Showing posts with label economics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label economics. Show all posts

Monday, September 28, 2020

The CCP is a black hole that makes me question my own values

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This is a piece of street art I found - the artist is Mr. Ogay


Last week, I began a blog post about Chinese apps WeChat and TikTok being banned from purchase in app stores in the US, but never finished it. Partly I just couldn’t maintain a focus as it’s not clearly related enough to Taiwan, my core writing topic, and partly I felt like everything I had to say on the issue tapped into a deeper question:

In so many areas where China is concerned, I find myself going against my political instincts and nature to support certain actions and policies that, generally speaking, I would otherwise oppose. Why is that? 


For example, I am generally against banning apps or access to communication platforms. However, in the case of WeChat and TikTok, I’m ambivalent, with a slight lean toward supporting the ban (despite despising Donald Trump’s administration with not just my bones, but my guts, skin, blood and waste matter). 


I’m not moved by arguments that it denies ‘freedom of speech’ to some communities; freedom of speech is not available on WeChat or even TikTok thanks to Chinese censorship. The only difference is that in the US you may become a person of interest with your post deleted. In China, your post being deleted is the best possible outcome; you could have your account suspended or be shoved in a truck and carted off to a gulag. I’m slightly moved by the argument that it cuts off people in China from loved ones abroad, but ultimately that’s China’s problem: they’re the ones that made it impossible to use just about any other platform (that they don’t control). So why are people mad at the US, not China, for a situation China created? It makes about as much sense as admonishing Taiwan for “provoking China” or “raising tensions” when China is the one creating the tensions and choosing to react with anger. 


I’m especially not moved by the argument that corporate surveillance of our data in other countries is just as bad as CCP surveillance on WeChat. Sure, it sucks, but it’s not equivalent. FaceCreamCo may be harvesting my data trying to sell me face cream, and I hate that, but FaceCreamCo isn’t going to cart me off to a literal gulag if I speak out against this. Even politically, whatever the US government may be doing with our data, we are able to write about that, debate it, disagree with it, insult our leaders — and generally speaking, we can expect that we won’t be threatened and we certainly won’t end up in a re-education camp or be dragged out to a field and shot. (There is a social media moderation problem which censors women and people of color but not white men, however.)


That alone shows you the two issues are simply not the same and should not be compared this way. The reason is simple: what else is the US supposed to do? Allow apps that are basically thinly-disguised hostile government surveillance and malware to operate within their borders, potentially harming people in their country, including their citizens? What’s the better option here?


Anyway, this isn’t the first time I’ve gone against the logical conclusions of my own values where China is concerned. For instance, I’m also generally anti-war and anti-military. On principle, for instance, I oppose the US maintaining the largest military force in the world, by several orders of magnitude, and spending so much on it as American citizens suffer due to insufficient social and community services, crumbling or insufficient public infrastructure and an utter joke of a social safety net, despite rather high taxes (I’m fine with higher taxes, but I want the money to be spent thoughtfully and effectively). 


In theory, I’m against the US getting over-involved in just about any conflict abroad, as we always seem to make such a mess of it while proclaiming that we’re promoting American “values” or “exceptionalism” or whatever the term du jour is, despite the fact that the values in question are universal (human rights, including the right to self-determination) and the US is not exceptional in any good way. 


And yet, I am in favor of US military assistance to Taiwan. I know that my own values as well as the brutal history of US involvement in foreign conflicts, plus the sheer horror of our bloated military, should cause me to oppose it, but I don’t. Taiwan needs friends, and can’t exactly choose its backup. If that means hoping a military industrial complex that horrifies me in every other way will have Taiwan’s back in case it needs to fight the PLA...then that’s what it means. 


In general, I’m also anti-violence. I prefer peaceful resolutions, having grown up watching revolution over bloody revolution fail to deliver a better life for the people of any given place. At the same time, I’ve watched countries that have slowly progressed and improved despite having to make some tough compromises that affect the lives of real people make real progress — Taiwan among them. 


However, I’ve come to realize that fists don’t stop tanks, period. We can talk all we want about how Taiwan should be anti-war but still resist China. But that’s not going to work if China is hell-bent on a war. Refusing US assistance is akin to telling China that this is a fight they can win, and it’s foolish to think they won’t try. They won’t particularly care that such moves would create a state of prolonged internal conflict that would make Syria blush — this is a government that is quite comfortable with literal genocide. 


Then there are the economic issues. I’m no communist, and am barely socialist. That is to say, I’m anti-corporate and anti-crony capitalist, and have never been happy working for any sort of large multinational entity, and I support strong social programs and careful regulations as companies can basically never be trusted, but I’m not anti-free market. 


So when the whole US pork controversy hit Taiwan (again, sigh), my instinct was to think “you all are saying this will be good for the Taiwanese economy, but pork prices are already low, good products are available, and it will certainly hurt Taiwanese farmers”. 


But, in a bigger picture sense, I have to admit that what Tsai is doing probably is best for Taiwan. Taiwan Report summarized the issue well: meat imports are not the only thing potentially on the table. (If that’s all it was, I would probably oppose it). It’s that Tsai has it quite right that Taiwan is too economically dependent on China, and a big reason for that is the lack of trade agreements with other countries, a situation that is mostly the fault of CCP bullying on an international scale. Say yes to pork, and that could open the door to more important agreements. Free trade isn’t always good for all involved, but in this particular case it actually is, for Taiwan: it’s an opportunity to bolster economic ties with the US and, through that, signal to other countries that working with Taiwan may be possible even in the face of Chinese fury. 


Taiwan independence advocates (so, almost everybody who cares about Taiwan, and certainly everybody worth listening to) and anti-KMTers have been saying for years that getting too close to China is bad for Taiwan, directly opposing the KMT line that the only way forward is for China and Taiwan to deepen ties. The KMT is wrong, but those who oppose them also tend to oppose every other workable option that would keep Taiwan’s economy robust because they sound scary and not protectionist enough. How do you find alternatives to economic ties with China, if you’re not willing to seriously discuss economic ties with anyone else, in any ways that matter?


I actually do believe in protecting local industry, generally — if that can be shown to be the better path in that particular instance. I don’t want Taiwan to be a hub for major international conglomerates as I’ve seen that create sickening inequality almost everywhere it’s happened, from New York to Silicon Valley to Singapore to Hong Kong. 


And I do think the US starting out with agricultural products (which is bound to create opposition in Taiwan where so much of the history — even recently — is tied to the land) rather than just offering to open up more general trade talks is kind of a dick move. And yet, when it’s all stacked on the scales, I find myself supporting any move that helps wriggle Taiwan out of Chinese co-dependency and towards other international ties. 


These are just three examples: banning apps, military assistance from horrible people, and economic issues. I could add a fourth — opposing talking to right-wing figures in the West even if they support Taiwan —  but I’ve spilled so many words examining that particular issue that I don’t particularly wish to revisit it. Generally speaking, I’ve come over to the side of supporting bipartisan endeavors, not because I think people like Ted Cruz are acceptable (they are not; I’d spit on Cruz if I came face-to-face with him) but because I’ve realized that it’s better if support for Taiwan transcended electoral politics. That goes both ways: hoping the left and center will come around, but also not tying all Western support for Taiwan to their successful elections. 


So, the final question is why. Are my principles just not strong enough? Do I claim to have certain values and then abandon them the second they become inconvenient? Or are my beliefs more tied to ends than means — means matter to an extent, but are some compromises not acceptable if the outcome is preferable? I can’t rule out the former, it would be self-serving to say it shouldn’t be a concern. But overall, hopefully the latter holds more sway: just as a person who believes in peace won’t necessarily say it’s wrong to punch a Nazi, maneuvering Taiwan into a better international position may require me to accept a few choices that I otherwise would not support. 


Anyone who says, for instance, that they support peaceful protest but won’t abandon a cause just because a protest for it grew violent should understand this. I won’t abandon paths that I think are in Taiwan’s best interest just because the means don’t always fall within my most rigid principles, because the key principle I hold dear is that Taiwan deserves recognition and de jure sovereignty. Period. 


