Showing posts with label international_affairs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label international_affairs. Show all posts

Friday, December 27, 2019

Bad backgrounding but good intentions: an eternal problem for Taiwan

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I don't have a related cover photo so please enjoy this rural menagerie


It is so frustrating, honestly, to read a well-intentioned piece that interviews mostly good people (I'm iffy on Jason Hsu) to try to make a point I generally support. Then to open it up and realize it's full of little inaccuracies and bad backgrounding that render it unsharable - and then to see all your friends sharing it, when it's really not that great.

I don't really want to go up against pieces like this as I'd like to see more coverage of what Taiwan and Taiwanese think from the international media. But I can't just blindly support journalism where I think the execution is somewhat poor, either. 


This particular piece by Anna Fifield in the Washington Post gets better towards the end - almost all of my criticisms are aimed at the first half. Let's take a look at a few of these problems, hopefully as an informative tour of how to do a better job writing about Taiwan. 


(I have to run off now - I'll try to populate this with more links to support my points later.)

First, there's the title:

Taiwan’s ‘born independent’ millennials are becoming Xi Jinping’s lost generation

Excuse me, Ms. Fifield.

Taiwan's millenials aren't Xi Jinping's anything.

They are Taiwanese and what they think or do is based on their lives and perspectives, not what Xi Jinping thinks. Xi is irrelevant to their daily existence except as a kind of weird scary dude in the background. Why are we starting this off by framing it through the eyes of China?

But let's not linger on that - often writers don't get to choose the title. This is bad, though, and whoever wrote it should feel bad. 



TAIPEI, Taiwan — The prospect of a “one country, two systems” arrangement for Taiwan — bringing the democratic island under Chinese control while largely preserving its autonomy — has never seemed realistic to lawyer Hsu.

The first issue is fairly minor, but worth noting. "One country, two systems" would not "largely preserve" Taiwan's autonomy. The Chinese Communist Party has already made it clear that to them, "one country, two systems" means Taiwan can keep only the aspects of law and society the CCP deems "legitimate", such as property ownership and personal religious belief (though even the latter is doubtful given how they treat their own people). They have never included "democracy" or "human rights and freedoms" in the model.



With Tsai’s reelection, the divide between millennials who want an independent Taiwan and older generations who have generally been more amenable to Communist-run China will only grow wider. Perhaps irrevocably so.


This isn't wrong on its face - older voters are indeed more likely to vote for pro-China candidates and argue that we need closer ties to "the mainland" (a term that is commonly interchanged with "China" without implying support for unification, but I've noticed has been increasingly aging out of use by younger Taiwanese).

However, not even older Taiwanese are particularly in favor of unification - they've just been convinced that being "closer" to China isn't a Chinese strategy to render Taiwan so economically dependent on China and devoid of global recognition that they could not possibly remain sovereign forever. The younger generation are smart enough to see through this tactic. Some older voters do favor unification as "the ROC re-taking the Mainland". They are delusional.

This is not "perhaps" irrevocable. It is irrevocable. Once the curtain is drawn back it's impossible to un-see the truth.



“Taiwan has not been ruled by China for one day or for one minute or even for one second in our lifetimes,” said Miao, a 31-year-old pro-independence member of Taipei’s City Council, adding that her conservative father is more bothered by her stance toward China than by the fact she’s lesbian.

I hate to criticize Miao Poya as she's one of my personal heroes, but it would have been more accurate to leave off "...in our lifetimes". Taiwan has never been ruled by China as it exists today, and the "China" that held colonial power in Taiwan just cannot be said to be the "same" China (nor was it outright rule - more like colonial control of part of Taiwan) that exists today. Therefore, Taiwan has never been ruled by China, period. 


Unlike many of their grandparents’ generation, who fled the Communists on the mainland seven decades ago, or their parents, who grew up under authoritarian rule, young Taiwanese have never known anything other than democracy and pluralism.

This is not totally untrue - the parents of the current zeitgeist generation knew dictatorship; the youth never did. But it is misleading - "many" is wrong. In fact, only a small minority of their grandparents' generation fled China after losing to the Communists. A few million KMT diaspora showed up. Taiwan already had a population much larger than that - most of today's generation has much deeper ancestral ties to Taiwan. 

Why do articles like this always assume that hardly anybody lived on Taiwan before the KMT showed up? It's true that that wave of refugees had disproportionate privilege once their government colonized Taiwan, and therefore disproportionate impact on 20th century society, but they were in fact a fairly small minority.
Taiwan has been politically separate from the mainland since the nationalist Kuomintang, or KMT, fled to the island when the Communist Party established the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

This is flat-out wrong.

