Thursday, March 23, 2023

Doing Nothing Wrong

The man at the top right resembles my great-grandfather, but it's hard to tell 

This is going to start out like a post focused on the Armenian Genocide; I promise that it is related to Taiwan, and there is a point. But I'm going to do this my way -- that is, the long way -- and I only ask that you bear with me, if you like. 


Generations ago, two contradictory narratives came out of late Ottoman Turkey surrounding the ongoing massacre of Armenians under Sultan Abdul Hamid II. One was spoken about among diplomats and travelers, discussed in salons across the Western world: a paranoid Armenophobe Sultan was allowing Armenians to be attacked and slaughtered across Anatolia and even in Istanbul. Sometimes these attacks came with a pretext ("revolutionary activity" or "separatists"), sometimes not. 

Of course, these worried people made sympathetic noises but took few if any concrete actions to actually help the Armenians.

It's not an uncommon belief that the Armenian Genocide began and ended around 1915, that it came like a wave, and then receded. This is not true: the Hamidian massacres began in the late 19th century, ebbing and flowing and continuing into the early Turkish republic until at least 1922. 

Despite being called the "loyal" millet, or minority community, Armenians, among others, were second-class citizens. Possession of weapons was more heavily restricted, taxes were higher, and legal rights fewer. 

In this narrative, the Armenians had done nothing at all; they were prosperous in banking and commerce and living happily under Ottoman rule until one day, the crazy Sultan decided to exterminate them, and that bloody legacy was perpetuated by the Young Turks. (To be clear, it is well-documented that Abdul Hamid II suffered from mental health problems later in life and was paranoid specifically about Armenians). 

Of course, the Ottoman state narrative was wildly different: this was an "internal" matter, an "exaggeration" of events or a "provocation" by Armenian separatists and terrorists. 

If you think this sounds quite a bit like the way China spins its own stories about Taiwan, as well as actual parts of China such as Tibet, East Turkestan and Hong Kong -- exactly. But that's obvious; all governments lie, but authoritarian states are both the biggest and worst liars. It's not even my main point. 

To hear the Armenians tell it, they were loyal to the Sultan, while still celebrating the advent of the Turkish republic, presumably at its nascent stage when they believed it might result in fewer massacres, not a tsunami of fresh killings. Few were revolutionaries; none were trying to topple or break away from the state. We weren't separatists, they said. All we ever wanted was equality and justice. 

To hear the Turkish side, they were indeed separatists engaging in terrorist acts, and had to be stopped. Of course, this narrative always stops short of genocide: we had to stop them, we were provoked into the massacres that you are exaggerating and also that we did not commit. 

Frankly, the Turkish government continues to embarrass itself by perpetuating this narrative.

One of these narratives is obviously false. Let's leave aside the fact that I had ancestors in the death camps and not all of them survived, that my great-grandfather and great-grandmother, children at the time, barely survived the 1909 massacres and my great-great grandfather was murdered in Smyrna by Turkish troops as the 1922 fire raged. Plenty of documentation attests to the truth of the events, the official narrative makes no sense, and anecdotal accounts fill out the picture. From Michael Arlen's Passage to Ararat

In the fall of 1895, a group of German and Swiss schoolteachers were traveling through eastern Turkey. They passed a village where not a soul appeared to be alive. "A terrible plague," explained the guide. The schoolteachers saw blood on the walls of houses, and a village square where jackals and vultures still fed off the unburied dead. 

It's easy to assume that therefore, the Armenian story must be unimpeachable. The loyal millet, living peacefully under the imperial yoke, never engaged in the activities of which the Ottomans -- and later the Young Turks -- accused them. If this is true, the Armenians did nothing. 

The thing is, this isn't quite right. They didn't do nothing. 

The Turkish story may be embarrassingly stupid, but the issue with the Armenian narrative is that it glosses over the most important point: that they did nothing wrong

Why exactly is this a problem? First, it makes it easy for Turkey to defend their position: if there were no Armenian revolutionaries, how do you explain all the Armenian revolutionaries? 

Because they existed. That, too, is well-documented.

The main groups were the Dashnaksutiun (the Dashnaks) and the Hunchakyan Kusaktsutyun (the Hunchaks). The Dashnaks are known in English as the ARF, or Armenian Revolutionary Federation -- emphasis mine. Both groups were at least nominally socialist or social democratic; the Dashnaks perhaps less so, whereas the Hunchaks were more overtly Marxist. The two groups began as a united front, with the Hunchaks splitting off over ideological differences: if you think leftists like to get into big, fractous spats with each other rather than fighting their common enemy, then I would like to welcome you to join the People's Front of Judea, not those apostates running the Judean People's Front.

Fun fact #1: both parties still exist. Fun fact #2: my great-grandfather Mihran was a Dashnak and fedayi (resistance fighter) in the 1920-21 war for Armenian independence. I admire that a lot; I do hope that if the time ever comes for me to stand up for what is right despite immediate physical danger, I will do so. 

Theoretically, the Dashnaks were more reform-minded, wanting to better the position of Armenians within a larger Turkish state, whereas the Hunchaks advocated a breakaway Armenian state. The Dashnaks worked with the Young Turks to overthrow Abdul Hamid II, and the two groups worked together up until the 1909 massacres, which were promulgated by the new Turkish government (the Sultan had just been removed from power by this revolution) against Armenians, primarily but not limited to Adana, near my great-grandmother's hometown of Tarsus.

That is to say, these groups did consist of separatists and revolutionaries. Not every Armenian was a member; I'd gather most weren't. However, it's historically inaccurate to claim that they meant no harm to the Ottoman government. Some absolutely did. I do not believe this was wrong; for a time, they shared the same goal as the Young Turks, who are now celebrated in Turkey. Clearly, the Turkish government doesn't think opposing the Sultan was "wrong" either, as long as it was Turks doing it. 

Let's look at a specific example: one side says that the 1894 massacre of Armenians at Sasun was "unprovoked", the other says it was provoked because Armenians refused to pay taxes. The truth is that the Hunchaks indeed encouraged them to stop paying, because the taxes levied on Armenians were unequal and unfair, and the whole situation was a lot more complicated than a protest over taxation.

Without getting into the local, factional violence, there were indeed Armenians calling for reforms that directly threatened the state. Throughout, the Dashnaks and Hunchaks did indeed use revolutionary tactics to resist Ottoman oppression. Some of these forces were at play in Sasun; they emerged again during the bank occupation in Istanbul, which precipitated further massacres.

That's not doing nothing. But I generally support resisting murderous dictators. I am in favor of protesting unfair taxation and tribute. If the regional or central government is sending in troops to specifically punish you for refusing to be exploited by the other people they sent in to harass you, you should fight back against both the local perpetrators and the central government. 

That's not "doing nothing", it's doing nothing wrong. 

While I don't think separatism is always the best way to solve political problems -- sometimes it is, sometimes it just creates more problems -- I understand why Armenians at the time might have thought it a good solution. They were being treated like dirt; prosperity was gained not through privilege but adversity. Under those conditions, especially in the sociopolitical environment of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, wouldn't you also want to advocate for either reform or independence? 

To ignore this and insist that they lived their lives placidly oppressed is not only to give official Turkish accounts credibility that they do not deserve, but also to flatten the story. It perpetuates the myth of the "perfect victim": do we really want to imply that only some genocide victims are worth recognition and compassion? Do we really believe that the only argument against mass murder is to say the victims didn't resist their murderers? Or that "separatism" is an excuse for genocide? Do we really want to erase the agency of targeted groups to resist?

