Showing posts with label freedom. Show all posts
Showing posts with label freedom. Show all posts

Friday, August 10, 2018

It is really hard to support Taiwan (Part 3): being pro-Taiwan doesn't mean being pro-US!

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Westerners pushing into Asia is not always a great idea - just ask this guy.
(But when it comes to East Asia, I'd rather have the US around than China.)


I'm aiming for this to be the final set of ideas that I express in this series of posts (though you never know). In the previous two posts I took aim at Taiwan's domestic issues and the state of Taiwan advocacy - this time, I want to shift my focus to other Westerners.

I've had a few friends and Facebook people say things which have caused me to worry about the relationship between Western liberals: that no matter how bad the threat from China is, Taiwan must find a solution that doesn't involve the United States because we're evil; surprise that China even wants to be the next global superpower; that seeking the best possible realistic solution for Taiwan amounts to being pro-right wing or pro-Trump; that saying continued US influence in Asia is the only realistic way to counter China is "dangerous propaganda"; that Taiwan being annexed by China is actually preferable to its having close ties to the US because "the culture and history is the same".

All of these (wrong-headed) statements carry an implication that advocating for any realistic solution that contains Chinese influence in Asia (especially vis-a-vis Taiwan) amounts to being pro-USA. 


This is one pushback that doesn't seem to have been mentioned in critical essays on China's United Front efforts. Michael Turton wrote an excellent piece on weaponized narratives for American Citizens for Taiwan, of which I have no criticism. In it, he describes the ways in which China supporters tries to twist narratives to make those who criticize the Chinese government's actions seem ignorant, uncivil, hysterical or racist. Some of these notions were echoed more recently in The Monthly:


Relentlessly, and through a thousand different channels, the Party was working to collapse the categories of “Chinese Communist Party”, “China” and “the Chinese people” into a single organic whole – until the point where the Party could be dropped from polite conversation altogether. From there, the Party’s critics could be readily caricatured as “anti-China”, “racist” or even “Sinophobic”.


But, I have to say, I'm not afraid of being seen in these ways. No real person (leaving aside the fifty-cent trolls) would look at what I have to say and declare that I am "ignorant" of China or the region. I'm not an academic in this field, so I'm not worried about incivility. Hysterical - well, yes, okay, my criticisms of Chinese government actions are numerous. However, when I point out that I live in a sovereign democracy that China has openly said they intend to annex by force, most reasonable people do understand that the threat to my home is very real, and it is not hysterical to point this out. I've had "racist!" leveled at me a few times - but any reasonable person will note that I live in and advocate for an Asian nation, not a majority-white one.

No - what I'm afraid of instead is being labeled "pro-America" or "pro-Western imperialist".

That is a difficult one to fight, because a strong case for Taiwan does tend to include a case for liberal values, and an argument against attempts to eradicate and replace them with what China might call "Asian values" but I call "authoritarian, pro-oppression, anti-human rights" fascism. However, it's hard to make that case without sounding too much like a booster for the West as a whole and the US in particular.


Liberal values are universal, not Western

I consider "liberal values" to be universal - freedom, human rights, equality. Democracy too, though there are a variety of ways to structure it (some being more democratic than others), but a lot of people have been convinced to see them as distinctly "Western". This is misguided: it assumes there is no bedrock of historical fact and a philosophical history (in many cultures, not just Western ones) of ethics that have brought about the idea that human rights are for all, not just some.

But, if you see my stance as fundamentally "Western" (which, again, it isn't) that makes it sound like one is totally fine with a continuation of a system in which white folks continue to be on top - it can be twisted around and interpreted to mean that one doesn't want to give up a position of power and privilege to Asia because you as a Westerner may stand to lose from that. 


We're not unaware

It also sounds as though one is unaware of how systemic exploitation is either accepted or encouraged with those at the top (that is, white people) allowing the rest of the world to continue to toil for their benefit by, say, making clothes in Bangladesh or iPhones in China in dangerous, slave-like working conditions. It sounds like one is in favor of the continued supremacy of a country whose foreign policy has completely screwed a large chunk (though not all) of Asia. 

Of course, I'm not in favor of a system in which the West is on top forever and necessarily keeps the rest of the world down to maintain its primacy. I'm not particularly pro-US - if anything, my views veer in the opposite direction.


What China wants vs. what's best for Asia

It's difficult to argue that, however, when it sounds so close to advocating for the status quo, especially when one then directs criticism at China's goal of global hegemony.

A lot of people don't believe this is the case: I've met many who believe that China has no desire to take America's place as the global hegemon. This is clearly untrue: China barely tries to conceal what it wants - total global supremacy - but people believe it nonetheless.

It wants a world in which other states are economically dependent on it. It wants to control the world's main transport networks. It wants to impose at least a tributary acceptance of Chinese censorship on the world. It wants, if not wholesale adoption, then at least acceptance of authoritarianism as a viable and "right" system of government and that human rights are not universal.

It wants to start by replacing the US as the biggest influencer in Asia. This sounds great on its face - Asia for Asians, yeah? - but remember that China is a dictatorship that wishes to impose its own will on the nations that surround it, including many successful, developed democracies (like Taiwan!) whose political values are actually closer to those of the West. An authoritarian system such as China's - and being subordinate to it - is actually a massive problem for successful Asian democracies. 

The US may not be an Asian nation, but working with them rather than China is actually in the interest of countries like Taiwan (and Korea, and Japan...) if they want to maintain their current level of freedom and democracy. Try saying that, though, and not sounding like an Evil Imperialist Capitalist Exploiter to a certain kind of liberal. 

It also requires that one ignore that so much of Asia is now at the top of the economic food chain: the only way the "you're an American imperialist!" narrative works is in a paradigm where there is only oppressor and oppressed, rather than an entire set of successful developed economies that counter this notion. I wonder what Koreans, Japanese, Singaporeans, Hong Kong residents, Taiwanese and residents of some Chinese cities would say to being told that they are victims because the West is their oppressor.


