Friday, July 21, 2023

The 1992 Consensus is fake and Terry Gou sucks


Terry Gou, showing his entire ass on the fabricated "1992 Consensus"

It's sort of a "thing" for Taiwanese leaders and presidential hopefuls to publish opinion pieces in major American newspapers. The purpose isn't just to raise international awareness but to make the case to the world, in English, for why they should lead the country or why their vision for Taiwan's future is in the world's best interests. 

I'm not sure many would-be leaders of other countries find it important to do this, but Taiwan is in a unique enough geopolitical position that, right or wrong, Taiwanese leaders feel the need to garner not just local but global support and justify both themselves and -- frankly -- Taiwan's continued existence to the world. 

So far, William Ching-te Lai has had his moment in the Wall Street Journal. WSJ's subscription fees are far too high, but it can be read with a translation here (on Facebook) and a summary on RTI. It's pretty standard, an attempt to project stability and maturity as the DPP seeks to transition from a Tsai administration to one headed by Lai. Stability matters to the party named -- possibly apocryphally -- "troublemakers".  It's not a fair description: like or dislike the DPP, the only thing "troublesome" about them is that they have consistently championed Taiwanese identity and their fundamental perspective on Taiwan now mirrors the majority consensus. Basically, okay, cool. But not that interesting. 

As far as I know the KMT's Hou and TPP's Ko have not published anything similar -- I've been busy and in poor health recently, so if I've missed something let me know -- but Foxconn chairman, Guy Who Wants To Be President and all-around massive asshole Terry Gou has, in the Washington Post. Again, you can read a summary on RTI, including a response by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

It's exactly what you'd expect: we need the One China framework as a means to push forward talks with China, accepting the 1992 Consensus as a standing and valid framework, and pursuing peace by negotiating directly with China. He insists this is how Taiwan can preserve all it holds dear and China need not be an enemy -- forgetting of course that China has made it clear that their only goal is to annex Taiwan, there are no "talks" or bargains that will change this goal, and that we already know what happens when China promises to respect local governance...thanks to watching the tragedy of Hong Kong.

Overall, I have little to say about this that Michael Turton hasn't already said on Twitter. Turton points out that Gou's policy position was the standard between 2008 and 2016, under Ma Ying-jeou. You know, the least popular elected president in Taiwan's admittedly short democratic history. That policy not only failed -- China did not back off its ultimate subjugationist goal, the economy did not improve, and "talks" led basically to trussing up Taiwan to prepare it for annexation -- but it wasn't popular, either. 

In fact, to me that's one of the key points: Gou tries to make "abandoning" the "One China framework" the actions of an errant DPP, a political ploy. He completely fails to register that Taiwan does not pursue talks under a "One China" framework because the people of Taiwan do not want it. The vast majority do not want to be part of China. Most consider the status quo to be sufficient qualification to consider Taiwan independent. A large majority do not identify as Chinese at all, and those that identify as both almost always prioritize Taiwanese identity. Almost no one identifies as solely Chinese, and almost no one wants to move toward unification. 

This isn't the dastardly DPP's doing. It's the general consensus of the Taiwanese electorate. 

I recommend reading the whole thread, but here's my favorite bit: 

Indeed, history has no such examples of states successfully surviving by allowing themselves to be swallowed by an expansionist neighbor. 

There's another thing worth talking about though. It's referenced often but, to my mind, not broken down enough. Gou leans strongly on the 1992 Consensus, supposedly an agreement reached between representatives from Taiwan and China that both sides agreed that there was indeed "one China", and provided a basis, apparently perpetually, for cross-strait interaction.

So let's talk about the 1992 Consensus, or more accurately, why the 1992 Consensus is a fabrication. It's utter horseshit. Made-up. Not real. Fairy dust. A joke. Bupkis. 

Gou's article unwittingly acknowledges this: 

The current Democratic Progressive Party leadership has only made the situation more tense. Under the so-called 1992 Consensus, Taiwan and China agreed to accept the framework of “one China” — although the parties have differing interpretations of that term — and held discussions that over the years resulted in a number of productive agreements. 

If the two sides cannot agree on what the term "one China" means, then they fundamentally did not agree to accept the same framework. They can't even agree on what the framework is. So, that's not a consensus!

If you can't agree on the meaning of a term that defines your framework, then saying "we agree to the framework" is meaningless, both functionally and semantically. For there to be a consensus on "one China" of any sort, the two sides would have needed to agree on what "one China" means. They didn't. So, no consensus:

According to the piece from the former deputy chair of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) and deputy chair of the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF), they “reached a consensus with respect to the content of the agreement, but the Mainland insisted on putting the ‘one China’ principle in the preface of the agreement, but Taiwan strongly opposed this provision.”

“The agreement” referred to above is a 1991 negotiation on document authentication and registered mail between the two countries, basic communications. But the PRC insisted that even something so trivial and basic include the PRC’s “one China” definition. The KMT side rejected that.

Kao’s discussion observes that at the November 1992 meeting in Hong Kong both sides made five proposals but each rejected the other’s ideas. The KMT side followed up with three more proposals, but those too fell on deaf ears. The PRC delegation returned to the PRC.

“Therefore,” says Kao, “no consensus was reached during the 1992 talks as the negotiations broke down.”

China has not even said that they agree that there are, or can be, "differing interpretations" of the term "one China"! For the two sides to say that they agreed in 1992 that there was such a thing as "one China" but the details of what that is need to be worked out, well, that would be some kind of agreement, though not a full consensus. But they didn't even do that -- you can't say "the two sides disagree on the interpretation but there is a consensus" when the two sides don't even agree that it is possible to disagree on interpretation!

