Thursday, March 24, 2022

Is it "progressive realism" or just racism?


Chiu Kuo-chun, 2013
May The Five Blessings Descend Upon This House
Silk print and embroidery

Now that I have had time to calm down, I want to talk about what is, in my estimation, the worst paper involving Taiwan written in the past decade. This may be in parts less organized than I'd like, but the alternative is my original reaction: indiscriminate shrieking of expletives. So you get what you get.


An article was recently published in the Australian Journal of International Affairs by Nick Bisley, Robyn Eckersley, Shahar Hameiri, Jessica Kirk, George Lawson and Benjamin Zala on "progressive realism" in Australian politics

The piece defines "progressive realism" (a real term in International Affairs, not just progressivism in the common sense) and applies it to pandemics, climate change, infrastructure in the Pacific, and Taiwan. For the purposes of this post, only the section on Taiwan matters. 

What is it, then? According to the authors, it:

"combines a ‘realistic’ diagnosis of the key dynamics that underpin contemporary world politics with a ‘progressive’ focus on the redistribution of existing power configurations. Taken together, these two building blocks provide the foundations for a left-of-centre foreign policy agenda."


This definition is based on the work of Joseph Nye and Robert Wright and became popular about 15 years ago. Notably, this was just about the time that the Bush II era of American hard power was declining in popularity and an 'early 2000s progressive' like Obama looked set to displace that whole way of thinking. This was also back when we thought a Democratic foreign policy after the 2008 elections would be markedly different from Bush II's, From my vantage point in 2022, I'm no longer so sure that was the case.

The short of what Nye argued for was acknowledging the world and the powers with in it as it is, not as we'd like it to be, and working within those constraints to do what we can to disseminate liberal values (think liberty, democracy, human rights), through soft power whenever possibly and hard (military) power only when necessary. This might mean accepting cultural differences where those values don't necessarily read the same way, or it might mean accepting that we don't have the power to fix everything we'd like. With events like the rise of China as an economic power, this might mean incorporating China as a "responsible stakeholder" (that's a quote from Nye) in the global order. 

Basically, integrate hard and soft power, encourage the evolution of a liberal "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" international mindset where we can, but accept that a superpower like the US doesn't get to set the global agenda.

What's wrong with that? Well, there are three key flaws with the paper itself. First, it doesn't examine regional stability and security from all viewpoints -- in other words, by denying Taiwan agency or even the consideration that it might react differently than they assume, it displays frightening racism. 

Second, it does not do what it says it does vis-a-vis "progressive realism". At the end of the day, what they're offering up is just plain old realism. Even if you accept that "progressive" has a specific definition here, it still doesn't meet its own goals. 

Finally, it fundamentally misunderstands China. It doesn't just get China fatally wrong, but it does so in a way so bone-chilling that I am quite certain the authors do not realize the subtext of what they're actually saying. If you treat China in 2022 as though Nye's conception of China in 2006 still holds, you are in for a very rude awakening. 

Let's start with the lack of agency accorded Taiwan. The 'realist' aspect of a "progressive realist" policy requires the analyst to craft solutions to policy issues that take into account power relations as they are, not as one would like them to be. In that sense, if one calculates that Taiwan doesn't have a lot of power compared with China, and therefore is either in too hopeless a position to be aided in its struggle for autonomy, or the cost of doing so would be prohibitively high or likely unsuccessful, then the logical next step is to abandon Taiwan. 

Under that set of assumptions, what Taiwan wants doesn't matter, and the values it stands for don't either: the power dynamic and constraints are what they are, period. 

However, a progressive realist would say that Taiwan deserves a better outcome than outright annexation if possible and will start to throw out suggestions like a negotiated peace, or concessions from both sides. Deter China from engaging in the worst kind of subjugation, even if it means Taiwan ultimately loses quite a bit.

This is ultimately what the paper attempts to say:


A successful invasion would signal the end of US primacy in Asia and it would likely be dismal for 23 million Taiwanese. But it is not clear that maintaining the island’s de facto independence would ensure a favourable balance of power.

There are three major policy options for responding to the threat of the use of force over Taiwan: negotiation, deterrence and conflict. Negotiation and deterrence are compatible with a progressive realist approach; conflict is not. The first option is to negotiate some kind of bargain in which the PRC achieves its ambitions while making concessions of its own, such as stepping back from its claims in the East and South China Seas and accepting a regional balance of power that retains a significant US presence (Glaser 2015). There is a strong long-term rationale for making such a concession in that it could significantly reduce the risks of war and create a potentially stable foundation for regional order.

Even working within those constraints, however, there's a big problem with the argument: it assumes Taiwan would react the way the analysts or policy officials in other countries would prefer them to react. That is, they assume Taiwan would negotiate, would allow itself a "dismal" future for no particular benefit to itself. Conflict would be thus avoided.

Exactly. What happens when Taiwanese don't bend over and do what mostly white politicians in majority-white countries want them to do?

Even if you argue that, absent any carrots, negotiating to avoid a stick is still a benefit, it still doesn't hold. Taiwan will get hit with that stick no matter what it does, so what benefit is it to Taiwan to subjugate itself? China has nothing -- truly nothing -- to offer in return.

Considering this, the calculation that ending the Taiwan conflict now by allowing Taiwan to be subjugated would reduce conflict in the Pacific is fundamentally flawed, because it assumes that China can be handed Taiwan with no war breaking out -- that Taiwan would react just as they wish. 

Except a war would break out, because Taiwan is not likely to go quietly. There might be a prolonged insurgency. Certainly, the global economy would be rattled. Millions would die. That doesn't sound like avoiding conflict to me.

If anything, it sounds like a recipe for a conflict that would do more harm in the Pacific than deterring China. 

You can tell that the writers did not even consider the Taiwanese position nor how Taiwan would react -- compliance and complicity in their own demise was simply assumed -- by looking at the citations. 

No Taiwanese academic or journalistic work was cited. Only two references consider Taiwan in the title, and both look at it from non-Taiwanese perspectives. There are three Asian voices represented: one is Penny Wong, an Australian senator of Malaysian Chinese heritage, and another is Zhang Denghua, who specializes in Chinese (not Taiwanese) foreign policy. 

The third is Xi Jinping. 

Of course they assumed Taiwanese compliance in this grand new scheme they've proposed, because they never consulted any Taiwanese sources that might indicate otherwise. 

Under a realist paradigm it might be within bounds (that's not to say I think it's acceptable -- I don't) to disregard Taiwan's perspective. But when part of your calculus for how to maximize peace and see the world as it is rests on how Taiwan reacts to a Chinese invasion, that's nothing less than an abrogation of academic and analytical rigor. It throws the entire paper into question.

As a result, the paper utterly fails to actually offer a progressive realist solution to the Taiwan issue. The authors take all the cold calculus of realism, with none of the higher-minded goals of actually using an integration of soft and hard power to advance a liberal world order (whether one thins the "liberal world order" is hopelessly corrupted is another topic; for now let's assume that however imperfect, it's preferable an authoritarian world order.)