It smells like a right-wing narrative, but it's not

Two more issues compound this problem: the first is that this whole "freedom and democracy!" bass drum has been banged so much by the American right (well, until recently anyway), alongside the "anti-China" snare drum and "capitalism!" cymbals. Trying to separate all of that out and advocate for Taiwan (which involves being anti-CCP, but not anti-China) and for the spread of democracy and human rights is difficult: people expect to hear the rest of that conservative rhetoric along with it, and it seems more difficult to process when it's not there. 

They expect you to be a right-winger, because you sound a little bit like one. And they expect the same level of insincerity about "freedom of democracy" that the American (and increasingly European) right shows. Because of course, they are totally insincere. You can't be a strong ally of Saudi Arabia, or decline to comment on how your nation does not share so-called "Chinese values", and still call yourself the leaders of the free world. 


Anti-democracy liberals

The second is that believing that the US is evil and anyone who advocates for continued US dominance in Asia (regardless of the subtlety of their actual argument) is advocating for Western imperialism, and that China is the victim in this story, is a terribly anti-democratic view to take.

It is essentially using liberal precepts and twisting them around to support fascism. It is taking the idea of "equality" (which really means equality of people under the law) and turning it over to say that some people can live under dictatorship because all narratives - including CCP propaganda - are equally valid (which they are not), and disagreements can be brushed away with "eh, different cultures".

It totally ignores how many Asian cultures are in fact already democratic, and successfully so. That complicates things too much apparently. 



I got nothin' ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 
I don't know how to solve this - I'm not pro-US. I'm not pro-status quo. I want to live in a world where nobody is the superpower, where there is no hegemon. Nobody to act like the 'world police', because the world police never actually act for the benefit of all. They always prioritize themselves. This means a world in which the US plays a more egalitarian role, and also one in which China either cannot or does not take the US's place.

That sounds like fairy dreams, but it is my ideal. It may not be possible, but I'd love for other Westerners to at least understand the real case Taiwan advocates like myself are making, rather than knee-jerk assume that because we are pro-Taiwan and anti-CCP, and that happens to hew closely to a strong Taiwan-US relationship, that we are pro-Western imperialist or pro-US.

Because that is simply not the case. 

Friday, February 2, 2018

Taiwan made a hawk of me

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I want to be a peacenik.

I used to be one, in fact. There's a hippie-dippy inside me who is all about flowers not bombs, non-violent resistance, refusing to keep the cycle of control, war and poverty going. The military industrial complex has no place in my heart.

There's a part of me that is tugged by the very persuasive argument that getting involved in the affairs of other countries the way we do - in Libya, in Syria, in Iraq - does not work and cannot work. We keep trying to get involved, we say it's for the greater good (well, that's the message sold to us), and we keep mucking it up.

I'm a big fan of liberal thought in general, and modern American liberalism is all about avoiding military intervention - peace at all costs. It's all about assuming there is always a diplomatic solution.

And yet, I just can't do it anymore. I live in Taiwan, a nation whose existence is under the very real threat of a growing, aggressive and unfriendly expansionist China, whose values as a nation do not at all match those of Taiwan. I won't go so far as to say "Taiwan can't defend itself", because I don't know Taiwan's true military capability. But, given that we might be able to ward off an initial attack, still it seems unlikely we could win that war alone. We'd need help. We'd need big friends in high places, who understand the value of keeping a successful liberal democracy and ally intact, at that ally's own request. Because if China wins, it is Game Over for Taiwan. We can't let it happen.

This isn't Syria or Afghanistan - we're not trying to bring down a government. It's not Iraq II, where we not only brought down the government, but did so uninvited. This isn't the same as screwing over Latin America time and time again by supporting juntas and regimes friendly to our interests rather than their own people's. It's a friendly, developed, democratic nation asking for assistance should its spoiled neighbor turn its temper tantrums into real action.

To be clear, I don't mean there ought to be military intervention now, and I hope that just the threat of it will keep China's expansionist garbage in check. I don't want a war - nobody does. But the only way for that to be effective is for it to be very clear: if a war is what China wants, the promise of US military intervention is sincere.

So, I have to be pro-military to some degree. I have to be pro-US intervention abroad. I have to be pro-US arms sales (although we can debate about which weapons we need, we do need weapons). I have to accept that war is a possibility - and it is, because the only possible outcomes here are formal independence or war, given that Taiwan is not going to choose to unify peacefully (and it's not - why would it?). I have to be okay with that so we can get on with the business of figuring out how to defend ourselves.

And yes, it has to be the US - nobody else can even come close to being a real check on Chinese expansionism.

Peace at all costs assumes no cost is too high, but the cost of losing Taiwan is not acceptable. Forcing 23 million people to give up the freedom they fought for because the angry dictatorship next door decided it wanted their land is not acceptable. Encouraging Taiwan to move towards unification (or to peacefully accept annexation) because "the alternative is war" is not acceptable. It might result in peace - China would mightily like it for that reason - but it will not result in justice. And peace without justice is cruel.

We have peace now, but it is an unjust peace. It is quite literally asking the victim - the bullied person - to accept being victimized and bullied for the sake of "keeping the peace". It's goes beyond "can't you two just work together", with its stupidly racialized - or ethnicized or whatever - idea that because people in both countries are "Chinese", that this should be easy, we should desire it and joining the two nations is a desired outcome...because why again? I'm not really clear on the underlying assumptions here unless it's the Western liberals who are  really shilling ethnic stereoty----oh.


It goes straight to asking a successful, developed, liberal democracy to give all of that up and just accept being oppressed under a brutal authoritarian regime because, oh yeah, doing that would be peaceful and peace is the most important thing, more important than preserving the freedom millions of people already have.

Or, it goes straight to something more cowardly: voicing weak support for Taiwan's cause and affirmation that their values are shared by Western nations, while not actually doing anything to shore up an ally's defenses. It's the ~*~thoughts and prayers~*~ of foreign policy. "Oh, it would be terrible if China invaded, so sorry we can't help but good luck!" (Yeah, you thought "thoughts and prayers" were only things insincere conservatives offered. Nope!)

I can't help but draw a mental connection with asking women and people of color in Western countries to accept an atmosphere of harassment, bullying and discriminatory treatment because to confront the bullies and victimizers disrupts "the peace". Keep quiet and suck it up because "keeping the peace" is more important than doing the right thing. "I'm so sorry Cousin Jack called you the n-word, but if I confront him it would ruin Thanksgiving!"

