Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Do 'most' Chinese really favor outright war with Taiwan? (Sort of, but not really.)


Don't ask how Taiwan should cross the red bridge. Ask whether.

Much fuss was made of a recent study in the Journal of Contemporary China assessing public support in China for various means of annexing Taiwan to China.

The authors don't don't use the term 'annexation', but that's what it would be -- not only does no option for peaceful dialogue leading to mutually-agreed unification appear in their so-called "full range" of policy options, but such an option is indeed unlikely to work. There's no plausible scenario in which Taiwan would want unification with China, and the resultant coercion to achieve that goal is, by definition, annexation.

I'm getting ahead of myself, however. I want to talk about the main finding from this article, published in media such as the South China Morning Post. Their headline reads "Just over half of mainland Chinese people back full-scale war to take control of Taiwan, poll finds". 


I can't read the whole SCMP article as I'm not a subscriber and not interested in becoming one, but it leads with the assertion that "55 per cent in favour of “launching a unification war to take back Taiwan entirely”, with a third opposing it and the remainder saying they were unsure."

That sounds scary indeed. What are we to make of it? To be honest, not that much. I obtained a copy of the original publication -- not necessarily easy as I lost my academic access a few years ago -- and read it to see if it really does support the idea that most Chinese are "in favour" of all-out war to take Taiwan.

Well, that is indeed one possible interpretation of the results. However, I think it's a bit exaggerated, if not outright skewed. I don't just mean that the authors come to more moderate conclusions (though they do), but that I genuinely don't think a careful reading of the study supports the idea that so many are "in favour" of war, so much as they believe war to be one acceptable possibility among many. I'm no master of methodology, but I also think the study has some methodological issues and interpretation bias. 

Let's start with the finding heard 'round the China Watcher Circles. It comes from this figure: 

Yes, it's true that 55% of respondents said they supported "full scale war", with 33% opposed. The opposite -- "separation" -- had 22% acceptance, with 71% opposed. 

I am putting "separation" in quotes because it implies a change in the status quo. However, China and Taiwan are already separated under the status quo -- the PRC does not govern Taiwan -- so there would be no act of separating. It's a telling clue that the authors, despite their best intentions, are biased.

In other words, everything but "separation" was acceptable to the majority. This doesn't imply they are "in favour" of full-scale war. It means they find it one of four acceptable policy options presented, with less-aggressive options also on the table. The exact same number of people support the status quo as full-scale war, with likely quite a bit of overlap.

Although it's impossible to say without more data, one might reasonably infer that many such people would prefer not to resort to full-scale war unless other options are exhausted. Or perhaps many don't actually feel strongly about fighting a war for Taiwan, but feel they have to indicate acceptance for any number of reasons. 

It's still worrying, as when those options fail -- which they will -- these respondents say they find full-scale war an acceptable solution.

However, it's not as scary as 55% of Chinese wanting to go straight to war. I don't know if SCMP clarifies this later in the article as I can't read it, but you wouldn't get that impression from the free-to-read blurb.

The authors, to their credit, do point this out. They even mention that only 19 (not 19%, but 19 respondents total) supported full-scale war as the only option. Not 55%. Not even 19%. 19 people. Here, they explain it a little further: 

A closer look at the data suggest that the respondents largely fall into three categories based on their answers. First, 313 respondents (17.1%) are ‘pacifist’, who found either or both of the two non- aggressive options (‘status quo’ and ‘separation’) acceptable while rejecting the other three options. Second, 572 respondents (31.4%) are ‘bellicose’, who found some or all of the aggressive options (‘sanction’, ‘military coercion’, and ‘full-scale war’) acceptable while rejecting the other two options. Finally, the remainder of the respondents are ‘ambivalent’ (939, or 51.5%), as they endorsed both aggressive and non-aggressive options or were unsure on some or all of the policy options. Importantly, this simple partition of the respondents points to an even smaller share of citizens in support of the aggressive policy options. [Emphasis mine]In fact, only 19 out of 1,824 respondents (or about one percent of the sample) rejected all but the most extreme option of armed unification.

Basically, to say more than half of respondents "favor full-scale war" is not quite right. More accurately, about half of all respondents favor some move toward unification, but it need not be war and indeed, might be peaceful. One-third view it as unacceptable, and the same percentage who do find war acceptable also 

The authors removed respondents who found all five options acceptable or unacceptable, for a total of 259 removals: 70 who found all options acceptable, and 189 who found all options unacceptable (I'm very curious about what this latter group tends to think are optimal policy options instead, but doubt I'll ever know). That's more people removed for finding both "separation" and "full-scale war" acceptable than people who favored only full-scale war. I do understand that such a response means they probably didn't take the survey seriously, but that it outweighs the number who only support the most bellicose option is, I believe, telling.

Frankly, this isn't surprising. In fact, given the extremely skewed and brainwash-prone education system in China, I would have thought support for military coercion, if not all-out war, would have been higher and support for Taiwanese independence would have been lower. That about one-third of respondents are fine with Taiwan maintaining its independence is actually more hopeful than I would have predicted! 

The authors point this out, too: that support for full-scale war is not as clear-cut as it may seem, and Chinese leadership should understand this. 1/3 of Chinese accepting Taiwanese independence whereas only half wanting war -- and almost no one wanting war as the only option -- is not the solid wall of public support that the CCP needs to attack Taiwan. I can imagine that quite a few Chinese who find war an "acceptable" last resort would nonetheless be very angry if a war were launched without attempting more "peaceful" means first. 