It is ethical and right to stand up against injustice. It is correct to push for equality, and if the government lording over you won't give it to you, you either have to change the government, or rid yourself of it. 

Whether you are independent like Taiwan and requiring only international recognition, or a part of some larger oppressive state and seek to break free, you are not required to accept second-class status up until the point that the state begins murdering you, never daring to set off a bomb or stage a protest. This should not and cannot be the threshold for deciding who is and is not a true victim. 

I hope you've followed me this far, and see how this connects not only to Taiwan, and every other group fighting CCP oppression. 

To hear the Chinese government tell it, Taiwan (and the US) are relentless provocateurs; their story veers between insisting most Taiwanese understand that their ultimate destiny is to be "reunified" as good Han subjects under the rejuvenated Chinese nation but are misled by a minority of "splittists" or the United States, and screeching that Taiwanese "separatists" are the instigators wholly responsible for Beijing's continued threats of violence. It's an internal matter, they say. You're exaggerating, China would most prefer a "peaceful" resolution but, you know, those pesky separatists! It's their fault that we may be forced to wage war, followed by brutal re-education camps. 

They do the same in East Turkestan and just about anywhere else that suffers under CCP repression. Like the Turkish government, they claim that Uyghur terrorists forced them to open the concentration camps that they also claim don't exist. You're exaggerating, they repeat. Those are vocational schools aimed at helping Uyghurs, not jailing them. Except we had to open them because of all the terrorists, and we had to forcibly detain people sent there. But you're exaggerating. 

If that fails, we're admonished not to worry ourselves over a far-off genocide because apparently genocide is acceptable if it's an "internal matter". 

Certainly I don't condone violent acts against civilians, but if we're talking about which side has killed more people, it would be the CCP. I may not be a fan of bus or subway bombs, but I have all the empathy in the world for people fighting the systemic erasure of their identity and culture. Such erasure never works, it always leads to violence, and the CCP started it. 

It forces us to consider the ethics of actions within a given context: Ottomans sending in troops to harass Armenians was wrong; Armenians occupying a bank with pistols and explosives was not wrong, per se. The American South wanting to secede because they wanted to continue the institution of slavery was wrong; East Turkestan wanting to cleave itself from its murderers to end a cultural genocide is not wrong.

I could draw out similar scenarios in Tibet and Hong Kong, but I think the point is clear.

This may seem obvious, but I don't think it is. When we portray the bad guys (and the Chinese government is unequivocally the villain here) as going after people who did nothing at all, the next step in that thought sequence is to consider "something" to be worse than "nothing".  As in, compassion comes more readily if they weren't revolutionary, or separatist; but if they were,  some might think the consequences are justified. But they actually did set off subway bombs! They did occupy a bank! They did resist police officers! They did plot to assassinate the Sultan! They actually are separatists!

Then it becomes "bad" to be a separatist or revolutionary. Those words sure sound so scary on the news! But again, if the government you're fomenting a revolution against is oppressing you and others, being a revolutionary is not wrong

Think of it this way: how much easier is it to advocate that the Chinese government should stop disappearing poor innocent Uyghurs who were just minding their own business? Compare that to persuading others that, yes, in fact there was and is resistance to Chinese rule in East Turkestan; that yes, there are Uyghur "separatists" by the basic definition; that resistance occasionally turns violent; but that Chinese oppression in East Turkestan is still unjustified and if the CCP can't do better (and it can't), perhaps East Turkestan actually should be independent. 

The same is true in Taiwan, although there are no thorny questions of civilian attacks to contend with and unlike East Turkestan, Hong Kong and Tibet, it is not legally a part of the People's Republic of China no matter how much the CCP screams otherwise (if it is, show me the binding international treaty or accepted convention that says so. It doesn't exist).

It's so easy to say that Taiwan has done nothing at all, but that's not true. Taiwan's done quite a lot: first and foremost, it democratized and in spite of Chinese missile tests, stayed that way. War is a deeply unpopular notion, but most do intend to defend their country against China if necessary. When China gets its hackles up about "separatists" we may roll our eyes, but most Taiwanese do not want to be a part of China. 
A large number -- likely a majority, depending on how you define the issue -- are indeed "separatists" by China's definition. The problem is not the desire for continued sovereignty, but China's definition.  

Taiwan does seek international recognition, even when doing so "angers" China. They do identify primarily as Taiwanese, which China cannot abide. They do reject China's conditions for "peace", which begin with the so-called 1992 Consensus and end with accepting annexation without a fight. They don't give up and accept second-class international status; it may be forced upon them, but you'll always encounter resistance (even if they're just online comments reminding, say, a sporting organization that "Chinese Taipei" is bullshit and everyone knows it).

In everything from calling Taiwan an "independent country (named the Republic of China)", changing the passports, cultivating ties with the US and other countries and any number of small actions, Taiwan tests where China's red lines are.

They do this because those red lines are unjust and do not deserve respect. Taiwan is right to resist them, reject fabricated agreements from decades ago, turn down Beijing's poisoned offer of "peace". 

That's not nothing. It's exercising agency in a thousand small ways: it's nothing wrong. 

By China's definition, Taiwan actually is provoking China. That's not doing nothing. It's just doing nothing wrong: again, the problem here is China's definition.

If we don't believe that, then the logical conclusion is to insist that such "provocations" are wrong simply because China does not like them: that is, giving credibility to the abuser in this messed-up relationship. It's to say that Taiwan should clamp itself down and do less, do nothing. Let itself be a victim. Never raise its voice. Accept ever-decreasing space in the international community, let its autonomy be chipped away.

The ways in which Taiwan's story and agency are being flattened in international media are not exactly the same as Armenia's a century ago. People then either seemed to believe that Armenians were hapless, agency-less victims, or that they deserved what they got for being separatists and revolutionaries. 

In Taiwan's case, the danger lies in portrayals of the country as some unpopulated rock fought over by the United States and China, as though the people of Taiwan haven't made their own decisions about their sovereignty and self-governance. Taiwan's very real desire to remain separate from the People's Republic of China is the entire reason why the conflict exists at all. 

China is indeed threatening Taiwan because of what it deems to be "separatism", not US "provocations" --   it is the will and agency of the people of Taiwan that is central to the issue. Chinese painting of Taiwan's views as US-created constructs is a lie, because they know they don't have a strong argument against the truth: that Taiwan itself wants continued sovereignty, and it has that fundamental right of self-determination.

If it melted away, and Taiwan placidly announced that would do anything at all for peace, including meeting China's demands, there would be no conflict. That will never happen, which may mean war. To steal from a great artist of my parents' generation, Taiwan would do anything for peace, but it won't do that. 

This does not mean -- it cannot mean -- that Taiwan's will and agency are wrong. They are not. 

Taiwanese don't act like Dashnaks or Hunchaks; they don't need to, because the would-be oppressor they fight does not control them. Someday, it might be necessary: while some might submit, others will certainly resist. I hope that day never comes, but if it does, I'll support them. Hell, I might be making Molotovs or growing sweet potatoes for the resistance fighters. After all, they'd be right. 

Nobody desires a Syria-like situation in Taiwan, but that's the most likely outcome if China "successfully" annexes Taiwan. Still, Taiwan will be right, and China will be wrong.

Wanting equality, justice, freedom and human rights is fundamentally ethically sound. That may be revolutionary; in some cases it may be tantamount to separatism. Fine, I say. Let it be revolutionary, let it be separatism if it must. It's our job to understand this, and not rob people facing an oppressor of either agency or compassion, when indeed they deserve both. 