In fact, I really feel like a lot of the talking points defending this worldview come down to this:

"C'mon Taiwan, can't you just peacefully play China's long game, even though you know what they're up to? We have to keep the peace....

...Justice? What's that?

Oh, you want justice. Oh, aherm...yeah...justice is good...ahem..uh...oh my iPhone 8 is ringing. Excuse me."

And if you push back: "No, I don't support authoritarianism abroad, it's just that we can't always get involved, and it sucks that China's so terrible, so sorry."

I just don't have much respect for a worldview that boils down to "dictatorship is bad, mmmkay? And dictatorships shouldn't take over unwilling smaller nations just because they want to. Unless, like, a really big and strong dictatorship that we do a lot of trade with. It's still bad, but, well...we need to keep the trade peace."

This worldview either assumes that freedom, democracy and human rights are only things one need to have for oneself (but are not necessary for others), or that only nations with big militaries - or those not under threat - get to be liberal democracies. Everyone else can suck it.

Or, even worse, it assumes that the liberal democracies of Western nations deserve to be defended, but Asians..."well, they all look the same so whatev Asia is far away and they have to handle their own affairs."

Because come on, you know that if, say, Australia's democracy was threatened, we'd be far more likely to step in. There would certainly be more public support from it, among both liberals and conservatives.

(Yeah, maybe you also thought racism was confined to conservative circles. It's not.)

How on Earth can I say I am against US military intervention abroad when I live in a country that wants the help, deserves the help, is friendly to the West and upholds as essential civic values - freedom, democracy, human rights* - everything Western countries say they believe in and want to promote and defend?

I have to support selling arms to Taiwan. I don't want to support selling arms to anyone, but how can I not? We don't want a war, but if war is brought to us we have to be able to defend ourselves.

I have to support the idea of US military intervention abroad, because while I'd like Taiwan to be able to defend itself without help, I'm not at all sure this is realistic (I hear varying reports on this).

I can't be a localist, because doing so will quite literally choke Taiwan to death. I want to be anti-war, but I just can't if I am going to be pro-Taiwan.

This is especially difficult as, of course, most Taiwanese don't want a war either. This makes sense - war wound devastate Taiwan far more than the US regardless of any intervention it launches on our behalf. It's entirely sensible to try to maintain peace at a bearable-enough cost for as long as possible in the hope that something will shift and movement will be possible.

But I can't rule war out - I can't insist there has to be another way - when I know perfectly well that there might not be.

I could cling, unflinching, to my liberal hippie-dippy core and say "if it comes to that, then we go full Gandhi. We non-violently resist. We refuse to cooperate, but also refuse to fight."

I love that idea, and it worked in another context, but not even the British Empire is as bad as China. Forget non-violent resistance, China will quite literally just kill us - millions of us, should it come to that - before the international outcry would even begin to make a difference, if it ever did. By the time we realized we needed to do more than protest...

...look, what I'm saying is they'd just kill us all, millions if they have to, and not even think twice about doing so. Non-violent resistance works when there is a line your opponent would not cross, and I can say honestly the Chinese government has no such line.

Remember, Taiwan may prefer peace, but so does China.

Everyone wants peace. It's just that some people prefer real peace, and others are just fine with a cruel peace, which is no peace at all.

And if that's how it is, I can't be a dove.

Against my instincts, I have to be a hawk.

Frankly I wish I could convince more liberals to join me. I mean not quite to the point of telling them to stop worrying and love that bomb already, but if they believe in the fundamental concepts of freedom and democracy, then it makes sense to support Taiwan. If it makes sense to support Taiwan, then it makes sense to support defending Taiwan. And if it makes sense to support defending Taiwan, then it makes sense to re-consider the advantages of being a bit of a hawk.



*I have to say I grow less sure of this one as I read more stories of the treatment of foreign workers (and Taiwanese workers to a lesser degree), though.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Latest for Ketagalan Media: Catalonia and Taiwan are not the same - but why does Catalonia get more international sympathy?

I'm back in Ketagalan Media, this time writing about the Catalan independence referendum and why it has received generally sympathetic media coverage, whereas Taiwan generally has not. When it is not being ignored completely, Taiwan's desire for de jure statehood, or at least the right to a referendum on it, is couched in critical terms, with China's claims often leading the story.

Why is that, and why is it a problem? Well, you can read more here. 

Catalonia aside, I think the two biggest issues facing Taiwan vis-a-vis the rest of the world are first, getting the outside world to understand what Taiwanese nationalism is about, and second, changing perceptions that politics somehow works "differently" in Asia (the old "Asian values" nonsense, even though the 90s are over and Lee Kwan Yew - the most well-known proponent of this idea - is dead).

To wit:

There are good reasons for the West to support a referendum on Taiwanese statehood, however. The post-war Western world has moved away from the idea of ethnic nation-states, having correctly decided that pigeonholing people into specific nations by ethnicity only causes more tensions rather than easing them. Yet Catalonia, an area whose identity is deeply fused with ethnic identity, enjoys international sympathy for its desire for a referendum. Taiwan, on the other hand, has no “ethnic” claim to nationhood. It is made up of ethnically Chinese Hoklo and Hakka people, a number of distinct indigenous groups, and a growing number of people from Southeast Asia and the rest of the world who have made Taiwan their home. Its nationalism is today a civic nationalism based on shared values, and these shared values line up nearly perfectly with those of Western democracies.

I cannot emphasize this point enough. Taiwan exists as a place, an idea, an identity and a state because of the shared values of democracy, human rights and self-governance that the Taiwanese share. Taiwan is not an ethnic enclave, so it cannot exist based on ethnocentric reasons (although previously, Taiwanese nationalism was tinged with a fair amount of Hoklo chauvinism, to its detriment). This is an idea that the rest of the free world can and should - I would argue must - support. It worries me that other nations don't understand this - I have heard before that Taiwan ought to be Chinese moreso than Tibet or Xinjiang because at least they are ethnically the same, as though that should matter in the slightest! It worries me even more that some people perhaps do understand this, but don't care.