I also want to point out that the authors did not, in fact, include "all" policy options. Although I don't think unification would come of it -- frankly, none of these options would bring about "peaceful" unification, as Taiwanese simply do not want it, and being sanctioned isn't going to change that -- they fail to include "dialogue", "persuasive incentives" or "supporting preferences for unification among Taiwanese" (that is, helping out the unificationists in the KMT or more radical parties such as the New Party), or any truly peaceful means of pushing their agenda. This really isn't a full slate of policy options! 

They further separate "the status quo" and "separation". I could call this bias, but I'll be generous: perhaps they rightly believe that Chinese view these two concepts differently. Perhaps they view "separation" as China officially giving their blessing for Taiwan's sovereignty, and 'the status quo' as China neither recognizing Taiwan's independence nor doing anything about it. While I don't think there's a big difference -- the status quo is that Taiwan is not governed by the PRC, period -- I can understand that Chinese citizens might. 

The authors are indeed fairly reasonable in their interpretations of the data gathered. I'll quote at length here as this study is not readable to all: 

Conventional wisdom holds that the call for armed unification has been ramping up in mainland China in recent years,60 setting the stage for ‘an all-out war . . . devastating to all’.61 Despite the media hype, there is scant empirical evidence indicating the extent to which the Chinese public would support such a war rather than non-violent means to unification. Understanding mass support for the different policy options Beijing could adopt to ‘resolve the Taiwan Question’ is important because we know this is one issue about which public opinion holds sway over Chinese leaders....

We find that at the aggregate level, only a slim majority of the respondents are explicitly supportive of waging a unification war, which has been the focus of current policy debates and academic research, and a third of them are explicitly opposed to it. These numbers are consistent with a survey conducted on an urban sample in 2019,62 thus bolstering our confidence in the external validity of the findings. This also suggests that public support for armed unification has remained relatively stable, despite the rapid deterioration in Beijing’s relations with both Washington and Taipei....

Our study has important policy implications. Both pundits and policy makers who sound the alarm for an imminent or inevitable war in the Taiwan Strait, one that likely would involve the US and its allies, implicitly assume that Beijing’s hands are tied because most Chinese support ‘wutong’ and the public’s patience is wearing thin. An ambitious paramount Chinese leader who cares about his domestic audience can only make things worse. Our findings suggest that this pessimistic outlook may be based more on myth than on reality.

That said, I am not at all sure that they controlled for "social desirability bias" despite claiming to attempt to control for this (however, at least they mentioned it!) Having respondents analyze each option isn't a bad idea, but avoiding social desirability bias first requires guaranteed anonymity -- something that is impossible online in China and that any thoughtful respondent would realize was not necessarily a given. They might have opted in, but also been thinking (not without reason) that someone, somewhere was monitoring the answers.

Avoiding social desirability bias also requires evaluating questions carefully so as not to induce answers that respondents might think are "acceptable". The authors claim to have done that by avoiding the term "Taiwan independence" (smart), but as above, they did not offer all the possible non-military policy options, instead presenting two non-coercive and three somewhat or very coercive choices. That is, more coercive choices than non-coercive ones. Respondents might therefore feel a nudge that it's "better" to choose some form of coercive method, even if it's just sanctions, rather than none at all. Given the chance to say any or all given option is acceptable, why not also choose the one that the government so plainly wants you to support (war), as you can also choose the one you might think is more reasonable (such as sanctions)?

Regarding that bias, the authors do point out the role of the education system in China. They're clearly aware of the role of oft-repeated propaganda. That said, I'm still not sure they truly understood the impact this might have on the results. When people are fed fairly simple slogans (think "national rejuvenation of the great Chinese nation!" or, in Taiwan years ago, "long live the Three Principles of the People!") they might repeat those slogans in a "normal" and peaceful environment. It's so normalized that there probably isn't much of a second thought -- you repeat the slogan without much thought for the actual policy underpinning it or its details. How many Taiwanese once chanted "long live the Three Principles!" without thinking or caring much about what the Three Principles actually were?

I don't see a way to control for this: as with polls showing most Taiwanese are willing to fight to defend Taiwan, we can only gauge what respondents say they believe about war in the moment, not what they'd think or do under actual wartime circumstances. However, Taiwanese aren't pushed by society, education and the government every day to engage in sloganeering and not think too much: everyone is free to say they'd fight or not. You won't be put on a watchlist. That is to say, it's more difficult if not impossible to truly control for social desirability bias in an authoritarian regime. Offering five different options for analysis is insufficient to counter such inculcation. Why not acknowledge this?

Although I applaud where the authors attempt to either reduce or confront bias regarding outcomes, some parts of the introduction and analysis have me scratching my head. Towards the end they reference "The Taiwan Question" -- a heavily loaded term that has connoted genocide when used to describe other groups such as Jewish people and Armenians -- seemingly without much thought. They treat the 1992 Consensus as a real agreement between the two sides, when it was not a consensus and not even called such until 2000. Taiwan/China history is presented in a way that makes it seem as though Taiwan actually was fully controlled by China before 1895, when it wasn't. It was considered and treated as a colony, and for most of the centuries China "controlled" Taiwan, they only really controlled the western third or so. Total Chinese governance of all of Taiwan didn't last long at all. 

To their credit, they do not use the term "reunify" except in quotes, although they pepper the term "mainland" a little too liberally and do call it "returning" and "national unification", forgetting that, of course, Taiwan is not part of the current PRC "nation" and that Taiwan does not have a mainland. Taiwan "returning" to China is used only in reference to what respondents might believe; nevertheless, it's not in quotes -- it's treated as the appropriate term. While overall the authors do take a moderate tone, little things like this worry me.