Even the Mainland Affairs Council recognizes that China has never agreed with either the KMT's interpretation or even the possibility that such an interpretation could exist:

The MAC indicated that, during the formal meeting between the leaders of the two sides on November 7, President Ma directly told the Mainland leader that the consensus reached by the two sides in November 1992 was that "the two sides of the Taiwan Strait insist on 'one China,' but differ as to what that means, and each side could express its interpretation verbally." This position accords with the ROC Constitution. President Ma has been consistent in his stance on the "1992 Consensus of one China, with respective interpretations." The core of this position is to highlight the ROC's sovereignty and Taiwan's dignity. The Mainland should seriously and pragmatically face up to this. [Emphasis mine.]

If China "should...face up to" what the 1992 Consensus means, then it has not actually accepted the KMT's definition of what the consensus even is. If you can't agree on the content of a consensus, it is not a consensus.

All this assumes that the agreement took place at all. Meetings were indeed held in 1992. But it's telling that there is no documentation from that time saying there was indeed a consensus reached, or what it was. The term itself did not entire the lexicon until 2000, when it was fabricated by the KMT operative to, in his words, "decrease tensions" (more likely it was fabricated to try and hurt the DPP's election prospects). 

Lee Teng-hui was president in 1992 when this "consensus" supposedly took place. What did he say about the guy who made up the term?

Su made the remarks yesterday in response to Lee who, during a Taiwan Solidarity Union seminar on Monday, said that the so-called "1992 consensus" was a fiction.

"Little monkey boy's trying to make up history," Lee said of Su, daring him to respond on the matter.

I know the KMT stopped respecting Lee Teng-hui a long time ago, but "we don't like that that guy turned out to be pro-Taiwan" isn't good enough reason to discount his view on the matter. Lee was indeed the unelected president when these meetings happened in 1992 (direct presidential elections began in 1996). He surely would have known of any true "consensus" arising in 1992. 

This is, of course, why nothing I've found written about Taiwanese history or democratization between 1992 and 2000 mentions the supposedly "historic" consensus. Odd, if said consensus actually happened, and was as important as the KMT and Gou insist it is.

He directly said it did not, and called the guy who made up the term a "little monkey boy"! 

The final reason why the 1992 Consensus is a fiction isn't so much that it never existed (though it never did), but that even if it did, it was an agreement reached not between Taiwan and China, representing the will of their respective populations. It was a meeting between the KMT and CCP -- political parties in power, but not elected. If we're being generous and saying it was two governments, not two parties, that met in 1992, it still doesn't matter.

China has remained a dictatorship but Taiwan, notably, has not. Agreements reached by the KMT dictatorship before democratization cannot and should not be forced on Taiwanese in perpetuity, in a democratic system where they have the right to reject the work of past dictators. The people of Taiwan never agreed to this "one China" framework. They were never given a say. Now, they have a say in their own government, so it's wrong to insist that all of the One China nonsense set in motion by the KMT must be forever binding. 

Why should it be? I can't think of a single good reason. If the people of Taiwan don't want it, then that should be that. I think after the disaster of Ma's administration and the success of Tsai's, and the fact that polls consistently show low support for pro-China rhetoric, shows that the electorate does not want "one China" anything. 

If they did, then that might be different. But they don't, and probably won't -- ever again, if they ever did. This isn't "because of the DPP'" or something the DPP brainwashed people into thinking: changing perspectives on sovereignty and identity have famously not followed electoral trends. If anything, the trends have brought the DPP to power, not the other way around.

That, again, assumes there actually was a consensus, leading to a framework. To repeat, there wasn't.  The only thing we can say with certainty is that representatives of the KMT and CCP dictatorships held meetings in 1992 -- not even the outcome of those meetings is clear. 

So if it's such garbage, why is Gou spewing it in the Washington Post? This is clearly not for Taiwanese, who mostly think the 1992 Consensus is not a real thing (because it isn't), or they believe it's real because they have to in order to keep their faith in the KMT. I kind of understand this: if your family gave up their life in China to flee to Taiwan with the Nationalists, it must be difficult or impossible to admit that they based their entire lives in Taiwan on a lie about the horror that the KMT really were. 

Taiwanese also know that no, "Beijing, Washington and Taipei" do not "share responsibility" for current tensions. They're not Washington Post readers predisposed to believing that the US is terrible so China must be alright, and Taiwan sure sounds troublesome. They're caught in this conflict, and they know exactly who is to blame: Beijing, and Beijing alone. They know who the provocateur is: Beijing, and Beijing alone. Not Taipei for simply wanting to govern itself in peace, and not Washington for thinking, finally, after all these years, Taiwanese have this right.

Gou is saying this for low-context or low-information readers, who might not care who becomes president of Taiwan, but might be persuaded that there's popular support for a "one China framework" in Taiwan (there isn't), and that this Terry Gou fellow therefore talks sense, unlike those DPP troublemakers. He's banking on the average American reader's lack of context to peddle some 1992 Consensus street drugs: after all, if you're a low-context reader talking to other low-context readers at a dinner party or happy hour, you sure sound smart if you know what the "1992 Consensus" even is! You probably didn't even think about whether Taiwanese wanted this or why the chairman of Foxconn is saying it in the Washington Post to get your attention at all. 

In doing so, he wants to show the KMT leadership that he can command US attention, because this man still wants to be president, even though he'd be terrible at it (his own workers hate him; do you really want to be a citizen under his leadership?)  The KMT still peddles 1992 Consensus snake oil, so this must sound like music to them as their own candidate falters in the polls and doesn't seem to be trying to win the election at all. If not to replace Hou outright, Gou at least wants a VP nod, or some other candy. 

WaPo probably should have fact-checked this better, but frankly, they were never going to. If someone like Gou sends them an opinion piece, they'll publish it because it seems like just "opinion", and he's prominent enough. Even if they tried, there isn't enough clear information on the 1992 Consensus out there: I could see a low-context fact checker deciding it might be a real thing, and letting it stand. 