And there's this:


There may be a deeper, more troubling reason [for the lack of international support for Taiwan] as well. When discussing current affairs in Asia, there is a fear of “imposing Western values on Asians.” Westerners are perhaps more willing to support self-determination by a minority within a Western state; when asked about a territory in Asia, may point to “Asian values” or how politics happen “differently” here, where people view issues of governance, democracy and human rights through a different lens. One might even hear “Confucian” values evoked to defend this stance.
While this attempt at multiculturalism and intercultural understanding is laudable in some ways, when it comes to issues of human rights and freedom, such a view essentially states that these things are for Westerners and are not available to Asians. Or, even more troublingly, that Asians as a whole don’t want them or that they somehow do not apply to Asian cultures. By this logic, Westerners are entitled to self-determination, but in Asia one apparently does not deserve such privileges.
Such a view is acutely harmful to Taiwan, a free and liberal democracy that values self-determination in much the same way Western nations do. Such a view also benefits China, an unfree and illiberal state whose values are in direct contradiction to those of the free world. The Chinese government has said openly that these values, which ought to be universal human values, are merely ‘Western’ and therefore do not apply to them. For the West, to support such a view is to undermine its own moral framework. 

No but seriously, I'm gonna throat-punch the next well-meaning liberal who throws this stale 1990s-era garbage about "Asian values" at me. It happens too often and it's got to stop. Here's an "Asian value" for you: treat people like people. Or do as Lao Tzu said - I'm paraphrasing here - and just chill already. Here's another Asian value: democracy, self-determination and human rights matter. Want to know why that's an Asian value? Because an entire nation of Asians - that is, Taiwan - believes it! In fact I think they'd be offended to hear the idea that they somehow don't deserve these basic rights because Asia is somehow "different", or that they don't need them, or worse, that they don't want them. Or, worst of all, that the mere suggestion that they should have them is itself "culturally imperialist". 

You know who supports the idea that Asia is somehow "different" so the West can't impose so-called "Western values" (which are actually universal values) on them?

Dictators, that's who. Because it's convenient for them to do so - it suits their ends, which are not the ends that any person who believes in human rights and bettering the world can accept.

By acting as though Asia is somehow less deserving, we are helping the dictators, authoritarians and power-hungry expansionist regimes willing to torture and murder their own citizens. Is that really what we want to be doing? 

Monday, September 18, 2017

On China's event horizon and screaming into the void

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Yesterday was my birthday. I turned...well, ancient. That's fine. As a friend pointed out, life keeps getting better, so there's no reason to complain about not being that young anymore. I did all the things that I love to do: seeing friends, organizing things (I completely cleaned and organized my spice shelf, labeling all of the weirder flavorings I've bought in packets and put in jars - sumac, dried lavender, juniper berries, gentian root, black salt, kalonji...), eating Indian food (we went to mik'sutras, the newest offering from the fantastic Mayur Indian Kitchen - review coming soon) and, of course, attending protests.

So, before dinner, we participated in China! Free Li!, dutifully donning red shirts (mine was emblazoned with University of Exeter, because that's the only red t-shirt I have) and going to the Central Culture Park (中央藝文公園) near Shandao Temple to help spell out the words "China! Free Li!" on the grass.

I don't think I need to pretend I'm a real journalist and cover the particulars of the protest: you can read about that here, here and here. I'm even quoted in Storm Media about it (link in Chinese).

What I want to say is this:

I'm perfectly aware that this protest will amount to exactly nothing. Lee Ming-che's "trial" is a joke, the verdict pre-determined. China has set up a toy train with tracks that only run in one direction, and there is little we can do if we're not in the government to derail it. China is not going to free Lee just because we spelled out letters asking it to, nor is the Taiwanese government going to alter its (probably correct) strategy of working to bring him home in a behind-the-scenes way.

Literally not one thing will change as a result of my or any of us attending yesterday. Lee's case and human rights generally in China are a void into which we scream. We are not heard, and there can be no reply because a reply would require some sort of human or collective conscience or system of ethics, and the Chinese government has proven that it possesses neither. By attending, we primarily make ourselves feel better.

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We can "make statements", "send a message", "call on" China, "rally" in support, and all of it is about as useful as writing our statements "calling on China" on construction paper and mailing them in envelopes addressed to "Santa at the North Pole" and waiting for a response.

That's not to say that protests are never useful. Around the world, they have been instrumental in effecting change, although they are rarely the primary force behind that change. The civil rights movement in the United States did not succeed in changing laws and minds primarily because they marched. They succeeded because underneath that a long, hard, quiet campaign of registering black voters, lobbying, petitioning and other forms of less-visible activism created the undercurrent necessary to bring about that change.

What protests do is put all of the activism that actually accomplishes something into the public eye, perhaps providing a catalyst moment, perhaps not, but at least creating some visibility.

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The question is, visibility to whom?

The People's Republic of China is a vacuum - a black hole devoid of any sort of moral or ethical rightness - that is trying to suck up everything on its periphery. Black holes don't listen. They can't listen. They lack the humanity to do so. The government of China, while comprised of human beings, is not humane. There can be no visibility in a system where all light is sucked into blackness, where no light escapes.

I don't even think I'm being melodramatic. It is really that bad. The situation is truly that dire. They aim to not only eradicate the concept of human rights in China, but the world. They aim to force the CCP's amoral, ethics-free, humanity-free way of looking at the world onto the rest of us - and we aren't paying attention - we don't see it coming because they're not using guns to do it.

Taiwan is close to China's event horizon, and yet, outside of Taiwan's activist circles few seem to think this is an immediate threat. We aren't going to be sucked in tomorrow, or this year, or even next year, but black holes know nothing but sucking, and they are going to keep sucking until we - and everything we stand for - no longer exists.

Those are the people I want to see this - that is the visibility I desire. They're the ones I want to hear about this case and the more general threat from China. They are the ones who, as they go about their lives - although I thrive on worry and agitation, I wouldn't want to take from anyone the ability to have worry-free days where they are not terrified for the fate of their country at every moment - should keep in mind that this is a more general threat, and to vote and be prepared to fight accordingly.

I want them to know what it would mean to be on China's event horizon - it means a fate similar to that of Hong Kong. Does Taiwan want a shell democracy in which China decides who stands for election, disbarring and even imprisoning anyone whose beliefs don't fit their narrative? Do they want a shell press where journalists and writers theoretically have freedom, but in actuality are kidnapped, tortured and killed by faceless thugs?