They spend a lot of time going over China's position, and the US's as well. Taiwan's position doesn't get much space, however. It's limited to Tsai's "refusal" to accept the "1992 Consensus" (which is not called out as fabricated at any point), and this half a paragraph:

In Taiwan, the Election Study Center of National Chengchi University, which has been tracking the unification versus independence stances of the Taiwanese since 1994, reported the smallest pro- unification margin in 2022. In the same year, as much as 73% of Taiwanese explicitly expressed their willingness to fight should the mainland use force.

Cool, but they don't actually say that unificationism enjoys support that is more or less tied with the margin of error, and they don't mention that most Taiwanese identify as solely Taiwanese, not Chinese at all.

Towards the end, the authors imply (although don't outright say) that unification would be a good thing. They do directly state that Taiwan's annexation would be a "return": 

One contribution of our survey is that we move beyond the focus on armed unification. In doing so, we provide a more nuanced understanding of public preferences for a broad range of peaceful and non-peaceful policy options that Beijing could adopt in achieving unification during Tsai’s second term: military coercion short of full-scale war, economic sanctions, and embracing the status quo and waiting patiently for Taiwan’s return.

Okay, but why would anyone outside China want to "achieve unification"? Yes, the point is to see how Chinese feel about these policies the CCP "could adopt", but something about the tone is off. The authors are careful academics who do not say that the less violent but still coercive options might be good choices for China, but it sure reads as though they assume that putting some short-of-war pressure on Taiwan might not necessarily be a bad thing.  

Even where they don't offer a fully China-centric perspective, their word choices give questionable vibes:

Furthermore, we find all of these policies receive levels of support similar to that for full-scale war. And quite surprisingly, about one fifth of the respondents even find acceptable the unthinkable option of allowing the two sides to go their separate ways, which is tantamount to de facto independence for Taiwan.

What does "de facto" mean here? Taiwan is already de facto independent; that's a present reality. Why treat it as a future outcome? "Go their separate ways"? China and Taiwan are already governed separately! And sure, Taiwanese independence is "unthinkable" to the Chinese government. But why is Taiwan independence unthinkable in any broader sense that justifies its use without quotation marks? It is indeed very thinkable -- I think about it all the time! 

Although the authors do state a Chinese victory would be "pyrrhic", their choices regarding what background to include, as well as their word choice, indicate to me that they view the somewhat-coercive policy options as part of a potentially reasonable, justifiable endgame.  It all sounds very neutral on the surface, but I have to ask whether the language choices reveal a potential bias.

Of course, there is a difference between gauging what respondents think and what is actually true. For example, a discussion of what Chinese responders might think of the KMT and its ability to "facilitate the peaceful resolution of a cross-strait crisis" might differ markedly from what the KMT could actually do: that is to say, not a lot without general public approval. They might win in 2024, but that does not mean they have a mandate from the Taiwanese people to negotiate away Taiwan's sovereignty. They simply do not.

Also consistent with existing survey findings about Chinese public attitudes towards the western world,53 respondents with better knowledge about PLA development are more likely to prefer the more aggressive policy options. And those who believed that a KMT government could better facilitate the peaceful resolution of a cross-strait crisis in the future were more ambivalent, possibly hoping the KMT will win the 2024 election after Tsai’s second term. 

It's telling, however, that they don't differentiate much. They call it a "peaceful resolution of a cross-strait crisis" as though that's what selling Taiwan to China would actually be; they are not clear that this is how Chinese respondents might view the situation. They do not examine the possibility -- dare I say likelihood -- that a KMT win does not mean that Taiwanese are receptive to unification. There is difference to be explored here, and the authors do not explore it. They seem to equate "cross-strait peace" with the pro-China leanings of the KMT, as though the only obvious way to ensure "peace" is to move toward unification. The opposite is true: a decisive move toward unification is just as likely to precipitate war.

All in all, I do believe the researchers had good intentions. They don't seem to be unificationists even though some of the language employed and assumptions made were at times questionable. There was insufficient differentiation between language used to describe general sentiment in China (not "the truth", but Chinese perspectives), and the actual situation between Taiwan and China. 

Some flaws in the study, e.g. the difficulty if not impossibility in guaranteeing confidentiality, without which controlling social desirability bias is impossible, were not discussed from a methodological perspective. 

While the authors were circumspect and careful in their own interpretation of the findings, SCMP's portrayal of them, at least the lede presented in the 'free' nubbin of text, is highly questionable. I may have questions about the study, but the media is the bigger problem here. Can we really say that 55% of Chinese "favor" full-scale war when the exact same percentage can be said to "favor" the status quo?

Although I have some questions about the study itself, the overall findings don't fill me with concern, and they shouldn't worry you all that much, either. 

Although SCMP may not agree, if Liu and Li's research should keep anyone up at night, it's CCP officials who do need solid, large-majority public support for a full-scale war for Taiwan. Without it, everything from protests to difficulty conscripting soldiers who will fight fiercely for Taiwan will be more difficult and internal governance will be far more challenging. Right now, it seems they don't actually have the support they truly need. 

Perhaps they should heed the 55% who find the status quo acceptable, not the 55% who find war acceptable. If they're not the exact same 55%, it's probably pretty close.

And no one at all should heed the South China Morning Post.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

An Ode To Bear Guy

This is Bear Guy's world. We just live in it.

I could write some hard-nosed political post about, oh I don't know, Liz Truss visiting Taiwan or potential vice-presidential candidates or the fact that I unfortunately think Hou You-yih is likely to win in 2024 or...something. But I don't want to. 

