompeo or Marcia Blackburn -- doesn't make us right-wingers or closet Trumpers (as I've been called, but most certainly am not) or putting Taiwan in danger by supporting the "provocation" of China. 

If we're saying most of the analysts not in Taiwan are getting it wrong, and our stance is consistent with the very government we wanted to see as far back as 2014, then we're standing with Taiwan's choices. Not just that, but the choices Taiwan makes with the political intel it has, which we can only guess at. No, we don't want Taiwan to bend conservative. No, we don't want to taunt or "provoke" China. Taiwan is steering this ship, and we're supporting it. We believe Taiwan can govern itself. 

In other words, criticize all you want. But be cognizant of what you're saying and what it implies: are you supporting Taiwanese agency by meaningfully engaging and sincerely disagreeing on some points, or are you playing the Let Me Educate Taiwan Because I Know Better game? 

We should all learn where this line is, myself included. I'm not immune, and I'm sure I've crossed it before. But the line, though hard to see, is there. All you have to do is look. 

Friday, September 23, 2022

The Two-Tongued Pretender



"Բարեւ Ձեզ սիրելի կամավորներ: Շատ ուրախ եմ նսրից հանդիպել ձեզ,"  Anna says. She goes by Anna, not Dr. Sahakyan. 

I understand and nod. I'm not a volunteer, not in Peace Corps, and not in Armenia, but the language course videos are online, so why not? 

"Այսօր մենք սովորելումենք ինչպես հարցնել ճանապարհը:"

Now I freak out -- I don't understand this at all. The first twelve videos were introduced in English, but the actual volunteers learning Armenian with Anna have materials and live online sessions, which I do not have. I suppose by the time they get to this point, their service has begun and they're far ahead of me. I figure out what she just said using logic, educated guesses, an Armenian keyboard and Google Translate.

At least my pronunciation seems fine, because I'm able to recall and imitate what my grandfather's generation sounded like when they met for the holidays and had throaty, velar conversations from which I was completely excluded. But I don't really know. There's no one to check if my ը is schwa-y enough or my խ sufficiently tubercular.

The video ends and I set a reminder to transfer my messy notes to the neater record I keep. I reach to the right and grab my Taiwanese textbook. We've had a few lessons, all of which have focused on mastering pronunciation. I expected the tones to be difficult, but they're not (yet). It reminds me of all the musical training I'd otherwise forgotten, and anyway it's a similar principle to Mandarin, just...more of it, and harder. 

It's the the k and g that get me: I can't hear the difference, so each is inconsistently produced. haven't learned a single actual word that I can remember, but I dutifully listen to the recordings and parrot along. Someone's going to check, and Ms. Deng has struck me as rather meticulous. 

Both methods are strikingly Audiolingual. Armenian has to be; how else does one deliver asynchronous online sessions? You can't teach communicatively without someone to communicate with. For Taiwanese, I suspect it's partly based on how Mandarin is taught (that is, very traditionally), and partly because most of Ms. Deng's students are hopelessly Indo-European: they need and expect the pronunciation support. I'm told by a friend who also takes lessons that she'll be happy to practice speaking authentically once I'm able to speak at all. 

Still, Armenian starts with conversation: Hello, how are you? I'm fine, you? I'm fine, thanks. What's your name? My name is Anna. And you? I'm a teacher. I'm a volunteer. Communicative methods aren't embedded in Armenian; they went through centuries of inefficient teaching and learning modalities just like everyone else. The method is Anna's doing.

Armenian also has something called the trchnakir, a Medieval illustrator's avian dream, in which the letters of the alphabet are rendered as brightly sinuous bird bodies. I know the difference in learning style has nothing to do with that, but there's something poetic in thinking of one of your new languages as music, practiced like I quacked those first notes on a trumpet years ago. I had to learn to read music, of course, before I could do much of anything. It was months before I played a real song. The other is the organized chaos of a watch of nightingales, a murmuration of starlings or a charm of finches. You just up and go.

(Originally from this tweet)

Taiwanese starts with a, á, à, ah, â, ā, å (I made that last one up; my keyboard won't type the actual diacritic). Do all that, then you can have some words. We go over it again, and yet again, until Ms. Deng is satisfied with my ability to stumble around in her language. 

"Okay!" she says. 
"Okay," I laugh. Just okay.

Okay, but why am I doing this? Do I enjoy elaborate constructions of linguistic masochism? (A little, yes.) Why both? Why now? Why these two hilariously unrelated languages? At the same time?