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Book Review: Taiwan Studies Revisited

None of the online images were any good, so here's my own

In the past, I'd found it difficult to access the Routledge series on Taiwan research. The hardcovers are expensive (they're priced for university libraries) and it can take time for more affordable paperbacks to come out. There have been improvements in this situation, though. Paperbacks are coming out more frequently, making more titles available. I've thoroughly enjoyed reading Taiwan's Green Parties, Social Movements Under Ma Ying-jeou -- which I read years ago but didn't review -- and now Taiwan Studies Revisited. I'm currently working my way through The Spirit of 1895. If I can find a more affordable copy of Perverse Taiwan, it's next on my list. 

Today, I want to talk about Taiwan Studies Revisited. The central concept of the book revolves around authors of well-regarded books about Taiwan from decades past discussing the research and career trajectories that led to their publications, their arguments at the time, reviews and criticisms and how they feel their ideas have held up. There is another line of synergy running through each chapter, centering on the use of "China", as compared to Taiwan, as a conceptual touchstone, and how authors may have felt obligated or pressured to position their work as China-focused research.

Throughout, contributors also reflect on the evolution of Taiwan Studies over the last several decades, from the 'desert' of the 1990s to the relative prestige of today. Is Taiwan Studies still a marginalized area of inquiry, at best subsumed under China Studies, at worst seen as a career dead end? Taiwan Studies Revisited doesn't directly answer this question, but does reflect on it from multiple angles. Generally speaking, the outlook is positive. 

Featured academics include Simon Long, Melissa Brown, Anru Lee, Henning Klöter, Thomas Gold, Dafydd Fell and Michael Hsiao, among others, and was edited by Fell and Hsiao. It would take forever to recap each chapter; with regrets, I'll discuss only a selection of the ones I found particularly thought-provoking.

Overall, I enjoyed the 'recaps' of all of these fantastic works. Taiwan Studies Revisited can act as a sort of a collected Cliff's Notes of important research from decades past, either refreshing one's memory of books read long ago or giving you ideas about what to prioritize reading next. For example, Gold's chapter was a solid review of State and Society in the Taiwan Miracle, which I read ages ago, before I was doing book reviews. Brown's chapter focused on Is Taiwan Chinese? made me move that book -- sitting on my shelf but as-yet unread -- to the top of my list.  

While I was less interested in the conditions that precipitated the authors' specific research or their paths to becoming Taiwan-focused academics, it was notable to me how many started out interested in China but moved to Taiwan -- in Gold's case, finding the topic too interesting to abandon in favor of China. Yes, many encountered pressure to position their publications within a China framework as research on China tends to be higher-profile and get more attention than Taiwan, but those who actually began by wanting to focus on China and shifted toward Taiwan had the most interesting stories. 

I'm aware that Taiwan-based academics have held this debate among themselves: is Taiwan Studies part of a greater China-focused research area, what does it mean that to study Taiwan? Many must enter or work within the China Studies programs at their universities -- is this acceptable? 

Not that it matters, but I have my own opinion on this: if you are forced by circumstance to work within a China-focused framework but are aware of the inherent problem with that positioning, I have all the sympathy in the world. We do what we can in the circumstances we are handed, and not every university has a Taiwan Studies program. 

If, however, one actually sees oneself as ultimately within the China Studies paradigm, but studies Taiwan, then -- well, the kindest thing I can say is that I'm not impressed. I view all China-based observations, research, journalism and approaches with suspicion. If one actively positions Taiwan as part of some greater China-focused area of inquiry, to me that is a fundamental misunderstanding of Taiwan's uniqueness, even as I admit that China has greatly (but not entirely) influenced Taiwan. I will always take such work with an entire Tainan salt mountain of skepticism.

In other words, it's understandable to do what one can within a non-ideal academic environment. Moving from China to Taiwan-focused inquiry and comprehending what that means is also not a problem. In fact, it should be welcomed. But to see Taiwan-based research as ultimately one aspect of China-focused research, if that research is not directly related to the influences China has had on Taiwan? I'm out. 

Another thread I noted that spanned several chapters centered on social welfare in Taiwan. This is a good example of what one can learn from Taiwan Studies Revisited as several books across multiple areas of research are brought together.

It comes up in Joseph Wong's chapter on Healthy Democracies and Welfare Politics in Taiwan, Dafydd Fell's reflection on Party Politics in Taiwan, and Mikael Mattlin's discussion of Politicized Society. The development of, say, National Health Insurance (NHI) was an interplay of political and social forces: while it was ultimately promulgated by the KMT, early proponents and activists pushing for a nationalized health insurance system actually stemmed from the Tangwai, which eventually coalesced into the DPP. It's too simplistic to say that the KMT merely stole the opposition's idea for their own electoral gain (though in a sense, they did) -- the "race to the top" of benefit offerings was the result of both parties trying to buff up their social welfare bona fides during elections.

That said, before universal programs were pushed, the KMT regularly enacted highly discretionary welfare programs. Many citizens received little or no benefit from these, and they effectively created support blocs for the KMT (the book doesn't say this outright, but it is a logical conclusion and was borne out by the fight over pension reform several years ago). Here's what it does say: in changing this, groups that received the most benefits did "lose out" as their extra privileges were eroded, but the outcome was more universal -- though imperfect -- access.  

Here's something I didn't know: Wong notes that at one point, the KMT attempted to offload NHI through privatization. I believe this would have been disastrous. Fortunately, it never happened: opposition parties and social groups kept NHI under government purview, which probably kept it affordable and accessible for citizens. 

With that, I want to make an appeal: let us never again declare that the KMT should get all the credit for programs like NHI. Certainly, they enacted it, but they were not the only player in that game. 

I also found Melissa Brown's chapter to be of specific interest, in terms of both pressure to orient Taiwan-focused research as being under a China umbrella, and the specific issues women face in academia. Brown was the only female contributor to talk about sexism, but when a woman says she's faced discrimination, I tend to believe her. To see her tackle this issue head-on and even name some names was phenomenal (though I am sure those named were less than enthused). It's difficult to do this: as a woman, I know what it's like to ask myself, "is it really just me? Am I simply wrong, or less capable as an individual? Or is this an issue of unexamined sexism in which my ideas are given less credence simply because I'm a woman?" It can be hard to tell, and when I face what I feel is systemic sexism (and I have), I still struggle with being sure

Even if one is sure, it's even more difficult to speak up. Women who do so are regularly called irrational, emotional, "just angry", troublesome. People do say it's just us -- this or that woman is simply jealous or bitter that her individual star doesn't shine as bright, and it has nothing to do with her sex -- even when it's not true. It's hard to fight. An individual woman is not necessarily as capable as any given man simply because she's a woman, just as an individual man is not necessarily better at academia than any given woman simply because he is a man. You might be sure, but good luck trying to convince others of that. 

To come out and say it takes courage, and willingness to throw entire jungles' worth of shade. I'm here for it. 

One can say that Brown has not experienced much sexism -- after all, she wrote and published a fairly well-known book in the field, which was considered worthy enough to be included in this volume. Here is why I think Brown might have a point, though: Is Taiwan Chinese? -- a title she herself takes some issue with -- was published in 2004. It makes a very clear case for Taiwanese identity and elucidates the dynamics underpinning it. It's 2023, and people are still debating these dynamics as though she hadn't said anything at all. As though Taiwanese people "don't know who they are" because of how they answer the status quo poll, while the Taiwanese identity poll, which shows a clear consensus, is so often ignored. I find it a bit weird, to be honest. 

