Sunday, February 20, 2022

Permanent residency for foreign blue-collar workers: the good, the bad and the political

Migrante Taiwan at the 2017 Labor Day protest -- note that they're asking for home care workers to be covered under the Labor Standards Act, not permanent residency

The Ministry of Labor recently announced a path -- if you can call it that -- for foreign blue-collar workers to gain permanent residency. This has been a long time in the making: the ministry has been talking about this since at least 2015, and lawmakers have been discussing it for at least a year

I initially called the announcement "fantastic news", but honestly, it's only fantastic in that the gate to even begin a journey to permanent residency has been firmly shut to foreign blue-collar workers until now. On ICRT Donovan Smith said the door has been opened just slightly, more as a signal than as an actual practical policy to help such workers gain permanent residency. I'd put it similarly: the new rules provide a gatekeeper who will unlock the gate for a lucky few who can answer his riddles three. 

In other words, the rules are so Byzantine and unachievable that they will apply to approximately zero people. Under the new guidelines, foreign blue collar labor can apply for permanent residency after five years if they have an Associate's degree or some sort of technical or professional certification, along with earning a minimum monthly salary that is about NT$3,000/month above the average for such jobs.

By the end of that, there's an even higher minimum salary requirement (about NT$50,000/month) which approaches what many white-collar workers make in Taiwan -- including foreign white-collar labor. I'm not sure if that requirement is for both pathways.

Even Taiwanese with university degrees might not get entry-level offers much higher than that, so it's deluded to think employers, who recruit foreign labor for blue-collar work through the deeply corrupt brokerage system, are going to do so.

Another option is to work for 6 years in the same industry and be classified as "intermediate skilled workers", which then kicks off a 5-year wait for a total of 11 years. 

Such a salary is unattainable by most blue-collar workers, foreign and Taiwanese alike and creates other hurdles: it's not uncommon to come to Taiwan with a job in, say, fishing, and then switch categories to factory work. Some fields pay better than others, and while all are exploitative toward foreign labor to a degree, some are worse than others (fishing is among the worst, though domestic work, often done by women, is rife with abuse -- including, occasionally, sexual assault.) In other words, some workers change industries to make more money or find work they prefer. Others do so to escape exploitative or abusive situations.

Forcing workers to choose between changing industries and having their time in Taiwan count toward permanent residency is cruel, in a system which is already far too cruel. Not that it matters much, as almost nobody will qualify under the current requirements. 

What's more, it's rather discordant to give foreign blue-collar workers a path to permanent residency -- however impossible actually attaining it may be -- but still not include many them in the Labor Standards Act. That's right -- foreign home care workers are still not covered unless they're from Thailand, because the Thai government requires it. Workers in other industries are, but it's extremely common for employers to simply, well, ignore that.

For more of an idea of what life in Taiwan is like for foreign blue-collar labor, I highly recommend reading Joe Henley's Migrante

And before I get into this further, I suggest listening to Donovan Smith and Sean Su on ICRT's Taiwan This Week. They cover the issue nicely, and I will recap what they've pointed out below. 

But first, it's important to point out what foreign workers themselves seem to be saying about this. It comes up about a third of the way through in the 2/18/22 episode, Putting Medigen on the Map. I don't speak Tagalog, Cebuano or any of the Bisayan languages but the commentary is pretty clear in translation. So what are they saying about it?

Many say that the change doesn't mean much until salaries increase so that more people will benefit from or at least qualify for the new pathway. Some say their pay is as low as NT$17,000 a month -- how would they ever reach the minimum threshold? Several say that it would have been a better move to first include domestic/home workers in the Labor Standards Act, an issue which has been strongly campaigned for by migrant worker groups for some time. 

Some call it "useless" -- "just work [in Taiwan], save some money and go home. It's hard to care for old people anyway." One person joked that they hoped to qualify in 20 years. Others straight-up call it "false hope" or "tiring."

"It's like passing through the eye of a needle," one comment read. "You'll still suffer, there are a lot of countries [to work in], just apply to another one." In fact, many pointed out that this is why more workers go to Hong Kong (although foreign workers are just as exploited in Hong Kong, the pay is usually better) or other countries in Asia. 

"Just extend the number of years we can stay, we don't need permanent residency," one person said. Many had something to say about the low salaries on offer in Taiwan.

It goes on like this -- a debate on the same page about including home care workers in the Labor Standards Act got hundreds of replies (with no disagreement I could find). The permanent residency announcements did not even reach 50 comments each, and I struggled to find a single person unequivocally supporting the move. Not everyone on these threads was dismissive of the idea, but almost nobody thought it would be a real possibility for them or actually address the issues they face.