One is about the past, one is about the future, and in both, I'm a pretender. I speak neither language yet, though I can make sounds which imply I kind of do. Generously, I am a small child in the body of an adult, whose tongue can thrash around like a baby: goo-goo gaa-gaa barev dzez, inchpes ek, shnorakalutiun yev hajogutsyun Զեփյուռ կդառնամմեղմիկ աննման: Սարերից կիջնեմ, նստեմ քո դռան. Cháu chháu kâu gâu pōng bōng ng hng ióng hióng 在這個安靜的暗暝我知道你有心事睏袂去, 想到你的過去, 受盡凌遲, 甘苦很多年。

Neither my Armenian nor my Taiwanese is that good, but I understand those lyrics. One of the ways I bolster my motivation is to listen to music I like in languages I'm studying. I look up what is being said, even if I'm not ready to truly learn it yet.

I chose Armenian because I simply felt I had to. For too long, I've acted like a victim of the heritage language denied me, all those ideas and modes of expression that nobody thought important enough to pass on, a cold wall between all those relatives who thought their opinions, ideas and perspectives didn't matter enough for me to understand them. My great-grandmother died when I was 14, and while we had real conversations, I can't say we ever had full, deep, real ones. I both knew her and didn't. 

This memory resurfaces every time a Taiwanese acquaintance reveals that they could barely communicate with their own grandparents because their generation was raised in Mandarin but their elders barely spoke it.

Being a linguistic victim sucks, though, and it doesn't even suck in an interesting way. I'm unlikely to ever be fluent, but if I can have an understanding and some basic Armenian conversational skills, it'll be a victory. Just because my grandfather made a decision in 1953 doesn't mean I have to abide by it. I think it's necessary not just to connect with my heritage, but to move my own story forward as well. As far as I know, I'm the only Renjilian of my generation who decided to re-learn, however imperfectly, what was lost. 

I have no such ancestral connection to Taiwanese. I moved here at the age of 26 for no specific reason: it just looked like an interesting place to be. I stay for a thousand reasons, which deserve their own post. Whatever connections grow from learning this language, they are entirely in the future. I don't know that I'm trying to prove that Taiwan is actually my home now...except perhaps, I am. 

Still, I feel like a fake. My family spoke Western Armenian (the last native speaker died just this summer). I'm learning Eastern, because that's what's available. As for Taiwan, well, I consider this my home but I'll always be seen as something of an outsider, no matter what language I learn.

It turns out that both Armenian -- especially Western Armenian -- and Taiwanese are somewhat inaccessible; both suffer from a dearth of teachers and materials. There are days when I have to tamp down annoyance that I have to work for a heritage language I should already know, and a local language I began learning about 15 years too late.

That's a long time to put something off, so I felt a strong need to start now. Not in a year, not after I'd gotten some Armenian under my belt, and not until I could improve my Mandarin (as I used to tell myself). Now. If I wait too long, I'll wait forever.

The inaccessibility is a bit seductive, though. Many have the opportunity to learn Mandarin. Who is so lucky as to have an experienced Taiwanese teacher dropped in their lap by recommendation? I have to learn it via Mandarin, which frankly provides more motivation to improve said Mandarin than I've felt in years.

Armenian is the same: most Armenians speak Russian as a second language, and the diaspora all have other tongues now. Russian is more common as an offering -- how many have the patience to practice Armenian from Taiwan, with no feedback and no real reward? I'd be surprised if there were six Armenian speakers in the whole country! 

Both languages need more speakers: Taiwanese was the target of an intentional campaign of eradication, and even today is insultingly classified as a dialect despite being mutually unintelligible with Mandarin. Unsurprisingly, 
Taiwanese is an endangered language. Western Armenian is endangered as well, and I'm unlikely to be able to access it unless I learn Eastern Armenian first. 

Neither language is widely considered useful: I've already been advised to just stick with Mandarin -- or worse, to spend my time practicing Simplified characters. I blanch at the thought! I've also been told to just learn Russian as I'll get more utility out of it.

That's just fuel, though. I'm sick of the utilitarian argument. It's a privilege to be able to float around in languages that aren't international, that you don't need for anything in particular. But it's also what draws me.