If Nye and Wright wanted to acknowledge the world as it is while doing whatever is possible, within identified constraints, to evolve the world toward liberal ideals, these writers simply want to hand more power and "space" to China. They do admit it would create a region where authoritarianism holds more sway than liberal democracy:

The redistribution of power and status at the international level will not in itself produce progressive outcomes. To the contrary, in some cases, authoritarian states will wield more influence than they held before. But there is nothing progressive about refusing to recognise a changed material reality, most obviously the rise (or return) of authoritarian great powers.

Perhaps not, but there's also nothing progressive about giving those powers whatever they want, including control of a country with a population comparable to Australia who embody all of the ideals that progressive realists want to marry with old-school realism.

In other words, this conclusion is just realism. The "progressive" aspect is merely window dressing.

They try to argue that handing Taiwan to China would not increase its hard power or military might -- I think this is quite wrong, because it absolutely would give them a foothold from which to threaten all the other neighboring nations it has been angering for quite some time. Their solution to this is to claim that, handed Taiwan on a platter, China would agree to stop threatening the South China Sea (and, by implication, the Senkakus and Ryukyus, both of which they've got their sights on to varying degrees.)

China would probably agree to this. These writers would probably pat themselves on the back for a good proposal, well-executed. 

Then China would turn around and do whatever the hell it wanted around Japan and the South China Sea anyway, because that's what it does. We already know that: I could point to endless agreements that China has chucked in the trash whenever it feels like it, but all one really needs to do is look at Hong Kong.

Each of those conflicts would create yet another risk of escalation. China creates these problems and will continue doing so; giving it more space to create more problems is a great way to increase, not decrease, the threat of a larger war breaking out.

All of those ideals that are meant to differentiate progressive realism from realism are treated as expendable in this case. But if they're expendable -- sorry, calculated to be unattainable -- then that's not progressive realism, it's just realism.

It may be obvious by now that I don't have a lot of faith in progressive realism as a concept. I say this as an Earnest Liberal: it reads as a way for fellow good-vibes milquetoast Earnest Liberals to just do coldhearted realism, and have ethics only when it's convenient and easy. It gives them a way to say they care about human rights, democracy and the liberal world order while selling out exactly those things. It's a license to engage in hypocrisy.

Personally, I feel that if you say you stand for democracy then you should actually stand for democracy. Not democracy when it's convenient or democracy for me, but screw you. If you're willing to sell out a democracy, I don't care how you spin it, you are not standing for democracy. 

You're also creating a world in which authoritarian great powers can gobble up whatever they want, including fellow democracies. In that world, no one is truly safe. 

That doesn't sound like a secure world order to me. 

Let's take my feelings out of it, though, and consider whether the paper offers a progressive realist solution to the conflict China has created over Taiwan within its own framework. To successfully do so, the paper would have to make the case that selling Taiwan out to China would be a net benefit: peace, stability and more access to everything liberalism promises in the region if not the world. 

It doesn't. Giving China 'more space' is a great way to help China use its might to influence other Asia-Pacific nations to move away from democracy and toward authoritarianism. Many if not most are already sliding in that direction. That's not improving the world where we can as per Nye, it's just realism

The authors reject this:

Were the island to fall under PRC control, it would not significantly advance PRC military capacities; the leaps it is making in naval, missile and air capabilities have already shifted the regional balance (Porter and Mazarr 2021). Taiwan’s circumstances are not the particular tipping point that would lead to a general shift in the regional balance of power towards Chinese hegemony.

I find this unconvincing, but even if we take it seriously, "the bully is already very powerful so we should simply give it whatever it wants" sounds like a lot of things -- realism, defeatism, illiberalism. It doesn't sound like a "left-of-center" anything. 

They call it "sober" and "clear-eyed". I call it cowardly, selfish and hypocritical.

In terms of stability, it offers up a very real conflict -- the certainty of a war in Taiwan and horrific subjugation of Taiwanese -- as a way to avoid an inferred or theoretical 'larger conflict' with China that is assumed to exist but has not yet actually taken shape. It's quite literally positing that the certainty of a war in Taiwan is preferable to the possibility of a war between China and Australia later. 

The paper also maintains a focus on Australian interests, not necessarily Asia-Pacific ones. That makes sense given the scope of the work, but if you're going to make the case that selling out one nation will be of net benefit to the world, not just Australia, you've actually got to make that case.  

A progressive realist policy for Australia, therefore, combines negotiation and deterrence based on a clear-eyed assessment of Taiwan’s importance for Australian interests in a stable regional balance of power.

They don't. Taiwan and Australia have comparable populations (23.6 and 25.6 million, respectively). 

If you maintain a narrow focus on what benefits Australia, and then argue that allowing Taiwan to be annexed and subjugated is in Australia's interests, then there is no net benefit. You are merely advocating for the certain oppression, torture and slaughter (all things China would absolutely do in the war that would break out because Taiwan is highly unlikely to surrender) of tens of millions of Taiwanese in exchange for the theoretical benefit to an equivalent number of (majority white) Australians.

I don't know about you, but to me that sounds like plain old white-people-come-first racism. 

It's not even clear what the benefits would be to Australians: vague conceptual things like "greater security",  perhaps? Certainly, supporting Taiwan doesn't entail a trade-off in which Australians necessarily endure the same level of subjugation and slaughter. So a clear and predictable destruction of Taiwan for a possibly more secure future for Australia? That's not remotely equivalent let alone a greater benefit.

In fact, one could argue that giving China more 'space' would be detrimental to Australia. China already threatens both Chinese in Australia and Australians of Chinese heritage. To some extent, they cause trouble for Australians not of Chinese heritage, too. They lease ports, have stakes in valuable economic interests, are willing to deploy economic punishments whenever they don't get what they want, and have extensive influence operations in Australian politics, education and media (Chinese-language media in Australia is still Australian media). None of this is benign. Allowing more of it would weaken, not strengthen, Australia's position. 

In other words -- seriously, you want to sell out Taiwan so you can insert yourself more firmly into China's chokehold?

A friend pointed out that the "benefit to the world or a greater number of people", though not expressly stated in the paper, is implied by the term progressive realism. Perhaps, but I don't buy it. If you're going to make the case that this is of the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people -- again, a utilitarian argument I don't buy -- then you actually have to make that case. They don't. 

It might not be so offensive if the authors simply admitted this is realism dressed-up in feel-good frippery -- oh, so sorry that your nation and everything it stands for is destroyed! Your sacrifice which you didn't agree to won't be forgotten! Australians are now theoretically more secure! I hope the mass murder isn't too murder-y -- but they call this a "left of center" approach:

Taken together, these two building blocks provide the foundations for a left-of-centre foreign policy agenda. 

They care enough about this "left-of-center" aspect of progressive realism to put it in the abstract. It's not just a throwaway word. They also spend a great deal of time criticizing right-wing foreign policy: 

Over the past two decades, right-wing political movements have taken power in a number of states, from the United States to Turkey, Hungary to India, the Philippines to Brazil. These movements go by a range of names: populism, the New Right, the global right, and more....The adhesive that binds these policies is an assertive strain of nationalism. The popularity of these movements indicates that this tying together of international symptoms with nationalist policy programs is a potent blend. In foreign policy terms, it points towards a strategy of ‘militarist isolationism’ in which a hostility to multilateral institutions is matched by a preference for increased military spending and the pursuit of militarised competition as an end in itself.

But, again, I dare you to find any meaningful differences between what they're advocating -- isolationism and Australia-first nationalism -- and the sort of right-wing realism they claim to be against. 