So it's our job as informed readers to sniff out horseshit when we see it. And what Gou is trying to sell you is absolutely that. 

Thursday, July 20, 2023

What Asian Americans think of their ancestral homelands, other Asian countries, and the US

Bit of a ponderous title, I know, but I'm writing this quickly. Lots of cool data just dropped from Pew on how Asian Americans feel about their homeland, other countries in Asia, and the US. 

You can read all of the data here, including some interesting parts on whether Asian Americans would move (or move back) to their homelands -- most wouldn't -- what immigrants vs. those born in the US think, and who different groups think will be the leading economic power in the coming decade (most still posit that it will be the US, China is a distant second.)

I want to focus on the things I find interesting. Pew, of course, won't speculate on reasons for the data unless they're direct responses from those surveyed. I, however, can do what I like! Just be aware that this is my opinion, and I'm just as capable of being wrong as any other person.

Some of the data is unsurprising: just about every group views their ancestral homeland more favorably than any other group. Taiwanese, South Koreans and Japanese view their own homeland more favorably than anywhere else listed, but that's not necessarily true for every group, with (for instance) Chinese Americans viewing the US, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan more favorably than China. This doesn't shock me: I could imagine viewing democratic nations with advanced economies favorably if you or your ancestors came from China -- famously unevenly developed, and certainly not free and democratic. 

Taiwanese have very highly favorable ratings of Taiwan, which is fantastic to see. There's a narrative about that Taiwanese are running away from the "ghost island" because life is getting harder for the middle class, real estate prices are skyrocketing, wages stagnating, and career opportunities curtailed. Perhaps -- Taiwan is hardly perfect -- but that's not reflected in how Taiwanese Americans feel about Taiwan. 

There is data on how Chinese Americans view China and Taiwan broken down by whether they're immigrants or US-born, but not Taiwanese Americans. That data is interesting, and I'll show it here, but not really what I want to focus on. 

Also unsurprising is the overall negative view of China, even among Chinese Americans. No other group shows this. Even Vietnam, the Philippines and India are favorably looked upon by those with that ancestry....but not China! China is not only widely disliked by Chinese Americans, but Asian Americans in general. 

It's also interesting to me that Chinese Americans view Taiwan more favorably than China (62% vs 41%). With all the influence operations coming out of China, backed by massive amounts of money and government support, it must be a blow to the CCP that Chinese Americans still don't like China very much, and in fact Taiwan -- which isn't even trying to court them! -- ranks higher than their own ancestral homeland. 

What's more, despite the CCP's attempt to portray the US as well as Asian democracies, especially those with advanced economies, as cesspools of crime, divisiveness and misery, Chinese Americans not only view them more favorably than China, but also think the US will continue to be the leading economic power in the next decade. Although Chinese Americans rank China's potential to be the world's top economy higher than any other group, it's still not a great result for China. 

Again, The Media has already created my reaction for me.

While Chinese Americans view China more favorably than any other group does, it's still just 41%. That's quite a bit lower than their favorability towards those aforementioned democracies with advanced economies. 

All I can say about this has already been expressed in song. (I prefer the cover, even though I've heard Radiohead hates it). 

In addition, as my glee is unbridled, please enjoy this gif of China disseminating non-stop hate at the US, Japan and Taiwan and then getting their comeuppance:

Also unsurprising is how unfavorably Taiwanese Americans view China: although other groups' favorability toward China is quite low, Taiwanese Americans really round out the pessimism at 2%. 

Gee, I wonder why. 

South Koreans being the only group to view Japan unfavorably was predictable. I'm more interested in how Japanese and Taiwanese view each others' countries. Again unsurprisingly despite the history of Japanese colonialism in Taiwan, Japanese and Taiwanese show an affinity for each other. 

Taiwanese rate Japan better than the US, and comparably with Taiwan. After the US and Japan, Japanese view Taiwan most favorably. Living in Taiwan this doesn't really shock me: Taiwanese generally seem to be very into Japan, much more so than Korea despite modern South Korean soft power. I do still hear Taiwanese in Taiwan say they like the refinement of Japanese culture and the cleanliness of Japan, but find Koreans "arrogant" or "hot-tempered". I don't particularly agree with that -- in general I enjoy visiting South Korea -- I'm just reporting what locals have said to me. It's not surprising that it would spill out into an immigrant population. 

Basically, Taiwanese like K-pop, Korean dramas and Korean fashion. But as a country to visit, they overwhelmingly seem to prefer Japan. I have been told outright that this is a cultural affinity thing (plus, in general, kanji is readable to Taiwanese whereas Korean is not.)

There's a popular deep blue-red (KMT/Chinese) narrative that Taiwanese love Japan because of some sort of colonized mindset. You know, the dog trained by its master loves its master or something. This also pops up in far left Taiwanese discourse, though perhaps not as much. I don't think it's true: ask just about any Taiwanese if they think Japanese colonialism was a good thing, and they'll say no -- colonization is never "good". But, a lot of Japanese culture seeped into Taiwan in those 50 years, and I can understand a certain perspective that Japanese colonialism, while not "good", was better than the Qing colonialism that came before, and the KMT colonizers that came after. 

Yes, the Qing and the Nationalists were/are both colonizing entities on Taiwan. That they came from China and most Taiwanese can trace some or all of their ancestry to China does not matter (and when the Qing arrived, most Taiwanese actually could not say their ancestors were Chinese. Qing settler colonialism changed that). Their mentality was -- and in the case of the KMT, is -- that of the colonizer, and they treated Taiwan like a colony. Some deep blues still do. 