And, to bring this all back to China, the enemy also matters (and make no mistake, the CCP is an enemy). When an enemy can be negotiated with, one should negotiate. When non-violence is possible, it should be pursued. We should stand by local business and not be taken in by big money when that can be done without remaining economically tethered to an active, vicious enemy. 

Another way to put this is fundamental values vs. beliefs. I believe in peace, diplomacy, finding solutions, civil disobedience while avoiding violence. Self-determination and human rights as universal (not just Western) concepts, however, are core values. It's best for the means to align with my beliefs (diplomacy, non-violence), but at the end of the day, when a choice must be made, I'll stick with my core values. Taiwan won't get to choose if China starts a war, and if it does, it's more important to me to defend sovereignty and human rights in Taiwan than to refuse to fight because war is bad. Forming opinions about CCP hasn't corrupted that process, it's clarified it. 


But the CCP is so truly awful, so unacceptable, so threatening and so utterly disgusting that the full horror of their actions, from the missiles pointed at Taipei to the cultural and literal genocides in Tibet and Xinjiang, creates a black hole of evil that warps everything around it. It can’t be negotiated with, it does not respect non-violence, and it absolutely will try to use economic blackmail to force Taiwan’s hand. It will exploit party politics and foreign culture wars for its own benefit. That is the stuff the CCP is made of. There is no good in it. 


Even today, your average peace-loving or anti-war person will admit that it was necessary to, say, fight the Nazis. That appeasement was wrong and brought us nothing good. This is how I feel about China. And that’s what the CCP are — Nazis. You can’t negotiate with Nazis, you can only fight them. Frankly, you might not get a choice. 

Appeasement didn’t work then, it won’t work now, and that means that I have to adjust the principles I hold when it comes to everything else, because to Taiwan, it’s a threat unlike anything else. 

Monday, June 15, 2020

Foreign residents in Taiwan should get stimulus vouchers, too (and the government is specifically seeking to exclude blue collar foreign workers)

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I don't have a related picture so please enjoy this old gate

(Update) Thanks to a friend's helpful link, I'm able to include video evidence that not only do the stimulus vouchers not cover foreigners who aren't married to locals, but they specifically aimed to exclude foreign blue-collar workers (that is, the majority of the foreign community from Southeast Asia). It's in Mandarin, but watch at around the 1:04:25 mark, and you'll see that the reason given for not allowing all foreign taxpayers to get the vouchers is "因為我們有很多移工" - the rough but I think accurate translation being "because we have lots of migrant workers".

That's disgusting, and the government should honestly be ashamed. 


(Original post)

A few weeks ago, the government unveiled a plan to provide stimulus vouchers to jumpstart the economy as Taiwan copes (spectacularly well) with the CCP Virus. People with low incomes will be able to receive the vouchers free of charge, and wealthier citizens could pay NT$1000 for NT$3000 worth of vouchers. I'm not clear on the details, but there are also apparently specific voucher plans in the works for things like cultural activities, as well.

Here's the thing, as with the Ma-era stimulus plan in which citizens and those married to citizens received NT$3600 to bolster the economy, foreign residents with no local spouse are not eligible for any of these programs, either.

If you're wondering whether anyone's asked the government why they craft policies like this, the answer is yes. The response will sadden but not surprise you. From the link above:



When asked the reason for this policy, she [Su Wen-ling 蘇文玲 of the Ministry of Economic Affairs] said that the vouchers are "only meant for Taiwanese citizens," with the hope that they will spend more money on the economy.

This quite literally amounts to:

Q: "Why are foreign residents, who pay taxes just like Taiwanese citizens, not eligible for all of the benefits of those taxes?"

A: "Because they're not."



It was not only a bad answer, it was a non-answer, and Ms. Su should feel bad for giving it. She may as well have stuck out her tongue and blown a raspberry with lots of extra spit for emphasis.


The whole attitude is frankly ridiculous, for two reasons. I'll give you the less important one first: we pay taxes. It's also our tax money being spent on measures to improve the economy, and our money spent in Taiwan is just as good as the money spent by citizens.

If the purpose of this program is to help the economy, then more money being spent by more people is a good thing. You get less, uh, stimulation if you give out fewer vouchers, so why isn't every taxpayer eligible?

There's simply no reason to exclude us. Including all foreign residents (so that means not just the middle-class people like me, but also the far more sizable Southeast Asian workforce) wouldn't even amount to that much money when compared to the cost of the entire program. And, as any savvy business knows, giving out coupons entices most people to spend even more than they would have without the coupon. 


It's just bad policy, crafted for no reason, and "defended" with a joke of a non-answer.

That said, it's not like I need the stimulus money. I don't, and you probably don't either (though I suppose we could all benefit from it.) It's not really about the money - it's about being treated like a normal taxpayer, and about making better economic policy. Nobody's looking for a charity handout.

However, there's a more important reason why foreigners should be included.

Let me tell you about my community. We have a lot of elderly residents, which means there are a lot of care workers in the area, most of whom are from Indonesia and the Philippines. This means that my community has a higher-than-average concentration of shops that cater specifically to this community, at least by Taipei standards. here are three Indonesian markets within a 2-minute walk of my apartment.

They sell goods and provide shipping services that other foreign residents from Southeast Asia purchase and use (I also shop at these stores, both for ingredients and prepared food, which is generally excellent). I have never seen a Taiwanese person shopping in any of them - if any do, it's not common. 


What I'm trying to say is this: they are threads woven inextricably into the community life and economy of my neighborhood. They have value - providing needed goods, services and employment - and deserve the benefits of economic stimulus plans just as much as any other businesses frequented by Taiwanese.

But because the people who shop there won't get vouchers, and the people who get vouchers don't shop there, this entire sector of the economy will almost certainly see no benefit whatsoever. They bring so much value to this country, are owned by taxpayers and employ people who pay taxes, selling goods to people who pay taxes, but won't get the benefit of those taxes when the government feels the economy is lagging.

My neighborhood may be a little unique for Taipei, but the rest of Taiwan surely has areas where businesses such as these are a notable feature of the economy and streetscape.

I have to wonder, what other sectors of the economy that the folks at the Ministry of Economic Affairs have clearly not considered are going to be overlooked by this stimulus program?


I'm sorry, but that's not right, and someone really ought to tell Ms. Su and her colleagues, and demand a real answer. 

Sunday, November 10, 2019

China will never 'win over' Taiwan: an anatomical discussion of dopey ledes

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Another day, another opinion piece about whether the Chinese government's reaction to the Hong Kong protests will hurt their image in Taiwan, and therefore their chances of convincing Taiwanese that closer ties or even eventual unification. This one comes from Bloomberg, a perpetual font of bad writing about Taiwan. It's become so commonplace, though - the well-founded criticism of China, backed up with some nonsense about how the Chinese government could alienate Taiwan and sour any hopes that Taiwan might willingly "return to the fold" - itself an inaccurate description of the situation.

Or, as Richard McGregor puts it in Bloomberg: 



Without a change in its approach, the Communist Party risks making the already difficult task of winning over the self-governing island next to impossible without force.... 
Amid the Hong Kong protests, the last thing the Communist Party should want is a rebuff from voters in Taiwan. Yet Beijing has shown little interest in modifying its stance. The inevitable result is that Taiwan has become even more alienated from China.... 
A decisive victory for Tsai in January’s election might chasten Beijing and cause it to return to a more consensual strategy. But the example of Hong Kong doesn’t so far give much hope that Xi will change course. If China continues to double down, the eventual denouement for Taiwan may be far more dangerous. 

What these sorts of articles universally overlook (or intentionally ignore) is that the CCP's stance and behavior only play a small-to-moderate role in Taiwan's desire for independence and lack of enthusiasm for unification. In fact, it wouldn't matter much if the CCP adopted a more conciliatory stance on Taiwan: there is no "consensual" strategy available to China because it's quite clear that Taiwan wants independence regardless.

That's not just my opinion - it's reflected in the data as well.