Taiwan and China were politically unified, officially at least, for a few short years in the 1940s. Within two years of the KMT arriving in Taiwan in 1945, unrest kicked up in both Taiwan and China (228 and its aftermath in Taiwan, the civil war in China). By 1949 - just four years later - the ROC had lost control of China, and still could only said to be 'occupiers' of Taiwan as there was no legal basis for their continued rule (an issue which still has not been solved). They were not invited here by Taiwan; they came from a foreign country and set up a government. In effect, they were just another wave of colonizers.

Before that, Taiwan was a colony of Japan. For 50 years. Why do people always forget that?

And before that, it was a colony of the Qing, who were not considered Chinese at the time. It's hard to say definitively that Taiwan could be considered "a part of China" from that history. As I've written:



Arguably, Qing Dynasty China might be considered a Manchu colonial holding, as was Taiwan. Moreover, the Qing only controlled the western part of the island, which for most of that period was not considered a ‘province’ in its own right. Was there one China under the Qing Empire or were there two colonial holdings, Taiwan and China? That’s a discussion worth having for a clear historical perspective.... [note: I've edited this slightly from the original].
It is true that from 1945–1949 the ROC “controlled” both Taiwan and China. Yet China was torn asunder by civil war, and ROC “control” of Taiwan was a postwar occupation conducted at the behest of the wartime allies as their representative....
To boil that complicated history down to “split in 1949” makes it easier to write succinctly, but also implants in readers’ minds the idea that for a significant period of time before 1949, Taiwan and China were part of the same country. That is simply not the case. 

How many times do we have to keep repeating this for well-meaning journalists to get the memo and stop writing about Taiwan as though it had been a part of China before 1949?

Here's my suggestion: "Taiwan, first colonized by the Qing dynasty and later by Japan, was briefly ruled as a part of China from 1945-1949, before the ROC government fled China following their defeat by the Communists."


That's short and accurate, unlike the garbage Washington Post allowed in here.
“This wave of democracy is not stopping,” he [Jason Hsu of the KMT] said. “There is no going back. The KMT is also realizing this. We can have different opinions in how we deal with China, but we all have concerns about democracy.”


Oh, Jason. You are so deluded about your own party and so very, very disappointing. You really don't see how many of them are quiet (or not-so-quiet) annexationists, because they think they would personally benefit? You still don't think Chinese money is pouring in to influence the media and bolster the funding of KMT candidates?

I support the idea that KMTers/pan-blue believers should get a say in pieces like this, so we can juxtapose their views with the pro-Taiwan narrative we know so well as allies. I can see why Hsu is a popular choice - his quotes appeal to moderation and sense, and make the KMT more palatable.

But do the people who quote him realize that his views don't actually represent KMT beliefs more generally, and that he's something of an outsider in his own party? 


Then there's this:
Some 60 percent of Taiwanese ages 20 to 34 now support full independence, up 10 points from a year ago, according to an Academia Sinica poll.

It's not wrong. But more could be said here - the other 40% don't support unification, they support "the status quo". Most people who support that are aware it can't last forever, and some even understand that the longer we continue it, the more time we give China to quietly (or not-so-quietly) attempt to interfere in Taiwan's economic and political systems. Of those, most lean towards eventual independence, not unification.

For almost all Taiwanese, the status quo is independence as Taiwan is sovereign in its current state. The goal for the vast majority has always been independence, with the only question being "what form should it take" and "how long should we wait". It's misleading to imply that support for independence stops at 60%, even though the statement itself is not wrong.

It would also have been smart to note that an even larger number of people identify as only Taiwanese, or as primarily Taiwanese. Those poll numbers exist.


The rest of the article is better - at least, it's good enough that I don't need to pull quotes and tear them down.

But man, in an attempt to clarify for the world that Taiwanese do not see themselves as Chinese and almost certainly never will, they sure got the background on this one wrong. 

Friday, December 20, 2019

An awkward conversation on Andrew Yang and identity (which is not actually about identity)

Andrew Yang (48571504852).jpg
By Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America - Andrew Yang, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link



Before I even begin, let me say that I know there are issues surrounding a non-Taiwanese person writing this. Taiwan is my home, but I'm not from here. I look different and am therefore treated differently. My cultural roots are different.


So, before you read this, go read Catherine Chou's excellent piece in Popula about this issue. (The only thing I'd change is that the article does not specifically call the ROC a colonial entity. It is one -  however, I doubt she'd disagree with me on that, or at least not too strongly.)