Here's something I wonder about: of the three "favorable" Asian countries -- Japan, South Korea and Taiwan -- views of Taiwan are the least favorable, though still clearly over 50%. I would have expected more dislike for Japan overall given their history of colonialism across Asia, but it doesn't play out here. China, the contemporary aggressor, gets a lot more hate (ha ha!) than the historical Japanese empire. South Korea makes sense as they've become a soft power powerhouse. 

That could be the same of Japan -- it's easy to forget the atrocities of the Japanese empire when there's a new villain in town, and when post-war Japan has been a major exporter of soft power. 

This might also have something to do with Chinese influence operations spewing disinformation about Taiwan that other Asian Americans are picking up on, but given their overall negative view of China, I'm not sure I can support that notion. However, it might play a role, given that positive views of China go up as educational attainment goes down: 

Asian Americans with higher levels of educational attainment often feel more positively about the places they were asked about than those with lower levels of formal schooling:

When it comes to views of India, 42% of those with a postgraduate degree have favorable views of the country, compared with 35% of those with a bachelor’s degree and 27% of those with less formal schooling.

The pattern is reversed, though, when it comes to China. Asian Americans with lower levels of education tend to feel more positively about China than those with more education. [Emphasis mine]. For example, 17% of those with at least a bachelor’s degree have positive views of China, compared with 23% of those who did not complete college.

For India, I can see this. To many, it may look like just a "poor country" (again, not a reflection of my opinion, just a common one I've heard). Get a bit more educated about the world and you'll see that it does have a real, if flawed, democracy and a pretty vibrant progressive/left movement. And it's simplistic to call it "poor". Like China, it's complicated.

Honestly, having lived in both countries, I enjoyed India far more, and happily return every few years for a visit. There's a vibrancy to India that China lacks. If I never go to China again, I'll be fine with it. 

There is a persistent narrative that Taiwan is less successful than the other Asian Tigers and not quite as nice as Japan. This could have something to do with it -- it doesn't look as shiny as South Korea or Japan for sure (Japan was not an "Asian Tiger" but, given similar levels of development, I'm counting them here). 

I don't agree with this: Taiwan has better universal health insurance, solid purchasing power and better wealth equality. Although other countries do outstrip Taiwan in some indicators, all that really tells me given the wealth equality gaps in those countries is that the rich have more, and can do more. I still think there's an argument to be made that despite its faults and imperfections, Taiwan might just be the most successful of the advanced Asian democracies where it really matters. 

I don't have much else to say, and I know this is an abrupt conclusion, but I suggest you go read all the data for yourself. It's pretty interesting! 


Wednesday, July 19, 2023

The thought-terminating cliche of "Have you been?"


A random picture from my travels because yes, I probably have "been" -- but how much does that really matter?

It feels like the ultimate conversation ender, and I'll admit I've used it myself. When debating (well, Internet Shouting) with someone about, say, the brutality of the Chinese Communist Party or the status of Taiwan or just about geopolitical issue, it's both easy and satisfying to shoot back at a hostile interlocutor: "have you even been to China?"

Or India, or Venezuela, or Turkey, or whatever country's particular situation is being discussed. 

I'm certainly guilty of this, because, when it comes to the sorts of Geopolitical Internet Shouting Matches I tend to get into, I actually have been to just about any country I might get into a "discussion" about (again these aren't really discussions, at least, they're not carried out by people who are actually listening to each other). Yes, I've been known to relish the moment when Shouty Guy asks it of me. 

Have you ever been to Taiwan? Yes, for the past 17 years, and I'm here right now. 

All you Westerners living in Taiwan don't even know what China is like! Perhaps, but I used to live there and have returned more recently than you'd think for someone with my political views. 

You don't know the real China! It's not just Shanghai and Beijing! Okay, but I lived in Guizhou, so of course I'm aware of this; my experience outside the major cities is why my opinion of the Chinese government is so grim in the first place.

You act like you know what's going on in Xinjiang, but have you ever even been there? Yes. Admittedly it was awhile ago, but I did once travel overland between Urumqi, Kashgar, Karakul Lake and Hotan. I have probably spent more time and covered more ground in Xinjiang than just about anyone asking this. From the way Uyghur people felt about the government foisted upon them even back then, I absolutely believe they're being subjected to a cultural genocide now. 

On the other hand, anyone I'd ask the same question to has almost certainly not had such on-the-ground experience. It's not that people who've spent time in a place will automatically have more thoughtful or nuanced views -- I've met some real dunderheads who've spent decades in Taiwan and yet have gotten the whole country astonishingly wrong -- but one can usually tell from the actual language used. If it reads like they got their opinion from either United Front talking points or major international media, tempered not at all by personal experience, then you're usually talking to someone whose opinion is formed more by what they want that country to represent vis-a-vis their own worldview than anything else. You know, that China is great because they are claim to be socialist or communist, and just look at their high-speed rail network! It must be a paradise that validates everything I want to be true about how the USA is terrible and therefore China must be great! That sort of thing. 

There's a problem with the "have you been?" narrative, though. It's not that real-world personal experience doesn't matter -- it does. But it's also the worst kind of thought-terminating cliche. If you can throw down on who's spent more time somewhere, and that person "wins", then it's not really an argument at all, let alone a discussion. It's the geopolitical equivalent of "climate change isn't real because we had a really cold winter here last year" or "vaccines are dangerous because I know a kid who got a vaccine and then was diagnosed with autism!" It's anecdotal, empty-headed shouting.

I don't want to "win" an argument about the CCP because I've been to China and the other guy hasn't. I want to win it because I'm right! (If I am indeed right, which of course I think I usually am -- we all do. Human nature.) I don't want to win an argument about Taiwan because I've lived in Taiwan for 17 years. I want to win it because my observations about Taiwan are more accurate than the other guy's.