Poll after poll shows that deepening Taiwanese identity, which tends to go hand-in-hand with belief that Taiwan simply is independent and should remain that way. Most strikingly, these beliefs have not only blossomed since democratization in 1996, but only grew during the Ma Ying-jeou era, when the CCP was at its most conciliatory.

According to data published here, in 2008 (when China-friendly Ma took office) 64% of poll respondents said that Taiwan, even as the 'Republic of China', was an independent country, though only 22% of people thought China would use economic tools to force political concessions. According to this more detailed account, the number of people who identified as solely Taiwanese and those who identified as both Taiwanese and Chinese were both in the mid 40% range, with solely "Chinese" identification being quite low, at 3% - about the same percentage as non-respondents. This source says the same thing.

Then what happened? It was an era that some people still label as having "warming" or "closer" relations between Taiwan and China. You'd think that it would result in Taiwanese feeling closer to China as well, right?

Wrong.

Look at that data again. Taiwanese identity only increased from 2008 to 2016 - especially after the 2014 Sunflower Movement. The sense that Taiwan/the ROC was independent increased as well. Fear of China's 'conciliatory' economic gestures being guises for political force spiked, because...duh, they were.

It didn't matter how friendly China was to Taiwan. It didn't matter that Chairman Xi and President Ma got cozy in Singapore. Taiwan wasn't having it. If anything, CCP efforts to be 'nice' only exposed the truth: that none of it was sincere, and none of it came for free. All of it created greater economic dependency that would make eventual extrication under 'colder' ties more difficult, and it didn't even benefit Taiwan that much. Economic growth under Ma was not more impressive - and in some ways it was less so - than during other less 'China-friendly' administrations.

Taiwanese identity blossomed not just in response to this realization about China, but also as a part of a natural upward trajectory. That makes sense. Before democratization, it was difficult to freely form, let alone express, a true sense of identity in Taiwan. Taiwanese history was taught as a part of Chinese history in schools and you could face repercussions for expressing a different view. It's only reasonable that once those restrictions were lifted, Taiwanese people would look back at their own history - which was by and large not as a part of China, even if their ancestors came from there - and form a stronger sense of identity, which would increase over time.

It doesn't make sense that a friendlier stance from China would stem this tide, and indeed it did not.

While some of these 'Taiwan identity' numbers dropped again after Tsai assumed office in 2016, note that none of them dropped very much and all of them are on the rise again. Dipping from around 65% in 2016 back to the mid-50th percentile, and "Taiwanese and Chinese" identity experienced a slight bump from about 32% to about 38%. At the time, people worried that the Sunflower effect might be ephemeral and numbers might dip even further, but that didn't happen. Instead, sometime around 2018-2019 numbers began to rise again. The gap between "Chinese and Taiwanese" and "Taiwanese only" identity that began in 2008 - again, during China's "friendly" years! - only widened over the next eight years never came close to closing.

The reason for the change probably has something to do with Hong Kong and China's response - it would be silly to say it's not a factor. But if these poll results were released in the summer of 2019, the actual poll was probably conducted a fair bit earlier, that is, before the protests really got underway, if not entirely so. That was also around the time that Han Kuo-yu started to gain popularity among some segments of the population, and strongly turned off others - reminding them, perhaps, that games with China cannot be won and are best not played at all.

Considering this, I'd put that 2016-2018 blip down to Taiwan's natural tendency to grow critical of its leaders. Tsai was elected, the Sunflower high wore off, and now that "our person" was in office, and it was time to start nitpicking on her inevitable flaws.

It's also worth noting that during this time, "Chinese only" identity - the one most closely tied to openness to unification - did not experience a bump. In addition, if you read that Washington Post article again, you'll see that Taiwanese youth have a huge role to play. The current generation of young adults overwhelmingly considers itself Taiwanese, and those numbers don't seem to have budged much at all. Anecdotally speaking (because I have no data!), that generation was also the most strongly critical of President Tsai during the labor law and marriage equality wars. But it was also quicker to re-embrace her when the terrifying spectre of President Han began to loom, Hong Kong started getting dicey, and marriage equality finally passed.

And if you grow up simply thinking you are Taiwanese and your country is Taiwan, and there's no reason to question that because why would there be?, the chances that China could ever "win you over" are remote indeed.

So why do people still think China has a chance?

Because they're looking at only recent data, not going back to the 1990s, or even 2008. They've also been convinced by an international media that posits every issue facing Taiwan as being related to China in some way because China gets more clicks (even when they clearly not), when in many cases the reasons behind why Taiwan feels the way it does are mostly, if not entirely, domestic.

When you look at it that way and ignore the history of Taiwanese identity, things like this sound more plausible:

Over the past year, Beijing has single-handedly revived the electoral prospects of its political adversary, incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party. At the turn of the year, Tsai’s approval rating was a miserable 24%. Now polls show her with more than 53% support versus about 31% for Han, whose Kuomintang is the natural ally of Beijing. That Nationalist party retains deep ties to the mainland as the former government of China until it lost a civil war to the Communists and fled to Taiwan in 1949.

When, in fact, almost everything about it - and other opinion pieces that use this data point as evidence - is wrong.

It's true that Beijing has helped Tsai to a degree, but "single-handedly" reviving her electoral prospects? I think not. Domestic issues have played just as much of, if not a greater role.

"...the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party"? True, but misleading. It makes it sound as though being pro-independence is a platform of the party and not a common, majority belief in society. That's not the case. The will of Taiwan leans toward independence, and the DPP happens to better match it than the KMT, which often has to hide its closeness to China behind obfuscatory language. Even if Han wins in 2020 and the CCP puts its "the abuser is being charming to win you back" on again, don't expect the general pro-independence sentiment to change much.

Plus, "a miserable 24%"? Rick, do you even follow Taiwanese electoral politics? 24% is pretty normal for Taiwan, and every president who has eventually won re-election (a grand total of two people so far) experienced a huge dip in their first term approval ratings. Taiwanese love to criticize their leaders, so while that wasn't a great number, it also wasn't "miserable" or even out of the ordinary. Besides, that number seems to have come from a KMT poll - unless someone has evidence to the contrary - with another non-KMT-funded poll published around the same time, in May 2019, showing her support at 33.8%. 


Let me finish by simply re-stating the obvious: articles like these are harmful to Western perceptions of Taiwan, and to Western readers' understanding of the Taiwan-China situation in general. I mean that: a good friend emailed me recently positing that China's harshness with Hong Kong might "turn Taiwanese off" to "reunification" after reading the New York Times. (He got a kind talking-to, don't worry.)

People like Richard McGregor and media outlets like Bloomberg, then, actively peddle untruths and misleading notions. The "denouement" for Taiwan was always going to be dangerous, because China might offer some economic enticements or use friendly language, but it's never going to give up on unification/annexation. It's only possible to envision a violence-free denouement if you believe that Taiwan could possibly be persuaded to embrace unification - but that's highly unlikely.


It's clear from decades of research that the Taiwanese sense of identity and national sovereignty has deep, domestically-grown roots - history, cultural evolution, geography, democracy - that anchor it firmly as a place apart. How China approaches Taiwan is just one tiny tendril of a massive banyan that neither China, nor the international media, nor Bloomberg, nor Mr. McGregor here, seem to understand.

In fact, we've seen this play out recently. When China tried to reach out to Taiwan again in hopes of raising the prospects of its flailing puppet candidate Han Kuo-yu with its "26 measures", the reaction was one of near-universal disgust. It's clear to Taiwan that when China 'buys' you, they're not the ones paying the price.

This isn't just about China's treatment of Hong Kong in particular so much as China's vision for all territories it considers to be "Chinese" in general. The only way not to see this is to assume that China's vision is fungible, and that what it offers Taiwan and Hong Kong could ever be anything other than oppression. In events like the Hong Kong revolt, all China is really doing is showing its true face. Taiwanese people aren't dumb; they see that.

So please quit it with the fearmongering that China is "driving away" Taiwan. It's not, really. Taiwan got in the car and drove its own damn self away decades ago, and it's not coming back. 