Maybe I have something to prove or I just like learning "useless" things, but I'm not doing this for utility. My intrinsic motivation to learn Mandarin died awhile ago; I persevered because it was useful. I was never a huge fan of the politics of it. Yes, Taiwanese has a settler-colonial history too, but it should have never been suppressed the way that it was. In any case, most expats come to Taiwan expecting to learn some Mandarin. Some succeed, some don't. How many come and decide to learn Taiwanese?

I know more than one, but there could be -- should be -- even more than that. 

As for Western Armenian, it should still be widely spoken across Anatolia. But it isn't. You know why. 

With opinions like that on why languages are worth learning, who needs usefulness?

And yet, blue eyes in Armenian culture portend bad luck -- they're said to be more susceptible to the effects of the evil eye (I think this is why charms against the evil eye across the Mediterranean are blue). Yeghishe Charents even wrote of it -- Blue-Eyed Armenia. And here I am, a blue-eyed white lady learning two wildly disparate languages and wondering what bad luck might await. 

The worst possible outcome is that I make a short study of both, learn neither well, and they enter the dormant part of my brain where French and Spanish are buried. Just another person who "took a language class" but never actually learned the language. Or I'll try and try but never master tone changes in Taiwanese, and always be stuck sounding like a tortured goose. Or I'll go to Armenia again, someday when it's safe, and proudly try out whatever Armenian skills I've gained by then only to be laughed at because my pronunciation sounds more like a series of sneezes than comprehensible language.

I also wonder, given the endangered status of both languages, if I'm actually helping by being a new person -- something of an outsider -- interested in learning. Or am I just rubbernecking as both languages fall, like birds shot out of the sky by the KMT, or the Young Turks?

As China amps up its provocation and bullying of Taiwan and Armenia stands on the precipice of invasion by Azerbaijan, am I doing anything meaningful by learning Armenian and Taiwanese? It strikes me as a statement: I will help preserve what you are trying to destroy. But am I really helping, or indulging myself? I can't help but think it's closer to the latter.

And yet, I keep practicing pronunciation until Ms. Deng moves us on to actual words. When I feel I've done enough, I head over to Youtube. Anna's classes are a challenge now, but if I'm tired I can always watch Bopo children's television and learn colors, or animals, or whatever.  

Perhaps I'll never succeed at either language. Perhaps Armenian won't lead to whatever window on the past I'm looking for. Certainly, learning Taiwanese won't make me a local. Neither language will lead to a better job, more money or even many conversation partners. But it's worth it. 

Monday, September 19, 2022

What is a country? Part II: Fighting the Gish Gallop


A tour group from China snaps pictures of Liberty Leading the People

In my last post on this topic, I chose to combat disinformation that Taiwan is not a country by clarifying all the ways that it is. Not just because we want it to be so, but because international conventions do, in fact, light a pathway toward recognized Taiwan statehood. 

Since the last post was about all the arguments for Taiwan as a nation, in this post I want to address all the (very poor) arguments against it, which so often get flung at Taiwan advocates like a hail of bonobo feces, for daring to take principled stances supporting the nation's essential nation-ness.

If you ignore it, you risk all that disinformation influencing reasonable onlookers who mistake quantity for quality ("well all these Chinese people say Taiwan is Chinese, so there's probably something to that!")

But if you do fight back, it really is like trying to swim in the feces tsunami. Or fight a thousand-headed hydra bursting from Twitter's wine-dark sea. Except the hydra is made of bonobo feces. Please just let me have this metaphor.

This is intentional: it's called gish galloping. The unending pummeling of poorly-considered arguments that are easily refuted, but there are so many flying around that you can't ever get to the end of it all. It tires you out and makes no visible impact. 

Because it's difficult to know what to do about this, I put together a list of the most common monkeyturds that get flung around in this kind of gish galloping. That is, all the bad arguments against Taiwan statehood that we hear again and again, changing with the seasons or the news cycle and sometimes resurfacing, all because someone in a United Front Work Department office made a decision about what their botmasters and gormless trolls are going to argue about for awhile, until the Western tankies pick it up while checking Twitter while drinking $8 pourovers and pass it on.

So let's hop on the bonobo feces train! 

"International law" says Taiwan is a part of China.

Of course, there is no such law. There is not a single binding international treaty that gives Taiwan to the People's Republic of China, but there are theories based on treaties or conventions that provide some guidance. You can read about those in my previous post on the topic. But "international law says Taiwan is Chinese" is simply not true. 

