Monday, July 11, 2022



It's all tilted.

I do not want to write about Abe Shinzo. I’m not qualified to, but it seems that hasn’t stopped many. I do not want to discuss my opinion of him, but I will say this: some things are simple and some are complex. 

Xi Jinping is simple. He’s a brutal dictator and genocidaire and should not hold the position he has. Nuance regarding him only serves to distract from that fundamental truth. Abe Shinzo, however, was complex.

I can’t say I agreed with Abe’s conservatism. But there’s more to it than that; he was an important ally to Taiwan, and his legacy is not one of straight-shot conservatism. I don’t know that I agree with everything in this piece, but it’s worth a read for another perspective. (I do not exculpate him from war crime denialism to the extent Smith does in that link, for example). 

Now that I’ve just spent a few paragraphs talking about the thing I didn’t want to talk about, let’s get to what I do want to discuss in the wake of last week’s assassination. You know the old grade school cliche that such-and-such is a “land of contrast”? 

Well, it would be silly to call Taiwan that; fundamentally the term connotes something that doesn't quite line up or make sense, and given the geopolitical reality thrust on Taiwan by the both the world and the former KMT dictatorship, I think a lot of things actually do make sense when you take two seconds to think about them.

But I will call myself that: my own head is a land of contrasts. Contrastia? That's my brain.

If I didn't care about Taiwan, my views on Abe Shinzo's legacy would be far less inflected; he's probably not someone I would have voted for. In the country where I can actually vote, I wouldn't have to tolerate friendly overtures toward Taiwan from politicians I despise -- I could just hate them outright. 

To be honest, I already do: I certainly wouldn't vote for a right-winger. Recent bipartisan agreement on Taiwan has been a salvation at the voting booth; I wouldn't vote for anyone who was anti-Taiwan or, say, anti-abortion. What would I have done between a candidate who was pro-Taiwan but anti-abortion, and another who was anti-Taiwan but pro-abortion?

But if I didn't care about Taiwan I would not, for example, find myself explaining to like-minded friends in the US that Taiwanese didn't favor Trump in 2020 because they love the right wing, white supremacy or electing rapists. I don't even think they favored him because they genuinely thought he, personally, cared about Taiwan. One would have to be airy around the ears to think he did.

They favored him because his administration was the first in awhile to speak favorably of Taiwan. That's it. A lack of similar rhetoric from the other side -- at least until very recently -- was noticed and does matter. 

I may have to live in Contrastia, where I vote against people whose only good platform is support for Taiwan (often for the wrong reasons, but at some point support is support). 
But it's quite straightforward from a Taiwanese standpoint: who offers the stronger commitment to international friendship, however informal, with Taiwan?

The same is true of Abe. The Taiwanese mourning him are not stupid, they do not need to be lectured at that he was a conservative (and a pretty normal one by Japanese standards). They're not misunderstanding anything. 

He cared about Taiwan and was not afraid to stand up to China. Think what you will of his push to increase the defense budget and end an era of pacifism; it signaled that Japan was a regional partner that might actually be there for Taiwan in ways that mattered.

Even if they didn't care for anything else he did, it makes perfect sense that many Taiwanese would mourn him for these reasons. Does the opposition in Japan stand for Taiwan as much as Abe did? Would one of their senior leaders call Taiwan a "country"? How about other factions in the LDP?

If the answer to any of these questions is "no", then the reasons why Taiwanese liked Abe Shinzo should be obvious. If you don't like that, try to get better commitments to Taiwan from people you prefer. That's how you move the dial.

Telling Taiwanese that it's wrong to feel favorably to leaders who act favorably toward them is, frankly, condescending. Yes, even if those leaders are otherwise terrible. The only solution is to secure similarly good relations from less-terrible people. Otherwise, you're not living in Contrastia with me where sometimes things don't make sense; you're inhabiting Delusia where you refuse to see the world as it is. 

I'm a bit guilty of this too. I've made it clear that I don't care for these right-wingers in other countries who support Taiwan. During the Trump presidency, I'd point out that if the US slides toward right-wing authoritarianism, that influences the world -- simply saying a few kind words about Taiwan was insufficient. If the US is weakened globally because the blorp-in-chief can't even get diplomacy with America's friends right, that hurts Taiwan too. 

I still think I was right about that. But it would have been foolish of me in 2019 to expect the general public in Taiwan to support the guy whose administration's stance on Taiwan would be unclear until after he was elected, over the guy whose otherwise awful Secretary of State had one (and only one) good position: supporting Taiwan.