Instead, I want to talk about Bear Guy. 

This isn't even the sum total of my Bear Guy pictures. Somewhere I have one of Bear Guy holding a sign supporting Lee Ming-che in English and at least one from a marriage equality rally.

I don't know Bear Guy's identity. I'm even using "guy" in a fairly gender-neutral way: I don't know their gender, either. It might be more than one person -- there's also a tiger-themed Guy with the same type of homemade signs and specific goggles. But truly, I think they are one of the best things about Taiwan. 

For those who don't know, Bear Guy is a Taipei-based person who would show up to a wide array of generally progressive, pan-green protests and rallies in a distinctive yet slightly scruffy full bear costume. The costume didn't seem to indicate any specific political commentary; it wasn't Winnie the Pooh enough to poke fun at Xi Jinping (although other people showing up in Pooh costumes is not unheard of), and it wasn't the right color or style to be a Formosan black bear. 

Even on the hottest days they would wear the full outfit, faux fur and all. I could barely take the heat on the day of the Lee Ming-che protest years ago, or some of the protests in support of Hong Kong; Bear Guy seemed fine. Occasionally someone who appeared to be a friend or associate of Bear Guy would show up in a full Pink Panther costume, but that was not a given. They were also there for labor protests and marriage equality, though I don't think I ever saw them at an election rally. They seemed to stick to concepts, not candidates. Idealism, not political parties.

He's so ubiquitous, though, that I wondered if some fictional version of him would make an appearance in a protest scene in Wave Makers, the Netflix hit drama about Taiwanese political party workers. So far, nothing.


Is Tiger Guy the same person as Bear Guy? I think so -- I've seen the yellow bear head on the tiger outfit before.

However, there's been an unfortunate dearth of Bear Guy in the public eye and in my life these past few years. There are still protests and rallies -- large ones like Pride and the typical Labor Day protests, as well as smaller ones for migrant workers' rights, weed legalization and a variety of other issues. When COVID hit, however, I began avoiding most large public gatherings. Besides, it feels like there just haven't been as many. I left Pride 2022 early as the rain was just too much and most of my friends also wanted to bail (I was also diabetic but didn't know it yet, and more tired than usual). I haven't seen Bear Guy in person or in photos since the back-to-back Black Lives Matter and pro-Hong Kong rallies of 2019. 

Why, exactly, do I hold Bear Guy in such high esteem? What makes them "one of the best things about Taiwan"? 

Well, whomever this person is, they clearly care enough about social issues to not only show up, but prepare and don a whole costume when doing so. They endure what must be a fair amount of discomfort for their own private reasons: perhaps they want to participate but don't want to be identified, and this is a fun way of ensuring their anonymity. Maybe they are indeed making a statement -- that who you are doesn't matter as long as you care enough to be present. Maybe this is just their weird sense of humor. 

But as far as I know, Bear Guy isn't trying to be famous. If they have a social media presence, I'm unaware of it (if you know of an Instagram account I can follow or something, I absolutely will, so let me know). They're just Bear Guy being Bear Guy. I love that, and I love to see how Taiwan so often defies stereotypes of Asian societies being staid, buttoned-down, no fun, with no sense of humor. "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down" and all. There are occasionally echoes of that in Taiwan -- some local bosses can be nightmares and difficult families are a global phenomenon). It's just not like that, or at least not totally: there is space in Taiwanese culture for Bear Guy to do their thing, and it's all good. 


Besides, I understand that there are always eccentric folks showing up to protests around the world. And I can't possibly know what goes on in every other country. But I am unaware of any other civic culture in which public protests play a key role that has one individual who shows up in a funky costume to every single thing, to the point where people like me notice it and start keeping an eye out for them. Perhaps I'm wrong, but to me, the existence of Bear Guy is an "only in Taiwan" thing.

I also love that no one seems bothered about Bear Guy's identity. I, too, have no desire to (quite literally) unmask them. That's great too -- as Brendan once noted, "maybe people are just happy to let Bear Guy be Bear Guy." 

I couldn't agree more. Rock on, Bear Guy, and I hope to see you again soon.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

The Tragedies of the Spotlight

Everybody seems to think that I'm a fan of Uncle Roger (British-Malaysian comedian Nigel Ng). I suppose this is because I live in Asia, I love a good joke and I know how to cook.

Yes, I found his fried rice 'thing' amusing. I was less amused, however, by his deletion of a video collaboration with a Taiwanese Youtuber who had criticized the Chinese government. The Taiwanese Chinese-American Youtuber, Mike Chen, had spoken up about China's treatment of Hong Kongers, the Uyghur genocide and the documented historical fact of Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Ng said about Chen that "I wasn’t aware of his political thoughts and his past incorrect remarks about China." In calling Chen's commentary "incorrect", Ng revealed that he believed -- or at least was willing to publicly say -- that China's denial of genocide in East Turkestan, its oppression of Hong Kong and attempts to erase the Tiananmen massacre from historical memory were all, well, correct.

Edit: Chen's nationality was reported in a few places as being Taiwanese. He was actually born in China and then lived in the US (I wouldn't know; I don't watch his content). Chen is also a member of Falun Gong and has various other views that I personally either don't agree with or find outright abhorrent. However, the stated reason for dropping the video at the time was "incorrect remarks about China", not those other issues. If that was the reason, Ng was still in the wrong. Whatever his other beliefs, Chen's remarks about China were indeed accurate.