How do I know? Well, name the law, if you can. Show it to me. Is it binding? Does it apply to Taiwan specifically? Was it consented to by all parties involved, including the Taiwanese people?

Bet not.

"The UN says Taiwan is part of China!" 

Some insist it's due to UN resolutions on which government represents 'China' -- but if Taiwan is not a part of China, then of course it doesn't matter if it doesn't represent China at the UN! 

Not only does it not matter, but citing the UN as the final authority on Taiwan statehood fundamentally misrepresents what that organization does. It does not mint new states, and never has. Did no countries exist before some countries decided to found it? Did the People's Republic of China blink into existence in the 1970s? Did the Republic of China stop existing in 1949 when it lost the war, or the day it lost UN recognition? 

Let's keep it going. In 1993 the UN used its warlock-like powers to create the concept of Monaco. A Google search says Monaco's been A Thing since 1297, was officially recognized in 1861 and its constitution dates from 1911, but according to this logic, none of that matters — it wasn't a country at all until the 1990s. Switzerland was clearly neutral in previous wars not due to any principled stance, but apparently because it didn't exist until 2002. 

Taiwan doesn't already represent itself in that organization only because, decades ago, it was run by an incompetent, undemocratic and frankly foreign dictatorship that had no care for Taiwan's own interests -- Taiwan could have been Taiwan. A different, better future had been possible, but the KMT robbed Taiwan of that option, along with so much else. 

Regardless, other countries can and do engage in relations with Taiwan, both officially (in a few cases) and unofficially. That meets one criteria for statehood under the Montevideo Convention, and the others are met as well.

The UN not giving Taiwan a seat doesn't change that, so clearly the UN doesn't get to decide whether or not Taiwan is sovereign.

"Other countries have One China policies!"

This argument conveniently forgets that the vast majority of those policies merely maintain that one government represents China, and acknowledge that China claims Taiwan. Most if not all of them leave room for an independent Taiwan that does not represent China.

Their policies are not the same as China's "One China Principle" -- an idea which no major power has agreed to verbatim.

Besides, it's really odd for so-called anti-imperialists to point to, say, US or UK policy as the final word on another country's international status. That feels pretty imperialist to me.

Some will say that the US also acknowledges that “all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China” (in the Shanghai Communique, often misattrinbuted to the Taiwan Relations Act). 

Which was true, if you're talking about a dictatorship in the late 1970s that didn't represent the Taiwanese people, and which no longer exists. Now, Taiwanese don't see themselves that way, and nobody asked them in the 1970s when that policy was penned, rendering the wording somewhat irrelevant. The people on one side of the Taiwan Strait (mostly) no longer maintain that they are “Chinese”, and certainly not that “Taiwan is a part of China”. Acknowledging ‘both sides’ maintain a certain belief is just what it implies: an acknowledgement of what other parties believe. That’s it. Regardless, it becomes meaningless the moment one side no longer believes it. 

"Taiwan hasn't declared independence!"

Who would it declare independence from? China? You mean the PRC? It is already independent of that. The ROC? That's a name change and some constitutional reform, two issues that countries usually handle internally. In and of themselves they do not constitute a “declaration of independence’. They don’t need to, as Taiwan is already independent.

I don't go around declaring "I am Jenna!" as some sort of prerequisite for being Jenna. There's no application you fill out. There's no form. There's no DBC -- Department of Becoming a Country -- to which you submit paperwork. 

So I struggle to understand what 'declare independence' even means regarding Taiwan. Is Taiwan sovereign and fully autonomous now? Yes? Then tell me -- Taiwan should declare independence from whom?

(Don't worry, if your answer was "the ROC!", we'll get to that shortly.)

"No countries recognize Taiwan!"

Oh, but some actually do -- the ROC has a few diplomatic allies. As we saw in the last post, however, this isn't what makes a country. Every one of those allies could abandon Taiwan, and it would still be a country. When it comes to diplomacy, all Taiwan needs to meet the criteria for an independent nation is the ability to enter into relations with other countries, which it has, and has exercised. 

"But they recognize the ROC, not Taiwan as a country!" 
Yes, and I bet every single person making those claims is aware that the ROC as a sovereign entity from China is functionally nearly identical to Taiwan in the same role. (Not exactly the same: changes will eventually be necessary, but it's close enough for now). 

If China would allow any country to recognize both China and Taiwan as distinct entities, many if not most would immediately do so.