If progressive realism is meant to be a liberal-but-realistic answer to straight-up realpolitik, then it utterly fails by refusing to consider in any depth what Taiwan represents and what that's worth. Which, again, only makes sense within its own framework if your starting point is realism

Even with the benefit of the doubt freely given -- Australia shouldn't spend resources supporting Taiwan because it is simply outside our capability to save it from China is an argument that has logical merit even if it is ethically vacant -- it still doesn't hold up, for two reasons.

Australia alone can't save Taiwan. Australia as part of a cooperating partner in the "liberal world order" that seeks to support liberal democracies like Taiwan, however, does have a role to play. Abrogating it isn't progressive realism, It's not an integration of hard and soft power. It's self-fulfilling prophecy: if you decide Taiwan is not worth helping, then you embolden China to threaten Taiwan to the point that it's difficult to step in and help. If Taiwan faces a massive threat that it can't win against on its own, that is because countries like Australia have decided to leave it on its own. It's sort of like an uncertainty principle: if Australia determines that Taiwan can't be helped, it brings about a situation in which Taiwan probably can't be helped. Australia's reaction isn't independent of that outcome, it's integral to it.

Finally, on this front, the logic that Taiwan can't be aided and therefore is better off abandoned isn't even held up by the argumentation in a paper. Their points on this front boil down to China acts like a bully, so the solution to greater stability for all is to let it act like a bully. But since when has giving a bully everything it wants created peace? The paper doesn't even necessarily say that Australia is incapable of aiding in a defense of Taiwan, just that Taiwan is not strategically important enough and taking Taiwan wouldn't increase China's hard power.

They don't give any detail on why this might be true -- they just assume it. The only argument offered for it is, again, the assumption that China will calm down if given what it wants. But we already know that China tears up agreements, it doesn't abide by them. We already know that Taiwan is one of a strong of democracies along the Pacific Rim, and selling it out would further isolate fellow democracies like Japan and South Korea, while doing nothing to improve the flawed democracy of the Philippines. 

The writers simply hand-wave this away as "well there are a lot of governments in Asia, we can let it become more authoritarian and just sort of be super chill about it":

Nor would it sign the death knell for democracy in a region of mixed political forms. Indeed, if managed with diplomatic acumen, responding to Chinese militarisation without conflict could generate a more robust political foundation for regional order than a binary ‘fight or flight’ response that divides the region by forcing states, including many with close ties to the PRC, to choose sides.

Again, that's not progressive realism, which would give more credit and support to the democratic nations of Asia. It over-stresses how popular China is among other nations in Asia (not very), and uses impressive word salad to say that maybe Authoritarianism Lite is okay, while hand-waving away real threats to democracy. 

Instead of making a strong case that Taiwan can't be helped (which could be argued under progressive realism), they assume that and then talk about why it's not important enough to be saved for strategic reasons (straight-up realism). But, of course "impossible" and "not important" are two very different things. They make a strong case for neither.

It gets worse: the authors do state that Taiwan's future would be "dismal", but beyond that they don't even stick to their "sad but necessary" rhetoric. They call Taiwan's status "anachronistic", which is very odd as the only anachronistic thing about the situation are China's claims. The PRC has never ruled Taiwan, the ROC ruled both places for about 4 years, before that Taiwan was a part of the Japanese empire, and before that there were perhaps a dozen years when the Qing empire held all of Taiwan rather than approximately a third of the island. 

Taiwan's current status, therefore, is only an anachronism if you think that China's claims have merit. They don't. To argue otherwise is to implicitly state that you think the annexation of Taiwan to China, however "dismal" for the Taiwanese, is ultimately the correct path in and of itself. That's not "progressive realism". It's not even realism. It's just being a dick.

Taiwan as an advanced, thriving democratic nation is no anachronism. It's an expression of exactly the sort of values the progressive realists have wanted to embody and encourage in the world. A true progressive realist would want to support that to the extent it is possible, not describe it as something undesirable in its own right -- an anachronism -- because it creates "conflict". Which of course it doesn't: China creates conflict. Taiwan just wants to be left alone. 

To put it another way, implying that a country evolving toward liberal democracy is problematic because it upsets an authoritarian neighbor is realism or just cold-blooded selfishness, not progressive realism. 

If "progressive realism" is meant to engage with international institutions and allies, incorporate soft power and avoid "militaristic isolationism", the argument fails here too. Taiwan wants to cooperate with international institutions, and it is possible for Australia to support them doing so. The US approach to Taiwan may be flawed, but both Biden and Tsai seem to be at least attempting to move US-Taiwan relations beyond mere competition with China (to what degree Biden is convincingly succeeding is another question), and it is far from isolationist.

Abandoning a friendly democratic nation in your region to appease an authoritarian power, not working with allies like the US, and cutting yourself off when it's in your own interest may not be militaristic, but it does sound like a form of isolationism. What the authors are offering, then, is just a slightly adjusted version of the right-wing policies they themselves criticize.

It's a Mobius strip of bad logic, and that's before getting into the question of whether Taiwan is of strategic military importance. I think they're quite wrong in stating that it's not, but I'm not a military analyst. A friend noted that Australia's military participation in defending Taiwan would be symbolic regardless, but if the US were to actually come to Taiwan's aid, they'd probably need to base themselves somewhat in Australia. That wouldn't be symbolic: that would be a very real contribution which would meet an important need. 

Again, if it sounds like I don't have a lot of faith in progressive realism, it's because I don't. Maybe in 2006, when the world looked a lot different, it made sense as a reaction to Bush II. In 2022, we live in a world where every time we decide a democracy isn't worth defending, we make it harder to use either soft or hard power to advance a liberal world order. We create a world where you only survive as a liberal democracy if you have a massive army to defend yourself. Maybe this was good enough for 2006. In 2022, it just sounds like more right-wing bullshit. 

The final point -- the authors' fundamental misunderstanding of how the CCP operates -- is something I've already brought up a few times. The originators of progressive realism envisioned China as a "responsible stakeholder" in the global order: a power we'd have to accommodate even if we didn't always agree with it. This assumes some basic ability to negotiate with China, however: a China that, as much as we might not like its domestic governance, we can trust to do the right thing on the international stage. 

That sounds great...for 2006. In the Year of Our Good Lord 2022, it's a fucking joke.

Why? Well, let's look at what's changed.

In Taiwan, Chen Shui-bian -- whose stance on China can be summed up as "bite me" -- was in power but he was losing popularity fast. An up-and-coming KMTer with a softer tone on China was starting to look pretty good (spoiler Alert: he sucked). Surely some Taiwanese realized that authoritarian China could never truly be a "responsible global stakeholder", but it would take until 2014 for it to become widely understood here. I won't go into everything that led to the Sunflower Movement, but it's clear that Taiwan woke up to China's empty promises earlier than anyone else.

The rest of the world took its time catching up, but several events finally made it apparent. China promised Hong Kong "One Country Two Systems" and utterly failed to uphold it. They continue to deny a well-documented genocide in East Turkestan (Xinjiang). Between these issues, their early handling of the pandemic, their harassment and kidnapping of not only Chinese abroad but foreign citizens and now the support -- albeit non-military -- that they're giving Russia as it attacks Ukraine, it is clear that the CCP is not 'responsible' and cannot be trusted in any sort of negotiation. No offers they make can be taken at face value, especially concerning Taiwan.