It's not that my experience in these countries doesn't matter, it's that it's not the only thing that matters, and perhaps not even the most important thing.

Because it's a thought-terminating cliche, it circumvents the much thornier issue of who is actually right, or at least closer to being right. I know more than one foreigner in Taiwan (hell, more than one Taiwanese person in Taiwan) who has beliefs about Taiwan that I find to be utterly asinine. For instance, I do know people here who believe that Taiwan's only path forward is through some kind of "One China" framework. That person might have spent years or even their entire life in Taiwan, and yet they'd be wrong compared to, say, someone who's never been here but believes (rightly) that Taiwan has the right to determine its own future and poll results consistently show that most Taiwanese do not consider themselves Chinese.

Let's take one of my favorite stupid Twitter arguments as an example. Some dipshit venture capitalist who's been in China for maybe a year posted about how great China was, citing driverless vehicles and some super-smart kid he met. He insisted the genocide in East Turkestan (Xinjiang) was highly questionable because it wouldn't be practical or good for the economy to erase Uyghur culture or disappear Uyghur people. Drew Pavlou -- a divisive activist who gets a lot of attention -- challenged this guy (to be clear, so did I). 

He shoots back at Pavlou some variation on "have you been to China?" 

Because, of course, Chad Brosephson McVenture-Capital was there at that moment (posting on Twitter through an illegal VPN without seeming to realize it was illegal, to boot), and Pavlou's never been to China. He couldn't go even if he wanted to, because he's gotten the Chinese government's attention. 

Here's the thing, though. Like him or not, Pavlou was right and the venture capitalist douchebro was wrong. It really didn't matter who'd spent time in China and who hadn't. We have sufficient documentation of the CCP's various and horrifying brutalities to know he's right, and the douchebro had...a few months of Rich Person Life in China, and an anecdote about a smart kid. 

As usual, I had a bit of a trump card on this guy, because he might've spent time in China but I've spent more, and probably seen a greater swath of the country. I absolutely speak better Mandarin and have most likely read more history. 

But again, I don't want to "win" because I speak better Mandarin than That Guy, either. I want to win because his anecdotes aren't helpful and his opinions ridiculous, based on exactly zero documented evidence.

I have seen that tactic play out -- oh so you've been to [Country] but do you speak the language? -- and I find it similarly unhelpful. Of course it helps to have communicative competence in the language of a country one is discussing. Certainly it can promote deeper understanding, and I respect it. But it's possible to be fluent in Mandarin yet wrong about China. It's not enough. I know people who speak terrible Mandarin or none at all who, nevertheless, have a more accurate view of the Taiwan-China situation than foreigners I know who speak beautifully and are married into local families, but have swallowed the TVBS deep-blue pill because it's what their in-laws watch.

"Have you been?" does help to root out the drive-by opinionators, the people who only care (or claim to care) about issues like Taiwan's sovereignty because it validates some other belief they have about the world: usually that the US, or capitalism, or the military industrial complex are good or evil or what-have-you. They've not only never been to Taiwan, never met a Taiwanese person and certainly don't speak Mandarin, but whether or not they actually care about Taiwan is debatable, if not outright doubtful. 

I'll never say that personal experience is useless, or that we shouldn't even consider whether someone has been to a place or speaks the language when evaluating whether or not their opinion has merit or deserves attention. As such, I'll probably never purge "have you been?" from my own lexicon. 

Certainly, because I've built a life and made a material commitment to Taiwan, I'm not terribly interested in the opinions of people in the US who think someone like me should have this or that perspective. If they want to move here, maybe I'll care (though honestly, I probably wouldn't), but if they want to preach from Washington DC or wherever about Taiwan, what it needs and what challenges it faces, well -- so what?

But I am going to challenge myself to use it less, and focus on the actual merits of someone's argument more. At the same time, I'll keep a closer eye on whether what I'm trying to say makes sense, or whether I'm leaning too hard on "well I've been to East Turkestan/China/ Taiwan/India/Armenia/Turkey/wherever, and you haven't! And if you have, I've spent more time than you, or have better language skills than you!"

Only by looking at the actual merits of an argument can we see that someone like -- say -- Drew Pavlou is actually correct about China, and Tyler McTechbro is wrong even though he's been.

It's not that actually having been to a place doesn't matter, but it's too simplistic, and we can do better.

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

The online teaching cloister

I moved to Taipei to enjoy the city, not to be stuck in my apartment all day

A few weeks ago, I began my first face-to-face foundational TESOL training course since COVID hit Taiwan. We'd gone online at some point and were struggling to resume in-person learning. 

It had truly been so long that in the fog of the late pandemic I no longer remember when it happened, only that trying to teach that course online presented a host of problems. I couldn't really demonstrate various in-person interaction patterns, for instance. Nor could we discuss classroom management components such as boardwork and layout in an impactful way. A practicum (demo) is a vital component of this course, but it's harder for inexperienced teachers to lead interactive demos online. Everything takes longer online, too, and it was a challenge to cover the course requirements. 

When we finally opened a face-to-face course, on day three someone tested positive for COVID. Within a week, about half the class was infected, and I was teaching face-to-face with four students and a computer running an online meeting with the other three. I then tested positive, and it was back online for all of us.

My heart sank when I realized how it would go: back to my home office, back behind a screen. Yes, it's an incredible privilege to have a spare room for a home office at all, but it is draining to be stuck in there for days on end, without many chances to go out while Brendan left everyday for in-person work.

Gently put, it's a cloister. More critically, it's a prison.

While I've transitioned back somewhat to in-person teaching and teacher training, enough of it remains online that my latest stint at home prompted me to reflect anew on teaching and teacher training as a profession now that someone like me is just as likely to be working at a screen as in a room with their students or trainees.