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Some of my latest work for Ketagalan Media

As y'all know, I like to update here on what I'm writing elsewhere. Well - I have two pieces out - now a few weeks old - in Ketagalan Media and one in the latest issue of Taipei Magazine. I especially enjoyed writing the Taipei Magazine one, an interview with Taipei-based illustrator and activist Ai ee mi, the sort of work I enjoy but don't get to do very often.  

I was going to wait until the Taipei Magazine one was available online through Taiwan Scene, but that seems to be taking awhile, so I'll just put this out there now.

First, I expanded on my earlier post about Taiwan being the most successful Asian Tiger, adding a few new sections, updating a little data, and streamlining the whole thing. You can read it here. It's chock full of numbers that I think make a convincing case.

Then, I took a look at the proposed abortion ban referendum by a Christian group, and pointed out that our strategies in dealing with the ant-equality referendums were not successful, so we need to counter this new proposal with new tactics updated now that we know how the conservatives operate, and we need to do it soon.

Enjoy! 

Friday, October 18, 2019

No, Chinese don't "like their government" because of economic, historical and cultural reasons: a media analysis/rant

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Some sort of "analysis" popped up recently on SupChina which I ardently disagree with. I normally wouldn't bother about writing a whole reaction post for something that's not entirely awful, in a media outlet that's not mainstream. But, I feel like addressing this time as doing so will hit on a few areas of China media literacy and criticality where we all need to stay sharp.

Let me first say that the piece, which talks about why so many Chinese seem to actually like, or even love, their absolutely awful government, isn't wrong per se (though some areas could use a bit more complexity). It's that it doesn't quite draw a clear cause-and-effect line the way it purports to.

In short, the reasons they give in the piece - "the economy! Chinese history! Cultural reasons!" - are all talking points for those who defend the CCP. There's nothing new - it's the same litany you'll hear from one of the more loquacious fifty-cent trolls. By repeating these excuses uncritically, SupChina is legitimizing them - but they are not legitimate.

Think about it this way: how do you get from "China is a country that has a literal gulag archipelago and comparisons to Nazism are not unwarranted" to "but many Chinese citizens like and will defend their government"? 


How could it be as simple as "the economy - and also, culture"? How could we possibly take such an answer on its face, either from SupChina or any given Chinese citizen spouting such excuses? I'll come back to these questions later.

Before I start in on how foolish it would be to do so - and I will start in at length, believe me - let me say two things. 


First, I really appreciate is the emphasis on the lack of political data for China. A lot of "Chinese people think...." analyses lack this crucial detail, making it sound like the writer actually knows what common sentiments are. Even if polling existed, it's doubtful that the people polled would feel comfortable being honest.

Second, I'm going to talk a lot about Chinese people often believing certain things because they're educated to do so, and that education is reinforced by Chinese media. I want to say now that this is not a simple "they're brainwashed!" or racist "they just can't think critically!" diatribe. People in China, as anywhere, are just as capable of critical thought as anyone else and many can and do form the ability. My point is only that institutional barriers to doing so are both intentional, and higher than in many other places.



It's not the economy, stupid - it's what people are primed to think about the economy

The piece expends a huge percentage of its word count on how improving the Chinese economy caused a lot of people in China to look favorably on their government, and almost none on education and media censorship. 

But those who have been positively affected by the economy - which I admit is a massive number - are taught at school that this miracle which has helped them and so much is entirely thanks to their government, whether or not that's true. This message is reinforced by the media. Sure, they can look around them and see that things have gotten a lot better economically (and they have, even since I lived there in the early 2000s). But when no competing stories are allowed regarding why that is, and no stories about those still living in poverty make it into the news, the real point here is that the economy improved stupendously and the CCP gets sole credit for it by taking that sole credit - by force. 

Does the Chinese government really deserve such kudos? I'm no economist, but one thing I've noticed in my adult life is that while economic policies have an impact, generally speaking economic ups and downs can be bolstered or mitigated with such policies but the actual waves can't be changed much. And when an economy has all the factors in place and the market is open enough to give it the necessary space to happen, it's going to happen no matter who's in charge.

It doesn't matter though, because that's not the story. I can't repeat this enough: many Chinese citizens will say "but the CCP lifted millions out of poverty!" not because the CCP itself necessarily did so, but because that's the only narrative they render possible in China.

There's also an implication here that all of the awful things the CCP have done - the genocides, the mass famine, the cultural destruction, the near-total lack of freedom - are not only justified by "the economy", but are necessary components to bolstering it. And that's just nonsense. 

But if you're not taught about all of the atrocities and so are only vaguely aware of them if at all, you don't hear about massive wealth inequality outside of your east coast Chinese bubble, you grow up with a lack of freedom being normal, and you're consistently fed the line that only the CCP could engineer such stunning growth and anything you hear about the horrors they've inflicted on the country are either justified, necessary or simply non-existent, and you are encouraged by both school and society not to think too deeply about it, only then could you ever use "it's the economy!" as a reason for supporting the CCP.


What about the people the economy left behind?

Oh yes, and the fact that you can only use this "but the economic growth! They lifted so many people out of poverty!" story if you are talking about (or to) the people that actually got lifted out of poverty. Of course they'll defend the current system - they benefit from it! And, to quote Upton Sinclair but with less sexism, it's difficult to get someone to understand something when their salary depends on their not understanding it. 

Ask any one of the millions of people in towns and villages that are not on the east coast, which benefited less (if at all) from the economic boom. Rather like Trump voters who really believe that their man is gonna make everything "great" "again" but just needs more time, you might meet a few who think they are temporarily displaced middle class that the CCP is coming to help any day now, but I wonder how many would just look at you like "whatever dude". Ask a Tibetan. Ask an Uighur. Ask a person of Hmong (Miao) or Dong or Li heritage.

But you didn't ask them, did you? You asked some rando on the street in Shanghai with a fashionable bag (real or not). The students who could afford to take your English class. Maybe you talked to Chinese wealthy enough to travel abroad. Or you didn't ask anyone personally and just read the online opinions of Han Chinese wealthy enough to have an Internet connection. 

You asked privileged voices, and so of course you'll get privileged answers.

Wanna know how I know? Here's how:


In the 1990s, the word for tourism (旅游 lǚyóu) was novel for most of China’s population; today, there’s not a single country in the world that Chinese tourists do not visit.

Great, but what you mean is that there's not a single country in the world that Han Chinese tourists do not visit - because good luck getting a passport if you're Uighur.

Again, the article itself isn't wrong per se, a lot of people of this class and background do support the government because they have benefited from the economic gains China has made. But I'm really curious what people who haven't benefited think, and there are still huge numbers of those thanks to that wealth inequality problem (though I concede that we don't really know what the true statistics are, they're probably worse than imagined.)


Can we please leave Confucius out of this?

This is where I think the article in question, and most commentary on China (and Taiwan, and most of East Asia...) goes off the rails and right into a ditch:


Confucian thought is of course an important part of China’s cultural fabric, and if there’s one thing that Confucius was very clear about, it was the need to respect authority.  
Many Chinese people argue that theirs is a more collectivist society, which means that they’re willing to give up some individual rights in exchange for prosperity and the greater good. This argument suits the Chinese government just fine.

No. I have no time for the excuse that "Chinese culture" provides less fertile soil for democracy to take root.

The article name-checks Taiwan, which is also "more collectivist" than the West, and which has Confucius temples and a few people who will tell you the old guy matters (though most people don't think about it much in their daily lives), and yet still has a pretty successful democracy. But Hong Kong is an important example too - it's quite clear that "Chinese culture" is not holding them back. Tiananmen Square happened, and "culture" didn't hold the demonstrators back - tanks and bullets did. So why do people keep saying this?

Again, it's not exactly wrong: the writers were quite right to point out that this line of thinking benefits the CCP and it's not as though Confucius is entirely unimportant. It's not that Chinese society isn't collective at all.

But it's a bit like arguing that "Aristotelian thought is of course an important part of Europe's cultural fabric, and if there's one thing Aristotle was very clear about, it was that a wise monarch would be better than a democracy. That's why European nations often still have royalty."