It's hard to pull a quote as it's all fantastic, but here you go:



As the PRC has risen in might, it has consistently tried to erase the island nation’s unique political and cultural identity, making it clear that any attempt to shed the ROC framework, or otherwise formalize its independence under the name of Taiwan, might be met with invasion. 
This makes the silence around Andrew Yang’s Taiwanese-American heritage that much more striking. In December 2016, then president-elect Donald Trump was lambasted for taking a phone call from Tsai Ing-wen, the moderate, wonkish president of the ROC, by liberal American commentators demonstrating little knowledge of the relevant geopolitics. In September 2018, Peter Beinart penned an article in the Atlantic proposing that the US secure peace in East Asia by allowing the PRC to take over Taiwan, an argument that has aged poorly in the wake of the Hong Kong protests and the continuing revelations of the internment camps in Xinjiang. As part of a coordinated campaign of intimidation, the PRC recently pressured dozens of multinational corporations to describe Taiwan as ‘Taiwan, China’ or ‘Taiwan, Province of China’ on their websites. 
Given the obvious tensions, it’s worth asking why there’s been so little discussion about what it might mean for international relations to nominate a Taiwanese-American as the Democratic presidential candidate.


With this in mind, I don't want to come at the Andrew Yang identity debate from the angle of talking about how he should identify. That's a personal decision. He can identify as he wishes and I am supremely unqualified to critique the choice (or non-choice) he makes.

Yang's choice does seem to be a non-choice: he's identified as both Chinese and Taiwanese, though he only seems to pull out the word "Taiwanese" when not many people are paying attention. Otherwise, he's either Generic Asian, blunting his Taiwanese family history - though to be honest that's about as much as white America can often process - or using "Chinese".

What I want to add is this: the choice itself isn't the only point. It may not even be the most important one.

When someone makes a choice (or non-choice) between Taiwanese and Chinese, that choice is not made in a vacuum. It's not a level playing field. There are consequences to identifying as Taiwanese - for a US presidential candidate, these could include angering China (a country he'd have to engage in dialogue with if elected), alienating Chinese-American voters, and spooking other voters who read media reporting of the issue. China has made sure there are consequences; this is an intentional strategy. There are far fewer consequences to identifying as Chinese - fewer people are angered. Fewer friends lost. One less whiny big baby government throwing a tantrum. For a candidate, fewer voters alienated.

And on this unfair playing field, Taiwan always gets screwed. Because there are (intentional) consequences, it takes real guts to insist on Taiwanese identity on a public stage. Even privately, I've heard stories of Taiwanese and Taiwanese-Americans losing friends for refusing to acquiesce to the idea that Taiwanese are Chinese.

So to choose not to go down that road is not a mere matter of personal identity. These are not two neutral choices that come with equal consequences. 

I'm not judging that on a personal level; we all make choices about how we present ourselves based on how that will be received, and as I don't inhabit a Taiwanese body, I can't truly know on a personal level how it feels to face this specific set of choices and how they might impact me. Yang specifically faces much steeper consequences for making that choice than most of us ever will; it's important to understand that. 

But, as someone who loves Taiwan, would fight to defend it, and considers it her true and only home, Yang's choice also has consequences for me, for people I love, and for Taiwan. Shying away from the choice to be Taiwanese has implications regarding one's foreign policy, how they'll handle China, and whether they will stand up for Taiwan.

Despite Yang having Taiwanese ancestry, I simply do not trust that he will stand up for Taiwan, or that he is the best choice for Taiwan.  Any candidate regardless of background will face some consequences for choosing to stand with Taiwan policy-wise. 

Besides, I am someone who loves Taiwan enough that I've seriously considered whether I'd die to defend it (or more broadly, what it stands for). Again, it is my true and only home. Yet I don't get to choose to be Taiwanese; someone who looks like me, with my cultural roots, simply can't do that, yet. Taiwan is multicultural in a regional sense, but isn't in the same way that many Anglophone countries are; it's accepted that anyone can be American, but not that anyone can be Taiwanese. I accept this.

It's enough to say I'm an ally; I'll leave it at that.

I don't know if that will ever change, but if I were in a position to stand with Taiwan and make a real difference, I would do so.

As Catherine notes, in a perfect world, Taiwanese is a chosen identity. 




It does sort of hurt to see someone who could choose it, in a position to make a real difference to Taiwan, not do so consistently.

I think it's fair to say that in a world where Taiwaneseness can be freely chosen without the consequences deliberately set by China, Yang (and others) would be more likely to choose it. It's disappointing that we don't live in that world and so he hasn't, although he's under no obligation to do so. 


Regardless of identity, does Yang stand with Taiwan?

If he had an informed Taiwan policy that was good for this country, I wouldn't care how he identified or what he said about it. As above, that's personal. In the end I'll support who is best for Taiwan no matter what they say (or choose not to say) about their background.

Sadly, that person is not Yang. His statements on Taiwan are a mélange of unenlightened, status-quo, China-benefiting pap:



Perhaps his lengthiest public comments on Taiwan so far came in October, when he told CBS reporter Nicole Sganga that ‘the Taiwan issue has been with us for decades’ and that a ‘positive continuation of the status quo should be one of our top priorities’, including ‘a relationship that works for both Taiwan and China’.