To be blunt, I don't like teaching or teacher training online. At all. I've become accustomed to it, and of course I can do it. And yet, while some say online teaching brings people together -- it's possible to take classes you never dreamed possible if teachers and students can meet remotely -- I feel as though the screen divides me from the learners. It causes a rupture, a block. 

Everything takes longer, everything requires more planning. It's more difficult to develop rapport, especially when I have to put my foot down about cameras being left on if at all possible. Some never do, and there are situations where I can't (or shouldn't) force the issue. Imagine having students whose faces you've never seen, whom you'd never recognize on the street. I didn't become a teacher to interact with black squares all day, and I find it very hard to develop rapport this way.

Even with cameras on, I find it difficult to build the same connections with learners and trainees. To "make eye contact" I have to look at the camera, not the face on the screen. It's the same for the learner. I can toggle between these and create a simulacrum of actual, in-person, we-see-each-other eye contact, but it's not actually the same. The effect is ineffable, but definitely there, and entirely negative. 

One-on-one classes aren't so bad, as you only have to do this back-and-forth with one face. The effect is deeply felt in groups, however, especially if one of us is presenting.

I had an office job in the US all those years ago; lots of screen time, very little face-to-face contact. I hated it, and became a teacher because this is exactly what I don't want. It's kind of like attending meetings all day (something which can be tiring if you're working remotely), and you are the coordinator and host of every single meeting. I'm good at this in person. Online? Honestly, not so much -- because I don't want to be at a computer, period.

Pre-pandemic, my various jobs required me to jet all over Taipei and beyond for work. I explored parts of the city I'd rarely or never set foot in otherwise. 

Again, I realize this is a privilege. I understand that most people take the same route to the same office every day if they’re not working remotely, so “going in” isn’t particularly desirable. I get bored easily with routine, which is why I chose a career path through which I’d frequently find myself in different places. It got me out of the house, and I was able to see different parts of the city. My schedule changed often enough that there was always something at least a little new in this; it never got monotonous and I didn’t resent the extra time it took. I like to be on the move. 

You know what I don’t like? Being stuck at home most of the day, unable to leave my neighborhood or even my apartment, sometimes for entire days. If I have a training course in the morning, then an afternoon and evening class, the furthest I’m likely to go that day is the nearby 7-11. If I’m really lucky I might get to go to the ‘everything store’ down the street! 

I hate this. Plenty of people like working from home as it frees them from tiring commutes and allows them to be comfortable in their work setup. That’s great for them. It’s not for me. Mental health walks are uninspiring; I’m not good at walking with no destination. I’ve found myself making up reasons to go outside, which usually involve coffee or shopping, but they rarely take me anywhere new. No new cafes, little local restaurants or novel bus routes. No “hey there’s an Indian restaurant near Sanmin Road!” 

There is nothing worse for an extrovert than being at home all day, usually alone as Brendan still teaches face-to-face, and not feeling the rapport bump from work, either.

I have had more in-person opportunities recently, having started a new part-time gig that I'm enjoying quite a bit and pays very well. It's partly face-to-face, and that helps -- but they also underscore that being mostly online is a problem.

In fact, let's talk a bit about boredom and big career questions.

It’s easy to say I’m transitioning from teaching to more teacher training because it pays much better (to be clear, it does), but I’m also motivated by the level of challenge. It seems as though it should be easy to coast at the sort of work I’ve been doing forever, but I tend to get distracted and stuck if I do the same thing for too long. I know stagnation affects my performance, so it’s time to reach. This means more work overall, but that's the fundamental truth of what it means to seek challenge.

If all of this sounds vague, it’s because I don’t want to give too many specifics about work for all the obvious reasons. Besides, I genuinely like the people I work with. Most of them run their businesses well, or at least well enough that I don’t walk. I don’t want to hop on my blog to gossip about good people. 

Yet internally, I’ve been fighting…something. Distractedness? Demotivation? The delicate balance of work with my sub-optimal health? It could be any or all of these, and 

one of the leading causes is the pivot to online teaching.

Of course it's not the only reason. Working in Taiwan can be tough in certain ways: raises are rare, there’s no such thing as a paid holiday, it’s a battle just to get employers to do basic things like contribute to labor insurance and pension. In general I do not feel that teaching in Taiwan pays enough at the higher levels of ability and experience; I stay in Taiwan because I love Taiwan, but the honest truth is I could make more money in just about any other Asian country. 

Teacher training is a lot fairer in terms of compensation, and I won't lie: that's another reason why I gravitate towards it.

Every day I fight the notion that I’m good at my job simply because I’m a white native speaker. I think I am indeed good at my job, but that’s not the reason! 

None of those are the core of it, though. I’m used to the lack of benefits, and beyond wanting to be comfortable I’m not particularly motivated by money. (I'm only somewhat money-driven.) I didn't start to feel this distractedness until work mostly went online. Period, end of story, that's it: everything else is manageable but remote teaching is not what I want, and never will be. 

What's worse, because I don't actually want to be teaching online, I'm not as good at it. I'm less careful; teacher talking time shoots up; interactions don't vary as much as would be optimal; I'm less innovative. I'm less motivated online, full stop.

Online teacher training is even harder to pull off, but at least the level of challenge keeps it interesting.

Just to clarify, I’ve been forthright about this at work. Nobody reading this who knows me in real life would be surprised to hear it. It doesn’t really change the current situation, though — how could it? 

There are benefits to being online, however, that almost negate this (almost). Collaborative documents, chat boxes, interactive whiteboards: all things made possible by an online interface. It would be harder to schedule my own Taiwanese lessons if we met face-to-face, and I will probably start Armenian lessons online in the near future -- something that would have been impossible not that long ago. Trainees who can't attend my sessions in person are able to log in for the online ones; they get a benefit they wouldn't have been able to access in the Before Times.