It wasn't hard to quit Uncle Roger altogether. Underneath that, however, I couldn't shake the suspicion that this was not Ng's sincere opinion. It sounded too contrived. "Past incorrect remarks" isn't even good scripting; it sounds like something straight from the tweets of some low-level CCP lackey. If I were forced into saying something I didn't believe, I too would make it sound like such a clunky hack job that it'd be clear I thought it was nonsense.

It turns out I was right. 

Just a few days ago, Ng uploaded a promo teaser for one of his shows in which he pokes fun at the CCP, saying "we have to say that now" about calling China a "good country" (after which he smirks) because the government is "listening" on everyone's Huawei phone. He pretends to praise Xi Jinping while tapping the phone in his pocket, jokingly says Taiwan is "not a real country" and then asks the Chinese audience members to write up a report to the CCP calling him a "good comrade".

Of course, Ng was banned from Chinese social media shortly after. He had to know that was going to happen, but did the routine anyway.

All of that was from Ng's own mouth. He made multiple jokes over the span of several minutes; this was no slip. Graphics and commentary added to the promo the sarcasm for anyone who didn't get the joke. Nobody makes several cracks in a row at the expense of the CCP, especially on stage, and then approves a video edited to highlight those jokes for mass distribution, if they sincerely approve of the Chinese government. 

Perhaps Ng feels it's less necessary to bow and scrape to retain Chinese fans now. Perhaps he hasn't been popular enough in the China market to bother faking tankie beliefs.

It's still irksome, though. On his way to the top, this Asian comedian had to step on other Asian people -- Taiwanese people -- and say some pretty awful things that were clearly insincere. I still don't know quite how to support AAPI voices in general when Taiwanese voices are so often left out, betrayed, rebuked,  actively squashed or outright done dirty by other Asians.

Compare Ng's turn to that of another Asian from a markedly different part of the continent: Enes Kanter Freedom -- yes, Freedom is now his legal surname. Unlike Ng, Freedom has been consistently clear on his ideals, both in speaking out against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, calling him a "dictator" and expressing hope that one day, Turkey would be "a democracy" (Turkey has elections, but I agree that it's not quite a democracy). He's also been vocally critical of the Chinese government and President Xi Jinping.

Freedom made international news for wearing sneakers painted by Chinese dissident artist Badiucao supporting both Tibet and Taiwan, as well as speaking up against Nike's alleged use of slave labor in China. Just in the last day or so he met with President of the Legislative Yuan You Si-kun, who is visiting the United States.

Less known is Freedom's admirable stance on the Armenian Genocide, a topic that any regular reader knows is of particular importance to me. I know there are plenty of Turkish people who recognize the truth of this history -- Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak come to mind -- and it's uplifting to see that play out in the public sphere. 

What did all of these ideals get him? Well, he lost his Turkish citizenship and was stateless until eventually gaining American citizenship. He was slapped with extradition orders and threatened with trial in absentia and prison time in Turkey. Erdoğan personally placed a $500,000 bounty on his head, and he was placed on Turkey's most-wanted terrorist list. He was chased out of Indonesia and stranded in Romania when his passport was canceled. He chose not to travel abroad with his team due to credible threats against his life. 

Freedom was eventually dropped from the NBA. His skirmishes with the Turkish government don't seem to have stopped him from playing basketball, but vocally criticizing the Chinese government appears to have done so, at least according to Freedom himself. Representatives deny he was dropped for this reason, but even I can tell that his record as a player looks to have been pretty stellar -- what else could it have been? (Don't worry too much about him though; he's still a multimillionaire).  

In other words, Ng kowtowed with a fake apology and kept his career. Only now does it appear that he can say what he wants. Freedom has been consistent and firm, and lost his. Ng still gets laughs. Freedom gets Twitter trolls, attacks from the left and death threats.

This particular tragedy of the spotlight is pretty straightforward. In order to keep your spotlight, you might have to fake an apology along the way, as Ng did. Only then might you hope to remain relevant enough to say something closer to your true beliefs later on. To be honest, you may first have to lie.

There are other tragedies worth our attention, too. For example, that one can remain a public figure and stand firm in one's criticism on some topics (e.g. Turkish authoritarianism) but not others (Chinese authoritarianism). That organizations like the NBA will support you against one brutal regime, but deny that you were dropped for speaking out against another. 

I don't necessarily think Ng's beliefs are deeply held: he hasn't indicated any kind of lasting commitment to, say, Taiwan or holding the CCP accountable. So, he was able to grit his teeth and lie. What do you do, then, if you are so steadfast in your principles that you simply cannot lie about them, but you're not a basketball phenom like Freedom, who has at least some leverage to speak his truth?

The beauty of people like Freedom and (possibly) Ng is that they reach a broader demographic: Freedom raised awareness among sports fans who have no personal reason to care about these issues. Ng's audience might be a bit more AAPI-dominated, but probably just wants to laugh. We need people like that, because those who make most of their public life about one issue (say, Taiwan advocacy), so rarely get heard outside of the bubble of people who already care about that issue.

Ng found out the hard way that there's a point at which you either kowtow or face irrelevance. Freedom found out that no matter how famous you are, or how good you are at the thing that made you famous, you could still lose quite a lot to the CCP  Cancellation Machine. And we've all learned that being famous means having a platform, but having a platform does not necessarily mean you can engage in honest discourse. It's very difficult to remain relevant and heard at the level of Freedom and Ng if you have sincere beliefs, or really anything worth saying.

The only hope I can offer is this: Freedom still gets interviews; he may be out of the NBA but he hasn't been silenced. Ng seems to have finally broken free from his former insincerity and is willing to make jokes that the CCP doesn't like. But it's still a tragedy that the choice seems to be lose your job, or lie.