I also enjoyed this chapter because, as a woman not in, but interested in, Taiwan Studies, it's great to see women like Melissa Brown and Anru Lee -- whose focus is more domestic, on women and labor in Taiwan -- in publications like these. Often, I have been disappointed by other prominent Taiwan-focused women who take weird KMT-ish stances and pretend they're objective, or propagate viewpoints I think are simply wrong -- i.e. that somehow Taiwan and the US are "provoking" China rather than the truth: it's other way around. China creates the tensions, China decides what the provocations are, China expects everyone to dance around their arbitrary red lines. I want female role models who don't buy into this trap. 

There are a few more observations from other chapters worth mentioning. Gold is quite correct that Taiwan's story is more sociopolitical than economic. I'm happy to see that he finds Taiwan interesting in its own right. The interplay of private grief with public issues was fascinating in Lee's chapter, which focused on the 25 Ladies' Tomb in Kaohsiung. Long's chapter was interesting, but I found some of the conclusions faintly ridiculous. He outlines possibilities for the future which include "reunification on Beijing's terms" (as though Taiwan will ever agree to peaceful annexation by the CCP) or "unification on a compromise" (as though the PRC is willing to compromise and it would actually allow Taiwan sufficient autonomy). Most of them are not possible, and that should be immediately apparent. 

Klöter's chapter was of specific interest to me, as I'm currently learning Taiwanese with a private tutor (my Taiwanese still sucks, but I am getting somewhere.) I had always assumed use of a Romanized writing system was simply an invention of missionaries and not ideal. To learn that many view it as superior because it doesn't use Chinese characters -- that it's preferred because it's not rooted in Chinese culture and renders Taiwanese as something more unique to Taiwan -- was both fascinating and, to be honest, kind of cool. 

Mattlin points out several things I already knew, but it's great to see them in publication: that the KMT party elite's self-conception of their 'right to rule' (and yes, the KMT does in fact feel that way, although I suppose you could argue the DPP does as well albeit for very different reasons) is rooted in the system and symbolism of the ROC, which is why they fight so hard to preserve it. Mattlin calls the ROC "the raison d'être" for the KMT, and I can't deny that he was spot on then as he is now. 

All in all, Taiwan Studies Revisited is absolutely worth reading, either to see where the contributors stand now vis-à-vis their past work and how it's held up over time, or to get a condensed version of a range of books to help you better understand the field, or simply pick which book to read next.

Monday, March 13, 2023

Good reporting centers Taiwanese agency

Taking a bit of a risk with my weird graphic, but I like it. 

I don't think of the Economist as an accurate source of news on Taiwan. They report on Taiwan with some frequency, but in terms of relative merits to flaws, their articles are at best middle-of-the-road. At worst, they're unequivocally terrible. Occasionally, the magazine puts out something surprisingly good on Taiwan, but don't ask me for an example from the past right now as I can't think of one.

One of the chief problems with their Taiwan coverage hounds other publications as well: their disturbing tendency to deny Taiwan any agency in its own narrative. Stories ostensibly about Taiwan might barely reference what's actually going on there; to a reader who doesn't actively consider what they're reading, they might come away with the vague, unsettling impression that Taiwan is a barren rock that other countries fight over, just a piece of land to be won or lost. 

It would be easy from this sort of writing to assume Taiwan doesn't have any people living on it at all. 

Great powers fight over it, threats are levied against it, claims are made on its territory, but Taiwan might as well be Olive Oyl (thanks to a friend for that analogy) -- standing their whimpering in the general vicinity of the muscle men who want to possess her but with no apparent personality of her own. Whatever Taiwan itself wants is apparently not relevant to its own story or future. 

I don't know why reporters do this. I would imagine at least some of them have actually been to Taiwan, met and talked to Taiwanese people. They can't possibly think Taiwan is merely some trophy to be won or lost, a square on a chessboard that, if it could express itself, wouldn't have anything to say. They can't possibly believe that the views of Taiwanese people exist only as reflections of whatever China or the US want them to think.

And yet, this is how they write. It is simply bad reporting and in any other context, I daresay it would be more robustly called out as the racism that it is. 

With this in mind, two articles appeared recently in The Economist that show the effect better reporting can have on disseminating global understanding of Taiwan. I'd like to compare them, to elucidate what can be considered good writing on Taiwan, and differentiate it from the crap.

"America and China are preparing for a war over Taiwan", which appeared in the Storm Warning brief with no byline, is pretty bad, though not wholly irredeemable. "Taiwan is a vital island that is under serious threat" by Alice Su is far superior. 

You can tell by the titles: the former foregrounds the US and China, implying that they are making similar or parallel moves regarding Taiwan, although this is not the case. China is preparing to start a war in Taiwan. The US is preparing for the possibility of having to help Taiwan defend itself. Taiwan may as well be an inanimate pawn in this headline, a battered toy for two cats who've got the zoomies to tussle over. 

The latter references Taiwan in the first word rather than the last, and immediately references something about it. The US and China don't even appear in it. "Vital" can mean something like vibrant, or lively -- but it can also mean crucial or (strategically) important. Both are true, and I'd argue the more human definition is just as meaningful as the geostrategic one.

Of course, writers don't typically get final say over the titles of published articles. The Storm Warning article might have been mauled by some squash-brained editor who didn't know better, but have solid content. 

This was not the case. The article is just as bad as the headline implies. Here's how it starts: 

Their faces smeared in green and black, some with Stinger anti-aircraft missiles on their packs, the men of “Darkside”—the 3rd battalion of America’s 4th marine regiment—boarded a pair of Sea Stallion helicopters and clattered away into the nearby jungle. Their commanders followed in more choppers carrying ultralight vehicles and communications gear. Anything superfluous was left behind. No big screens for video links of the sort used in Iraq and Afghanistan: to avoid detection, the marines must make sure their communications blend into the background just as surely as their camouflage blends into the tropical greenery. The goal of the exercise: to disperse around an unnamed island, link up with friendly “green” allies and repel an amphibious invasion by “red” forces. 

All I can say is woof. I can't fault the writing style, as the delayed lede allows for creative scene-setting that draws the reader in. But come on! We've got all this big macho US army energy, references to Iraq and Afghanistan, Taiwan as an "unnamed" island. I understand why all these narrative choices were made, but the cumulative effect is not one of a real island full of real people whose choices are at the center of it all, but two massive military industrial complexes itching to go at it.

I hate defending the US and will do so as rarely as possible, but just by the facts, the US is not planning to invade Taiwan as they did Iraq or Afghanistan. That would be China's intention. 

I know the opening doesn't say this, and does not really criticize US military involvement in Taiwan -- in fact, I get the sense the author supports it -- but it does draw an implicit connection, and I fear this is what readers will take away.

Compare that to the opening of Su's piece:

When Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, announced the extension of military conscription in December 2022, she called it an “incomparably difficult decision”. Taiwan’s young were previously subject to only four months of conscription. Starting from 2024, they will serve a year each, with improved training. “No one wants war,” she said. “But peace will not fall from the sky.” Taiwan must prepare for war, she added, to prevent it.

Without hesitation, the article dips into the situation in Taiwan, providing crucial context about the decisions Taiwan is making and why. Readers get the immediate sense that Taiwan is defined not just by its land but its people, and they have a government and thoughts and feelings and choices and lives. The reader is invited to consider Taiwan for its own sake, and what it might feel like to be in Taiwan with this huge threat looming over you. 

The following paragraphs follow up on this, and the focus does not shift from Taiwan until the third paragraph. 

To be clear, I don't agree with everything Su says here. She calls Taiwan "numb to China's threat" (which is not true) and asks "whether" Taiwan is willing to defend itself. People aren't numb, they're tired and worried and don't want to fret themselves into migraines and insomnia every day, so they compartmentalize it in order to live normally. It's exhausting to spend each day wondering at what point in the future your neighbor's going to press the button on those missiles he's got pointed at you.