That said, all this new technology never runs quite as smoothly as it should to be considered a true advantage. There’s always that one learner who can’t figure out how to access the materials on Google Docs (or can’t access it at all if they’re in China or have some sort of work-related block to that function). Zoom’s interactive whiteboard is clumsy and annoying. My noise-canceling computer is fantastic when my cleaner is vacuuming, but not great when we need to use audio recordings, as they don’t tend to play clearly. Getting everyone to mute themselves to listen on their own takes — you guessed it! — more time

Teaching online doesn’t even come with the only real benefit of remote work, which is freedom to travel and do your work elsewhere for awhile. I can’t go to a cafe — it’s a class! I suppose I could head south or east, but I can’t, say, fly to Europe or the US and work from there unless I want to keep some very weird hours. I’ve tried (ask me about 6am classes at my sister's old apartment in Hoboken someday) and it never really works out. 

It's caused me to ask some Big Career Questions. I love teacher training and don't want to give that up, but if I took on less teaching work and picked up, say, an editing or materials development job, at least I could go to a cafe for a change of scenery instead of spending the entire day in my little office cloister. I won't turn down online teacher training because I enjoy it too much, but I have considered refusing online language teaching to do this. I haven't pulled the plug on that yet, but we'll see. 

There’s no clear solution here; this is just my life now. If I had a different sort of job where I was desperate to escape the fluorescent horror and greige cubicle walls of an office, I’d probably welcome remote work. I became a teacher in part to avoid that! One of the reasons I’ve sought out more work is for those face-to-face hours; it will make the online portions of my job more bearable. At least I’ll have more chances to go somewhere! 

Thursday, July 6, 2023

Anatomy of a fake news story: United Daily News and "zero dollar shopping"

Looks scary but ultimately it's just two guys in a lion costume

"My daughter was going to go to the US, but her flight was canceled due to the Canada fires. And also she thinks it's dangerous because of the 'zero dollar shopping' in the news," a friend said recently. 

"What on earth is 'zero dollar shopping'?" I asked.

"You haven't heard of it? It's a big problem in California," she said. "It's in the news!" 

She cited United Daily News (聯合報), a Taiwanese newspaper that's staunchly pan-blue but generally seen as reputable. There is indeed such an article, starting with discussion of 'zero dollar shopping' (零元購) and then launching into several subsections criticizing various, mostly liberal, policy initiatives in California, blaming them for what they imply is the disastrous situation of the state. 

Let's take a look at what "zero dollar shopping" is, dive a bit into the UDN article, and then widen our scope to figure out where UDN got the idea that this is a crisis gripping California and the US as a whole.

"Zero dollar shopping" is essentially organized pickpocketing, looting or theft. I couldn't find a single thing using that term in US media, but that seems be a translation issue: 零元購 or "zero dollar shopping" is a Mandarin slang term in China -- I'm less sure about Taiwan -- for what is essentially organized theft. The closest English translation I could find was "flash robs": there are several references to these at the bottom of the Wikipedia entry for this term, and many of them seem to be from reputable news sources. 

The UDN article reads as serious policy analysis, though it takes the tone of an editorial. It primarily blames California's Proposition 47 for the uptick in "zero dollar shopping". Proposition 47 passed in 2014 and reduces certain non-violent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors in an attempt to reduce prison overcrowding. UDN dismisses it as an obviously ridiculous policy choice (again with no input from experts) and calls Black Lives Matter "radical". It calls this and other mostly-liberal policies 'crude' or 'shortcuts' without any sort of input from experts. It's presented as news but is quite literally just, like, their opinion, man.

There was no citation or reference whatsoever in the first part of the article about "zero dollar shopping", though plenty of links were offered to the Wikipedia sites of the various stores mentioned.  The best reference UDN offers is a screen grab of an American TV news report from NewsNation's Morning in America. I watch a lot of infotainment "morning shows" in the US because I spend a lot of my time there severely jetlagged and awake at weirdly early hours. I've never heard of Morning in America, but NewsNation claims to be centrist despite concerns that it actually leans to the right.

Links in later sections of the article include citing a rabidly anti-union website -- not exactly a great source of real news -- and exactly one link that's worth reading: The Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law and Policy. They use this link to claim the media has viciously criticized Proposition 47, but the article itself makes the strong case that this criticism is misguided

Despite the public narrative that Prop. 47 is increasing crime rates, the evidence indicates that this is false. California’s statewide violent and property crime rates are lower now than they were in 2010, even before Plata. While there has been an increase in rates of certain crimes such as aggravated assault, robbery, and auto theft, Prop. 47 did not reclassify or attempt to influence any of these crimes. Furthermore, crime rates in other cities including San Jose, Oakland, Richmond, and Fairfield have decreased or remained stable. These contradictory outcomes suggest that Prop. 47 is not the cause of Los Angeles’ uptick in aggravated assault, robbery, and auto theft.

It also cites The Washington Post as criticizing Proposition 47. This is a real article from 2015, but it's not linked. It cites an increase in various nonviolent crimes in California, but admits that the link to Prop 47 is unknown and unclear (the Georgetown article above points out that crime rates in California are actually lower than in 2010, which both the writer and UDN would have realized if they'd actually read the article they linked). 

That's all fairly typical in Taiwanese media -- after all, a free press is a precondition for quality journalism, but doesn't guarantee it -- but it gets slightly weirder. 

My friend also said she saw a blurb from UDN discussing "zero dollar shopping" that cited The Washington Post. It's not hard to find this -- here's a screenshot: 

I clicked on that link, and it took me to an entirely unrelated article on US arms sales to Taiwan! Maybe that's just something weird with the algorithm or results, as the headline matches the article it leads to, but language in the blurb comes from the first article linked above. I just thought it was odd. 