In the past few years, I haven't noticed much lasting affection for Trump in Taiwan. What changed? People didn't suddenly realize that Trump actually sucked (I think they already kind of knew that). Rather, the Biden administration made similar or even better commitments to Taiwan, and Taiwan responded. 

It's really that simple. 

Of course, Abe wasn't Trump, and those comparing the two are wrong. He was more of a conservative who retained public support despite corruption scandals thanks to a lot of rah-rah patriotism. That makes him more of a Reagan. 

There's a lot one might say about the legacy of Japanese colonialism in Taiwan here, but I don't actually think it's as relevant as it seems. Taiwanese didn't feel affection for Abe because they think of the Japanese colonial era with great nostalgia. They liked him because he was a friend of Taiwan. 

I could write a whole post on how Taiwan views the Japanese colonial era, but my conclusions would not point to a failure to deal with that historical legacy, rather, what it says about the era that followed. Regardless, I don't think it's more than tangentially relevant here. Taiwan does know its history; it retains informal but warm ties with Japan despite this, not because people have forgotten.

I understand why many disliked Abe. I didn't like him either (though I have no comment on Abenomics, because I am not an economist). He was not a fascist, as I've seen him called, and in a country that is still legitimately considered 'free', he was not an authoritarian

In fact, I think it's straight-up dangerous to be throwing these words around to describe democratically-elected leaders unless they (
*cough* Trump *cough*) actually try to overthrow democracy. Calling Abe such things not only render the terms meaningless, but reveal only that you have not lived under a truly fascist state. 

Feel free to call him a war crimes denier, though -- he was. However, every other Japanese leader has been more or less the same on this issue, some worse than Abe (a half-assed apology regarding Korean comfort women isn't good enough, but it's still better than visiting Yasukuni Shrine annually, as Koizumi did). 

Should Taiwan eventually seek to resolve its own war crimes issues with Japan? Yes. Should Taiwan give Japan the cold shoulder over it? Not when they're a friend at a time when China is looking to invade, no.

Still, it is tempting to compare Taiwan's reactions to Abe and Trump. I wouldn't. Unlike Trump, Abe actually knew something about Taiwan. He understood the local and regional issues involved. Of course he did; unlike Trump he wasn't an unread clown, and he was actually from the region. I might be rather conflicted on the man -- after all, my brain is Contrastia -- but for Taiwan, it makes perfect sense that people would realize this and react accordingly.

In other words, let's not pretend Taiwanese are unaware of who Abe was or what his legacy entailed, including all the negatives. They did. But he was an ally of Taiwan, and people noticed. There aren't many choices here: rely on the allies you have, or try to gain more allies. Even if you do the latter, a multilateral, cross-party international consensus on Taiwan matters too, and you'd be wise to keep the allies whose politics you don't otherwise love. That may mean dealing with some icky people, lest Taiwan become a partisan issue again.

Anything less is imposing an impossible moral test on Taiwan that frankly, a country in its position -- trying to gain international recognition while holding off a slavering, brutal, genocidal and subjugationist China -- does not deserve. It's moral highgrounding at (not for, and not alongside -- at) a country just trying to do what's best for itself, as all countries do.

In fact, with Taiwan still working toward that international recognition and regional security, it's deeply unfair to expect it to go against its own interests, whether because confronting China is hard, or because you don't like whomever is showing support for Taiwan, or because it forces some of us to live in Contrastia, where the people you like and the people who support Taiwan may not be the same.

In fact, as a final point, I think it would be wise to simply make more space for Taiwan to express itself, rather than tell Taiwanese what to think, or why they are wrong about whatever thing is happening at the moment. If the rest of the world -- including other countries in the region -- aren't going to give Taiwan the recognition it deserves or even stand with it against the horrible bully next door who wants to invade, then it makes sense that Taiwan would find its own way, and consider its own interests rather than sublimating them into whatever the rest of Asia, the left, or the right deems correct. 

If we stop thinking about whatever Taiwan can do for our cause -- whether that's the US-led world order (if you're a pro-US or conservative libertarian type) or the global left (if you're not) -- and start thinking about what Taiwan needs to do for itself, then a lot of these issues really do resolve themselves.

Or, to put it another way: one supports anti-imperialism in in Taiwan by supporting anti-imperialism in Taiwan. Right now, this means doing what is necessary to stop Chinese annexation.  It does not mean lecturing Taiwanese people about how yes, China is imperialist, but so are all of Taiwan's (informal) allies, so they won't do either, sorry Taiwan, you just have to sit in the corner and wait until the 'right' anti-imperialists notice you, hope China doesn't get you first, ta! 

I can't think of a worse fate for Taiwan than that.

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