It doesn't really matter though: the Montevideo Convention does not stipulate that relations with other states have to be official diplomatic ones, or even that they have to be entered into -- merely that it is possible for that state to do so.

"But it's in the ROC Constitution! Taiwan itself thinks it's part of China!"

I've read the constitution, and it never explicitly claims current PRC  territory. The closest you get is Article 4, which states that the boundaries of the ROC are its existing boundaries and "shall not be altered except by a resolution of the national assembly."  Cool, but it never states what those borders actually are. The National Assembly no longer exists, so either way this is article is either tautological ("the borders are what they are") or dead law. 

Right now, those de facto borders are Taiwan and its outlying islands. There's a mention of Mongolia and Tibet in Article 26, but it's linked to the erstwhile National Assembly, so again...dead law.

Besides, the additional articles to the constitution were very clearly described by Lee Teng-hui as a "two-state solution". Perhaps the constitution is difficult to amend, but new ideas can be agglomerated; for all intents and purposes, Taiwan dropped any claim it once had to PRC territory in the early 1990s. Not even a fabricated '1992 Consensus' about 'one China' (which was not a consensus: even the KMT admits the two sides did not actually agree) can un-jigger Lee's brilliant jiggery.

Some will say this issue is still "controversial" in Taiwan. I say it's not: Taiwan being separate from 'China' is a mainstream position, whether you consider it independence or the status quo. 

"What about the 1992 Consensus?"

You mean that meeting in 1992 in which the two sides didn't agree? And the legitimacy of the Taiwan side is deeply questionable as it was at the end of the dictatorship and of questionable diplomatic merit? Yeah, no. No actual Taiwanese were consulted about what should happen at these meetings, and if I'm remembering correctly, the delegates were from the KMT, not diplomats.

But it doesn't matter! They didn't reach an agreement! “We didn’t agree” is the opposite of a “consensus”. What the KMT came away believing was not the same as what the PRC believed as those meetings ended. It was by definition not a consensus at all. (Interestingly, KMT chairperson Eric Chu basically admits this in an entertainingly awful video). This is why the actual term was made up much later: because there was no consensus. History books published around 1999 -- before the consensus was fabricated -- don't mention the 1992 Consensus. Of course they don't, as it didn't exist yet.

"Taiwan's not independent because the ROC is a colonizer!"

This one's tough, because I actually agree with it. The ROC on Taiwan is a colonizing entity that lost a war in the country it came from, and it should be reformed out of existence in favor of a Republic of Taiwan (or any name that voters agree on) with an appropriate constitution.

However, just as we commonly refer to the PRC as 'China', the idea of 'independence' to the general international public means 'not a part of China' -- that is, the PRC. 

Saying "Taiwan isn't independent because of ROC colonialism" just sounds like "Taiwan isn't independent" to people who don't follow these issues. It also hands ammunition to tankies, little pinks and the paid botmasters of the United Front Work Department, who love to go on and on about how Taiwan isn't independent because of the ROC. To untrained ears, it sounds like the same point. It's a bit of an own goal: why harm our own cause by making it more confusing to international audiences?

Issues of names, flags and constitutional changes are typically internal matters. Czechia and Eswatini made those choices domestically. Countries amend their constitutions and change flags all the time: there's no international body to appeal to in order to do this. So rather than giving ammunition to tankies, let's perhaps agree it needs to happen, but it's an internal matter.

Functionally, the country I live in now, regardless of its imperfect constitution and weird name, is a country. People commonly call it Taiwan. That's the fact on the ground. Claiming it's "not a country" is basically telling people to ignore the observable world.

"It's been part of China since ancient times!" 

No, it hasn't. Most of Taiwanese history has been Indigenous history, period.

The western third of Taiwan -- not very much at all -- was controlled by China from the late 17th to the late 19th centuries. For much of that, China was fairly clear that they either didn't want Taiwan (Shi Lang had to convince the emperor to keep it), or treated it as a "defensive hedge", a "ball of mud beyond civilization". That is, not really part of China. You might even say they treated it like a colony.

China only began to claim all of Taiwan in the late 19th century, though it never effectively governed that final two-thirds. As late as the 1870s, one simply could not say that the Qing actually ruled most of Taiwan

The most generous amount of time one might apportion in which the same government ruled both China and Taiwan might be a decade or two: perhaps short period before it became a Japanese colony in 1895, and from 1945-1949.

By historical timelines, China's claim on Taiwan is as limp as an overcooked noodle.