Nye surely did not know this at the time. But we know it now. Given the authors' negligence in trying to understand Taiwan, it's no surprise that they bring a 2006 understanding of China to the discussion, not a 2022 one. We now live in a world where powers like Russia and China, if shown they can take whatever they want, will not kindly and responsibly agree to stop taking when we ask nicely. They will simply keep taking. 

Their taking will lead to more conflicts, and those conflicts will each create a new possibility for a full-scale war, each war coming with its own nuclear threat. If, every time that happens, we cower and say "better give the bully what it wants or it could use nuclear weapons!" then they will continue taking whatever they want while threatening the world with nuclear weapons. Security won't be assured, because they will take any democratic nation we can't or won't defend.

The authors do one thing right: they make a limited case for deterrence -- encouraging China to avoid conflict, and Australian help in fighting cyber warfare, disinformation and other non-military threats. It's not enough, however. 

Their total disregard for the existence of Taiwanese agency is a fatal flaw in their argument, however, and their willingness to advocate for nebulous and non-guaranteed "peace" for Australians by allowing a roughly equivalent number of Taiwanese to be subjugated isn't "left-of-center" anything. It's just coldheartedness masked in academese. It's the right-wing approach they claim to abhor, without any of the positive aspects of the progressive realist framework they claim to champion. 

It doesn't just fail on the level of doing what is right. Under "progressive realism", it's technically acceptable to decide to do the wrong thing (I call this hypocrisy, but hey, that's just me). It also fails within its own framework.

Regardless, what this paper offers is not a world I want to fight for. If we roll over and cry whenever a dictator says "gimme what I want 'cause I've got nukes", then we're not using realism to figure out where the constraints are on fighting for our ideals. We're just giving dictators what they want, and that's not a viable answer to right-wing militarism.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Western values, or just values?


As Putin's war in Ukraine drags on, and friends and family ask me if I have an "exit strategy" if China invades Taiwan, old-school talk about "Western values" and the West "growing a backbone" to stand up for "what it believes in" has returned to mainstream discourse. I've engaged in values talk, but the "Western" aspect? I don't care for it one bit. 

This is not because I think growing a backbone to actually stand for what one believes in is a bad thing, or that those supposed "Western values" are in and of themselves self-serving and morally vacant. It's because I don't think the values at stake here -- things like self-determination, human rights, freedom of expression -- are Western. They're human, and the West often doesn't embody them, or claims to and then abdicates all responsibility for living by them. More often than people realize, they take root far from the West, and are better (albeit still imperfectly) implemented in their new homes.

How do I know this? I live in Taiwan. 

Before we get into that, however, let's look at where critics do make a good point. From Aditya Chakrabortty's column in The Guardian:

The Ukrainians are fighting for “our” freedom, it is declared, in that mode of grand solipsism that defines this era. History is back, chirrup intellectuals who otherwise happily stamp on attempts by black and brown people to factcheck the claims made for American and British history.

To hold these positions despite the facts of the very recent past requires vat loads of whitewash. Head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, claims Vladimir Putin has “brought war back to Europe”, as if Yugoslavia and Kosovo had been hallucinations. Condoleezza Rice pops up on Fox to be told by the anchor: “When you invade a sovereign nation, that is a war crime.” With a solemn nod, the former secretary of state to George Bush replies: “It is certainly against every principle of international law and international order.” She maintains a commendably straight face....

However corrupt and repressive his regime, Putin was tolerated by the west – until he became intolerable.

He's quite correct that a lot of the same people who spearheaded the invasion of a sovereign nation are now denouncing the idea of invading a sovereign nation. He's also correct in pointing out that this can't possibly have anything to do with "values", let alone "Western values". He doesn't defend Putin or what Russia is doing to Ukraine. I agree with all of this, including calling out the whitewashing, and the Bushes and Rices of the world.

What's more, "the West" remains tolerant -- wary, but tolerant -- of Xi Jinping. While I am reasonably sure Chakrabortty himself doesn't support that given his previous work, a lot of people saying that the West is wrong -- not for only standing against authoritarianism now, but for standing against it at all -- do. 

There's a logic fail, however, in going straight from "Western values" (whatever those are) to "the same countries who enthroned Putin" and now denounce him for doing exactly the sort of things they have done. To be clear, there is a line there; it's just not straight. 

I'm going to make it about me for a hot minute, but I promise to try and keep it short.

I was very young when the Soviet Union fell. I remember celebrations and expectations. I remember talk of "economic revitalization". I recall, through my teens, worry that the re-integration into the global community of countries once behind the Iron Curtain was not going as well as hoped. I remember concern over the rising oligarchy, and by my college years, as professors talked about "oligarchy" as a thing that existed in faraway Russia, I was joining protests against the same sort of crony capitalist one-percentism (before the "one percent" was a linguistic thing) in my own country.

I remember anger -- my friends felt it too -- at the post-9/11 invasion of Iraq, and musings about why that dictator absolutely had to be taken out while we tolerated all sorts of other ones. We were frustrated that the government clearly differentiated between "good" and "bad" dictators. To us, they were all bad.

We felt this way because of our values. What Chakrabortty is describing is lip service to ethics, which only thinly veils patriotic jingoism and, frankly, racism (we do seem to care a lot more when the victims are white and I still hear people talk about Muslim refugees as a "threat" or "concern" as they open their hearts to Ukrainians. I support Ukraine, but that sort of attitude is just gross). 

Values mean opposing it wherever it pops up, even if it's your own country. 

This isn't to say that growing up American, white and middle class didn't influence my beliefs, perceptions or how I'm treated in the world. Of course it did. It’s also not meant to highlight myself as some sort of awesome open-minded person; I have the same flaws and blind spots as most people. 

The point is that excusing the horrors of Western history is not a function of universal values, and Westerners aren't the only people who hold pro-democracy, anti-authoritarian values. It’s easier to see that when you proactively look for perspectives that de-center the West and see that those values still exist. 

It's unclear, even now, what the West could have done to mitigate the rise of Putin. Should we not have supported the fall of the USSR? It didn't look like a system functional enough to survive regardless. Done nothing at all? If we had sat on our hands, would the post-collapse turmoil have produced an autocrat worse than Putin? Helped create a system in which crony capitalism and oligarchy could not have taken root and enthroned a Putin? Sounds great! When you figure out how do reliably do that -- how to make the West be better than itself -- I would dearly like to know.

During those years, I was curious about the rest of the world, so I signed up to study abroad in India. Yes, this included a course in Indian political history, but I also got to see what democracy looked like in a non-Western country. It was illuminating, but being young, I didn't absorb as much as I should have.

After college, I wanted to learn more about other parts of Asia, so I went to China for a year as one of those annoying early-twenties idealists. This was a lesson in what life is like under a non-democratic government rights aren't just not guaranteed, they don't exist and can't be meaningfully fought for. It didn't affect me much directly -- after all, I'm a middle-class white woman -- but I witnessed it. 

Then, still curious but realizing China wasn't a good fit, I wanted to know more about Taiwan, that elusive "rebel province" everyone in China would rant about if the topic went in that direction. 