Besides, it also ignores the similar importance of Lao Tzu and other thinkers to Chinese cultural fabric, and (to oversimplify by a lot), that dude was all about how we should all do what you feel and just chill, okay? Of course, you don't hear as much about him because it benefits the CCP to elevate Confucius.

And, of course, it oversimplifies Confucius. Confucius was all about the need to respect competent authority, but he was just as critical of tyrannical authority. Didn't he say that a tyrannical government was worse than a ferocious tiger (苛政猛於虎)? That was my buddy C-dog, right? I don't have my Chinese proverbs mixed up?

Plus, he was very much a proponent of critical thinking, if you read him right. Confucian education was more than memorization - it was about applying everything you'd learned to real situations. Honestly - do you think some people (not me though) think Koxinga was a legendary general because of how much stuff he memorized? No - it was how well he applied what he'd learned to real battle situations.

So where's all this "Confucian thought is so important" and "we are a collectivist society" and "Confucius said respect authority" coming from? From the very last line quoted above.

These things are oft-quoted as "important" because the CCP has engineered them to be so. It's in the education system, the media, everywhere.

Todd, who lives in China: "But Chinese education is based on Confucianism! So if Confucianism encourages critical thinking, doesn't that mean that Chinese education teaches it?"

Nope. Chinese education isn't Confucian, it's authoritarian. They are very different things. Confucian education did involve a lot of memorization and strong respect for authority, but authoritarian education specifically seeks to instill in you exactly what the people in charge want you to believe. Confucian education was only available to a select wealthy few who could afford it. Authoritarian education seeks to be more universal - not for the noble reasons you might concoct (though good reasons for universal public education exist, and I support it more generally), but to make sure the Party's values are inculcated into as many minds as possible. They even build whole camps where they force it on you! And it definitely does not promote critical thought.

Of course, the CCP wants you to believe this is "Confucian". It sounds better, it comes across as culturally respectful, and provides a handy excuse for why it is so memorization-and-testing-heavy that doesn't sound so...well, authoritarian.

Todd: "But Taiwan's education is like that too!"

Me: "Yes, because Taiwan is in the unfortunate position of being a democracy with a holdover authoritarian education system created by the Japanese and continued by the KMT, which desperately needs to be updated to reflect contemporary Taiwanese society if its democracy is going to weather the coming storms."


If you still want to believe that the reason here is "culture", not "education and media working together as engineered by the CCP", I can't help you, but I also can't stop a Hong Kong protester from jump-kicking your wrong assumptions in the face.



Untitled
Actual Hong Kong protester who has no time for your bullshit

No, it's not about history either

I mean, everything SupChina said about Chinese history is true. The century of humiliation was a thing - for centuries, Western countries were all about being absolute titclowns to everyone else in the world, including that 1850-1950-or-so century. Of course they were jerks to China too.
This is what the Chinese call the century of humiliation (百年国耻 bǎinián guóchǐ), and every child learns about it at school [emphasis mine]. The Qing dynasty began in 1644. At the height of its powers, it expanded China’s territory to include Taiwan, Tibet, and what is now called Xinjiang. 

But what Chinese schoolchildren don't learn about is how incompetent or outright colonial their own governments used to be in imperial times. I'm sure Chinese history textbooks spend lots of time on the imperialism of Western powers, but very little (if any?) on how the Qing weren't considered Chinese at the time and were also therefore a kind of colonial power in China as well. They probably don't learn as much about how badly Qing forces obliterated the countryside during their conquest and how much poverty this wrought. (If you're curious about some of the cultural products spurred by this devastation, read up on the history of the green lion.)



Let's not forget straight-up racism!
Han chauvinism - that is, supremacist and racist sentiment against non-Han people by Han people in China - is a real thing. In part, it's just a tendency you see across humanity; the racism you see by Han Chinese against, say, Tibetans or Uighurs isn't that different in terms of attitude than what you see in other countries against marginalized groups there. But in part, it's encouraged by the CCP,  because it fits into their narrative of a 'superior Chinese race' and 'all Chinese people owe loyalty to China' to promote Han chauvinism. Plus, it's a handy excuse for the (almost entirely Han) elite to ignore the atrocities happening out west, if they hear about them. "But they're Uighurs. They're terrorists!" is an easy go-to if you want to pretend concentration camps aren't a problem. Same for "but China helped develop Tibet so much. It's good for those backward Tibetans that so many charitable Han Chinese have moved there."

Some of this is implicit in CCP messaging, both in school and the media - portraying ethnic minorities as just Chinese in different colorful costumes and funny hats, which makes it easy to accuse members of those groups that don't want to be "Chinese" of being "separatists". Some of it is more explicit (ever hear that song about being 'the same blood'?) All of it still goes right back to CCP social engineering.

But it's a lot harder to write honestly about the explicit use of racism in China by the CCP as a tool to stay in power than to just throw your hands up and say "Confucius! Century of humiliation! Wealthy east coast!"


What you're told, and what you need to tell yourself

So, of course, this all comes down to the same thing in the end: it's not about "the economy" or "Confucius" or "culture" or "history". It comes down to the CCP engineering what you learn, what you see on TV and online, what you read, what people are willing to say to you, and what you should be afraid of saying.

Why, then, does SupChina spend so much time on tangential issues but just 9½ lines (I counted) on education and the media, when that is literally the entire story and should be the main focus? Everything else branches off of that core, like spokes on a wheel, but this story is written as though the spokes make the wheel. 


This is an excellent time to bring up the way that the United States also has a string of concentration camps, many of which house families and children seeking a better life, or to escape near-certain death, and how many Trumpists will either ignore or defend this, despite having access to a freer media environment and better education than in China.

Yup, because they benefit from the system staying the way it is and are hostile to any changes that endanger their position, if not economic, then race-wise (and often both). They were always pre-disposed to turning a blind eye or making excuses. This hostility and reactionary fear has been harnessed intentionally under Trumpism. You see some of the undercurrents of it in China regarding 'fear' of Uighurs and general Han chauvinism.

In both cases, there's an element of Stockholm syndrome, too. If you see no way to speak out, and no way to escape the system, you find ways to live within the system. You rationalize. It's what human brains do to cope. You were handed all these excuses in school, after all, and it's easy to use them (I mean this for both the United States and China - after all, I grew up learning about so-called "American exceptionalism". Yikes.) You might not even be fully aware of the government's worst atrocities (again, I mean this for both countries, though it's a more intentional ignorance in the US).

The key differences are, first, that in China it's centrally-planned and intentional - most US educational policies vary by state. And, of course, that in the US we can talk about these issues freely. That alone causes so many of those barriers I mentioned in the beginning to come crashing down.

To end with the key question I posed in the beginning - how do you you rationalize or ignore literal gulags and mass murder and defend the regime perpetrating them?

Because it either benefits you to do so, you are taught to do so, or you've created a coping mechanism because you know you can't change it. Or - as I suppose is often true - some combination of the three. It's never actually because "the economy improved" or "it's our culture" or "the century of humiliation" (which ended almost a century ago). Never, ever, not ever.

So why, oh why, would you take the litany of Chinese excuses on their stupid, CCP-engineered faces, as SupChina wants to do?

Look instead at where every one of these excuses originated, and therein lies the answer. 

Sunday, September 1, 2019

The case for why Taiwan is the best of the 'Asian Tigers'

I needed a cover photo that screamed 'Taiwan' so...here you go. 


As we enter the 2020 election season in Taiwan, I've been hearing a common sentiment from people I've talked to  - not just friends but students and random people I chat with in my daily life. Anecdotally, support for Tsai's re-election is strong, but there's a general sense that the economy is 'bad', and Tsai hasn't done that much about it. I've also picked up on a sentiment that Taiwan continues to lag behind the other 'Asian Tigers' - while nobody is jealous of Hong Kong these days, there is some envy of its status as an 'international city', and I hear jealous yearnings to be as well-off and nice as South Korea and Singapore.