You have to be really ignorant of how things work in the Taiwan Strait to think that this situation 'works' for Taiwan. It is begrudgingly accepted by Taiwan for lack of a better alternative, thanks to Chinese bullying and fears of war. But 'work'? Not unless you think Taiwan wants this and wants to be the ROC, and believes in 'One China'. Data consistently show that on all counts, it does not.

This situation works for China, and helps the US avoid taking a clear stand in support of Taiwan. Nothing more. Yang should know that. Why doesn't he?


Yang stated incorrectly that the US has a ‘mutual defense treaty with Taiwan’. (The Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty was abrogated in 1979, the year that the US established formal diplomatic relations with the PRC. In its place, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which governs arms sales to Taiwan and allows for the maintenance of an unofficial embassy on the island, the American Institute of Taiwan.) Yang also failed to clarify that under the ‘status quo’ Taiwan is already independent from the PRC.


Taiwanese, Chinese, American, hyphenated, whatever: I would have hoped that, given his familial ties to this part of the world, that he'd know better and be a better ally to Taiwan.

And Catherine has already done a fine job of pointing out the erasure of Taiwaneseness, even (especially) among Asian-Americans:


The sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen recently described Andrew Yang on Twitter as the ‘first Chinese American presidential candidate’ and responded to evidence of his (sometime) identification as a Taiwanese-American by arguing that the ‘difference between [Chinese and Taiwanese] is much more nuanced’ than her critics seemed to think and that ‘there are Taiwan-born [and] -raised folks who identify as Chinese, not Taiwanese’. Her statements, however, overlook trends in present-day Taiwan, where 73% of people ages 20 to 29 identify as Taiwanese only. Polls now consistently show that fewer than 5% of people living in Taiwan identify as Chinese only. [Emphasis mine].

At this rate, I'll end up quoting the whole piece here! I try not to do that but no matter, I do believe her voice is more important than mine on this issue so it's great if her words take up real estate on my blog.

Angry people will say "stop playing identity politics", "don't tell people how to identify", "that's just ethno-nationalism" or some variation on that theme, and then use that rationale to go ahead and just lump Taiwanese in with Chinese.

In other words, they insist that nobody can dictate identity, and then go ahead and decide how Taiwanese should identify by erasing their existence and considering them Chinese. They seem completely unaware of how the second half of that equation completely negates the power of the first.

Everyone else gets to be proud of their roots and identify how they wish, but when Taiwanese want to do the same, their desire is called 'nationalist' or 'ethnocentric' or 'divisive'.

Erasing Taiwanese identity this way is the result of an intentional strategy on the part of China to influence such dialogue, but people who engage in it seem ignorant of this.

Those same people then go on to have earnest conversations about what identity - including more specific identity - means to them, without considering how this attitude makes it difficult for Taiwanese to do the same. To stand up and be fully themselves, however they may choose to identify and articulate it.

How is it that we agree nobody can tell anyone else how to identify, but Taiwan isn't supported as a potential identity by the very people who say that? Do they realize they're playing a part in the intentional strategy of making it difficult to choose Taiwaneseness?


If you don't see it, consider this: Hasan Minhaj did a whole segment on the Asian-American vote, listed the various ethnic groups under the hypernym 'Asian', interviewed a candidate whose ancestry is from Taiwan, and still managed to not mention Taiwan at all. 

If that's not a case of an Asian-American erasing the possibility of identity for other Asian-Americans, I don't know what is.

What's interesting here as well is that every time I've heard Yang's non-choice discussed, it's under the assumption that he must waver on whether he is Taiwanese American, Chinese American, neither or both because his parents must be KMT diaspora (that horrible term 外省人 which I hope, along with its twin 本省人 will cease to hold real social meaning as expeditiously as possible, for many reasons.  'KMT diaspora' is the most neutral term I could come up with; it includes those who came here not as oppressors but refugees, though many were oppressors and some refugee attitudes supported that.) 

However, that's not the case:




This is backed up by the thread that follows.

Frankly, I don't care where Yang's family comes from or how long they've been here. It's just really interesting that many people have made this incorrect assumption. 


It's a perfect illustration, in fact, of why it shouldn't matter. A few generations on, plenty of grandchildren of KMT diaspora are strong supporters of Taiwanese identity. Many of my friends are - I don't care where they came from; I care about what they think regarding Taiwan. And plenty of people whose families have been here for far longer hold Han nationalist or anti-Taiwan views. Yang is a good example of a person with old Taiwanese roots who still isn't exactly in Taiwan's corner.

It's sad but not surprising, by the way, that Taiwanese identity is associated with 'ethno-nationalism' but Han supremacism/Han chauvinism isn't, even though it's ethno-nationalism in favor of an ethnic Chinese state. Whereas Taiwaneseness is by its nature anti-ethno-nationalist - if Taiwanese and Chinese are ethnically/culturally similar - whatever that means - but Taiwan doesn't want to be a part of China despite this, Taiwaneseness must be founded on something else, no? Something more values-and-history based?