That brings me back to the good, the bad and the political. 

As Donovan pointed out on ICRT, this is how the Taiwanese government operates when it comes to foreigners. They open up the door a sliver, and it's not particularly helpful -- but the door is then open, so the next move is a little easier to make because it's building on something that came before. Eventually, the regulations reach the point where something useful is actually provided to the foreigners in question.

The same thing happened with white collar labor: first it was difficult to even get a visa to teach English in Taiwan. Then, work visas were possible but permanent residency wasn't for all but a select few. Now, permanent residency is fairly easy and the process streamlined, and for certain people it can be gained in just three years instead of the usual five. With dual citizenship, the door remained firmly closed but all for a few aging missionaries. Then it opened a slice, just a few years ago, and helps very few people (though I know someone who obtained citizenship that way). It certainly doesn't help me: the job I would need as an educator in my field to qualify for dual nationality does not meaningfully exist in Taiwan. 

This could be for political reasons: Sean noted that an entire community tried to kick out its Southeast Asian residents. Years ago, I passed a protest on the bus, where people were waving signs saying "foreign labor go home" in Mandarin, and I knew they weren't talking about people like me. In my neighborhood, I had a few confrontations over racist signage that admonished people not to litter in big-font Indonesian, and then an itty bitty Mandarin translation. Of course, my Indonesian neighbors generally don't litter. I'm often up late enough to see who does -- Taiwanese teenagers. 

In other words, there might be opposition from enough voters to matter if these changes happened quickly. Few are likely to notice if it's done slowly. 

It could also be for legislative reasons. I once asked Freddy Lim about immigration -- many of the people who worked on the documentary about him are foreigners living in Taiwan who want dual nationality. He indicated support for the idea, but pointed out that a lot of more conservative legislators don't. So, change comes slowly because if huge steps are taken all at once, a backlash would be far more likely -- however unfair it may be.

My experience as a white professional in Taiwan differs profoundly from a blue-collar Southeast Asian immigrant here. But the legislative mindset seems to follow some of the same slow-moving currents -- although the benefits always come to people like me far earlier, and certainly that's unfair. 

The point is, it's not necessarily wrong to do it this way. There are reasons why it happens. And I understand that the government makes these rules because they think they're doing what's best for Taiwan. I don't agree that they are -- Taiwan benefits from immigration and it knows it -- but that's what they believe. 

However, I tend to think of these things at the human level. 

The result is that such processes take decades. Decades mean a generation or more. That means eventually the rules might change and the gates might open. Eventually the riddles three will become the riddle one, and some time after that that riddle will be fairly easy to answer. But in that canyon of time, one or more generations of immigrants to Taiwan will never be able to benefit from a fairer system. They'll grow old and die, choose to leave or be forced to leave before it can help them.

The turnover is likely much higher for the foreign blue-collar community. They're limited to 12-14 years in Taiwan unless they get permanent residency (still unlikely), switch to a white-collar job (possible for some, but also unlikely) or marry someone who can give them residency (reasonably common). 

By the time the wheels of political change turn far enough to meaningfully help foreign workers, the ones currently here will already be gone. I know it's not common for governments to consider it from that perspective, but perhaps they should. 

And perhaps they should ask the actual foreigners these new rules would affect, and see what they really want. I bet they'll find the answer is better labor conditions, higher salaries, the ability to stay longer (perhaps forever, but perhaps not) and to include home workers in the Labor Standards Act. Perhaps some would want a path to permanent residency too: I don't know, I can't speak for them. But anyone can read the commentary -- it's not hard.

All of those are possible, but they have immediate consequences and will receive immediate backlash from employers and brokers alike. How dare you force us to stop abusing people and apply the law to every worker! If we didn't exploit workers, our business might be somewhat less profitable! Do you think I got this Mercedes Benz by paying workers fairly? 

This would also help Taiwan. Despite the sluggish legislative response to these long-standing issues, they must know foreign blue-collar labor is vital to the country, that other Asian countries offer better pay at the very least, and that the human rights record for treatment of Southeast Asian workers in Taiwan is abysmal, tarnishing Taiwan's reputation as a whole. They must know, as Donovan and Sean pointed out on ICRT, that if they were serious about the New Southbound Policy that these would be the obvious moves to make.

Still -- that is what the Ministry of Labor would do if it actually wanted to help foreign blue collar workers. It would ask them what they need and want, and then...y'know, do that.