I don't think Taiwan has "no consensus on who they are", either. Most Taiwanese identify as solely Taiwanese; the vast majority who identify as both Taiwanese and Chinese prioritize Taiwanese identity. Most say they are willing to defend their country, and most consider Taiwan's current status to be sufficient qualification to be considered independent. There is virtually no support for immediate unification and not very much for eventual unification, either. Most don't want a war, which is probably the main reason why they say they prefer "the status quo". Of course, I can't be sure, this is just a feeling based on anecdotal observation.  Frozen Garlic discusses this in his redux of the relevant poll; I suggest you read it.

Anyway, that sure sounds like a string of consensuses to me! Exactly what kind of country Taiwan is, and how it will defend itself against China, are still relevant questions and ongoing debates. Whether it is a country and whether it should unify with China, however? Though there will always be dissenters, those questions seem fairly settled.

That said, for the purposes of comparing two journalistic approaches to Taiwan, these are the nitpicks of a crotchety old git who has the diabeetus and puts ice cubes in her tea. I shake my cane at you! But truly, Su's article is pretty good. It takes every opportunity to foreground Taiwan and Taiwanese agency, and thus implies to the reader that this is a place that matters, these are people not too different from you, and they matter. It shows the reader that Taiwan has its own internal workings, can make its own decisions, and has its own views on China's aggression. 

This implies that the possibility of war is not because two superpowers are bored and feel like duking it out over some rock. It's because China wants to annex Taiwan, and the Taiwanese do not want this. 

Taiwan has agency, and that agency not only matters but is at the core of the conflict: Taiwan is unwilling to do what China demands, and China wants to take their agency away. How would you feel if someone wanted to annex your land, murder your kid for attending a protest, tell you that you don't get a say?

Without it being made explicit, this sort of story asks the reader to consider these questions, perhaps subconsciously. This rings clear throughout Su's piece, even as I may disagree on the details. 

In fact, after a few more paragraphs we get this gem, which I consider the nut graf but probably isn't:

As Chinese pressure on Taiwan grows, the Taiwanese look for the world’s support. Taiwan stands “at the vanguard of the global defence of democracy”, Ms Tsai has said. To let it go under would be a devastating step towards the might-is-right world that both Mr Xi and Russia’s Vladimir Putin seem to favour.

Instead of starting off with what's happening in the Taiwan/China/US Torment Nexus (protip: don't create the Torment Nexus) to Iraq and Afghanistan, two places where the US screwed up massively, it chiefly describes Taiwan's critical juncture to the resistance against Putin's war in Ukraine. This is the better analogy. 

To be fair, the Storm Warning piece does this too, and compares Xi's irredentism to Putin's. I support this, because it's true. But compare one of their typical paragraphs: 

America, meanwhile, is sending more military trainers to Taiwan. The Taiwanese government recently increased mandatory military service from four months to a year. Prominent congressmen have urged President Joe Biden to learn from Russia’s attack on Ukraine and give Taiwan all the weapons it may need before an invasion, not after one has started. Adding to the sense of impending crisis are America’s efforts to throttle China’s tech industry and Mr Xi’s growing friendliness with Russia.

With one from Su's piece: 

Taiwan has not made up its mind how or even whether to defend itself. It is at once the “most dangerous place in the world” yet numb to China’s threat. Only since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has serious debate about a possible Chinese invasion become normal. That is in part because China’s Communist Party is engaged in an information war designed to sow confusion. It also reflects Taiwan’s tortuous history and politics.
One frames the Ukraine conflict mostly in terms of what the US and China think about it. The other uses it to help the reader understand Taiwan's internal workings.

When it can finally turn its gaze from the US and its Big Tank Energy, it talks about what China claims and how it acts vis-à-vis Taiwan: 

China’s Communist leaders have claimed Taiwan since Nationalist forces fled to it after losing a civil war in 1949. America has long pledged to help the island defend itself. But in recent years, on both sides, rhetoric and preparations have grown more fevered. China’s forces often practise island landings. Its warships and fighter jets routinely cross the “median line” (in effect Taiwan’s maritime boundary) and harass military ships and planes of America and its allies. After Nancy Pelosi, at the time the Speaker of America’s House of Representatives, visited Taiwan last year, China fired missiles towards it.

These are all important details, but shifting focus from the US, everything is now centered around China. The two countries' preparations are "fevered", there are warships and fighter jets and and rhetoric and missiles and some other kind of ships and Nancy Pelosi. 

What there isn't? Anything Taiwan might think or want or even an acknowledgement that 23.5 million people maybe have a role to play and a lot at stake. 

It gets worse. Later on, if you're still reading this Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire-sized article (Brendan's joke about that book: "it takes as long to read as it took to happen"), you get this: 

Given the appalling consequences, would America and China really go to war? Chinese officials say their preferred option is still peaceful unification, and deny there is any timetable for an attack.

OKAY, but Taiwan is never going to accept or choose peaceful unification because they see how badly the Chinese government treats its own citizens, including but not limited to Hong Kong, Tibet and East Turkestan! That "peaceful unification" is not possible, that Taiwan has an opinion on this, that the world has to lie to China to prevent invasion (for now) isn't mentioned -- only that China claims it wants peace. That China knows Taiwan will never choose unification, and yet has not renounced the use of force, should tell you everything about what China wants: war. If they didn't, they'd commit to no war, because it is very easy to not invade your neighbor. 

What's more, this paragraph not only never explores how Taiwan feels about the "appalling cost of war" even though they'd be the most affected, it also implies that China might choose to back off from invasion because it would be bad for Taiwan, some of their troops, and the global economy. LOL. Do you think China cares? I don't.

Worse yet, the wording outright states that all this horror would be caused by "the US and China [going] to war", not China starting a war

It continues like this; I read and read, and everything was US, China, US, China, war, war, invasion, imminent war. In many paragraphs Taiwan wasn't even mentioned even though this is where the war would take place! You don't get any meaningful engagement with Taiwan's potential actions until a paragraph somewhere in the potbellied middle of this extremely long piece.

Is it a counter to China's claims, which appear near the top? Perhaps some insight into what is happening in Taiwan right now as they face this threat? Nope. It's more guns and bombs and artillery and rockets:  

Taiwan’s strategy, meanwhile, is to thwart China’s initial landing or prevent it from bringing enough troops. Taiwanese forces would block ports and beaches with sea mines, submerged ships and other obstacles. Backed by surviving aircraft and naval vessels, they would strike China’s approaching force with missiles and pound disembarking Chinese troops with artillery and rockets. Some PLA texts suggest that Taiwan has underwater pipelines off its beaches that could release flammable liquid. Some of its outlying islands are protected by remote-controlled guns.

The fact that Taiwan's extremely justified refusal to be annexed by China (and China's inability to accept this) is at the core of this conflict is simply not worth mentioning, apparently. It's just Anger McRagersons chucking rockets at each other thousands of miles away. The visuals here imply little islands out in the ocean whose primary feature is guns. The implication? This war is stupid, everyone sucks, and the US should stay out of it. If Taiwan falls, so what? It's some random island in the middle of nowhere, it can't be of any importance. I don't want another Iraq or Afghanistan! 

Nevermind that US assistance to Taiwan could be one of the most crucial obstacles standing between Taiwan's subjugation by China, much as the world's support of Ukraine helps Ukraine stave off Russia each day. 

Surely readers know Taiwan has people; some might even realize that the population of Taiwan rivals Australia (and how would you feel if Australia were invaded by a hostile foreign dictatorship?). To the writers, however, it may as well be a fortress stuffed with incendiaries and nothing more. 