The Washington Post story and most of the "organized theft" articles from the "flash rob" Wikipedia page are from the 2010s; only one is from 2022. It points out that crime is actually on the downswing if you go back just a few years: 

Robberies in 2021 are up 3.2% in Los Angeles compared with 2020, but are 14.1% lower than in 2019. In and around Union Square in San Francisco, robberies fell nearly 5% from 2020 to 2021, while burglaries fell 2.3%.


It's not rare for conservative media in the US -- which to me is most media -- to confuse correlation with causation and fearmonger incessantly about even the most benign attempts at compassionate systemic reform. This is swirled around by tabloid rags like the New York Post, which more recently brought up Prop 47 in relation to a story about a San Francisco Target "locking down" its merchandise

Other recent coverage is more along the lines of the Georgetown journal piece and the LA Times article. Even CNN doesn't buy that "flash robs" are a serious issue because, again, the data simply don't support it.

If the US media is at best divided on the issue -- and in more recent years, inclined to think it's a non-issue -- where did UDN contributor Liao Chi-hung (廖啟宏) get the idea that it's somehow a serious issue crippling California and the US as a whole? From his professional background, I'd think Liao should know better.

It concerns me, because Liao's piece reads like expert analysis, when it's mostly garbage that either lacks meaningful citation, or deliberately misrepresents the content of its references. Yet it was enough to convince my friend and her daughter that there was indeed a massive "organized theft" based crime wave ripping across the US, endangering passerby, and that this was also reported as fact in the US media. I doubt she actually checked the links in the article, and I don't blame her; if I were a non-native speaker I probably wouldn't, either.

There may not be much meaningful support for Liao's position in reputable media, but there's plenty in the disreputable bowels of the Internet! 

At least one of these articles predates UDN's platforming of Liao's absolutely ridiculous opinion, and there are lots of Tiktoks under the hashtag #零元購, and a few Youtube videos. Here's one example, and here's an eye-rolling propaganda piece by some random foreigner in English, put out by CTI (中天). A Yahoo! news article cites the LA Times (which, again, has pointed out that robberies are falling in the long term, not rising). Of course I was mostly going to bring up posts by the Mandarin-speaking online world, as I couldn't find much that was useful searching for "zero dollar shopping" in English. 

This shouldn't have been enough to get Dr. Liao's knickers in a twist about a California legal policy that has no proven connection to crime rates which are, from a longer-term perspective, going down. Maybe he's just a credible guy with a preposterous set of opinions. It happens (see: Chen Weiss, Jessica)

About ten days after that, give or take, veteran reporter Fan Chi-fei (范琪婓) put out a Youtube video treating the idea of "zero dollar shopping" like a fact of life in the US. The video blurb alone makes the country seem like a lawless scene of hell and disorder. The US isn't great, but it's not quite that. Fan had previously worked for both deep blue TVBS and blue-red CTI (中天), which notably got caught in enough lies that their TV license was revoked (the ruling has since been overturned). However, she's also worked for pan-green Sanli 三立. Fan doesn't seem like a typical unificationist or anti-US mouthpiece, so I doubt she intentionally spread what is, at its core, a bogus story.

Then, in the past few days, frightfully dodgy websites full of extremely dodgy English have been pissing out laughably dodgy content, so that a search for "zero dollar shopping" in English produces plenty of hits. Any native speaker or mastery-level speaker of English as a second language would immediately see these for what they are: an array of utter trash. 

Again, however, this was enough to convince a highly intelligent person and proficient English speaker that the US was a dangerous place due to this "zero dollar shopping". It looks like a joke to me, but it wouldn't necessarily to someone else. 

It's obvious why US conservatives would push this false narrative: attack a blue state, especially one that's seen as an attractive place to live for many. Make Democrats and their liberal policies look bad. Drum up the base. Get people scared and angry about the Other, in this case the fear of violent criminals and by extension, the poor. Tale as old as time. 

Why would Chinese-language media do this, though? Perhaps their crappy websites and baseless Tiktoks are meant to cause not just other Chinese people, but Taiwanese as well, to feel that the US is a terrifying, lawless society. Who would want a poorly-governed superpower as a friend and ally? In fact, who would want to visit it? The US touts itself as a freedom-loving democracy -- is this what happens when you are "too democratic"? Perhaps we should aim to be a little less "free", a little more like, oh, say, safe and happy China?

(I don't actually think the US is "too democratic"; if anything it's not democratic enough. But I hope some of you remember this oft-repeated line in Taiwanese media during the Ma Ying-jeou years. "Democracy is good but Taiwan is too democratic!" Barf.) 

This is indeed what I think is happening, as the English on these websites isn't good enough to convince anyone except middling-proficiency users, and perhaps not even then. Therefore, the show is probably not for us. Added together, they sure look like a preponderance of news in English, though! 

Besides, I've noticed some of these "zero dollar shopping" links are said to be videos from other democratic countries like Korea and Japan (here's one tweet by a pro-China account with a not-insignificant number of followers, but there are a handful of others if you look). It's almost as if they're trying to make every democratic nation that Taiwan has friendly relations with look like a lawless hellhole, when they're not.

I can't prove they're taking Liao and Fan's silly idea that organized theft is causing the destabilization of American society and targeting it at Taiwanese, or Chinese, or others around the world. Besides, it's hard to even prove that these dodgy sites are deliberately engaging in fake news, buttressed by credible professionals. After all, the best fake news has a kernel of truth to it. A handful of US opinionators. A few true-ish statistics. A New York Post article. The fact that a small number of "flash robs" have, indeed, occurred. 

But it sure looks like it's deliberately fake, there are Taiwanese people who believe it, and people like Liao Chi-hung, Fan Chi-fei and UDN should know better.