Monday, February 14, 2022

The iconic Taiwan Store (台灣ê店) has to move -- so let's support them!

I was gonna drop in and take my own picture but I ended up forgetting to actually do so, even when I stopped by. So, here's a screen grab from FTV.

FTV reported recently that
the Taiwan Store (台灣ê店) on Xinsheng South Road was being forced to relocate. 

This brought up a lot of memories for me, though I'm hardly the only one and my memories are hardly the most important.

Sometime in my first few years in Taiwan, I heard about The Taiwan Store. Open since 1993, I started visiting regularly. It had an old-school vibe, run by an elderly couple. Although my Chinese wasn't great then (to be fair, I still think it isn't), there was a section with English books about Taiwan, and souvenirs and t-shirts on sale as well as books. Sometimes I'd just drop by on my way to a cafe to peruse what they had, and for awhile they were the only store in Taiwan that reliably had books about Taiwan in English. 

I finally wrote about it in 2011, though admittedly the post is quite mediocre. 

Other little things drew me to the place. When they started making Taiwan passport covers (omitting the Republic of China words or symbol in favor of a more Taiwan-centric design), I was one of the first to get one, though I've never tried to travel abroad with it covering my blue passport. One year, Su Beng did a Lunar New Year calligraphy scroll: very simple, just 台灣獨立, his signature and an outline of the main island. The Taiwan Store gave those out for free: I took two, one for a good friend and one for myself. Although it's just a mass printed image on red paper, I eventually had mine framed. Su Beng has since passed away; there will never be another. 

We'd chat with Mr. Wu, the owner, who was delighted at any foreigner who spoke any amount of Taiwanese at all. My Taiwanese always failed after the first few sentences, and he seemed to prefer carrying on in English rather than Mandarin, some of the time at least. 

I'd bring friends in there and we'd find all sorts of items: a Taiwanese language-learning book created by my friend Ting (I immediately bought a copy), a CD full of the folk songs written by former President Chen Shui-bian from his prison cell, Chthonic t-shirts. It was one of the easiest places to get a Chthonic album, on old-school CD, if you wanted the Taiwanese version of the songs, not the English lyrics available on music-purchasing apps, back when those were a thing. The Taiwan Store has consistently been one o the only places to find a copy of A Borrowed Voice, detailing the support foreigners gave the Taiwan human rights movement under Martial Law. 

Even when Southern Materials re-opened nearby with an impressive selection of English-language books about Taiwan, I'd still pop by the Taiwan store. Their 'English corners' were a bit different, after all. One can reliably pick up a copy of Taiwan's Imagined Geography at Southern Materials, but the personal account of John Dodd, a tea merchant who witnessed the French blockade of Taiwan in the 1880s? That was Taiwan Store stuff. 

The rare titles on offer extend to their much larger Chinese-language selection. Anyone looking for something truly uncommon about Taiwan would find it here. It's one of the few bookshops that seriously attempts to incorporate books on Indigenous issues in Taiwan and promote Taiwanese language learning. 

Not long ago, hearing about their troubles, I started returning more frequently. I referenced a fellow foreigner whose Taiwanese is far better than mine -- "tall guy, blondish, actually speaks Taiwanese, always buying lots of books" -- and Mr. Wu knew him immediately. I've begun buying everything I'd eyed in the past but passed over: the John Dodd account, a book about Taiwanese decorative iron window grilles, a book that breaks down the architectural features of Taiwanese historic sites, well above my reading level but rendered comprehensible by the illustrations. A t-shirt, a keychain, a cupholder. I never did buy that CD of Chen Shui-bian folk songs.

It's not an exaggeration to say that while I don't know the owners well, they are some of my favorite acquaintances in Taipei.

So to hear the worst possible news: a drop in business from the pandemic, yes, but also the plain old capitalist calculus of landlords -- it cracked my heart a little. This is what happens when businesses rent their storefronts rather than owning them outright. The landlord wanted Mr. Wu and his bookstore out, and jacked up the rent accordingly. 

It's doubtful the landlord actually wants more rent. He probably wants to redevelop the property, and the rental fees from Mr. Wu could never possibly compare to the wealth he'd accrue simply by tearing the whole thing down and redeveloping. It's not evil, per se, but it is cold and calculating, perhaps if I'm feeling ungenerous it's avaricious, even. One of the deadly sins but not an unforgivable one. And yet, I don't like that landlord much at all.