At the end of all of this, considering Yang's freedom to define his own identity, all I can say is this:

If you think allies of Taiwan who can vote in the US are going to support Yang just because he has Taiwanese roots in some sort of identitarian frenzy, you're sorely mistaken. At least regarding me. I don't want 'the Asian guy' - by going that route, he's Generic Asian-ed himself out of my consideration.

There is something to be said for an Asian-American simply being on that stage; it's an important moment of representation. However, as I'm not Taiwanese, I can't speak to whether having Andrew Yang and his non-choice is specifically an important moment for Taiwanese-American visibility specifically. I'd think not, but it's not for me to say.

To repeat my earlier point: his personal identity choice and what he says about it matter less than whether his stated policy beliefs as a presidential candidate show he's a Taiwan ally. I want the socially liberal candidate who is best for Taiwan.

Identity aside, that person is Elizabeth Warren, not Andrew Yang. 


Friday, November 1, 2019

Armenia, Ilhan Omar's vote, Taiwan and China

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Armenian genocide refugees in what I believe is Athens, Greece (probably, though not certainly, Kokkinia) before WWII 

You probably don't think Rep. Ilhan Omar's decision not to vote for the official recognition of the Armenian Genocide, which has drawn a media firestorm, could have any relationship to the Taiwan and China issues...and yeah, you'd probably be right. But I'm like that crazy dude with a shed where the inside is covered in newspaper clippings and photos with thumbtacks and red string connecting them in seemingly random ways, so hop aboard, this crazy-string train's about to sail.

But two things before we kick off: first, I'm not writing this to attack Omar as a person or public figure. I'm not even specifically concerned about a donation she received from an Erdogan ally, though obviously I'm not a fan. She as a congressional representative is actually somewhat irrelevant to the point I want to make - it's the flawed logic behind her choice that I want to address. And secondly, I actually do think that a vote on an unrelated issue by a young super-progressive Democrat has a lot to tell us about why the fight for Taiwan is so hard.

My first reaction to Omar's vote was inherently tribalist: Armenians are my people (on one side, anyway) and they've been fighting for international recognition of the genocide perpetrated against them in Turkey for over 100 years now against a Turkish propaganda machine hell-bent on silencing them to save Turkish face. I exist because the genocide happened, so hear that someone I have otherwise supported voted against its recognition for purely political reasons felt like a hard slap. You know, like the way I feel when progressives I would otherwise support make vaguely pro-China sounds.

I had felt - and still feel - that previous attacks on Omar have been disingenuous. "She disrespected 9/11 victims" was fabricated and I see criticism of the Israeli government and lobbyists - including AIPAC - and the massive sums they spend to further their agenda, not anti-Semitism. Media reporting of her comments makes it difficult to separate what she actually said and how it might be interpreted from the truthiness machine that certainly has aimed in the past to smear her, and for this reason I'm generally more likely than not to lean sympathetic to her.

This time, however, her own office's press release disappointed me. Although I believe she attempted to take an ethical stance (and failed), I wonder what the logic of such so-called 'ethical' stands would result in, if used to justify certain positions or votes on issues related to Taiwan and the region where I live. In fact, a lot of them are already being employed this way.

How so? Well...



"This is just a political move designed to embarrass Turkey at the worst possible time"

"Erdogan's not great, but if we anger him and embarrass Turkey with this political move, he might not hold back on the Syrian border" types were the first I encountered after the news broke. I want to be very clear: it's the sort of thing I heard online. Omar's press release indicates that she doesn't believe this, though none of her actual votes seem to back that up.

In any case, Turkey deserves to be embarrassed over its blatant historical revisionism. More importantly, it's just not a great idea to avoid acknowledging certain facts because it could hurt a dictator's feelings, or to play the game beloved by authoritarians of "you back down on this and maybe I won't commit genocide (again)". That's a game we just can't win. The game was designed to be lost and the only way to end it once and for all is to refuse to play.

You don't have to imagine the same logic being applied against Taiwan now, because it's already happening. I feel like "if we recognize the obvious truth that Taiwan isn't and doesn't want to be a part of China, that could anger China, so we'd better not" has been a decades-long game of political make-believe.

In any case, just as Turkey deserves to lose face re: their ret-con of history, China deserves to lose face over its treatment of its neighbor, Taiwan. 



"She agrees with the content of the bill, but not how it's being used as 'a political cudgel'"


A lot of defenders of Omar's choice made this case, I suppose choosing to interpret her statement that "I also believe accountability for human rights violations—especially ethnic cleansing and genocide—is paramount" meant that she did personally recognize the fact of the Armenian genocide, but did not like it being used as "a cudgel in a political fight".