Friday, May 19, 2023

Hou You-yih: Just, like, my opinion, man

The KMT: promising a deep bucket of candy they can't deliver since 1945 (or earlier)

I have been so busy lately that keeping up with Taiwanese politics as presidential campaigns kick into gear has been a challenge in itself. Having opinions is tiring; distilling them into coherent points and typing those points out feels insurmountable. It hardly matters: there are so many insights from sharper people than me that you can read, including Donovan Smith, Chieh-ting Yeh and reporting from Nectar Gan, who does the "Taiwan history blurb" better than just about any journalist. If you're still writing "since 1949" in your articles, stop, read Gan's version, and yell at your editor. (Trust me, if they're the "amid rising tensions, China is provoked" type, they deserve it.) 

But I do have opinions, watching the Year in Taiwan Politics unfold as I try to just exist and make all the moving parts of my life cohere into some sort of forward-moving apparatus. Today, I feel like sharing my opinion on the KMT presidential candidate Hou You-yih.

Hou is...interesting. He was chosen by fiat -- for the primary, party chair Eric Chu essentially grabbed the gavel and shouted "Mine! I choose!" But also not: it seems quite clear that Chu doesn't care for Hou personally or politically. I think he'd prefer himself, or some other born-to-be-blue descendant of the China '49ers, certainly not someone who doesn't always toe the party line as envisioned by, say, Ma Ying-jeou. When Chu has all the power, why choose Hou? 

Because, of course, Chu thinks Hou can win. Even when you have all the power, and no matter how deeply embedded your dismissiveness and condescension toward people with ancestral Taiwanese roots, in a democracy you still have to take seriously the person who might be able to win over the public. 

I should be at least mildly relieved: the other big name candidate was Foxconn chair and general asshole-about-town Terry Gou, whose message centers Taiwan's economic development but doesn't even try to hide his slavering desire to sell Taiwan to China for his own "everyone's" profit. Gou tried to position himself as the potential CEO of Taiwan, but all he ever inspired in me was the sort of visceral hatred you have for your worst-ever boss. After all, there are many types of "successful" CEO: the ones who care about both people and business and foster supportive and satisfying work environments, and the ones who focus entirely on money and don't care that their company is a shit place to work.

There's a reason Foxconn has a reputation for a place you park yourself for awhile to make bank, but not a good place to work long-term. Thus, it could be deduced that he might be focused on money, but he wouldn't make Taiwan a better place to live.  For obvious reasons, I absolutely did not want to be any kind of employee in Gou's promised Taiwan, Inc. 

Hou, in comparison, seems like the less-terrifying choice. Apparently, he was once considered a potential DPP recruit. Thus far he's mostly avoided professing the deep-blue pro-China nonsense that disgusts me and turns off most Taiwanese (support for unification with China enjoys no meaningful support, and most Taiwanese don't identify as Chinese). Some of his comments have been pretty sus, though -- for example, that "the Republic of China is a cup, Taiwan is the water", which I won't even dignify with a response. Do enjoy this meme, though:

I could point to other substantive reasons why I don't care for Hou: for example, while I didn't like Mayor Ko, I can't deny that Taipei improved in some measurable ways under his leadership. New Taipei under Hou? Friends who live there complain of sidewalks, where they exist, paved with slippery kitchen tiles, a reduced but still overly-prevalent gang presence and public transit options that have improved but remain frustrating (for example, there are still very few straight-shot transit routes from Luzhou to Taipei; most meander in circles). 

Does it really matter, though? I think we all know that I just don't like the KMT because I think Taiwan is clearly already independent, and the KMT thinks it is some iteration of "China". I am against mass murder; the KMT makes ridiculous excuses for its mass murders in decades past. 

I don't particularly like the DPP's Lai Ching-te, but I simply wouldn't support any candidate the KMT chose, ever. In their current form, any KMT candidate would be too sympathetic to China and not sufficiently willing to defend Taiwan to the last. I'm willing to admit my bias, and I am not even remotely sorry. 

The deepest greens will point to one of Hou's greatest historical mistakes: his involvement in the death of activist, writer and Taiwan independence supporter Nylon Deng. As a police captain, Hou led the raid on Deng's office, which led to Deng's self-immolation. 

Image of Nylon Deng from an exhibit at the Tainan Fine Arts Museum (since ended)

Hou has said he was "just following orders" and it was his duty to uphold "justice", regardless of the "party in charge". He's said he doesn't have any regrets

I don't think Hou should go to jail. I don't think he should be excommunicated from Taiwanese society. I think, given appropriate contrition, forgiveness is possible: after all, Hou did not directly murder Deng. 

However, I do not think a man such as Hou should be the president of Taiwan, now or ever. 

The Nylon Deng Memorial Foundation has pointed out that before his death, Deng said "they can only take my body, they will never take me alive" -- sending a clear message about what would happen in just this circumstance. One might argue that a suicide threat should not prevent the police from "doing their job", but I do believe Hou had the means to understand that message and thus the likely consequences of his actions at the time. When he says the police mission had "also been about saving a life" but was "not successful", the disingenuousness is palpable. He knew that the mission in fact caused a death, and he had the necessary information to predict it would happen.

I do believe, somewhere deep down, Hou You-yih has the ability to understand what it means to be ethical and principled. In 1989, he had knowledge to understand that what he was doing was wrong. On some level, I suspect he surely knew that he was not upholding "justice" and doing it "regardless of party". I can't prove this, but I think Hou knew that the law Deng allegedly broke, which precipitated the mission, was not just. 