 The Chinese government will hear nothing because voids do not hear, they only exist as a place where sound dies. But the people of Taiwan and much of the rest of the world still possess their right minds and senses. They can see and hear. They are the ones I want to reach, the ones I want to start thinking and act accordingly.

I want them to know that these issues exist, and people care about them. I don't want them to think that Lee, or China generally, are not a threat because people are apathetic. I want them and the world to know we are paying attention and perhaps get some of them to pay attention, too.

It is doubtful that the rest of the world will notice this small protest. I wouldn't even expect them to. But if Taiwan notices, and the rest of the world notices that Taiwan's vision of the future is fundamentally incompatible with China's, that will be one positive long-term outcome.

So I didn't attend China Free Li because I thought it would actually help free Lee Ming-che, or because I thought it would send a strong message to China. Fuck China.

I did it to send a strong message to Taiwan. 

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So after Miao Poya speaks and while everyone's clapping, I shouted "we love you, Miao Poya!"
I'm not sure if I hope she heard me. 

Sunday, June 11, 2017

I should not even have to say that Singapore is not more liberal than Taiwan

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Just one example of the things you can say in Taiwan because this country recognizes basic human rights


I'm hoping to keep this short because I've had a lot of wine (well hello Georgia, how are you? Like wine, do ya? I like wine too!) and really, this should be obvious.

That said, please enjoy my half-addled rant after more than a few rants, I mean, wines.

But I've heard this sentiment expressed twice in my trip so far, once in Athens as we were waiting to board the flight to Yerevan, and once over dinner outside the small town of Alaverdi in northern Armenia, the day before we crossed the border to Georgia.

Both times, otherwise intelligent and worldly people put forward a belief system in which human rights are 'Western', rather than global. That's not what I'm going to address today, though I will if it ever becomes necessary. It seems is sufficiently clear that human rights are global, hence the word 'human'. I'm not that much of an absolutist (nor am I a total relativist), but I do believe that, absent the existence of any god(s), civilization benefits from greater equality - a classically liberal view. As such, fundamental human rights are based on the freedoms necessary to realize that equality to the greatest extent possible. And as such, they are global. Exhibit B: plenty of non-Western countries respect, or try to respect, these basic human rights. Therefore they are clearly not simply "Western". Taiwan is one such country. This doesn't mean I think Westerners are so much more clever than everyone else for having come up with what we refer to when we talk about basic human rights - one good idea does not make a certain model of society 'better', and in any case, they are obviously adaptable to other cultures (Exhibit C is also Taiwan) and therefore not intrinsic to Western culture. Every culture that has adopted them has benefited (Exhibit D - you guessed it - Taiwan). Similar cultures (Exhibit E: China) that have not done so have avoided such a framework to their detriment.

Why do I say all this, when it's not my main point?

Because the opposite belief - that human rights are a Western construct - it underpins what I really want to go after: the idea that Singapore is somehow a model for modern Asia, that it is the system to look up to when we consider a progressive Asian country. That when we consider the best of Asia, that Singapore is at or near the top, along with Hong Kong, and possibly Japan and South Korea. Singapore seems to get the most mentions because unlike Hong Kong, it is independent. Unlike Japan, it is more open to foreign investment, business and residency. Unlike South Korea it hasn't been mired in a series of political scandals and economically seems to many to be the most successful of the old Asian Tigers. (I'm not sure how true that final point is, but a lot of people sure seem to think so).

I've mentioned twice on this trip that if you want a model for progressivism and liberalism in Asia, you must look at Taiwan. Not only that, but Taiwan is the best possible model.

Both times, the rejoinder has been "But - Singapore!"

Both times, I suspect the person talking was thinking about economics, as though promoting free markets and a global economic outlook were the same as promoting classical social liberalism. For some they do go hand-in-hand, but one is not a substitute for the other. It's easy to look at shiny-skyscraper Singapore, with its streets you (mostly) could eat off of, with its (mostly) glossy, Western sheen, and think "a model for liberal, modern Asia!" It sure looks nice, and yes, I've been there. I like Singapore quite a bit for a visit, in fact, and spend a lot of my time slurping sambar with masala dosa in Little India.

Let me be clear: Singapore is not free. Singapore (more or less) has free markets, but it is not free. It was the poster child for the stale and risible "Asian style democracy?!?!?" debate of the turn of the millenium. It was, perhaps, a model for Asia when developing East Asia was considered key and the idea that some cultures do well with less freedom (that is, less access to human rights) still had currency. The idea took as a given that the people in East Asian societies not only wanted but would choose less freedom and fewer human rights because, I dunno, "their culture" or something. As though human rights are not adaptable to any culture. As though Western societies, once lacking rights for non-white or non-male people, did not evolve to include them while maintaining their culture. As though human rights and a greater sense of collectivism were mutually exclusive (SPOILER: they are not).

I won't get too far into how Taiwan's economy is also fairly open - the reasons why it is stagnating are not related to a lack of free markets. Some of the issues are domestic: corruption, brain drain, poor allocation of resources, slow reactions to problems, ineffective ideas, a focus on cutting labor costs and manufacturing when those are two areas where Taiwan will never be - and should never be - competitive again. Some of it is China being a giant flaming asshole.

My point is, if you want to look for a model for Asia in terms of classical liberalism and modernity, look to Taiwan. Taiwan is not perfect, but it is, more or less, free.

In Singapore, making a few YouTube videos criticizing the government merits enough punishment that the kid who did it was granted asylum in the US (the US apparently has kept him detained, but that's another story). Singapore does not have freedom of expression. In Taiwan, marching down the street with a banner that says "Fuck The President" (something I actually saw once) is a protected right (of course, if you say that about a private citizen, you could be sued for 'defamation' and you might well lose - Taiwan's not perfect). There are more erudite ways to make one's case, but freedom of expression doesn't only cover nuanced arguments. Though imperfect, Taiwan is a model for freedom of expression in Asia.