This is a generous interpretation and plausible, but that's not what I see. Nowhere in her statement does Omar actively recognize that the Armenian genocide happened - no words of sympathy for the descendants of refugees, despite being a refugee herself. Her statement goes no further than to say "genocides everywhere are bad". It does not say "I understand that this genocide happened".

Later she clarified that she does understand that the Armenian Genocide happened and it should be recognized:

"My issue was not with the substance of this resolution. Of course we should acknowledge the Genocide,” she tweeted in response to MSNBC host Chris Hayes. “My issue was with the timing and context."


This is super personal for me, and it does matter that she avoided doing so in her press release. And, as a descendant of the diaspora, "gee golly I'd like to recognize your history but it's just not the right timing and context" is just not good enough. Sorry - it's not.

"I'm concerned about the timing and context" is also political, especially when you're using those as reasons not to do the right thing, which you say you actually believe in.

How about this - this is my history regardless of whether it's convenient for you, so screw your "timing" and "context". Okay?

The same thing is done to Taiwan, by the way. It exists whether people like it or not. Yet how often is Taiwan told "we know you're doing great, it's just bad timing. We can't help you right now, because Big Scary China is there"?

Since I joined this fight (by "joined" I mean "started a blog and helped a few people out behind the scenes", but hey), it sure feels as though Taiwanese and Taiwan allies are asked, over and over again, to sympathetically interpret the words and actions of politicians abroad as wanting to support Taiwan or understanding Taiwan is a sovereign state, when their actual words/actions perhaps don't merit such generosity - and to accept and satisfied that they "believe" in our cause without expecting any real action. Why should we, though? It's been decades. Come on.

I remember when Obama was known to personally understand the truth of the Armenian genocide, but what exactly did he do to concretely further the cause of its recognition? Nothing. Personal belief doesn't mean much in the political sphere, as I see it. Stand up to dictators, damn it - don't just talk about how you'd like to.

This "political cudgel" line of thinking is also applied to Taiwan in other ways: have you heard sentiments along the lines of "we shouldn't support this pro-Taiwan initiative because Taiwan is just a political tool to the people sponsoring it"? I have - often. "I care about Taiwan but not in this call to normalize relations because it's just being proposed to anger China, so I won't actually do anything to further the cause of Taiwanese independence" is another common one. I mean, these guys are probably correct - it's not as though any US administration actually cares about Taiwan - but "the guys who take action that helps us are just using us so we can't trust them, and the guys who aren't doing a damn thing for us actually believe in our cause but we can't expect any action" is simply not a great strategy.

Besides, using a genocide recognition bill as a political cudgel to make a point about not using the recognition of genocide as a political cudgel...doesn't make a whole lot of sense. And I wonder which grandstanding leftie is going to take that stance when it's a bill to normalize relations with Taiwan on the table. 

I don't want Taiwan being used as a political cudgel but I'll take a bill to normalize relations over "we shouldn't use this as a political cudgel" any day.


"Academic consensus, not geopolitics"

If anything, "...accountability and recognition of genocide....should be done based on academic consensus outside the push and pull of geopolitics" reads as a questioning the existence of an academic consensus on the Armenian Genocide, and implying the possibility that it's a manufactured geopolitical narrative rather than a real thing that actually happened. Of course, there is an academic consensus, and it is that the genocide occurred

Omar does clearly know that from her comments linked above, but it matters - it really does matter - that her own press release calls it into question.

And how many people have used "this is a geopolitical game, recognizing Taiwan should be based on consensus [implying there's no consensus]" as an excuse not to support Taiwan, resulting in their doing exactly what the CCP wants? More than a few.


"We can't cherry-pick which genocides to recognize for political reasons"

I agree with this. All genocides do in fact matter. We shouldn't choose which ones to recognize and when for political reasons. We should swiftly condemn perpetrators and take action to stop them as well as help victims. For this reason, we should have recognized the Armenian Genocide long ago.

But "we can't recognize this genocide until we recognize all genocides" just doesn't logically work. I'd rather more genocides be recognized, not fewer. I don't want to believe that "politics is the art of the possible" - I understand that while we "patiently" wait for our fellow people to do the right thing and accept half-assed compromises, entire lives are lived and lost in the breach. At the same time, "if we can't have everything right now, we don't want anything" gets us...nothing. Or, as I've written before, the far left wants the world to embrace its "radical" (not so radical) idea of a better world immediately, without compromise with 'the establishment'. I sympathize with that sentiment. But, in the words of a friend, without establishment allies, nothing actually gets done. No, I don't like it either.

Imagine saying that we can't cherry-pick support for Taiwan when we're not also supporting, say, Xinjiang or Hong Kong independence. I agree we need to support all of these, though their political situations are different, but wouldn't support throwing Taiwan under the bus until the entire CCP empire crumbles (which I hope happens, and I hope they're reading this). 