According to the FTV piece, Mr. Wu doesn't intend to close permanently. He said his business is still the only Taiwan-themed bookshop in, well, Taiwan. And Taiwan does in fact need a bookshop dedicated to itself.

I agree. In any other country that the world recognizes as a country this idea -- we need our own bookshop with books about about our own country -- might seem annoyingly patriotic, perhaps even alarmingly nationalistic. You wouldn't catch me in The America Store. But for a country that has to fight for recognition internationally and whose voices, national identity and even right to self-determination and identification are so often erased or stomped on by others? Yes, you do need that. 

Mr. Wu is 79, though -- not an easy age to make such a big change -- and isn't quite sure where he will move. It won't be immediate: the current location will remain open through April, when the NT$5,000 government vouchers expire. In the meantime, he's been packing up books from shelves he installed himself.

In the FTV article, he spoke of times when taxi drivers would recognize him and say "you own a store dedicated to Taiwan -- I don't need money to drive you." He talked about the memories the store held for him, and the landlord's complaints about the "bad government" (which implies that perhaps Mr. Wu and the landlord have differing political views as well. I don't know if that contributed to the corresponding rent hike.) 

In a Humans of Taipei feature, he elaborated a bit more. After getting his PhD from Columbia, he was teaching at National Cheng-chi University when he was approached by strangers on a hike in the early 1980s, before the end of Martial Law. He was asked about a professor (Bruce Jacobs) considered a possible subversive -- do you know him? He said he did not, but felt an implicit warning: Taiwan is still not a safe place to be. He left Taiwan again and didn't return until 1987, after Martial Law had been lifted. At protests and events, he'd meet someone selling books about Taiwan in a sort of temporary set-up. He asked why they didn't open a bookshop, to which the man replied, "why don't you open one?"

Since trying to learn about Taiwan could be difficult -- books, when they existed, were hard to track down, and it was simply not easy to learn about Taiwan -- he did just that. Business started out strong, although some of his own writing (e.g. on the 228 Incident) was ignored by wider academic circles because he dared to simply call Taiwan an independent country. 

However, he lamented not long before the landlord came in for the kill, business hadn't been doing so well in recent years. People weren't buying or reading as much, he said, but it was still worth it to him to keep the store open.

Now, even that is ending, although an Indigenous friend of his is opening a branch in Taitung.

But Taiwan still needs, well...a Taiwan Store. 

So how can we support Mr. Wu as he looks for a way to relocate his business? Obviously, by stopping by and buying out some of his stock. Give him more liquidity and fewer goods to move. If you don't read Chinese, there are still all manner of t-shirts, banners and souvenirs you can pick up, even as he begins packing. 

I don't know if there's other help they need with moving or finding a new place, and assume they have friends and a support network for that. But every book or item you buy now makes it a little easier, and a little more certain, that after this April there will still be a Taiwan Store in Taiwan.

Here's the address: 


1st Floor #6, Lane 76 Xinsheng South Road Section 3

It's across the street from NTU, in the same lane as Guang Yi Cafe and very near the gray Lutheran Church that put up all those anti-gay posters in 2018.  The closest MRT is Gongguan.

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Is Taiwan independence a mainstream position? It depends on how you define independence.


There's a visual metaphor in here somewhere about doors and corners.

"Most Taiwanese don't want independence, they want the status quo," I was told recently.

Well, that's half a lie: someone did say that to me not long ago, but I can usually claim that as there's always someone saying it. 

I'm never sure how to respond. I size up the person who's made the pronouncement, sitting proudly like they cracked the Mystery Spy Key Ring code and try to figure out how exactly they came to hold that opinion. 

Is it because they read the popular but frequently-misinterpreted polling on this issue from NCCU, ignoring the poll on the same site regarding identity? Possibly. Then it's time to take a leisurely drive through what does the status quo mean, though? and when people answer, how are they defining independence? 

Is it because they think that Taiwan's current official name, "The Republic of China", confers a Chineseness on Taiwan which cannot be cast off without changing it? That leads to questions about why, exactly, this name persists. Do most Taiwanese want it? We have no idea; I'm not sure anyone has ever asked directly. Or does it continue to exist because China has threatened to start a war if Taiwan does so, and most people would simply prefer to avoid that? 

Is it because they think Taiwan doesn't have independence now? But if that's true, then what does it need independence from? The People's Republic of China, or the Republic of China? If the former, Taiwan already has it. If the latter, then it's very easy to confuse people abroad who hear "Taiwan independence" and think "from the PRC".