Here, my adult life unfurled around people -- Taiwanese, and a small group of committed long-term residents -- who were committed to those same values. They inherited a dictatorship from their grandparents, and after decades of oppression and mass murder stood up and told it to get bent -- and won. Every day Taiwan wakes up and decides it won't surrender to China's subjugationist demands. Local activists continue to push for improvements to the country itself and how it approaches human rights. Sometimes these coalesce into large-scale movements. Sometimes, these movements make such good points and push society in such an obviously better direction that they are absorbed by a mainstream party who, in allowing the new generation to take charge to a great extent, normalizes what once was radical. 

While far from perfect -- from the treatment of migrant workers to the hard red turn of the KMT, the party best known for brutal dictatorship -- Taiwan is more or less a country committed to these same values. It's not a Western country, so it's very hard to say from my home in Taipei that such values are inherently Western. Sure seems from this perspective that people around the world want the ability to live freely without harming others, participate in their own governance, and not get shot if they disagree with the people in charge. 

In China, despite the CCP's truly horrifying repression, I met people with these same values. A disgruntled man who watched his best friend die at Tiananmen Square. A mother who fought for custody of her son in a deeply patriarchal and misogynist court system. An older woman who found peace in maintaining a shrine at the only major temple in town (which existed because it had been intentionally hidden by piles of trash and overgrowth during the Cultural Revolution). A young woman who expressed the desire to protest but knew she'd probably pay for it with her life. A peer who asked about all the things she tried to learn about Taiwan through a VPN -- same sex marriage in Taiwan? The Sunflowers? -- but couldn't, because the connection proved so bad that she could hardly read a thing. An Uyghur bookseller in Kashgar who refused to speak Mandarin and opened his shop at a time that made local sense, not the time the government in Beijing mandated. Two young Uyghurs who were very clear about what it meant to be who they are, under CCP rule.

With that in mind, what exactly does it mean to have "Western values"? I honestly don't know. We should fight for some things because they are right, not because they are Western; we should have a backbone because it is right, certainly not because it is Western (it isn't). Those values also demand we examine ourselves, our homes, and our own countries of origin.

I can't even say that these values necessarily originated in the West. I'm not going to sit here and explain Asian political and ethical philosophy at you because that feels orientalist, and I probably don't have to. Obviously, systems of thought originating in Asia which espouse free thought, critical thinking and self-determination exist. 

Calling out "the West" for its hypocrisy in claiming to champion these same values while committing their own atrocities and historical whitewashing is important. Truly. In that, there is value in geographical labels.

Yet slapping those geographical labels on ideas that sprouted from universal desires can lead down another path: if everything "Western" is bad, and these values which many take to be universal are inherently "Western", then the values themselves are bad. It's possible to come to all sorts of conclusions from this. For example, if the West is standing together against Russia, then Russia must be somehow in the right (there are all sorts of ways to justify this -- NATO started the war, "denazification", "US-backed color revolution" -- each one of them more horseshit than the last). 

Or that Western sanctions are hurting everyday Russians -- which is true, and I feel for them -- and therefore we should not only stop "provoking" Russia through NATO expansion, aiding Ukraine or sanctions, but merely wag our fingers at them sternly. Why? Because even though they're wrong, we're still the ultimate bad guys and you know, both sides are bad. Oh no, Ukraine is lost, too bad so sad, thoughts and prayers.

Or that because China may aid Russia and the West are the "bad guys", maybe China isn't so bad either. After all, their government talks about "the West" and how they don't want to be yoked by "Western values", and that sounds a hell of a lot like we've been saying about Western hypocrisy, maybe the CCP has a point!

If that's true (according to this logic), and this is about the hypocrisy and non-universality of "Western values", then all those countries which stand against China are in the wrong too. They're all democracies but it sounds wrong to say democracy is bad, so let's call it capitalism. Yes, that's it, they're decadent capitalists! 

This, of course, makes Taiwan one of the bad guys -- after all, Taiwan is a liberal democracy that has shown support for Ukraine and is far friendlier with countries like Japan and the US than China -- and that's where it gets personal. I may not be Taiwanese, but those Chinese missiles are pointed at my house too and they shriek irredentist and revanchist garbage as hard as Russia, if not harder.

To commit to this path, of course, you either have to be a hard right-winger who has bought into the Trump worship of Putin the Strongman (most of whom only hate China because it threatens American dominance and calls itself "communist", rather than hating the CCP for all the logical reasons to do so). Or you have to be a certain kind of leftist who's decided that if both sides are bad, then both sides must be equally bad at all times -- or one side must always be worse and that side is always "the West". 

In this bow to pro-imperialist, anti-democratic sentiment, the tankie left and the right wing are more or less the same. Yes, that's right, it's horseshoe time.

Neither one of them can seem to figure out who the actual bad guy is in this situation (spoiler alert: it's Putin). That one side is more concerned with power at the expense of democracy, and the other would rather debate the evils of NATO while letting Ukrainians and their democracy die doesn't matter. That one makes populist appeals to the middle America working class and the other calls them "the proletariat" doesn't matter. That one is anti-immigrant because of racism and the other claims the same anti-immigrant stance for "the workers" doesn't matter. That one insists Christian Capitalism is the Only True and Correct Path, and the other insists Communism Through Violence If Necessary (forced on people if they don't vote for it) is the Only True and Correct Path doesn't matter. 

One is hearing their same rhetoric -- the Evil West -- echoed by genocidal autocrats. The other perhaps thinks we're engineering our own downfall through the evils of liberalism. One blames capitalism, the other progressive values.

It's all the same horseshit, though, leading to the same logical endpoint: Western democracy should fall (for whatever reason) in favor of their preferred method of control, fuck your values and your votes. To that end, Putin and Xi either are wrong but shouldn't be stopped because we're just as bad, or Putin and Xi are right, and we're the bad guys in this particular war.

Of course, to do this, both sides have to engage in whitewashing. The far right has to pretend the history of Western civilization is different than what it was. This is where Chakrabortty is right. 

The far left have to engage in a tougher balancing act: standing for, say, LGBTQ+ allyship, while supporting Russia. This usually means lying about the treatment of LGBTQ+ people in Russia. Standing against genocide while standing with China, a country whose government engages in genocide. This is done through genocide denial: apparently only genocides committed by the West count. For this logic to work, China and Russia (!) have to be stronger on these issues as the West, or at least not markedly worse in the present day.

That's not the world as it is, but I suppose anything is possible when you fabricate the reality you want.

Here’s what’s terrifying: this same ability logick-magick their “only the West is terrible, therefore anyone opposing them is good” positions enables them to logick-magick their way into believing that their support of dictators invading and subjugating democracies is somehow a pro-freedom, pro-equality, anti-imperialist stance. It’s not surprising from the right: they lie all the time about how much they love democracy while actively undermining it. From the left, it’s stupefying. 

I suppose when everything is about freeing Humble Christian Everyman Joe America the working class from the evils of capitalism toward a Marxist utopia, democracy doesn’t matter, or at least all other perspectives are equally evil at all times. That makes violently overthrowing a democracy palatable. And if that’s palatable, then Russia invading Ukraine or China invading Taiwan become acceptable, regardless of whether the people in those countries actually want to be colonized by their authoritarian neighbor.  