It's easy to see why, on the surface. Let's be honest - South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong all look so much...shinier. The public spaces and roads look better-maintained. It just feels like there's more money floating around. 


This is reflective of two pieces from 2018 and one from 2016). So while I can't measure the strength of this sentiment, I can say with confidence that it's a thing. 

But you know what? I just don't think it's true.


It's not that the data are wrong. Salaries are in fact low. Business do take conservative investment approaches (and I personally feel that they do not invest nearly enough in talent, nor do business owners trust the talent they hire to innovate.) I'm not sure that Taiwan's GDP per capita is lower than the other Asian Tigers as CommonWealth claims - at least in this data, it beats South Korea. And none of this from the Today link above is wrong, per se:


But Taiwan did not woo multinational companies to set up facilities, as Singapore did. It did not develop a financial centre like Hong Kong’s; or establish large conglomerates or Chaebols, the way South Korea did. 
Instead, Taiwan is home to many small and medium enterprises, known as original equipment manufacturers (OEM), making devices at low cost for brand-name companies. The island became a high-tech powerhouse in the 1980s on the backs of these OEM manufacturers.... 
Today, young Taiwanese face dim job prospects. They have been dubbed the “22k” generation — a reference to their minimum monthly salary of NT$22,000, which works out to just over S$1,000. Youth unemployment is more than 12 per cent [I checked that number, and this website confirms it as does Taiwan Today and the government], and many young Taiwanese are disillusioned.

But I'm just not buying that this makes Taiwan 'the worst' of the Asian Tigers or somehow 'left behind'. Here's why.

First, the same things have been said about Hong Konger, South Korean and Singaporean youth - 'bleak prospects', 'disillusioned', 'low salaries', 'can't afford to buy a home', 'no future'. Salaries for young workers are low around the world - Millenials everywhere can't afford to buy property at the rate their parents and grandparents did, and Taiwan (and Hong Kong, and Singapore) is no exception. Taiwan's economy is slower than it once was, but that's true everywhere

Yes, a crude comparison of salaries shows higher pay in the other Asian Tiger countries, but Hong Kong and Singapore suffer from such high living costs that I doubt youth - or people of any age - who get jobs there actually enjoy a higher living standard.


Poverty and Inequality

In some metrics, Taiwan actually wins out over every other Asian Tiger. Looking at wealth inequality, Taiwan's GINI coefficient is 33.6 (the lower the number, the better). South Korea's is 35.7, Singapore's is 45.9, and Hong Kong's is a whopping 53.9. Although the numbers are getting a bit dated, Taiwan's poverty rate is stunningly low, at 1.5% (though I wonder how much of that is massaged by people of meager means living with family). In contrast, South Korea's is 14.4% and Hong Kong's is 19.9%.

Singapore doesn't provide data (seriously, check that link above). Thanks to journalist and Twitter buddy Roy Ngerng, however, I was able to find a few reliable sources that estimate poverty rates in Singapore to be a whopping 20-35%. 



Yup. 

So hands down, Taiwan wins on equality - despite lower salaries, you've got a much lower chance of ending up indigent. Given the lower cost of rent in Taiwan than Hong Kong and Singapore, even if you do end up struggling financially in Taiwan, you can live a little better. There is no way, as a teacher, that I could afford the three-bedroom downtown flat I have in Taipei if I lived in any other Asian Tiger nation.

Although there's some contradictory info on purchasing power coming up, I'd also argue that the overall lifestyle in Taiwan is simply better. Coffin homes are not a thing, nor are cage homes. All of these countries have inexpensive food if you eat like a local,  but I've found that you can get more value for money in Taiwan (with South Korea as a close second). Overall, those little things that make life easier when you're broke are just a bit easier to come by here.

Is that not worth the trade-off of a few unsightly buildings? Would you not give up your glass skyscraper dreams to have more flexibility in your lifestyle? Just because a city looks a little ganky around the edges doesn't mean it's not wealthy.



Healthcare

I also want to take a look at healthcare - a lot of my data comes from here. Hong Kong's public hospitals have preposterously long wait times for procedures you can get done quickly and cheaply in Taiwan. The only way around them is expensive private hospitals, which not everyone can afford. South Korea's benefit package is quite narrow; a great deal of medical services are simply not covered. Singapore went through a process of privatizing hospitals, with mostly negative consequences, including increased cost to patients. Out-of-pocket expenses in Taiwan are similar to Hong Kong's (for better service) - they're higher in South Korea (due to so many uncovered services) and far higher in Singapore (due to privatization of hospitals, I suppose). While Taiwan does have a fairly high rate of private insurance, mostly purchased by wealthier people to supplement NHI, this doesn't make up for differences in out-of-pocket expenses.

After putting all that together, I'm gonna call it: Taiwan's got the best cost-to-benefit ratio of health coverage among the Asian Tigers. You won't be worrying about uncovered services like South Koreans, waiting years for basic tests like Hong Kongers or paying out-of-pocket like Singaporeans, and t
his is all despite having fewer doctors per 10,000 people than any of the other three countries. 


A free society

There are also personal freedoms to consider. Although I can only speak anecdotally, living in a society as free as Taiwan's counts for a lot. Again, South Korea is the closest comparison here. Hong Kong, on the other hand, is simply neither democratic nor free. Aside from the recent protests, the government is ultimately beholden to Beijing, and activists, publishers and journalists disappear (or are attacked or murdered) on the regular. In Taiwan, activists are mostly free to agitate for change. In Hong Kong, you're brought to trial and found guilty. Attend a protest - exercising your basic right to free speech and assembly - could get you fired. Singapore isn't wracked by protests (at the moment) but is absolutely an illiberal state where peaceful assembly and freedom of speech are so strictly controlled as to not exist.

If you're not a political activist, you may not think this is particularly important, but just try having a dissenting viewpoint one day, and realizing you can never voice it without potentially dire consequences. What if you want to be a journalist, political analyst, writer, artist or even academic, and find that your ability to speak truth to power is limited or outright censored? It does matter. 


South Korea offers similar freedoms - public demonstrations are popular there, as they are in Taiwan.


Work culture

When I first visited Seoul in 2003, I stayed with my now-husband in his (paid-for) flat in a nondescript building, in a nondescript part of the city. The buildings stretched on and on, and they all looked basically the same. They had huge numbers painted on them so you could differentiate your building from the others at a glance. It was all a bit sterile. These days, I'm given to understand that many companies provide identikit housing for their employees. When we returned in 2014 for a visit and had to catch an early shuttle to the airport, I noted as the bus snaked through downtown Seoul that the streets were full of Korean men in identical black suits (with the occasional navy-clad rebel), carrying similar briefcases, with similar haircuts, going to similar jobs in similar cubicles in similar office buildings for similar companies, and they were all made out of ticky-tacky and they all looked just the same


In other respects, I love visiting South Korea. I have to admit that Seoul went from a city that looked a little, shall we say, crumbly around the edges (sort of the way Taipei looks now) to something more similar to Tokyo between my two visits. People certainly revert to expressing individuality outside of work hours. But I think this samey-samey work culture would just destroy me.

Looking at numbers, Hong Kongers work about 50.1 hours/week on average, or 2,296/year according to a UBS study. Singaporeans clock in at 2,334 hours/year, or 45.6 hours/week. The results here don't quite add up as some say Hong Kongers work longer hours, and others say Singaporeans do (and neither yearly average matches 52 weeks of work at the weekly average). In any case, both are higher than Taiwan.

I can't find weekly averages for South Korea, but they appear to be at the top as well, at 2,069/year. Taiwanese are right to complain about their long working hours, but they're actually lower than the other Asian Tigers (2,035.2/year). 


Sure, just as the quote far above points out, Taiwan did not turn itself into a financial center or international business center like Hong Kong and Singapore  - but its wealth inequality is lower, which is quite possibly a direct consequence. It did not set up chaebols (massive conglomerates) the way South Korea did. But I've spent a lot of time in corporate offices in Taiwan and I can assure you that, while there is a standard 'corporate' mode of dress, that the level of conformity expected among office workers is nowhere near the level of what I saw in Seoul. I would not wish that identikit lifestyle on Taiwan; while some people might be willing to slog through such a work culture for a better paycheck, I suspect a huge proportion would chafe against it. Taiwan's small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) may not have brought in the big bucks the way Samsung and Lotte did for South Korea, but what they contributed to Taiwan's cultural landscape is a net positive, I think, and should not be underestimated. 