In Singapore, sexual acts between men are still illegal, and marriage equality is not even on the government's radar as a possibility. The annual pro-equality Pink Dot in Singapore is allowed despite not having government support, but international participation is not. Singapore, then, does not have equal rights. In Taiwan we will - we must, as per the Ministry of Justice - have marriage equality soon, and its Pride parade is the biggest in Asia. Taiwan is a model for equal rights in Asia.

Singapore is not a democracy - at least not in the thick sense of the word, which I believe to be the real sense of the word. Taiwan is. Singapore is not a model for modern democracy. Taiwan, warts and all, is. This infographic gives it a lower democracy ranking than Japan or South Korea, but I feel, with more time and less wine (or perhaps more wine), that could be refuted well - for example, Taiwan is consistently ranked as having a freer press, has shaken off the party that used to dominate politics whereas Japan has not, has not had a major presidential scandal on par with South Korea's, and while all three countries enjoy freedom of assembly, Taiwan's actually seems to result in a reasonable amount of change. These, to me, are all important aspects of a full, thick democracy, and in most cases, Taiwan wins. Singapore, of course, doesn't come close.

Singapore does not have a free press. Taiwan has a crappy press that publishes nonsense 'news' while ignoring or mutilating real stories, but it is free. The freest in Asia. Facts can be found, and are hard to suppress, in Taiwan. In Singapore the government acts as though it has the right to withhold the truth from its citizens and use the main newspaper in the country (the Straits Times) as a pro-government mouthpiece.

One area where both countries falter is women's equality. Both have equal rights enshrined in law, but neither has done a great job of turning that into real equality in daily life. In both countries despite equal rights, pay gaps persist, families prefer sons and women are expected to prioritize caregiving more than men (and more than their careers).

In short, although Taiwan's economy needs a jump start, if you are looking for a country that serves as a model for the rest of Asia in terms of how human rights and freedoms can be adapted to suit a non-Western culture, look no further than Taiwan. Taiwan remains a more collectivist culture than any Western culture I know. That cliched old "mix of traditional and modern" stereotype, a favored flourish to many writings on Taiwan by people who don't know the country very well, has some truth to it. And yet, because human rights needn't be a Western construct, Taiwan has managed to adopt them. You may be surprised to learn that their culture has not imploded as a result, just as giving women the right to vote didn't cause Western countries to sink into apocalyptic hellscapes. It's doing just fine. The culture adapted and evolved, as culture does.

OK that was pretty long, and now I need more wine.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Bougainvillea


One of the nicest features of our apartment is that we have a really nice south-facing window with a spacious casement. It looks out over a courtyard with a small playground, not a road, so there aren't any exhaust fumes or loud traffic noises. The light is soft and indirect - perfect for an apartment in a subtropical city, but not great for growing plants. So we keep it simple: a few large plants that we inherited (I don't know what they're called), mint, a few orchids, a fern that took root in an old pot of soil gone to seed, and a big fat fuchsia bougainvillea.

On nice days, I like to open up the screens and occasionally stick my head out into the sunlit air and enjoy the leaves and flowers. I was doing that just the other day - head out, light streaming in, a slight breeze which rustled up the smell of the mint, and swirls and splatters of bright pink flowers. To maintain the "shades of blue" theme from the living room, we added (okay, I added) inexpensive blue glass candleholders and lanterns and had chiffon curtains in shades of green and blue tailor-made.

Side note: when I gave the fabric and design specs to the tailor, her reaction was "this fabric is too thin! You don't want everyone seeing in, don't you? Why not choose a thicker fabric that can keep out the sun, too? The sun will come right through this!"

"That's what we want, and anyway we don't mind if people can see into the living room, not that too many people can. And there are plants to hide the view inside," I bit back.

"You foreigners are so weird."

Convinced she had the right of it, she got to work on my curtains.

Anyway, looking out on those flowers, I became aware of something: it was a Thursday afternoon.

Life is pretty good. I make good money for Taiwan; we live downtown. How many people with apartments nice enough to enjoy the view and the air from their windows and live downtown can, in fact, look out their window to admire whorls of bougainvillea on a Thursday afternoon? Even in Taipei, most people were toiling away in offices. Night would be falling before they could leave.

So I was thinking.

One of the advantages of being an expat - especially if you're from a country with a wide-reaching, globally-influential pop culture (which, sorry other countries, I know that can be annoying), is that you get to watch your own culture evolve from a distance. You're totally fluent in the sociocultural language of your home country, but you're not there, which lends the whole thing a rarefied distance. Not unlike observing the terrain from a tiny airplane window far overhead.

I have a reasonably broad view for Taipei - more than just the street below (there is no street below) and the apartment across from you is considered a good view in the denser parts of this city, or any city, really. But I can see just one courtyard - a broad view of a small space. The view from that window, past those bougainvilleas and their thorns (did you know bougainvilleas had thorns? I didn't until I inherited one), out on a little slice of Taipei is narrower than my extreme wide-angle view of American goings-on - a broad view but from a tiny little window way up where jet planes fly.

And recently, that American pop culture terrain has been marked by the volcanic eruption that is Women. More specifically, Sheryl Sandberg. Her name is the most ubiquitous, it has the most cache abroad (most of the people I know in Taiwan have heard of her, too) and she, like a lava flow, has mostly succeeded in her concerted attempts to bring the discussion about how we treat working women to the forefront of cultural discourse.

I'm not sure if I'm 100% on board with what she says: I don't wish to contort myself into some pleasing, perfect aggressive-yet-feminine, strong-but-not-bitchy Gumby woman. I'd rather just be me, and if some boss who thinks he or she can either walk all over me or that I'm a "bitch" gives me problems, I'll walk away as soon as I'm able. And I'm not a mom, so her advice to working mothers doesn't really impact me much. If I wanted to devote lots of time to work, I could, with very few consequences. And I see what people mean when they say that she can take her own advice - she's a wealthy, established, distinguished woman at the top of the ladder. It's not exactly useful to single mothers trying to put food on the table with the pay from their job as a receptionist at, say, Southern Oconomowoc County Chiropractic Associates.

It's not only Sandberg, of course, I'm only picking the most famous name from among a few people participating in this conversation.