"But the turn away from Chinese heritage is DPP brainwashing!" 

I've already covered this and the answer is womp womp, you are wrong.

Taiwanese attitudes changed no matter who was in power, and in fact changed more under the KMT than the DPP. The biggest spike was around democratization -- and an election in which the KMT won the presidency. 

Democracy and freedom of speech -- the ability to say what you really think -- caused Taiwanese to start saying what they really thought. I'm sorry it doesn't line up with your Great Chinese Culture Embedded in Ancestral DNA worldview, but that's how it is. 

"But the US stoked Taiwan independence separatism to sell weapons and encourage conflict for their benefit!" 

Wrong again bucko. Seems like you got a little bonobo feces stuck in your ears. Read this and clean it out.

Taiwan home rule has been an idea floating around since at least the 1920s, when the US would have no reason to care, or attempt to start a conflict. It persisted, and grew thanks to KMT brutality (provably so, as you can see by the rise of Taiwanese democracy activists who trace their roots back to the 228 Massacre, approved by Chiang Kai-shek and meted out by Chen Yi). In fact, it was probably a notion as early as 1895, or before that, though the evidence is less clear. 

Many of those early Taiwanese independence activists were leftists (but not necessarily pro-CCP), some were openly Marxist. Why would the US court them at that point in history? There are conservative independence activists now -- they tend to be older and rather stuck in the 1970s regarding other attitudes -- but it was a movement inspired by liberal thought, and to some degree, in some groups, Marxist thought. 

Pinning this on "the US" isn't only a logic sinkhole, it also denies Taiwanese agency. Do they really need Big Daddy America doing their thinking for them? Are they incapable of critical thought without the CIA spoonfeeding revolutionary sentiment?

Of course not. That's ludicrous.

"The ROC is evil because the Nationalists were the capitalist bad guys who pushed separatism on Taiwan!"

Yep, the KMT sucked pretty hard. No disagreement there. Guess what, they still do! The great news is that they're no longer in power, and they're not really associated with the idea of Taiwanese independence: quite the opposite. To blame the KMT for Taiwanese independence activism is frankly offensive. They're the ones who executed those same activists, often without trial. Taiwan independence advocates by and large can't stand the KMT. It's absolutely strange to act like they're one and the same.

If you honestly think that "Taiwanese independence activists" and "the KMT" are natural partners, feel free to read any of the links in this post. It will disavow you of that notion very quickly.

You’ll understand that Taiwan is Chinese if you just read about the issue!” 

This only matters insofar as the Pink Floyd guy decided he was a late-blooming Sinologist. I have read up on the issue — in fact, Brendan and I read every general history of Taiwan available in English and compared them. I’ve read plenty of books that discuss specific areas of Taiwanese history. 

What have I learned from “reading about the issue”? That Taiwan isn’t Chinese and arguably never really has been. 

As Brendan likes to say, Taiwan advocates actually want you to read more about Taiwan. People who think annexation is an acceptable outcome might say “read more”, but they don’t expect you actually will. They want you to listen to them, not read further. I’ve never seen them recommend, say, a book. I’ve just recommended about 20. Please read them. 

But it’s the only way to peace! Taiwan independence is destabilizing!”

The opposite is true. Taiwan will never consent to be annexed by China, and simply wants to maintain the sovereignty it already enjoys. There is no peaceful resolution that ends with Taiwan as a part of China, because Taiwan will always fight back, at least as long as the current Chinese government is in power (but likely after that as well — and I do believe the CCP will eventually fall.) That is an assured path to war. It’s unlikely to be a short war, though it may fall out of the news cycle as the ongoing violence will be within Taiwan. 

I don’t want that, and you probably don’t either.

So if you want to avoid that war, advocate China not attacking Taiwan. It is very easy to not invade one’s neighbor (a lesson Russia might’ve done well to learn). Doing so is a choice, not an imperative, and it’s a choice China can choose not to make. China’s choices are not inevitabilities dropped from the heavens. Their threats are not immutable. Their anger and their red lines and temper tantrums? These are choices, and should be treated as such. 

That’s the path to peace. So the outcome most likely to avoid war is one in which Taiwan remains separate from China. 

Got any more?

I'm happy to expand this post with more gish gallops, strawmen, goalpost moving or other tactics that little pinks use to make life on social media unbearable if you care about an issu
e. Let me know, and if I get some good responses I'll add them to the post.