Of course, people act in ways they know are wrong and unjust all the time, and justify it to themselves. "Just following orders". "My boss told me to do it." "That's the rule." I'm the sort of person who will walk away from just about anything if I believe it is wrong, whether that's a toxic person harming others, or a workplace whose actions I cannot defend. Certainly I know people who've said they might do something against their principles if it's necessary to keep their job. Okay -- but they're not running for president. 

A worthy leader needs to know and be able to elucidate right from wrong. They need an inner fortitude that carries them through a clear reflection on their past actions, and the ability to admit they acted unjustly. They need to at least acknowledge the existence of the truth, even if their political career forces them to skirt a direct confrontation. 

When they know something is not right, they need to focus on the steps required to improve the situation. Their solutions may not be perfect, but they need to at least be headed down a vaguely correct path. For example, President Tsai has been fairly weak on labor rights, hasn't delivered quite the necessary changes in immigrant rights and is perhaps somewhat weak on energy policy. But she's oriented in more or less the right direction, and that's good enough for me. It has to be.

And when they see something is truly, deeply wrong, they need to own up to that. This may require walking away. The people I want to lead Taiwan would walk away from their cop job because they were fully aware that the actions they were ordered to carry out were a miscarriage of justice. They'd walk away because regardless of the law, it was wrong -- not for partisan reasons, but ethical ones.

Of course, I'm not stupid. I know Hou would never have done the right thing. Most people wouldn't. It doesn't make them wholly irredeemable. But then, most people aren't trying to be president.

The future president of Taiwan needs a certain strength of character which, from his own statements, Hou does not possess. To point to your "orders" or call something "justice" that you know is unjust is to be weak. 

To be asked about it years later and remain unrepentant makes forgiveness impossible. He could have done better. I cannot imagine ever supporting a KMT candidate, but I wouldn't be so deeply averse to him if he could just face the past honestly and clarify that he understands what justice means -- to admit that he now understands that the law was wrong, and he erred in carrying it out.

Right now, it is not at all clear that he indeed does know what justice means, or perhaps he doesn't care. And a leader who doesn't understand or care about justice is exactly the sort of spineless jellyfish leader who would surrender Taiwan to China without a fight because he was ordered to do so by a sufficiently threatening entity. I don't think Hou would abjectly or directly hand Taiwan to China in the way Terry Gou so clearly wants to, or Ma Ying-jeou tried to, up to and including his solo acoustic 2023 China Jackboot Apology Tour (which probably gave the KMT heart palpitations -- they don't like to say the quiet part quite that loud).

Hou isn't Ma or Gou -- but he wouldn't be Taiwan's greatest defender, either. 

I'm not Taiwanese. Nylon Deng's history is not my history -- but not even I can forgive this, simply because I know right from wrong. Hou is weak, and he is wrong. In refusing to reflect honestly on his past actions, he shows a lack of principles, spine and character.

Hou You-yih may not be an entirely terrible person, but he is a weak man with a weak character who is not fit to lead the country. 

Sunday, May 7, 2023

The real-world consequences of US-China "Great Power" thinking

As usual, China-Taiwan commentators not from or based in Taiwan sound like sad old hamburger waiters prattling on about sauces.

It's not often that I write a whole post based on one fantastically stupid tweet, but here we are on this warm Sunday morning. 

Supporters of Taiwan have been more vocal in recent years, pushing back on the trope that conflict "over Taiwan" would fundamentally be a US-China issue, that the entire war scenario would be the outcome of a rivalry between these two nations. 

This is obviously wrong: Taiwan isn't some piece of land being fought over, it's a country full of people who have their own lives, thoughts, beliefs and desires. Those beliefs and desires are central to the issue, not some side discussion.

At its core, this is the China-Taiwan conflict: China insists on annexing Taiwan, but Taiwan will never accept being part of China. China will accept no other resolution. Taiwan will never cede itself, will never choose peaceful unification. They know what life is like under CCP rule; regardless, most Taiwanese don't think of themselves as Chinese, aren't governed by China and don't want to be part of China. There's no alternative, no compromise. How can there be, given the total lack of respect China has for both agreements and democracy? 

This is the heart of it: not the US, not some "Great Game", not a rivalry between two countries or two military buildups. And no, the desire of the Taiwanese people to continue to govern themselves is not some US psyops campaign. It's organic and began in Taiwan.

China wants Taiwan but Taiwan does not want to be part of China.
That's it. Taiwan is right and China is wrong, because all Taiwan wants is to govern itself in peace, whereas China is a brutal dictatorship willing to start a war. China's demands are top-down: they come from the CCP. In Taiwan, the people don't want to be part of China. It's not the same, it's not US-driven, and this matters.

There is one peaceful resolution, then: China must be deterred.

Enter the stupid tweet: 

This is what happens when you do, in fact, lose sight of the fundamentals of this conflict and think of everything in terms of the US, or the US vs. China. That every outcome is a result of something the US or China does, and not the will of Taiwan or simply what happens in wartime.

The basic assumption here is that in the event of China invading Taiwan that someone might actively blow up TSMC, wreaking havoc on global chip supply and multiple technology sectors.

China probably wouldn't do this, as they want that sweet, sweet tech. But the US probably wouldn't either, as TSMC's chips are central to the global economy. I don't think Taiwanese military forces would do this, because the country wants to be able to recover post-war. Besides, it would not be necessary.