I do understand the point of all this -- it's not meant to be a human story, it's intended to be focused on  military tactics. I don't think the article is totally without merit. The various war scenarios provide useful information regarding what a war in Taiwan might actually look like, for readers who don't know. There are worthwhile details about military readiness sprinkled throughout. However, the overall effect is one of BAM BOOM BOOM BANG KAPOW by two big armies over some pile of rocks.

Perhaps we need these sorts of stories. People should be able to learn about what the US is doing abroad, and what it's facing. Isn't there a way to tell that story without ignoring Taiwan almost completely, though? 

Su takes a more holistic approach. She continues with the Ukraine analogies and makes the case for Taiwan both from a global economic and internal perspective: 

Taiwan also has outsize importance in the world economy. A conflict over Taiwan would do a lot more damage even than Russia’s war on Ukraine. Taiwan makes more than 60% of the world’s semiconductors, which power everything from mobile phones to guided missiles, and 90% of the most advanced sort. Rhodium Group, a research outfit, estimates that a Chinese blockade of Taiwan could cost the world economy more than $2trn.

Taiwan’s leaders know that neither strong democracy nor economic importance is enough. The Ukraine war has taught them that a small country bullied by a bigger neighbour must demonstrate that it has the will to resist. Fight back, and there is more chance that the world will come to your aid. But Taiwan is not ready to fight.

The Storm Warning piece also references the global economy in a very similar paragraph, but never ties it in or brings it back to Taiwan. The best you ever get is this: 

A war game by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, another American think-tank, found that under its “base scenario” Taiwanese, American and Japanese forces typically severed PLA supply lines after about ten days, stranding some 30,000 Chinese troops on the island. Taiwan survived as an autonomous entity, but was left with no electricity or basic services. America and Japan suffered, too, losing 382 aircraft and 43 ships, including two American aircraft-carriers. China lost 155 planes and 138 ships.

Even in a paragraph about the aftermath and cost of war, Taiwan gets one sentence. Then it's back to what America and China lose. 

While the Storm Warning piece ostensibly about Taiwan never gets any better about actually including Taiwan in the narrative, it's in the warp and weft of Su's work. 

This is what we need more of. Even the military-focused stories should spend more time considering Taiwan's own perspective and role, and what Taiwan has to lose. This is how we get readers to actually see what war would mean, and consider that it wouldn't happen to a place, but to people. 

Of course, one can argue that the Economist published both because the angles are so different: one focuses on Taiwan, the other on the US and China. Three players in one drawn-out story. I can understand that, but taken on its own, the Storm Warning piece is almost comical in how actively it ignores Taiwan. The Economist has a paywall, not everyone reads every article (many can't), and there's no way to make a social media post with two fully-displayed link headers. Good intentions or not, the Storm Warning piece on its own erases Taiwan.

Do we really need these US-China Go Boom-Boom pieces? Arguably yes, but they lack crucial context. Could the useful military and war scenario information be included in something a little less dismissive of Taiwan itself? Perhaps stories like tome in this Storm Watch might at least attempt to include the Taiwanese perspective, or even question whether China is right to claim Taiwan, or their "peaceful unification" talk is possible or meaningful?

Then, beyond how many different types of Big Guns and Ships and Rockets the US and China can chuck at each other, readers might understand that this is a country full of people and they play a crucial role in their own story. 

In other words, in a story theoretically about Taiwan, at least some of the focus should actually be on Taiwan.

Friday, March 10, 2023

The Day After


I don't have a good cover photo, so here's a relaxing picture I took of a beach in the Maldives. 

A pretty strong content warning on this. I'll be talking about hate speech by transphobes on the right and left. Suicide comes up. If that's not something you want to be around right now, I will never know and never care if you choose to skip this post. In fact, I'll respect you for your choices regarding your own wellbeing.

I also want to clarify that I know I'm not saying anything new. Trans activists have been talking about these issues for ages; it's just that I still see transphobia popping up around me, so maybe someone will read this and re-think. All I can really do is speak from a cis woman's perspective, so I try to keep to that. If you want to hear trans perspectives, I thoroughly enjoy the podcast Cancel Me, Daddy.

* * *

International Women's Day was this past Wednesday, and I really want to have cared.

I remember a time when Lao Ren Cha was specifically aimed at foreign women -- especially, but not exclusively, Western women in Taiwan. The experiences of that demographic most closely matched my own; it was an easy and frankly needed angle to take. At that time I would have written up something from that angle for something like International Women's Day without hesitation. 

At times I think about going back to that narrower focus. But, over the last decade-plus, as life in Taiwan has become simply life, not some exciting new immigrant or expat journey, what I have to say isn't always categorizable by gender. I'm also no longer sure that my experiences are similar enough to the average foreign female newcomer.

Of course I remain an ardent feminist even as my blogging focus has shifted: there isn't much about my personality that is reducible to my gender, and I believe as any reasonable person does that everyone should be considered as individuals, not an agglomeration of stereotypes about how "men" or "women" should think or act. 

When I came here as a starry-eyed twentysomething who believed that women, who bear so much sexism from society, could all come together in solidarity to end it. I believed then that valuable and meaningful discussions are possible with those I don't always agree with or like.

I still want to believe that's true. To some extent, I do: the idea that everyone is set in every belief is too simplistic. People can and do say things in the moment that, on further reflection, they realize are problematic, don't reflect their core values, or that they don't truly believe. I've certainly done it! Some people aren't open to new ideas, but many are.

And yet, there I sat two days ago -- a feminist blogger simply unable to write a single thing on International Women's Day. I don't generally attach great importance to specific days, but at the very least I believe that day should be one of raising each other up, not woman-on-woman conflict.

That does feel like women's rights discourse has become, however. We've always had to deal with reactionaries shouting down the concept of women having full human rights (like, say, the right to all forms of health care, including abortion), or treating women like human beings rather than some gaggle of mysterious sirens whose primary role is ornamental.

Now, however, it's clearer than ever that some of the misogyny has always come from inside the house. It feels impossible to simply engage with other feminists without having to listen to some trash talk about who is and isn't a woman (according to them), portraying some women as enemies or worse, predators, based on zero evidence -- simply because they were not assigned 'female' at birth. 

In short, I'm sick of transphobes shouting about how feminism is necessarily transphobic. This is a perspective I thoroughly reject. In fact, I find that ideology embarrassing in its hatefulness, and I hope everyone clinging to it is thoroughly abashed just like so many anti-gay folks who sure panicked a few years ago, but now realize they sounded like particularly bigoted turnips. (Not all of them have repented, but there has been a change in the overall discourse.) 

On International Women's Day, I seethed about it. I can really only speak from a cis perspective, but I felt genuine anger at the idea of women celebrating that day, but including only the women they deem "acceptable". I tweeted, but I didn't really write. The day after that, I started to question whether I could still truly justify that lofty ideal of solidarity. 

The day after, I decided that perhaps it was time to be clear about the fact that Taiwan, at least among Western women, has a TERF problem. 

I don't just mean transphobia, but specifically women who think of themselves as feminists, but exclude trans women from any discussion of women. To me, that's not feminist at all. It's not empowering; it's just exclusionary. The problem isn't limited to Taiwan expat communities: if you've listened to any of the rhetoric coming out of the West, it's everywhere. But it exists here too, and I live here, and I do not like it one bit. 

Certainly, transphobia also exists in local society as well. I don't think one post can really address that, nor do I think I'm the best person to do so. Perhaps it's because my primary language of communication is English, but when I go online most of the Taiwan-based anti-trans vitriol I see being spewed is from other Westerners. There are more of them than I would have guessed, and they're difficult to avoid if one wants to participate in feminist spaces.