Perhaps it's because they believe independence is a thing which must be proactively declared. Why must it, though? If "independence" means "independence from China (the one everyone recognizes)", then Taiwan has it. What's to declare? If it means ending the ROC system on Taiwan, I'm all for it -- but that's a different thing, and doesn't have to be bound up with extant independence from the PRC. 

However, plenty of people seem to believe these are one and the same, or perhaps they don't think about the difference. They issue forth their opinions on "independence" as if they are the master of that word. As if nobody else's concept of what that word might mean matters: they decide it must mean independence from the PRC or ROC or both, that it is a thing which must be declared, that it cannot be a thing Taiwan has now. That it means just what they choose it to mean -- neither more nor less. They don't question who is to be master of that word.

And of course, if anyone disagrees, it must be because they don't understand -- it could not possibly be a difference in how one conceptualizes what it means to be "independent".

Now that I've thoroughly plagiarized Lewis Carroll, I do question who is to be master of the words "Taiwan independence". Let's start with the idea that it means sovereignty from the PRC.

President Tsai has done a great deal of work to bring the concept of "Taiwan independence" into the mainstream. Under her leadership, it's become a term that means sovereignty: Taiwan as its own country, regardless of the name, independent from the PRC. More recently, she didn't reference the ROC at all in her New Year's speech.

This is exactly what she says: Taiwan is an independent country, and it's name is the Republic of China. There's no need to declare independence

If you define independence this way -- the sovereignty Taiwan already enjoys -- then it is indeed a mainstream position. Tsai was democratically elected and remains more popular than most Taiwanese leaders who've served as long as she has; clearly these pronouncements have not hurt her. 

And I fail to see, in any reasonable mode of thinking, how such pronouncements could be considered anything other than a pro-independence position.

We also know it's a mainstream position because there's polling to prove it


It’s noteworthy that an impressive majority – almost 75 percent – continue to believe that Taiwan is already an independent country called the Republic of China. [Emphasis mine].


Supporting this is a recent MyFormosa poll, which asked respondents what they considered to be the necessary conditions for independence, a huge majority responded that Taiwan already meets those criteria, the status quo suffices to meet them, and there's no need to change the name of the country (that's the yellow bar). The green bar are the people who think at a Republic of Taiwan must be established before Taiwan can be called independent.

It seems Tsai has not only pinpointed a mainstream position, she has changed what it means for Taiwan to consider itself independent. This is not just in terms of what voters think, but her own party (this isn't a position I could see the DPP of Chen Shui-bian taking, but it's where they are now.)

This makes sense: if one defines "Taiwanese independence" as something palatable, acceptable, normal even -- something that doesn't require a big change or a provocation -- then it becomes those very things. Palatable, acceptable, normal, unprovocative. Mainstream. 

It also captures the essence of what most people understand independence to mean internationally: that Taiwan independence means independence from the country they understand to be China. 

Suddenly Taiwan independence isn't a thing that doesn't exist, which some renegade province wants to make happen. It's not a change: it's something Taiwan already has which it merely wishes to keep.

It also allows for the bridging of some very deep cleavages. Yes, this means making nice with huadu (華獨 or "independence as the ROC") people whom one may not like, or fully agree with. It means accepting that some allies might still talk about the status quo, and being annoyed by that won't change it.

It means working with folks whom one might not trust: I hear a lot of huadu isn't actually a pro-independence viewpoint and yes, I wonder as well how committed they really are to keeping Taiwan sovereign and free. 

However, I'd rather work with them and turn that bloc of people who don't want to be part of the PRC into a force that can, y'know, keep Taiwan from being part of the PRC, not sit around hurling insults at people with whom I actually have common ground.

You might spit back "but the ROC question can't be left until later!" but reader, it literally can.

In other words, naming and coalescing the key view of the vast majority of Taiwanese -- that they want sovereignty and do not want to be part of the People's Republic of China regardless of other disagreements -- is genius. 

This is especially true given that there are still people who don't want unification but do maintain some Chinese cultural identity (although most prioritize Taiwanese identity -- and that does matter, as it means there's room for growth and change).

That may seem overly optimistic, but as most Taiwanese identify solely as Taiwanese, but a huge percentage of those want to "maintain the status quo", there seems to be a lot of maneuverability in terms of what the status quo means. 

It doesn't mean those who want formal independence and those who want to keep the status quo (which is effectively independence) are the same -- they're not. But it does mean they can work together. It would require quite a lot of public discourse, but it's possible. That's how it is when you're trying to bridge deep cleavages.

So, let's look at the other side.