The only way out of this logic quagmire is through. How to find one's way through? Values -- universal ones. Which ones are universal? Hard to say, and sometimes inchoate, but look for whatever it is people are fighting for in different parts of the world. Of those movements, look for the ones that seek freedom rather than control. Self-determination rather than subjugation. Civic participation rather than the absolute power of one group. Nobody has all the answers, but it's a good place to start. Add to that critical thought: who is making this claim, and can it be credibly substantiated? Am I applying this standard to everyone, or only the sources I want to believe? You might still be wrong, but you're more likely to be closer to right doing this than by picking an ideology that sounds good and running with it.

The West is absolutely two-faced, and a lot of people supporting Ukraine right now are talking like they aren't the culprits. But that's not a 'values' problem, it's a hypocrisy one. You figure that out -- and who's talking out their ass and which side is worse in any given conflict -- by starting with critical thought. your own values, applied regardless of country, party or ideology. That's not a Western thing. That's a global thing.

Monday, March 14, 2022

Ukraine, Taiwan, musical satire and the values we fight for

I don't really like to compare Taiwan and Ukraine. They're different countries, and Russia and China are different aggressors as well.  However, I'm not sure it still works to refuse to compare them when it's clear China is watching what happens in Ukraine closely -- while quietly sidling up to Russia as it pretends not to take a side. 

I could go the depressing route on this and point out that they use the same bullshit rhetoric to justify annexationism and subjugation: same culture, same history, territorial integrity, the Ukrainian government/Nationalists in Taiwan are actually Nazis so we're just stopping Nazis and that makes us the good guys, this conflict was cooked up by the US/NATO to make big bucks from the war machine.

I could point out that they are actively encouraging milquetoast liberals (I'm a liberal, but I'm no milquetoast) to cry that we can only prevent World War III through appeasement of Russia so the "Ukraine conflict" won't escalate beyond Ukraine. It's not an accident that those same milquetoast liberals have been crying about how we can only prevent World War III by appeasement of China so the "Taiwan conflict" won't escalate beyond Taiwan. 

Implicit (and sometimes explicit) in this is the assumption that the Taiwanese and Ukrainian people are disposable. Acceptable sacrifices. 

If people truly believe appeasement stops world wars, however, I have some very bad news for them. It's never just about Taiwan or just about Ukraine, as it wasn't just about Sudetenland. When you make it clear a country can take over any other country they want if they can win, they will do just that. (And the US certainly has experience with this; they should know.)

The truth is, World War III is prevented by Russia losing, and soon. I don't see another way.

I could point out that Russia is alleging genocide in certain regions of the Ukraine but offering no evidence, whereas China is shouting at piles of evidence of their genocide and insisting it's all fake. Very soon, when people point out that Russia hasn't substantiated its genocide allegations, the same people who say the Uyghur genocide is fake are going to start screaming that if we believe allegations against China, we must believe them against Ukraine. 

The fact that there's clear evidence for the former but not the latter won't matter. They'll scream it all the same. 

And on, and on, and on it goes. We know Ukraine and Taiwan aren't exactly comparable, but I'm not sure Russia and China realize that. 

So, if we're gonna ride this train, let's ride it all the way to Leather Town and talk about queer video parodies that seek to mock dictatorships. At least that's fun! 

In 2014, Volodymyr Zelenskyy got together with some actor/comedian friends and used a song by Ukrainian boy band Kazaky to create a pro-Ukraine, anti-Russian government parody. The original song (called Love) isn't very deep or meaningful, The parody, however -- titled Made in Ukraine -- was absolutely a nose-thumbing at the Russian government. 

If you're thinking huh, that reminds me of how Made in Taiwan is used as a bit of a pro-Taiwan slogan against Chinese aggression -- yes, that's the direction this train is headed. Leather Town's a big place, apparently.

In the video, Zelenskyy and his buds tear off traditional Ukrainian Cossack costumes to reveal leathery, BSDM-inspired gear and dance around in stilettos. It's similar to the original video (which, despite being marketed toward women, is extremely homoerotic and audiences noticed), but says a lot more. And, as the Los Angeles Blade points out, in the wrong hands this could have come off as deeply offensive

But Zelenskyy and Co. used the imagery as a way to quite literally say that Ukraine is a country of acceptance, freedom and equality. That's not entirely true -- marriage equality is still not a reality in Ukraine. But, it seems to be doing a lot better than its Eastern European neighbors, especially Russia. In fact, Russia is practically leading the anti-gay crusade.

China is engaging in anti-LGBTQ+ crackdowns too, not unlike Russia. Remember that, because we'll be coming back to it.

Yet, seeing a bunch of straight men (as far as I know, Zelenskyy is straight) prance around in stilettos, perfectly at ease with their sexuality, saying that they'll dance traditional dances, carry traditional weapons and drink against the Russian invaders, "for freedom" and "for Ukraine"? That's a statement. They add that everything Russia hates (drag gear like lipstick on men and Pride parades) is "the entire Ukrainian Parliament" and they glitter-bomb and spit on Russian spies (I am not a fan of the stereotypical fat shaming when they caricature the Russian spy as a pig trying to eat a varenyky, but this fat lady is gonna let it slide. Fuck Russian spies!) 

What does this have to do with Taiwan?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy

Remember, not that long ago, when washed-up joke Fanny Liu wore a Chinese-flag evoking horror show of a dress and sang a flaming garbage truck of a song about how she loves China, and it will take Taiwan because they have things like pay apps and home delivery? (Nevermind that Taiwan has those too.) 

Remember how straight out of the patriarchy (pun intended) that video was, where basically the only draw was sexy dancing ladies half-heartedly twisting to cringe trashpop so badly that a few Taiwanese funeral strippers could out-do them easily? To really drive home the annexationism, most of the song was just chanting out names of provinces and how they're all okay.

Perhaps you don't, because Brian Tseng's parody of it (called Taiwan) got more than four times as many views.

I wrote about it at the time, and said similar things: it wasn't just about writing a funnier tune to mock Fanny Liu's garbage propo song. It entailed a group of Taiwanese male comedians, perfectly comfortable in their sexuality, dancing around in dresses and chanting the counties and cities of Taiwan. They even hired the same muscle dude! 

That song started out mocking Chinese tourists for wanting stuff in Taiwan (like tea eggs) or things China doesn't always have (like doors on the toilets and TSMC), which perhaps wasn't great. But later on, they went for the meat of it: here in Taiwan we can talk about Falun Gong (even if we don't like them) and Tiananmen Square. Through it they point out that Taiwanese have better musical taste than to listen to Fanny Liu, and there aren't too many CCP bootlicking artists.

At the end, Brian whispered that we also have masks, no rumors of organ harvesting, and the right to vote. Implicit in the song was an acceptance of different sexual orientations and ways of expressing yourself and your gender identity. 

I could see how someone might be offended by a bunch of straight men strutting around like drag queens (when they aren't drag queens), but all in all, I think that video pulled off exactly what it intended. From my perspective, it's great when men aren't hung up on acting super masculine or are afraid to don clothing gendered as female.

See the parallels now?

The songs are even stylistically similar, in that they're both dancey technopop in style and incorporate a lot of lyrical chanting, with a group of dancers in sexy outfits not taking themselves too seriously.