Brendan's oft-repeated comment about his long-ago move from South Korea to Taiwan is that "Taiwan has long work hours, maybe as long as South Korea. Wages are lower. But people just seem more chilled-out. You don't pass drunk salarymen passed out on the sidewalk who will get up and go to work the next day. Everyone seemed so stressed in Korea. People here just seem...more relaxed." And it's true - on my brief visits to Seoul, even I saw those passed-out businessmen. I've never seen that in Taiwan, though I routinely pass groups of friends enjoying dinner and drinks - beer or Kaoliang - on folding tables on the sidewalk, keeping the local gossip machines going and looking, well, just more relaxed.

I wonder how much the chaebol vs. SME culture divide plays into that. No idea, but it's a thought. 



Gender parity

It also seems to me - and Brendan concurs after living there - that South Korea has a much bigger problem with sexism than Taiwan. Every culture in the world struggles with sexism (yes, all of them), but Taiwan arguably has the best gender equality in Asia. For some hard numbers, the gender wage gap in South Korea is the biggest of all OECD countries (34.6%), and Brendan recalls seeing job advertisements that blatantly offered more to male candidates for the same work. Taiwan's gender wage gap is 14.6% - on par with a lot of Western countries and not great, but also a huge improvement.

Hong Kong's gender pay gap is 22.2% as of 2017. Singapore's is a bit lower than Taiwan.

There's more that I might include about gender equality in the four Tigers, but the wage gap really says it all. 



The bad news

I don't want to wax rhapsodical about how Taiwan is better than the other Asian Tigers in every way, implying that there's no data to suggest it's not true. So, let's take a look at what's not going well for Taiwan.

Just looking at unemployment, Taiwan looks a little less lustrous. In South Korea and Taiwan unemployment rates are similar, at 4.4% (a rise from 3.8% in December 2018) and 3.7% (average 2018) respectively. Rates are lower in Hong Kong and Singapore, at closer to 2-3%. Youth unemployment in South Korea is around 10.4%, for Hong Kong it's about 9.4% and Singapore is lowest at 5.2%. As above, Taiwan's is in the vicinity of 12%. There's no getting around it - Taiwan's unemployment looks low by European standards, but it's not as robust as its Asian Tiger peers. 

Purchasing power doesn't look to be much better, with Taiwan ranking high globally - 19th in the world according to the IMF, 28th according to the World Factbook -  but behind both Singapore and Hong Kong on both scales (remembering, of course, that that's still higher than Canada, Australia and a huge chunk of Europe). South Korea was quite a bit further down in both cases. I'm not sure why this is, and don't have the requisite knowledge of economics to analyze it, but I love making myself look stupid publicly so here goes.

First, a lot of Singaporean and Hong Kong relative 'wealth' by purchasing power can be explained by how this purchasing power is calculated. Their large foreign labor populations, who have much lower incomes and purchasing power, are not counted in these metrics as they are not citizens or permanent residents (Taiwan News makes a similar point). Taiwan also has a large foreign labor population, but while I can't find reliable data on this, I'd wager that the ratio of foreign labor to local population in Taiwan is lower than in those two city-states.

Second, Singapore gets around the one thing that might sap a large chunk of their citizens' purchasing power: housing. Most housing in Singapore consists of public housing projects, which builds accommodation at a variety of budgets. Roughly 80% of Singaporeans live in these flats. That might explain how Singapore can have such a high Gini coefficient and estimated high levels of poverty, but still come out blazing on purchasing power.

Why Hong Kong ranks well in terms of purchasing power, I have no idea. I'd think real estate alone - which Hong Kongers are less able to afford than Taiwanese even with higher salaries - would knock it down.

I suspect in both cases that all that purchasing power on the part of Singapore and Hong Kong, given their relatively high poverty and inequality, is concentrated in the hands of the wealthy. If you're just a regular person with a regular job, however, you can make your comparatively lower salary go a lot further in Taiwan (or perhaps South Korea, with its similar inequality rate despite its higher poverty rate). If that's true, all Singapore and Hong Kong really have on Taiwan in terms of purchasing power are more rich people who can do more purchasing. Most people will never be rich, so that doesn't mean much.



Taiwan #1! 

To bring this back to the original point, despite some troubling economic data, I still think Taiwan is the best Asian Tiger in which to build a life. Salaries are low, but so is inequality and poverty (and the rent is pretty good, too). You won't do better for health care, and you have fairly strong human rights protections - better than Hong Kong or Singapore. You're quite likely a lot better off as a woman, especially compared to Hong Kong and South Korea.

The whole world is struggling now, and if anything, I think Taiwan's made the best of this. It's not being 'left behind'. Don't listen to the haters telling you that not only is Taiwan dwarfed by China - when, in fact, China scores well below Taiwan on most of the metrics above - but also the other Asian Tigers. Nope - Taiwan has built something less flashy, less shiny and a little-slower paced, but there are good arguments out there for why it has actually done the best. 

Sunday, March 24, 2019

This time, it's Bloomberg choosing its words poorly when discussing Taiwan

IMG_3008


Bloomberg just ran a profile article of Han Kuo-yu, and the language choices are...not great. I have it on good authority that the Taipei bureau chief is a good dude, so I'm not sure why, but regardless the language and framing in this piece (which has some strong parts) merit some detailed discussion. Let's have a look. 




For officials in Beijing looking for a Taiwanese presidential candidate who improves the island’s fraught ties with the mainland, Han Kuo-yu is saying all the right things. The question is whether he runs.

"A Taiwanese presidential candidate who improves the island's fraught ties with the mainland" implies that it is somehow Taiwan's fault that ties with China (not "the mainland" - that's politically charged terminology) are tense.

But it's not. I'm sure Tsai Ing-wen would love better relations with China, if China would accept that Taiwan isn't interested in unification. That's not a position held only by Tsai - she was elected in part because of it, and is the general sentiment in Taiwan.

Tsai has extended olive branches, but they come with the clear indication that Taiwan's sovereignty is not up for debate. China has not accepted them.

It's Beijing's fault, not Taiwan's, that relations are "fraught". So it's not Taiwan's job to "improve" them - it's China's.

Also, why are you starting an article with what China wants and thinks, rather than what Taiwan wants and thinks, Ms. Wang?



"Such blunt talk contrasts with Taiwan’s current president, Tsai Ing-wen, a cautious critic of China who’s bracing for a tough re-election fight after bruising policy battles and an isolation campaign by Beijing."

So, why is she facing a difficult re-election campaign? Is it really because of her stance on China? Most people seem fine with her approach to China - not budging on Taiwanese sovereignty, but not instigating any tensions, either. Her approach ensures that it is clear to all who care to observe that it is Beijing doing the bullying (something that was true, but not always clear, under former pro-Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian).

The reasons why her approval ratings are flagging have to do with the economy (although it's actually not doing as badly as people think) and some displeasure over her 'cool' technocratic governing style, as well as domestic governance at a local level. It's actually not that closely related to issues regarding China.

The sense that it's all due to her views on China is further implied by Wang omitting what these "bruising policy battles" were over. Mostly, domestic issues: marriage equality, labor laws, pension reform, that sort of thing.

Tsai was elected because of her pro-Taiwan views, not in spite of them.

So why is Bloomberg implying that Taiwanese people are angry with Tsai over this, and not domestic governance issues?

Besides, what exactly are we saying here? That in order to "reduce tensions", Taiwanese people might want to consider voting for a Beijing-approved candidate? Are we not aware that that is exactly what China wants, but might not turn out well for Taiwan?



Han’s shock defeat in November of a candidate from Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party in the ruling bloc’s stronghold catapulted him to the top of the list of possible presidential hopefuls from the China-friendly Kuomintang.