If, on the other hand, one insists that "Taiwanese independence" can only mean one thing, and that concept must include a move away from the Republic of China -- that independence from the country most people consider "China" is insufficient -- then it's a much longer journey to popular support. If you demand that a word that can have many meanings can only be defined with its radical meaning, then you're relegating the concept it embodies to the edges of discourse, away from the mainstream.

It's also divisive rather than inclusive: we all agree that Taiwan is sovereign from the PRC and we don't want that to change is an umbrella that can fit all sorts of people. We must end the ROC colonial system too might be my personal view (in fact, it is), but it excludes people who might help and confuses those who don't follow these issues closely.

Does doing that help Taiwan? I don't think so, but it sure does help China. They want the world to believe independence doesn't exist yet, and the very idea is just the fever dream of some fringe splittists. I'd rather accept that every person is their own unique soap opera of ideas, as long as enough of them can work together to keep Taiwan free. 

Insisting that Taiwan is not independent (even though it is independent from the PRC) merely reinforces that view. For anyone who doesn't follow Taiwanese politics, the end result is usually confusion: isn't Taiwan already not a part of China? No, because the ROC is also China? Then Taiwan's not independent, better not rock the boat and support a change. That feels like separatism and the news makes that word sound negative. And I don't want a war. Better that Taiwan not become independent.

Where's the good in alienating a chunk of the electorate that agrees Taiwan should not be a part of the PRC, confusing people abroad who aren't aware of these conceptual differences, and giving the whole notion of Taiwanese independence a negative connotation?

Personally, I think it's smarter to court allies where one can and create a position that the mainstream can comfortably hold. If they already do, and a leader's job is merely to find that extant mainstream and give it a name, then all the better. 

Internationally, this means clarifying for all the people who have-listen to the news that Taiwan is, indeed, already independent from that country they call China. It's sovereign, and it's okay to just call it Taiwan. All they want is to keep what they have. 

This makes it harder to oppose or fear, and makes it difficult for international media to make it sound more provocative than it is. Perhaps it will lead to fewer moves likely to anger China and more talk of democratic, self-governing Taiwan.

That is, less fear of what Taiwan might declare and more discourse about what Taiwan already is.

Locally, this means working with the "status quo" crowd, even those who fear a move away from ROC names and norms. But it also means pointing out, whenever possible, that the ROC still contains concepts of Chinese governance that are inappropriate for Taiwan. It means normalizing the mainstream position that Taiwan is not and should never be a part of the PRC, while pushing for an end to the ROC colonial framework. They're both important, but they're not the same thing and can be accomplished on different timelines.

Note that word -- governance. Not culture. It's much easier to convince someone to change a set of laws than tell them how they should define their culture. Culture is non-static and how people define and relate to it are ever-evolving too: this is an issue that will solve itself, given room to breathe.

Such a view can sit quite comfortably alongside the NCCU poll that says again and again that Taiwanese prefer "the status quo". That poll asks nothing about what people mean when they discuss these concepts.

I accept that one poll cannot do everything -- adding questions addressing these issues would create all sorts of methodological hurdles -- and am happy to see there's now other information out there. I'd like to see even more in the future: we could begin to address some of this confusion if there were more research into what people mean when they say "independence".

In the meantime, here's a challenge: instead of talking about independence like everyone agrees on what it means, define your terms. Independence from what? Be clear: are you talking about ending the ROC conceptual, constitutional and juridicial framework in Taiwan, or are you talking about sovereignty from the PRC? Are you ignoring the distinction entirely and assuming they are one and the same? Don't. 

Perhaps, if that actually happened, we could all stop shouting from our respective corners, each using our own definitions of independence and assuming the other side shares them -- each pretending to be masters of our little word-kingdoms.

And then, perhaps, we could actually get somewhere.

Friday, February 4, 2022

Nobody wants your half-assed gangland solutions to the Taiwan-China problem

I apologize for being away so long — honestly, I just needed a break and thus took one. I’ve had a heavy workload and have needed to care for my health.

Also, a bit of a content warning. I start with a vivid analogy that involves children and murder. If that’s something you don’t think you can handle, go ahead and skip this post. 


Imagine if a murderer had your baby but for whatever reason, couldn’t or wouldn’t kill the baby immediately. Maybe someone else is standing between them and their weapon. 

Suppose this baby murderer proposed a series of “compromises”, each more preposterous than the last, but every “compromise” involved them getting to kill your baby. 

For instance, “how about I kill your baby, but in 20 years instead of now, so you can prepare for your child being murdered?” 