Transphobic cis women will insist that women's spaces should segregate on the basis of...I'm not sure really. Genitals? Chromosomes? All sorts of things that are not always clear at birth? Something. They seem to truly believe that cis women are in general consensus on this, and "women's spaces" should therefore be for cis women only. 

I reject this. As a cis woman, let me be clear: there is no such consensus.

I as a cis woman refuse to be a part of any "women's space" that excludes trans women. If a group, event, meeting, club, activity, discussion or anything else is meant for only cis women, the creators might think it's for women like me, but it's not. I will not dignify the existence of spaces that claim to be for all women, but exclude some women regardless.

At that point, you don't have a "women's space" or a "feminist space", you have a transphobe space. Cis women like me who believe in inclusion for all women want nothing to do with you, so it's really just the TERFs who remain. 

And why would I want to be a part of any space that claims it must exist as it does to keep women "safe", as though trans women are inherently dangerous? (They are not.) Why would I want to be around people who talk big about that safety, but don't care at all about the safety of an entire demographic of women -- the ones they seek to exclude?

I won't awkwardly smile and try to make the best of it. I won't check my disgust at the door. I won't legitimize it with my presence. I won't pretend that these are just "differences of opinion" when the TERFs sound indistinguishable from the right-wingers and their ideology does real harm. 

It positions trans people as criminals when they're more likely to be the victims of crimes. It results in bullying, harassment and assaults on trans people. That, in turn, drives attempted suicide among trans people. It allows for the dissemination of disinformation targeted as "they're trying to trans your kids!", which can lead to the restriction of age-appropriate affirming care due to incorrect beliefs about such care. It allows essential care for women to deny access to some women.

All of it is in service to exactly one belief: that the problem is the penis and women with vaginas are therefore justified in excluding women with penises. 

Although penises are hilarious (have you seen them? What the hell?) I just don't think a body part is the problem. Patriarchal systems are the problem, and patriarchal systems are inherently anti-trans. They are cruel to trans people, as they are cruel to cis women. Perhaps the details differ, but the cruelty remains the point. So, hey, if you want to support the patriarchy, by all means continue to be a transphobe! 

That's not a difference of opinion. These are human lives. Trans people are more likely to die because of the way society treats them. I think beliefs that perpetuate this treatment are, in a word, sick.

I won't pretend that harm is acceptable in any feminist space I participate in. I will never agree that to be safe for me, a "women's space" must include only cis women. No, I don't feel unsafe in restrooms, because I have no reason to. In fact, being committed to inclusive women's spaces, I'm more interested in keeping them transphobe-free. At least then, we're telling people they're not welcome based on their ideology, not their fundamental personhood. 

I'm a liberal because I care about all people, even those who aren't like me. I'm a feminist because I care about equal opportunity for all women. I'm not interested in so-called liberal or feminist ideas that sound exactly like the right-wing reactionaries with whom I so profoundly disagree. 

Are you really a feminist if you sound just like the guy at CPAC who called for transgender people to be "eradicated from public life entirely"? Because the end goals are the same: restrict gender-affirming care, make it unacceptable to be publicly trans (especially a trans woman), make it very acceptable to demonize and bully trans people.

You can tell because the same "they're trying to steal our kids!" panic is prevalent in both the conservative and "feminist" forms of this ideology. And you can tell because even when the reactionaries say something that even the TERFs know is truly ridiculous ("trans people have no hobbies") or post memes alluding to trans suicide, the "feminists" never call it out. They're too busy screaming at trans people to stop for a moment and say "hey that meme is shitty and cruel". 

Why would I want to be included in "feminist" discourse or spaces where they sound exactly like Michael Fucking Knowles talking to Republicans?

And where does that leave me, a cis woman in Taiwan?

Well, it's hard to know where to find that coveted solidarity. I want no solidarity with bullies. I can't just assume something billed as "for women" will necessarily include and support all women; it's important carefully check every women's group, meetup or event to confirm. I've lost "friends" over it; that's fine, I broker no peace with disinformation-spewing transphobes posting cherry-picked predator memes. It's extremely hard to know when a transphobe-y comment is some thoughtless crap that can be challenged with some hope of success, or indicative of a deeper worldview that legitimizes exclusion and promotes bullying.

I also watch out for transphobes welcomed into otherwise inclusive spaces. I understand the impulse to welcome everyone, and I do think it's possible to change some minds with interaction. However, they are part of an effort to push transphobia into feminist spaces in Taiwan, and I just can't countenance that. I only participate if I think my presence as a cis woman trying to be a trans ally will turn that tide. 

It's important as well to keep an eye on the guys. Every once in awhile I hear a well-meaning dude in the Taiwan foreignersphere say or retweet some anti-trans garbage thinking he's being supportive of "women" because transphobic women he respects have told him so. The only way to counter that is to push back and be clear that not every cis woman agrees; some of us believe that respecting women means respecting all women.

As the moderator of an inclusive Facebook women's group, I have had no issues with trans women causing problems, but I must always keep an eye out for transphobes spewing hate against our very welcome trans members.

And finally, as the author of a long-running blog that once focused on women in Taiwan and now focuses on whatever I please, I feel that there is not enough trans-affirming discourse among Western residents of Taiwan. 

Certainly, the wider media landscape seems to be pushing an anti-trans narrative: you hear a lot about controversy over what transphobes say -- they seem to love interviewing transphobes all het up that kids are being dipped in hormone tanks without counseling, or whatever moral panic tropes they're buying into this week -- but not much at all on what it's like to just be a normal trans person living one's life. The exposure to the idea of trans individuals just being seems so rare. You hear a lot of "ARE THEY SALIVATING OVER MY KIDS???" talk, presented as Just Asking Questions but clearly seeking to terrify, and not nearly enough "oh hey I met her at a party, she was cool". 

I'm small potatoes media. Lao Ren Cha is literally just my blog that I do for free and for fun, on Blogspot of all godforsaken places because I'm too lazy to move to a better platform. So sure, this is like a warm, friendly piss in an ocean of ice-cold hate. 

But I can try, so here it is: as a cis woman, I reject anti-trans bigotry and discrimination. I reject right-wing talking points presented as somehow revolutionary and left-wing. They are not. I reject transphobe-welcoming spaces. This may mean I reject solidarity. This is unfortunate, but acceptable: I may not know how to bridge the divide, but I do know what my feminism stands for, and it stands for inclusion.

One final plug: if you are a woman or nonbinary (basically, not a man) and want to be part of an inclusive women's group that leans explicitly feminist and trans-welcoming, check out Super Awesome Taiwan Women. There is also the Feminist Study Group Meetup (I'm not in this, but I have it on good authority that they are inclusive). 

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Chiang Wan-an, Chiang Ching-kuo and 228

Let me be upfront: this is an off-the-cuff post that I honestly need to research more. When I have the time, I'll try to update it accordingly. Please understand, I have a huge writing assignment coming due and have just been diagnosed with diabetes resulting from post-COVID complications, so I'm not as focused as I should be. 

With that said, I want to talk about Taipei Mayor Wayne Wan-an Chiang, his grandfather Chiang Ching-kuo, and the 228 Massacre. While speaking at a 228 memorial event today, Chiang was heckled by protesters waving white banners and demanding he "kneel and apologize" for the crimes of his ancestors. Other protesters -- legislators Lin Liang-chun, Wu Pei-yi and Miao Po-ya -- held signs in the audience saying "Stop Idolizing Dictators", "Return Records to the State" and "Remove Authoritarian Symbols" (my translation). 