Both call on cultural or geographical touchstones to make it clear that their big bully neighbor's subjugationist propaganda has no purchase: Taiwan with its naming of the parts of the country as it throws Fanny Liu's trash right back in her face, and Made in Ukraine with its talk of the food, weapons and dances of the Ukraine. Both tie democracy and freedom to these ideas, and implicit in both is acceptance, not authoritarian hyperconservatism. 

Both are important reminders that in the face of seemingly insurmountable authoritarian pressure from an annexationist neighbor, especially when they're having trouble being heard by the world, comedy is one of the most important outlets people have to fight back. It's how you get people engaged, get a message out, make a point. No, I do not think comedians are today's philosopher kings (most comedians just aren't), but comedy as an art form matters in the fight for a more progressive world. 

Not just the comedy, but the music. China has tried repeatedly to put out pro-China, anti-Taiwan songs well beyond Fanny Liu's F-grade work, with some pretty horrible music that is apparently labeled "rap", except instead of Fuck the Police it's all about respecting totalitarian authority. Russia probably does too, I just haven't listened to any of it. 

Taiwan, on the other hand, consistently puts out pretty good music which might come across as patriotic or nationalistic but generally espouses love, acceptance, knowing your history and, well, good values in general. And these songs aren't even the newest ones out there!

Notably, just as Tseng's video focused on Taiwan, not how much the CCP sucks, Zelenskyy's focused on what was great about Ukraine and when it referenced Russia, stuck to spies and "Moscow" -- the Russian government more than Russia as a country. That they were both smart enough know the difference matters.

And trust me, I know the difference. In researching my own family history, I came across the anthem of the Dashnaksutiun, the Armenian liberation party my great grandfather was very active in for awhile, in the early 1920s. The lyrics are all about bloody flags, killing Ottomans, and standing with the party as a way of standing with Armenia. 

I'm pro-Armenia generally,  but it isn't good. It isn't funny. It isn't about the progressive and democratic values I hold dear. And it was a bad song. These songs are about countries, yes. They evoke tradition or geography. But they're not about allegiance to parties, but ideals. 

And they both show, as President Tsai herself has said, that progressive values can take root in traditional societies. They can and do flourish together. 

China, of course, bans that music and even bans some Taiwanese musicians from Hong Kong. When their own musicians stand up, they get arrested. They get arrested in Russia, too.

And this use of comedy and music hasn't stopped with Tseng and Zelenskyy. Namewee and Kimberley Chen put out Fragile (玻璃心) not long ago, mocking sappy Mandopop love songs by saying how sorry they are that they are breaking poor China's heart by refusing to be annexed. 

Music matters, comedy matters, art matters. In this, I think we can compare Taiwan and Ukraine -- their use of comedy and music to make a point. Of course, not only are Russia and China moving in the opposite direction, towards repression and patriarchy, but these videos can't even be made in those countries. Democracy, liberty, acceptance, freedom of expression, progressivism, equality -- these values are related.

This is why it's not just about Ukraine or just about Taiwan. Both songs talk about countries, but they also talk about values. Allowing an authoritarian government to invade a neighboring country is wrong no matter what, but in these cases, it's happening to democratic countries that are moving toward progressivism, and share our values far more than Russia or China.

Appeasement doesn't work. But even if it did, at some point we've got to defend our values when they're threatened. Maybe we do that with comedy, or music. Maybe we do it by refusing a ride and asking for ammunition. 

If we don't, then our values don't mean anything. We can't even be said to hold them.

Monday, March 7, 2022

Taiwan Supports Ukraine: The Rally Planned in Two Days


You know what consistently impresses me about Taiwan? Not just the vibrant activism -- hopefully we all know about that by now -- but the speed and dedication with which people can pull together a solidarity event in very little time. Today's event at Liberty Square  was pulled together in a few days, and not everyone working to make it happen was a veteran activist (though some were). 

And yet it happened, and it was successful (if a bit windy). A few hundred people showed up -- about as much as a typical Tiananmen Square remembrance event, if not more -- including locals and international residents. Signs were both made by participants and available on-site, and glossy, professional fliers with QR codes were available to make donating to any of the organizations on easy.

The website itself was also built very quickly and between their work and the government donation account -- prominently featured through the link above -- hundreds of millions of NTD have already been donated.

Figures from across the Taiwanese political landscape agreed to speak on very short notice, and everything ran smoothly. Speakers included DPP legislator Wang Ting-yu, independent legislator Freddy Lim, DPP deputy secretary and Sunflower leader Lin Fei-fan, DPP Matsu Islands director Wen Lii and KMT youth league director Thomas Liu, as well as short talks by Ukrainians in Taiwan and international supporters. 

There were two genius moves, as well: first, ensuring everyone had a translator, so everyone in the audience could understand each speaker. This was especially crucial for a successful international event, where many in attendance spoke English, Mandarin or both, but were not necessarily native speakers of either. 

The second was having a photo op for international participants from a variety of countries under the arch inscribed with the words "Liberty Square" and above a sign saying We Are All Ukrainians Today. Flags for Thailand, Hong Kong (the protest banner), Lithuania and more appeared, along with signs showing the support of Belizeans in Taiwan and, well, more. 

If I hadn't known that the whole thing was organized so fast, I never would have guessed.

It's, well, impressive. 

I don't have much to say about the actual speeches. I was chatting with a friend while Wang Ting-yu spoke. Lin Fei-fan noted that the sunflower was both a symbol of the Sunflower Movement he helped lead and the current Ukraine resistance, and used that as a starting point to note similarities in the two causes. I was too bad gawking at Sexy Legislator Freddy Lim to really note what he said (the bleeding edge of defending democracy, that kind of thing.) Wen Lii was a crowd-rouser, Thomas Liu not as much.

I especially liked Lin Fei-fan's speech. It's easy to buck what seems like trite or shallow analysis and say Taiwan and Ukraine are not very comparable at a deeper level. And that's true. But it was smart to compare them in this particular way.

You know why? Because that is exactly what Russia is doing. As they attack Ukraine, they're running fake news that China has invaded Taiwan. Clearly they see parallels; it's on us to see the parallels that they see. Drawing attention to areas of consensus -- the values we share together, represented by the sunflower in this case -- is smarter than pointing out discord.

It was amusing at the time that Liu got almost no applause and his continued use of "Republic of China" rather than "Taiwan" went down like a bowling ball in a lake. Now, I feel kind of bad -- I might have a general ugh the KMT reaction, but even I understand the need for bipartisanism on this issue. 

Finally, I reflected a lot today on writing or thinking vs. doing. It probably doesn't amount to much that I wrote this post. Now you know the Taiwan activist scene can pull off a good event with solid speakers in zero time. You know the import of some of the things that happened during the event. Attending is a form of doing, and it has a small impact: the number of people in a crowd matters. 

But actually doing? I have some background knowledge of how exactly this rally was pulled together post-haste, and that's the model. That's the goal: showing solidarity from Taiwan is a small act, but it's an act. It goes beyond wordsy mouthfoam about thoughts and prayers, at least. 

We need more action like this. 