Or “I’ll give you lots of money, a new driveway and a great job, if I get to kill your baby.”

“How about I start the process of killing your baby, but really slowly so you can get used to watching your baby die?”

“No? How about I come live in your house, take over your baby’s education and set their social schedule, and in exchange I will delay the decision of exactly how to murder your baby? However, the baby will indeed be murdered at some undefined point in the future.”

“Okay, okay, you can make decisions about your baby’s education unless I disagree with your choices, and I’ll occupy your living room and kitchen. You can keep a bedroom to yourself, and even decorate it as long as I approve of the decorations. At some point, we'll figure out how to murder your baby together. These discussions on the best course of baby murder will take place with me holding a gun to your head.”

Their friends and hired goons would come by to bully and gaslight you, trying to make you think these were all reasonable offers. People claiming to be your friends would sidle up and say “maybe you should hear him out, there are lots of ways you could still keep a lot of your life as it is if you just let him do a wee bit o’ baby murder!” You don't tell these bad "friends" off because you're hoping some of them might eventually come around to realizing baby murder is wrong.

Would you sit down to a long, stressful, traumatic negotiation with the baby murderer about under what conditions you’d allow him to murder your baby? 

Or would you tell him to piss off, and fight for your baby’s life?

Yes, I realize I am calling the Chinese government a bunch of baby murderers here, but to be honest, I think that’s both literally and figuratively true. 

What’s my point? 

Pretty much every “solution” proposed to the Taiwan-China conflict is some variation on this theme — trying to find ways to make murdering what Taiwan holds most dear (its sovereignty, liberal democracy, and extant albeit imperfect commitment to human rights and freedoms) somehow more palatable to Taiwan, while offering little or nothing in return. They always center what China wants and never seem to view the situation from Taiwan’s perspective. 

And all of them — every single time — are variations on the same two themes. Extortion, and One Country Two Systems. That is, baby murder and slow baby murder. Baby murder, but with more steps. 

None of them ever consider that maybe one of the parties involved simply doesn’t want the other to murder their baby.

Consider, for example, the utterly infuriating Chas Freeman take in The Economist

In contrast, a diplomat and lead translator for the Nixon delegation, Chas Freeman, argues that America frittered away opportunities created in 1972 for a peaceful accommodation between Taiwan and the mainland. He urges America to push Taiwan to negotiate a settlement now, to avoid a war, though he concedes that Chinese rulers would roll back some democratic freedoms in Taiwan. “The most likely course of events is tragic,” Mr Freeman says.

I'm not sure this is a recent point -- his general buffoonery dates back quite a ways -- but it was in something published recently, so let's use it as a jumping off point.

This amounts to nothing more than “nice country you got there, shame if something were to happen to it” — that is, extortion. 

In other words, here's what Chas is saying: yes, it’s true that China will at least maim your baby and might even murder it, but if you don’t let them, they could burn down your house! 

Once again, the idea is that Taiwan gives China its most valued treasure, and gets nothing it wants in return. It only avoids something bad, by agreeing to something worse.

“Give us your stuff in exchange for fewer beatings” is not diplomacy. It is extortion. “Let us murder your baby in exchange for not burning down your house” is inhumane.

Freeman and lot of people like him don’t seem to realize that the things Taiwan holds most dear — democracy, human rights (however imperfectly implemented), sovereignty — are exactly the things China wants from Taiwan, and exactly the things Taiwan can never bargain away. 

This approach has another flaw — it avoids just one bad thing: war, the most visible of bad things. Other things, the loss of which are arguably worse than war, don't seem to rate. Maybe people like Chas Freeman don't care because they'll never notice or feel the effects: after all, it won't be their baby missing from their house. Perhaps it's easier to bargain away the life of someone else's baby?

It assumes that losing one's democratic freedoms is preferable to a war, if the people losing those freedoms don't include you. I'm anti-war, but I don't quite agree with that (not that I get a say). War is the second most tragic outcome. Y'know, I'd do anything for peace, but I won't do that

I guess human rights don’t mean much to these people if it’s not their human rights on the line. Would most Americans fight for their human rights? I hope so, but a lot of people seem to think Taiwanese shouldn’t. Why?

In the end, none of these incredibly naive “solutions” that involve China getting what it wants but Taiwan not getting anything it wants are simply not solutions. They are gangland-style theft. "Discussion" at gunpoint. Negotiating with baby murderers. They are not diplomacy.