And what I hear again and again is how a lot of these women - not Sandberg, but others - who write about how being a working mom with a flexible job is a great choice, how it works for them, how more women should do it. Most of these women are writers. That's why they write about this, natch! Which is great, but those jobs tend not to have stable incomes (especially tough if you're single, whether or not you have kids), are often harder to pull of with kids at home than you'd think, and really not available as an option to the receptionist at - say - Southern Oconomowoc County Chiropractic Associates.

Either way, a lot of people - a lot of women especially - seem to covet the semi-freelance flex-time lifestyle. Some make it work, some are trying, some have it but only because they can afford to with a high-earning breadwinner partner, some feel like it's a windmill they're better off not tilting at.

Because, let's face it: it's hard to have that lifestyle in the USA unless you've got the backing of a stable breadwinner. Possible, but hard. I don't know about you, but "I'm freelance (because my husband works long hours in an office so we never have to worry about money)" wasn't exactly what I had in mind when I decided to strike out on my own, work-wise. Of course people do make it work, it's just a lot harder. In Taiwan - especially Taipei - it's much easier. I know a lot of people who are making it work without the burdens of living in the USA. I don't know if any of us would be as successful or self-sustaining in the USA. I've met quite a few independent artsy locals (artists, designers, writers) who manage to live independently on that salary in a way that few Americans would be able to. In some ways, Taipei is a city of independent shopfronts, of indie jewelry crafters, of writers, translators, journalists and editors striking out on their own. I don't see a lot of this in the USA except perhaps in Brooklyn, and I can guarantee we all have better standards of living than the indie and freelance folks there.

Which makes me think from my perch at 30,000 feet above my own culture, that it's really a damn shame that there aren't more expat women in Taiwan. If more expat women lived in Taiwan, more of them would realize that if they want, they can have that kind of life here more easily than in the USA.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that while some people can do it in the USA, I never would have been able to.

You can't get around to meet people, promote yourself and meet clients without a car, so there's a whole bunch of expenses. The only city where you can both live near public transportation and not have a car is New York, other cities don't have a good enough network for you to be able to rove about town making money. Sorry, DC, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and Chicago, but it's true. I strongly dislike driving - it would be a major change in lifestyle for me to have to do it, and a major expense I probably wouldn't be able to shoulder to buy and maintain a car with all of its associated costs. People without a lot of money buy cars all the time, sure, but imagine doing it on the freelancer money I'd be making. Yeah, not so much.

If your clients tend not to drive you'll also want to live near public transportation if it's available. Or, if you just want to avoid driving as much as possible, you'll want that too, without having to schlep a mile to the nearest MRT station. So, that'll be a much higher rent or mortgage payment for you. We could conceivably live near-ish a subway station on the American equivalent of my freelance career plus whatever Brendan would do, but it wouldn't be downtown. Forget it. I could not do what I do here and live where I do in the USA. Anywhere in the USA.

Living expenses are astronomical, too. At least, compared to Taiwan, they feel that way. In Taiwan, in months where I earn less, we can squeeze by surprisingly cheaply. We managed it for months without significant problems while doing Delta Module One, when for all intents and purposes I was working part time. You can budget and squeeze in the USA, too, but just not quite to the same degree. In Taiwan it was a matter of "maybe we don't need fancy Belgian beer this weekend". In the USA it would be "maybe ramen is a fine dinner idea every night this week".

In short, I could do it, but my lifestyle would suffer so much that it wouldn't really be the same. I could either have the lifestyle I do now, but work all week and miss out on those sunny Thursday afternoons enjoying the flowers of my labor, or I could have the work schedule I do now but live in a dank little view-less apartment far from downtown and a schlep to everywhere. Other people make it work, but I know that I likely wouldn't be one of them. For everyone who can shout out their windows to the bright, wide world that it's "fine for them! Try it out!", I bet there are ten more people who just wish their windows faced something other than a wall.

Until recently, I wouldn't have been able to pull it off because of this little thing called health care. I'm healthy, but not robustly so. I have had back problems (seem to be fine now) and occasionally get bronchial infections. I get migraines. My family history is riddled with heart problems, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's and a few other fun things, too. I need, need, need health insurance. Taiwan makes that happen for me. The USA...well, we have Obamacare now, and I'm curious about whether that would work for me. But when I left, I couldn't have gone freelance, or entrepreneur, or even worked for a company that didn't have a health insurance benfit, because quite simply I could not afford the health insurance. 

It wasn't a matter of budgeting: in the USA I budgeted myself into rice and lentils, rice&beans, cheap bread and pasta, frozen veggies and carrot sticks with apple slices because carrots and apples were cheap. And I still wouldn't have been able to afford my own health insurance: on an entry-level salary I could barely afford one of the cheaper company plans. Obviously working in companies one would either get promoted or look for something better (not that I thought about such things much back then, within a year I was plotting my return to Asia having decided that the cube monkey life was not for me), but how does one strike out on one's own when one can't afford basic health care?

Side note: this is one reason I will basically never vote for Republicans. Also the "weak track record on women's rights and their party platforms are bigoted against LGBT people", but a big part of it is that they talk big about entrepreneurial spirit, but don't do anything to help would-be entrepreneurs like me. I didn't need lower taxes - I needed health insurance I could afford.

Back to the main topic.

So, while I realize my experience is not the only experience, and my view is not the only view, it's unbearably clear to me that there's no way I could both maintain the lifestyle I have (those gorgeous bougainvilleas in that spacious, sunny, convenient downtown apartment) and have the time to enjoy it (those random weekday afternoons free), as a freelancer in the USA.

I have what a lot of people, especially (but not only) women, want. The freedom to do the job I love on my terms, with flexible time and good pay. I can both have my bougainvilleas and enjoy them, too.

I have this because Taiwan has made it possible. I could not have this in the USA. Even when I needed a visa to stay in Taiwan, I was able to have my own side interests and private classes and more-or-less have flex-time work. It would be remarkably easy for a lot of American women, sick of dealing with sexist workplaces, sick of being told to "lean in" or contort themselves, sick of having someone else dictate when they worked and for how much pay (less than men's), to grab a job that provided an ARC in Taiwan for a few hours a week of English teaching or whatever, and use their extra time to pursue their freelance side work, until they could get permanent residency and chase their dream full-time, or full-ish time - whatever time could be scheduled around not "leaning in", but leaning out of their sunny windows and enjoying a spray of bougainvillea, orchids and mint on a weekday afternoon.