One quick note before we get to pictures. There's a lot of International Socialist Alternative folks looking for supporters at these events. Do what you want with that information, but in addition to some goals I'd agree with, there's an undercurrent of "Western imperialism is also using this as an excuse to further their own goals" and not a small amount of Uighur genocide skepticism on their website:
China was active alongside the US in the 1980s covert war against Soviet forces in Afghanistan, even allowing the CIA to establish two electronic spying stations at Qitai and Korla in Xinjiang. Deng’s regime helped to train thousands of jihadi terrorists including many Uighurs — a dark chapter that demolishes the credibility of its current hardline stance against terrorism in Xinjiang. 
They'd probably deny that that's genocide denialism. I say it is. Their "we are pro-Taiwan independence" (good) but "against the DPP because they attack trade unions" rhetoric doesn't quite hold up either. The DPP aren't a pro-labor party but the role of unions in Taiwan is so much murkier than they make it sound. These ISA petitioners are everywhere at these events. Sign whatever you want, it's not my job to stop you, but know this first. 

Anyway, you're probably here for the pictures, so enjoy some:













Thursday, March 3, 2022

What's worth fighting for?

The events of the past week have been flustering and paralyzing; I'm flooded with barely-concealed anxiety. I don't have a hot take on Ukraine, nor to what extent Taiwan is in a comparable situation. And why should I? The obvious answer is "not very, but there are some parallels and it'd be foolish to think Xi Jinping isn't taking stock of the situation."

I could talk about the inherent racism of media coverage of international conflicts, but others have said it better (at the ten-minute mark). 

It has brought out a lot of thoughts and feelings, though, and where else to share them but one's personal blogging space? 

Once again, I'm reminded of the fact that I'm not exactly a pure winged dove: while certainly anti-war, it bothers me the extent to which I think war is a very bad option, but not necessarily the worst. For both Taiwan and Ukraine, war is the second-worst option. The worst would be annexation.

Beyond that, I've been thinking a lot about the role of writing vs. doing. Writing is nice, but I've long known it doesn't accomplish much, at least for a blogger like me. It's easy to write and gain visibility, but it's more important to do, public profile be damned. I'm not sure exactly what to do (though donating through either of these platforms is a start), but writing hasn't felt as compelling a use of my time recently.

It's also brought to the fore all of my internal back-and-forth about the role of the West -- specifically, the United States. In my lifetime and for some decades before, pretty much every US military involvement has been an imbroglio or a disaster, and I have no interest in defending that.

That's on the one hand, anyway. On the other, is it truly worse for the US to get involved than for, say, Russia to take Ukraine or China to take Taiwan? I don't know, but I can say quite certainly that if China were to knock on our door, I'd rather have US backup than not. I've dropped friends over this: but nobody wants Taipei to be another Fallujah, they said. True, but China would be the one doing that,  I replied. They seemed unable to grasp the notion that another government could actually be worse than the United States, that perhaps another country's missiles were a bigger threat to someone they knew personally than any US offense. We don't talk anymore. 

Most of all, however, what this week has drawn out has been the simple question that's taken up so much of my internal dialogue -- my dove and my hawk, battling it out:

What's worth fighting for?

In other words, if China did invade Taiwan, what would I do, exactly, and why?

I maintain that nobody really knows how they'd react until they're in that situation. The best we can do is engage ourselves in inner discourses working through the options and their rationales. 

Is a country worth fighting for? Yes, possibly, but plenty of people have put their faith in national values which turned out to be wrong. What's more, I'm a non-citizen with little chance of gaining Taiwanese nationality (there is no meaningful path for me).  Is it right, or wise, to put my life on the line for a country that won't even give me a passport?

Is a piece of land, or the idea of a country worth fighting for? Well, I do love this country, and that includes the land. But I've never been one for patriotism, especially the blind sort. I disliked the country I'm actually a citizen of enough to leave permanently! Taiwan is not only beautiful, but the land itself is one part of Taiwanese identity. I'm not Taiwanese, though. 

Are people worth fighting for? Certainly, they are. As another friend put it, he's never loved a place enough to risk his life for it, yet he would do just that for people he cares about.

But to what extent am I centering myself in the struggle of others if I entertain the delusion that I, specifically, am needed to physically fight for or with people whose identity and culture I don't share? Is there a smidge of white saviorism in the sentiment? There's no clear answer to that.

And yet, despite all these arguments, despite myself, I can't imagine not fighting for Taiwan. If people were in Taipei basements making Molotovs, it's difficult to envision not being there to help add to the pile. A life in which I run away and live safely in the US or Canada doesn't feel like a life worth living. 

Why, though? I wasn't born here. I live here, but I'm not of here.

What is worth fighting for?

Part of the answer comes back to people: I have the means to leave, but a lot of people I care about deeply would not. What kind of person cuts and runs and leaves behind almost all of their friends, their built community, their local ties, and people they don't know but who deserve life, liberty, peace and justice as much as anyone else? Safely back in the US while the people you care about face the attack?

What kind of person does that after decades here, building a life and a home, benefiting from and enjoying what Taiwan has to offer -- a situation which is of course dyed deep in white privilege? 

It's understandable for some. Children they need to protect, or expats who weren't planning to stay forever. People who haven't been here long, or haven't fully committed to Taiwan as home. But I have. What would it say about my character if I ran?

There's more. 

The Taiwan I believe in -- the Taiwan I call home -- isn't some jingoistic blind-allegiance nationalism thing. It's not a bloodline or heritage thing. I don't care for self-determination arguments based on DNA, ethnicity or culture. Even history is too often manipulated and propagandized. It's not really about a piece of land, or borders. 

If what makes a country is a blend of desire for self-determination, cohesive society and respect for shared values, then those values they key. 

While imperfect, Taiwan does stand for things that matter: democracy, liberty, human rights, self-determination. I'm not from here, but these are our common ideals. They're not just cooked up by Westerners, and they don't apply only to Westerners. They're universal. We know that because they're valued in many non-western societies. 

As another friend put it: it's not about Western values or Asian societies. People around the world want to be able to say what they think, do more or less what they want without hurting others, decide who governs them and criticize that same government...and not get shot for it. Period. 

I believe in that. Taiwan believes in that. On this, our values are shared.

If I'm not willing to stand and fight for those values in the country I call home, then what are my values worth? 

This isn't to judge all the refugees who do choose to leave. Life is valuable, and it's not wrong to not want to die. It's human and understandable to care about values, but care more about your own life, and that of your family. I won't say a word against those who do.

But I not only transplanted myself to a new country and decided to call it home; I also spend a lot of time crowing about what I think and believe in. In this way, my values are neither fungible nor mutable. If I'm going to blog on about war being the second-worst option, that carries with it some understanding that running if it happens shows an alarming dearth of character.

Perhaps I have no specific obligation to a country that won't give me citizenship. Perhaps a piece of land, on its own, is not worth human life. Jingoistic patriotism certainly isn't. Perhaps my own friends would try to leave and think me deluded for not following suit.

Values, however, are worth it. That's not diminished by the possibility that the front line will be my home, even if it's not the place I'm from. Death is terrifying; the only thing worse is not standing up for what you believe in. If we all did that, then we might as well let turdbaby dictators take over the world.

So if you ask whether I've got plans lined up to exit Taiwan if things get bad, the answer is no. I can't say for sure what I'd do; nobody knows that. But I have no plans to leave. I've never made a Molotov, but I think I'd rather learn than run.