Similarly, the Twitter Dingus genus of solutions all seem to sound like variations on the exact thing Taiwan has already said it cannot accept: One Country Two Systems (1C2S). 

There’s “Taiwan runs its internal affairs for 100 years” — but see how well that worked out for Hong Kong. Is it really a good bet that China will be better in 100 years? And if Taiwan doesn’t want to be part of China now, why assume it will want to in a century? 

There’s “Taiwan can run its government and economy, China gets foreign policy, defense and education” — so Taiwan is stripped of any way to defend itself against China if it realizes it signed a bad deal, and China gets to implement patriotic pro-China education in Taiwan schools. There’s “some portion of Taiwan’s government can be elected, some appointed by China” — a power-sharing plan that worked out terribly in Hong Kong, allowing China to eventually allow “patriots only” to run in the few Hong Kong elections that remained, and then lie about the reasons for low voter turnout

In every one of these, China gains, Taiwan loses. 1C2S with details changed. Baby murder, but with more steps.

Every proposal ends with asking Taiwan to let China murder its baby. None of them start with Taiwan’s non-negotiable: the baby lives. None of them stop to ask whether it’s ethical to negotiate with baby murderers at all. 

I’m not exaggerating. I don’t think it’s hyperbole. People fight and die for these things. They matter.

That’s the other real problem: other than not starting a war, China doesn’t actually have anything to offer Taiwan, and cannot offer Taiwan the only thing that matters.

Let’s leave aside the graphic metaphor for a second. 

Taiwan honestly is doing just fine without China. That doesn’t mean Taiwan is a utopia, and surely if stronger economic cooperation with China without the constant threat of annexation were possible, there would be benefits. However, those benefits — in part or in sum — are not enough to negotiate away what is most dear. I'm not sure anything is, but certainly nothing China has on offer.

Many of these issues (e.g. trade) can be solved either through greater engagement with the rest of the world or negotiating with China on a country-to-country basis, just as every other country handles them.

Even with no benefits on offer, perhaps discussion would be possible if it met other criteria: a desire for unification on the part of Taiwan, and a commitment to peaceful discussion with a renunciation of the use of force by China. China, of course, would have to have a government one would actually want to work with: open, liberal, democratic. 

None of these conditions exist, and likely won’t in our lifetimes, if ever. There is no desire for unification in Taiwan, only a desire to avoid war. In the last election the pro-China guy had to say “over my dead body!” when asked about 1C2S. That guy lost -- even this couldn't save him from being seen as too friendly with the CCP.

You might wonder why, then, the old US solutions referenced “Chinese on both sides of the Strait” believing there is “one China” are still bandied about, why the name “Republic of China” still exists, or why Taiwanese, in some (poorly interpreted) polls, don’t say that they want independence. That’s a whole new post, but I’ll address the first. In the 1970s, the KMT dictatorship running Taiwan didn’t represent the people, and a lot has changed here in terms of democratization and identity. The old talk about what “both sides” believed simply no longer applies, because Taiwanese no longer believe it (if they ever did, which is hard to know as nobody asked them in 1972.)

China, of course, has not renounced the use of force. Perhaps they know they have no carrots, so they can only brandish a stick. 

And, of course, the Chinese government is horrible and you’d have to be literally out of your mind to want to be governed by a bunch of genocidaires. Entire generations have passed waiting for that to change. It may happen, but likely not. I certainly wouldn’t pen an agreement betting on it in a certain timeframe. Hong Kong (well, their former colonizers, when handing it over to their current colonizers) bet on that and lost. 

It’s been said a million times but I suppose it needs to be repeated: the core problem between Taiwan and China is that Taiwan does not want unification, and China does.

Every proposed solution seems to entail some form of unification, despite that being non-negotiable to Taiwan. China's desires always seem to be centered, Taiwan expected to accept marginalization, when the CCP are the baby murderers and Taiwan wants peace.

Instead of thinking of what a good solution would look like for Taiwan (hint: it would involve ironclad and perpetual sovereignty — basically, independence) and going from there, these wannabe diplomats take China’s baby murder proposal and try to figure out how to gaslight Taiwan into believing it’s a good deal. 

But Taiwan knows better, and knows the value of its sovereignty and democracy.

So stop trying to convince them to take China’s bad offers, when there’s nothing in it for them and they’re perfectly aware these offers don’t Taiwan’s best interests into consideration.

How about this? Everyone just go ahead and shut the fuck up with their inane “solutions” to the Taiwan-China problem until their chief concern is helping Taiwan defend the life of its baby, not figuring out how to accommodate those who want to murder it.