But they're not here, and something tells me they're not coming.

It's too bad. I'd like to share my bougainvilleas.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Divided We Beg...or do we?

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So, I'm not far from declaring officially, to my company, that I won't be signing a new employment contract. I'm posting this online because with only 2 months to go until my current contract is up, I feel it doesn't matter if they find this (although they probably won't). My decision is final. I'll be willing to work freelance for them if there are a few classes or seminars they want me to take (loyally renewing classes, for example, or seminars where they really need someone as deft with the material as me) but I won't stay on contract.

And that got me thinking: I have a friend who, although he does a lot of freelance work, is fiercely pro-union. He's something of a union organizer in Japan, and believes strongly in job security, well-remunerated workers, company-sponsored training and professional development and benefits packages that include fair compensation of annual leave and overtime limits/pay (he's also pro-single payer healthcare, as most of us Asia expats are). I'm totally with him on this - united we bargain, divided we beg and all that. Don't run, organize!

And yet, I'm still giving up employment under a contract and attempting to go freelance, at least for awhile. Why? If I really believe in all that job-security unionized-workers stuff (and I do), wouldn't I be looking for a job with more security, not less? I can't imagine what sort of work has less security than freelance work, and yet I do believe I can make a successful go of it while I start the Delta (I need time and flexibility for that) and look, at my leisure, for a job I want to take at a pay grade I'm willing to accept, with benefits that appeal to me - if I ever find it.

The thing is, my current job does offer flexibility - to me, at least. Not to anyone else. But if I tell them "no", they respect it. The pay is fair. Not as good as it could be, but my main issue isn't the money. I make enough. They generally stay out of my hair. I have to say, honestly, that this past year they've just about been good to me. They've treated me pretty well. I mean they still constantly screw up all sorts of administrative things and haven't quite figured out how to edit materials and keep the edits updated. It took them nine weeks (9 weeks!) to get a non-camera phone for me to bring to a heavily secure client site (I offered to get my own, but I wouldn't have been compensated for it). And they screwed over my husband vis-a-vis residency and work permits in a way that is totally unacceptable. I've stayed this long only because we agreed I'd stay long enough to get my APRC, run out that contract, and not sign another one.

So it's not really true that I am going freelance "for the flexibility", either, even if I am quitting some time after the fact as a direct result of how they treated Brendan.

I've come to this conclusion after a lot of thought: I'm going freelance because while I wouldn't mind a secure job with a salary and benefits*, I have found so far that there are very few companies to which I wish to be obligated. At least not in Taiwan. I mean, certainly when you agree to take on a course you are agreeing to a certain set of obligations and an amount of cooperation. That's not what I mean. What I mean is all the other stuff often found in foreign teacher contracts in Taiwan - from non-competition clauses to deposits (I didn't have one and would never agree to one, but they do pop up) to "we can sue you if" to all sorts of things that give the company power and give the teacher no agency. There is a lot in there about what the teacher must do, what the teacher owes the company, and what the company can do for itself, but often nothing about what the company must do for the teacher or what the teacher is entitled to as a paid employee.

Basically, so many contracts seem to say "We'll pay you X to do Y, and nothing more. We have the right to do A, B and C to you. You are obligated to provide D, E and F to us. You have no other rights. If you do anything we don't like, we can also do Z to you. If we do something you don't like, deal with it. No complaining." The buxiban I worked for in my first year had a contract like that, and my sister had to wade through quite a few preposterous contracts before she found a school she was willing to work for. Even then, it didn't work out - they still treated her (and everyone else) like wage slaves. (Her current buxiban is generally better, although she does not have two consecutive days off).

Wake up and smell the capitalism, I guess.

Why the hell would I sign something like that again, now that I have an APRC and no longer have to?

And as a result, despite my being pro-union and pro-job-security and pro-employer-employee cooperation, freelancing is more appealing to me than formal employment at one firm. No firm, so far, has proposed a contract that enticed me enough to sign it.

One reason, to be honest, I am not signing a new contract is that I see no reason why I can't do just as well taking classes with other companies. I understand why my company doesn't want employees doing that (I wouldn't either), but other companies pay better, can offer classes when mine does not, and so I don't wish to be an employee anymore.

I've met some good bosses in Taiwan - Brendan's current boss seems like a good guy from what I know of him (might be doing some freelance for them, fingers crossed), and the company I'm currently arranging some freelancing classes with for once I'm free are good guys, but the normal obligations of teaching a class are enough for me. I see no reason to obligate myself further. Fortunately, they're on board with that idea. I talked awhile back to another well-known business English outfit. They came pretty close to what I was looking for: paid time off, year-end bonuses, housing allowance, set hours with no overtime, fair teaching hours. At the time they had no openings - it was just an informational meeting - but I'd consider them, depending on salary offered. One turn-off was the fact that the paid leave was set according to their schedule; you really couldn't take time off outside of it. That would normally be fine as the time off given was quite generous, but if I'm going to go abroad to do my Delta Module 2, it may not work for me.

And for other schools and companies, if they can't or won't offer me a contract that gives me real agency, freelancing is still more appealing. I'll take freedom without security to employment without agency.

So, basically that's it. That's how this pro-union, pro-job security, pro-formal employment with benefits girl decided to forgo job security and formal employment with benefits and hit it up freelance-style. I hope things change job-wise in Taiwan for us qualified teachers (I've got nothing to say regarding 22-year-olds with no experience who are coming over for a few years of fun, although maybe some of them will turn out to be solid teachers and will stick with it, who knows?).

Until then, you can find me in my home office, doing my own thing.

*Some benefits bosses in Taiwan might want to consider when hiring qualified teachers: salary with set working hours, REAL year-end bonuses (not NT$6000, try one or two months' salary), regular performance reviews with REAL raises (NT$25/hour is not a raise, it's a joke), paid annual leave and paid Chinese New Year leave, training support - and not the "unpaid worthless training on a Sunday morning that counts toward no qualifications and isn't run by professionals" kind, but the "we'll support you in getting actual certifications and taking actual courses that count for something" kind). Offer me that and I might want to come work for you.