TSMC has said rather openly that their own fabs would be "inoperable" if China invaded Taiwan. Here's the full quote

"Nobody can control TSMC by force. If you take a military force or invasion, you will render TSMC factories non-operable.  Because this is a sophisticated manufacturing facility, it depends on the real-time connection with the outside world. With Europe, with Japan, with the US. From materials to chemicals to spare parts to engineering software diagnosis. It's everybody's effort to make this factory operable. So if you take it over by force, it can no longer be operable."

They themselves have also said that chips are not as important as, well, democracy:

"Had there been a war in Taiwan, probably the chip is not the most important thing we should worry about. Because [after this invasion] is the destruction of the world rule-based order, the geopolitical landscape would totally change."

This is not something one side would do intentionally to harm the other, not a strategy US would employ to fight China -- it is simply what would happen if war broke out. It is not related to attacks "on the homeland" or "US bases". 

This has real-world consequences. Once we start talking about TSMC's destruction as though it's something the US would do, people freak out at the "hot war" scenarios of the US, perhaps even call it provocative or unnecessarily aggressive. Support for standing with Taiwan erodes, perhaps this is felt in the electoral realm and we choose governments that will abandon Taiwan to China, all because we think our own involvement would involve "destroying" TSMC, when that was never, and could never be, on the table.

I thought for awhile about whether TSMC would wreck itself in the advent of war. Perhaps, but I don't think so: they wouldn't have to. The operation TSMC runs is so sophisticated, so high-tech, that it would survive neither physical threats -- bombs, fires -- nor a disruption in global supply chain logistics.

Liu says it himself: this isn't a simple factory we're talking about. It's not something anyone could build. If anyone in China had the ability to do what TSMC does, they would already be doing it. That's true for anyone in the world: if they could, they would, and they're not because they can't.

A lot of commentators underestimate or misunderstand the level of sophistication at the design, machine and systems level required to make chips this advanced. They seem to think it's just mechanical arms stamping out chips. That a clean room is just really well-swept. That employees lose days of sleep to handle the tiniest issues because Asians are just extremely hardworking, not because the "tiniest issue" could cost millions of dollars (TSMC managers want a good night's sleep just like everyone else; they're not excited by those 2am calls). 

Thus they don't understand that those machines require constant, careful maintenance, constant supplies of all sorts of weird chemicals and elements not only in the chips themselves but for the etching process. In a war, the gas wouldn't make it to Taiwan, let alone the fabs, and the workers wouldn't either. It would be days, if not hours, before the whole thing went -- for lack of a more accurate term -- tits up. 

Nobody needs to "destroy" or bomb anything. It would just be. It would be an inevitable by-product of war. 

This is what Mark Liu was trying to tell us, and this is what we clearly didn't hear in our haze of "US vs. China, big rivalry, oh no!" 

Mark Liu's words are carefully chosen -- retired founder Morris Chang would not have made him his successor if they weren't -- and there's really no room for discussion on things like "People in Taiwan have earned their democratic system and they want to choose their way of life", that China will "think twice" on the consumer market chip supply disruption they themselves would experience, and an invasion would be "lose-lose-lose".

It matters that this is coming from the head of a company that is neither 'blue' nor 'green'. TSMC stays out of domestic politics in that way, unlike, say, Foxconn's founder Terry Gou. I don't know which way either Morris Chang or Mark Liu lean, and I'm not sure it matters. Both the KMT and DPP have tried to tap Chang for public roles -- or at least it's speculated that they have -- and the company has donated to both parties (as of 2009, they donated somewhat more to the KMT but I don't know what the numbers are now). 

However, it does matter that the consistent message from TSMC is that they want to do business, and war is bad for business (if you're, say, a communist who hates business, fine, but you're probably posting about it on social media using a device that uses a TSMC chip.) 

It also matters that their bottom line on Taiwan differs from Terry "sell it all to China for cash" Gou: Chang has said Taiwan should be a part of the developed world's "friendshoring" -- that is, countries that aren't China -- and Liu is quite clear that Taiwan is Taiwan, and they absolutely do not work with the Chinese military (unlike Foxconn, of which I'm deeply suspicious). This is not a company that will throw its hands up and hand its tech over to China.

If China insists on annexing Taiwan, that means war as is no possibility of Taiwan peacefully accepting subjugation that they do not want. Regardless of US actions, that would render TSMC inoperable. Thus, there is truly only one solution that avoids a global tech sector catastrophe: China must be deterred

Taiwan could get what it wants peacefully, if China could indeed be deterred. All it wants is what it already has: sovereignty from the PRC, self-governance. A continuation, and perhaps a recognition of the facts as they currently sit. 

This is not a warning to the US to "not provoke China", as some have taken it. The problem (for once) is not the US, it's that China wants something it cannot have. It's a warning to China, not from the US but from the biggest player in the Taiwanese private sector, to leave Taiwan alone for their own good as much as anyone else's. 

The US isn't going to destroy TSMC because that would happen anyway, as a result of Chinese actions. We must not base our opinions on how to support Taiwan on fairy tales and fabrications.

China is raising tensions all by itself, threatening war all on its own. It would be doing that without the US around, because the core of the conflict sits in Asia. They're not responding to the US, they're mad that Taiwan isn't interested in being ruled by them, and Taiwan is not wrong to want to remain independent.

This is not a discussion of whether the US should or should not bomb TSMC if China invades, because that's stupid. Don't be stupid. 

If China invades, TSMC won't need to be bombed by anyone, because it won't survive the war. The chairman has said that obliquely. There's no hidden meaning, no chiaroscuro of possible outcomes. If China starts a war, this will happen. If that will impact the global economy -- and it will -- then China must be deterred.