"Democrats are hypocrites"

Yeah, that's true.

I mean, it does smell a bit fishy for Democrats, who have pressured Congress to kill previous resolutions to recognize the genocide under both Clinton -  and Obama (but also George W. Bush, and Hillary Clinton's been no paragon of virtue on the subject, so this goes both ways), to suddenly up and vote for it like so:



Most recently, Newsweek reported that the Trump administration considered threatening Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with U.S. recognition of the Armenian genocide if the Turkish army invaded northern Syria following the U.S. military withdrawal. After Turkish forces swept into northern Syria, congressional leaders — incensed by Ankara’s belligerence — announced that a vote on the most recent iteration of the Armenian genocide resolution will be considered this week.

I don't support Omar's choice, but can we all just agree that sucks?

But ultimately, as I noted above, Erdogan deserves to be threatened with something, and we're talking about historical facts here. Even those Armenians who understand that this is all a political game and everything's a tool - including the tool that Omar herself used - seemed to want it to pass. After all, recognition even in this way is better than yet another failed bill. From the same op-ed:



The bipartisan sport of killing Armenian genocide bills and weaponizing the suffering of its victims must end. By passing this resolution, the House can help ensure that the Armenian genocide is acknowledged and commemorated, but no longer exploited.

Think about it this way: once the thing is passed, it can't be used this way in the future, and we'll have done the right thing!

Even Omar probably wanted it, or something like it, to pass, as she chose to grandstand when she knew it would (that's why this is not really about her).



In the context of Taiwan, I don't know anyone who welcomes support from the US who doesn't realize that Taiwan is a poker chip for them, and that few in the US government actually care about Taiwan, or Hong Kong, or any of it. But they - we - welcome US support nonetheless because what other choice have we got, really? And what other choice have the Armenian diaspora got after so many failed attempts?

As I see it, the Democrats might be hypocritical from the perspective of a few decades, but it's better that they are doing the right thing now than keeping up their old anti-recognition bullshit to be more consistent.


Principles should make sense


So, it's unclear to me exactly what Omar was trying to take a principled stand on. The use of good bills as political weapons? Okay, but she also used the same bill as a political weapon. That we shouldn't use this otherwise good bill to threaten an evil strongman? That doesn't make sense, and her own press release said Turkey deserved a rebuking and that Syrians and Kurds were in trouble. That we should refuse to discuss anything until we are ready to discuss everything? Not useful. Hypocritical Democrats? Sure, but so what? How does that actually help the Armenians?

The same question can be raised about Taiwan - if you oppose using Taiwan as a political tool, well, I agree. But how would it help Taiwan to oppose US support for Taiwan, realistically? 


Who wins from these games?

Dictators around the world, in that they get to watch liberals, including US Democrats, tear each other apart. 

But also Republicans. Democrats get to talk big about universal liberal values but when the weakling fancy lad centrists among them waffle on actually promoting those ideas abroad (but are fine with exporting the worst parts of American crony capitalism), and the most progressive among them want to call them out for it by not voting for resolutions that actually espouse their values, what use are they really? Though far from perfect, domestically they at least sort of nod in the right direction, usually. Abroad, they look like a bunch of neoliberal pseudo-realpolitik (yet also spineless) jerks and, to be frank...they are.

And then Republicans get to swoop in with their "we support Taiwan! We support Hong Kong! Look at what China is doing!" and seem like they're the big champions of freedom and human rights, and that looks great.

Except domestically, their party is actively trying, once again, to disenfranchise voters they deem undesirable. They are trying to take bodily autonomy away from women to a degree that not even corpses are subjected to. They consistently fought marriage equality until they couldn't anymore and turned their attention to attacking trans people's rights. They are not the standard-bearers of freedom and human rights in the US, period. 



It's really not about Ilhan Omar

My main point here is this: when we apply the "but you can't do the right thing now, it'd make you a hypocrite!", "I won't vote for this thing I agree with until conditions are absolutely perfect and also I get a unicorn!", "I'm going to use this as a political tool to demonstrate how it's wrong of you to use it as a political tool" and "let's not do the right thing if we're (only) doing it to anger dictators" logic that Omar used in her absolutely stupid decision, it starts to look really scary for Taiwan.

It makes it harder for previously weak-spined liberals to finally do the right thing. It makes it impossible to get anything done. Everything is a political tool whether we like it or not, including Taiwan, and no, we don't get better choices just because we really, really want them. I don't want people like Omar using Taiwan as a cudgel any more than I want anyone else doing it. We should do the right thing to anger dictators, always.