Putting this in the same paragraph as the quote above implies that this victory was due to China policies. It wasn't. There were a number of odd convergences here, between Han's populist appeal and some very weird and questionable sources of funding and support (when people talk about possible Chinese interference in the last election, well...I don't know about Han specifically but it wouldn't surprise me). There was anger over local governance.

But your average Kaohsiunger does not agree with Han's pro-China tendencies. Unlike Tsai, he was elected despite, not because of, these views. Look at any data about the political leanings of Kaohsiung residents, and this will be clear (Wang alludes to this later but treats it as an inconvenient aside that contradicts the "China!" narrative.)



On Friday, he begins a week-long trip to Hong Kong, Macau and the mainland cities of Shenzhen and Xiamen.

How lazy does journalism have to be to point this out but not interrogate it at all? It's presented almost like a good thing - no questioning at all of how and why Han was invited to Hong Kong and Macau, and who could have set that up and authorized it...and why? And how his insistence that this trip is "all business" is at odds with what we actually know about it?

No interrogation of whether the candidate China prefers may pose potential risks to Taiwan, and that "improving fraught tensions" is not necessarily the best outcome?

Why - after a few paragraphs implying that Taiwanese want a more pro-China leader (even though that's not necessarily the case) - is none of this considered?


Chinese President Xi Jinping, who held a historic meeting with Taiwanese counterpart Ma Ying-jeou weeks before the vote, has cut off communications with Tsai’s government and led a campaign isolate her island diplomatically.

The meeting was not particularly historic and didn't have much effect at all on how Taiwanese voted in the 2016 election. It was literally a non-event, a stunt to try to convince Taiwanese to vote for the KMT, and it failed. Most Taiwanese do want a strong economy and can accept economic ties with China if they deliver one. But seeing how Ma's push for closer ties did not result in definitive economic growth, and that Beijing showed its hand in terms of quietly tethering 'economic ties' to an agenda of political integration, Wang is making way too much of China's reaction leading up to and post-2016. 



Tsai now looks vulnerable, receiving the support of less than 20 percent in recent polls, as she grapples with both voters concerned about deteriorating ties with China and those who want a cleaner break. 

Though I don't know the exact numbers, Ma didn't have great approval ratings before his re-election campaign either, and won. It's sort of a thing in Taiwan. A smarter write-up would have compared Tsai's current approval ratings to what they tend to be at this point in their administration for any given Taiwanese president.

And it again places too much emphasis on Tsai's China policy, and not enough on domestic-level grievances (some of which, like air pollution and low wages, are merited - but which are results of decades of poor governance and can't be fixed in 3.5 years).

Even if the issue were Tsai vs. China, again, no questioning of what it would mean for Taiwan to choose a Beijing-approved candidate simply because China wished it so? No delving into alleged Chinese interference in the 2018 election? Nothing?


Tsai has sought to push back against Han’s pro-China remarks, saying there can’t be an arranged marriage with China because Taiwan is sovereign and its people have the freedom to choose. Taiwan’s official Mainland Affairs Council also took a shot at him [emphasis mine], arguing the island “must resolutely refuse China’s terrorizing affection.”  

Great way to use language to cast a negative connotation on the rhetoric of one side! "Took a shot at him"? How about "spoke frankly" or "pointed out" or any other neutral choice?

Besides, Tsai is right. Unification is impossible because Taiwan is sovereign and the people have the right to choose...and aren't interested in dictatorship and loss of rights. They can see the ways in which Hong Kong has failed and know not to go down that road.

A note here that most Taiwanese do, in fact, support the status quo (not unification), that the status quo is sovereignty (because it is), do not support unification or "One Country Two Systems", and that Taiwanese identity remains strong would be apropos, but we get nothing.


Others observing from Beijing argue Han’s candidacy could lead to a breakthrough between the long-time rivals. He supports the idea both sides are part of “one-China” -- a negotiating framework Tsai has refused to endorse.

More poor language choices.

First, why is this still being framed in terms of what Beijing wants, not what Taiwan thinks?

Second, when the intentions of one "rival" is to annex the other "rival", and they will not accept any offer of negotiation that doesn't put this potential outcome on the table (which is, to them, the only acceptable outcome), when there is a "breakthrough" that's not necessarily a good thing.

Third, Taiwanese who identify as Taiwanese don't see their goals as part of a "rivalry". Rivalries are for "two Chinas" - the ROC and the PRC. But those who just want Taiwan to be Taiwan aren't a part of that. There's no rival claim to China coming from pro-independence types. It's not a rivalry - it's a bully and a target who refuses to succumb. It's just the wrong word, period.

So on one hand we have this inaccurate, undeservedly positive phrase "breakthrough between rivals", and on the other we have a subtle denigration of Tsai/pro-independence views with "refused to endorse", as though this makes her the instigator or the intransigent side who won't negotiate - as though negotiations could ever be fair in this situation.

Tsai doesn't endorse "one China" because Taiwanese by and large do not want to be a part of China. Why not say that? Why make it seem so negative? Why leave out important facts like this?


“If he wins in 2020, it is likely that he will reverse Tsai’s cross-strait policies,” said Wang Dong, an international relations professor at Peking University and secretary general of the Pangoal Institution, a Beijing-based research group. “The mainland, of course, would have much more trust in him.”

What's up with the implication that it would be a good thing for China to trust and like a Taiwanese politician? No delving at all into what that could mean for Taiwan, when China's goal is to annex Taiwan?

This is a Taiwanese candidate, not a Chinese one. China's bullying does matter, but Taiwan's views matter more.

The question isn't "will China trust him?" (seriously, quit it with "mainland"), but "should Taiwanese voters trust him?"

Why aren't you asking that question, Ms. Wang? 



Kaohsiung city spokeswoman Anne Wang said Thursday that Han was focused on promoting the local economy and “will not think about other plans for the time being.” This week’s trip was intended to promote economic and cultural exchanges and not touch on politics, she said.

You're just going to take her at her word and not actually question this? Do you honestly think China would allow this trip if there were no political motivations?



The trip will test Han’s ability to navigate sticky issues on the mainland and in the fractious former British colony of Hong Kong. His past forays into the public eye have been rocky.

Again with the "mainland". Ugh.

Anyway, again, you should be questioning whether China cooperating with a Taiwanese politician is actually a good thing for Taiwan, but that's either ignored, or you take it as a given. I'm truly not sure which.


When he was a legislator in 1993, Han punched future DPP President Chen Shui-bian, putting him in the hospital. As president of the Taipei Agricultural Products Marketing Co. in 2016, he dared a city councilor to swallow a hockey puck during a dispute. 
During his run for mayor, he told a gathering of female supporters that anyone who created 1,000 jobs in Kaohsiung would get a kiss. Earlier this month, he was forced to apologize after dismissing the idea of attracting white-collar workers from the Philippines since it was hard to believe maids could become English teachers.

Lest you think I just want to hate on this article, I am quoting this here to point out that it's pretty good coverage of his past controversies. Nice work. 



Han successfully cast himself as the “CEO mayor” during the campaign, propelled in part by a social media campaign led by his Canadian-educated daughter, Coco Han. His focus on economics on platforms such as YouTube and Facebook helped garner robust support from younger voters looking for higher wages. 
One of his slogans was: “With goods sold and talent flowing in, Kaohsiung’s people will make a fortune.”

Sure, okay. Not untrue. But it would be smart to question whether his outlandish and oversize promises had a chance of holding up. If you actually look at his focus on the economy, you'll see that he's unlikely to actually be able to deliver on his promises. Kaohsiung will never be Shanghai. It will probably never even be Taipei. We do need to improve the economy across Taiwan, including in industrial centers like Kaohsiung. But...this seems a bit vague and impossible to deliver on.

And at no point do you question this, or ask whether or not it's prudent to run a guy for president who hasn't even proven he can run Kaohsiung, whose promises seem so pie-in-the-sky that any rational person can see that they just aren't credible, and what it means that the KMT is willing to run him anyway, and China is on board.

Why not, Bloomberg? Why not, Cindy Wang?