Miao, on point as usual, said that authoritarian symbols (such as Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall) have no place in a democracy, that Mayor Chiang's speech was full of well-worded rhetoric but "beautiful words don't matter as much as what the words actually do", that many families were not participating in commemorative activities due to deep sadness, and that truth, justice and reconciliation in that order are vital for transitional justice. 

One might say that it's unfair to demand that Chiang, grandson of one dictator and great-grandson of another, apologize for the crimes of his ancestors. He is not the same person as his ancestors, and he was on stage acknowledging the fact of the 228 Massacre.

No, not the 228 "Incident". Massacre.

There is an alternate universe somewhere in which I agree with this: it's the one where Chiang is still surnamed Chang despite legal agreement that he is the grandson of Chiang Ching-kuo, but chose not to change his name because he understood the implications. It's the one where he ran for mayor without tying his legacy to the memory of Chiang Ching-kuo who was, again, a dictator. It's the one where he acknowledged the crimes against humanity committed by both of his legally-recognized ancestors, and promised that truth, justice and reconciliation without idolizing one of them or attempting to draw on his name.

That's not the universe we live in. We live in the one where he puts Mass Murder Grandpa on his campaign flags.

Still, you might say, the Chiang whose reputation he called upon to bolster his own campaign wasn't the perpetrator of 228. Chiang Ching-kuo wasn't the same as his father.

That, I must say, is a distinction without a difference. First of all, although it's true that even Mayor Chiang understands that Chiang Kai-shek's image should not be on his campaign flags, he absolutely stands for the continued existence of his great-grandfather's memorial hall with its statue in situ -- a memorial hall built to make him seem like a great man, not the butcher he was. That is, a memorial hall that continues to enshrine the worst of the KMT dictatorship and obscure, not confront, the worst of its horrors. 

That should be enough, but wait -- there's more! Chiang Ching-kuo, the ancestor that Chiang Wan-an idolized so much that he put the guy on his campaign flags, might not have been the chief perpetrator of 228, but it's wrong to say he wasn't involved at all. 

After the slaughter had begun, he arrived in Taiwan on March 17, 1947: 

By the 17th, the Army were declaring victory. Defense Minister Bai Chongxi (白崇禧) arrived in Taiwan with the generalissimo's son, Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), and wired a message to Chiang Kai-shek that "order is mostly restored, and we are in pursuit of the last remaining rebels that joined forces with armed thugs.”

It's more likely than not that Chiang agreed with this depiction of events -- one in which the victims ("thugs" and "rebels") were at fault and the government was "restoring order". 

NewTalk describes his work around March 17th as "telegraphing the arrest list", after which further crackdowns were carried out. Is NewTalk the definitive source on this? Not necessarily, but Chiang was with Bai and others in Taiwan to deal with 228. The arrests and executions -- both organized against dissidents and indiscriminate -- continued. Chiang's hands are not clean.

After their arrival, Bai and Chiang toured the island, visiting Keelung, Chiayi and Kaohsiung among other places. I mention these cities specifically because they're known for being places where the KMT committed especially egregious massacres. Chiang and Bai visited Chiayi the midst of mass executions taking place in that city. Did he personally order the executions? Probably not, as some occurred before his arrival. Many, however, occurred after, including the execution of 70 individuals in Chiayi. 

Did he know about them and approve? Surely.

Some of those executed were tortured as well. Thinking Taiwan describes the treatment of Dr. Pan Mu-chi, who had his nails pierced with iron and was doused in gasoline.

If the son of the dictator visits a city with the Defense Minister in the midst of mass executions, broadcasts a message following the wishes of his father, allegedly telegraphs an arrest list, and then that many people are executed if not heinously tortured, how can one possibly say that that dictator's son holds no culpability?

Let's move to Kaohsiung. Here's Chiang shoulder-to-shoulder with Peng Meng-chi, known as the "Butcher of Kaohsiung". I took it from Taiwan Gazette, but it's also available on Imgur: 

CCK and the Butcher of Kaohsiung

Best Buddies

Here's what Peng did

The narration describes Taiwan governor Chen Yi as the main culprit, along with Peng Meng-chi (彭孟緝), the garrison commander, who gave the order to the military to attack the train station, the Kaohsiung Middle School, the Kaohsiung Municipal Government and to shoot all the city councilors, who were in the process of negotiating a settlement for the 228 Massacre.

Here's more

In Kaohsiung, where protests had also broken out, fortress commander Peng Meng-chi (彭孟緝) was losing patience. On the 6th, Peng gave orders to move on protesters that had gathered at the train station, city hall and Kaohsiung Senior High school. Three of Kaohsiung’s most prominent community members were arrested and later executed, including Tu Kuang-ming (涂光明), Fan Tsang-jung (范滄榕) and Tseng Fengmin (曾豐明).

Peng's Kaohsiung massacre happened on March 6th, Chiang Ching-kuo arrived on the 17th, after it had taken place. They seem extremely friendly. What are the chances that Chiang either didn't know or didn't approve of Peng's actions?

Chiang would go on to become the head of secret police, helping his father carry out the White Terror. For decades before he was said to usher in democracy (an honor he does not deserve), he wrote consistently of his disdain for democratic elections and Taiwanese identity, calling them useless, tools of the "Communist bandits" and others who seek to divide the state. He stated that the opposition should never be allowed to form a political party, and that Taiwan independence activists were "reactionaries" supported by those same "Communist bandits" who "sought to turn small issues into big ones" (you know, such as recognition of the mass murder of their loved ones) with "insidious and vicious scheming". 

His bestie, The Butcher of Kaohsiung, would become the head of the Taiwan Garrison Command among other high-ranking or honorable political placements

These words and actions may not be directly related to 228, but they spring from the uncaring, trigger-happy attitude to Taiwan that both helped cause 228, and became that event's legacy for decades to come. There is no evidence that Chiang Ching-kuo was ever remorseful for what his government had done, or his role in it. That role may be dwarfed by the actions of Chiang Kai-shek or Chen Yi, but he did play a role, and that matters.

Where does that leave us with his grandson, the mayor? 

Well, when you take a man like Chiang Ching-kuo and make him one of the main thrusts of your campaign for political office, you best be willing to acknowledge and atone for his sins, as well. Some still hold residual goodwill towards Chiang Ching-kuo for his infrastructure projects, perceived role in the Taiwan Miracle and the notion that he helped usher in democratization (he did not). Chiang Wan-an very obviously wanted to capitalize on this, to stir nostalgia for the "good old days" in oldsters, at least the ones who never had a family member dragged off and shot.

Otherwise, as a friend put it, Wan-an wants all the advantages of being a Chiang, with none of the downsides. That's not how these things should work. It is ethically wrong to grasp for one while refusing to acknowledge the other. If he wants to connect his political career to his grandfather's legacy, that must include the entirety of said legacy; there's no ethical way to pick and choose.

If Chiang doesn't want to be held accountable for this, he should take his Mass Murder Grandpa's face off all his damn flags. If you want the face of the man to be one of the faces of your campaign, you should indeed "kneel and apologize" for all of the horrible things he did. If that sounds unappealing, well, there's a reason why.

Chiang Wan-an is not only not "clearing authoritarian symbols" as Miao Po-ya demanded and any reasonable person would want. He is quite literally using them to climb the political ladder. That is disgusting and Chiang should be ashamed of himself. Kneel and apologize. 

Until then, others should follow the Taiwan 228 Care Association's example and make him persona non grata at 228 events. I don't care if he's the mayor.

As that's not likely, just imagine there's a sign on his forehead that says "heckle me harder", because that's what Chiang Wan-an deserves.