If we want the Armenian genocide recognized, regardless of the extenuating circumstances, we should recognize the Armenian genocide, not...not do that because we don't like the timing. If we want Taiwan to be truly free and independent with the support of the democratic world, we should support a truly free and democratic Taiwan, not do what Democrats seem to love, talking like, aw jeez, y'know, I hear ya, but it's just not a good time, I mean...trade...you know.  iPhones and such. So we'd like to but, oh golly, we can't. So sorry and being absolutely no use whatsoever.

And then when we finally get a real shot, a few defectors weaken us all with "oh but we can't, that's just politicking and we're above that".

No - if you want a thing recognized, whether it's Taiwan or the Armenian Genocide or whatever, recognize it

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

If the Hong Kong government delegitimizes protests now, what happens in 2047?

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I try to take a break for a day then Carrie "Lizard Woman" Lam makes me work. Damn it, Carrie. 

News broke today that Carrie Lam has announced the full withdrawal of the controversial bill that would have allowed extraditions of suspected criminals in Hong Kong to China, which has a deeply flawed justice system (China has a conviction rate of 99+% and lacks an independent judiciary). As the bill was already essentially dead, it's being called a symbolic gesture of conciliation to the Hong Kong protesters in an attempt to quell rising unrest in the city.

So...great. Right?

The thing is, this solves nothing. The extradition bill was the match set to dry kindling. Saying "the match has been put out" can't stop the fire it's started. 


First, this is likely the easiest move for the government to make vis-a-vis the protesters' demands, and is likely a maneuver to delegitimize further protest in the eyes of the greater Hong Kong public and the world community. Many will see it as a "victory" for the protesters, and wonder, if they've "won", why they're still on the streets (if the demonstrations continue)? They'll start to question the purpose of mass gatherings that have routinely ground crucial city infrastructure to a halt. More conservative locals will consider the protesters an inconvenience - many already do. The huge turnouts we've been seeing will turn to a trickle, without a clear rallying cry, and those who are left will be labeled as "radicals".

This is exactly the intent of the government: give them the thing that is already a fait accompli, so that further demonstrations can be delegitimized.

Much of the international media will probably play along, because they don't know how to narrate the truth of the matter: that Hong Kong may be legally part of China but that 'legality' is a form of barely-disguised colonialism, and China is not and can never be an appropriate steward for Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, the arrests will quietly continue, and those targeted will start to slowly disappear. Sentences will be harsh, because the government won't have retracted the term "rioters" to describe them. Police who have engaged in unconscionable brutality and violence will keep their jobs; there will be no full inquiry if the government can help it.

If the government retracts the term "riot", that entails forcing them to admit that this sort of large scale social movement and civil disobedience is acceptable, not just to the Hong Kong government, but also their masters in Beijing. And if there's one thing Beijing wants to make it clear is unacceptable to them, it's exactly this. Plus, they'd have no grounds to execute (perhaps literally) their plan above to begin arresting and disappearing protesters.

What's more, they'd have less justification for taking those same actions later, as the end of the 50-year "One Country Two Systems" draws closer and creates more unrest. They know perfectly well they're going to have to deal with escalating protests, and they want to ensure that there's precedent to label the protesters 'separatists'
, 'radicals' and 'rioters' so as to more easily punish them.

Remember how they didn't outlaw freedom of speech in Hong Kong but slowly went after journalists and publishers through abduction, stabbing, threats and other, subtler means? In such a way that it could never be definitively linked back to the government?

Yeah, like that. That's also their plan for Taiwan, by the way.

If the government opens a full inquiry into police violence, that amounts to admitting that the police engaged in unreasonable violence: opening such an inquiry and then concluding that inquiry with "well, we didn't find any instances of police violence! They used reasonable force!" will just spark more protests. It also would require scores of police officers to lose their jobs, which would look bad for the government.

When the protesters - dissidents, really - rightly claim that trust between the police and the public has broken down, the government will gaslight them, and portray them to more conservative Hong Kongers and the world as unreasonable and hotheaded.

Think of it this way: why would a government that fully intends to become authoritarian within the next 30 years admit that the police were violent and the protesters were right? They're going to need those police officers to beat up more protesters over the next few decades, and those officers need to know that acts of brutality against pro-democracy demonstrators will go unpunished. There's no other way for a planned authoritarian state to prepare for what's to come.

Much better to try to wrest back the narrative from the protests now, so that they lose local and international support. There's already a far-too-loud contingent of tankies who are shouting that this is all a CIA plot, or that the protesters are Western imperialism-loving neoliberal scum (or whatever), and they should just shut up and learn to love living under an unfree dictatorship because 'if the West is bad, China must be good'. 


Nevermind that all the protesters are asking for are the same rights and freedoms that Westerners enjoy - only the evil West can "do imperialism", and I guess human rights are just for white people or something (barf).

Those voices will gain more traction. This is what China wants. 


The whole time, both the government and the protesters will know that the movement has in fact failed, and the government will have successfully taken away the ability of the protesters to garner international support.

You know how people who know about the Sunflower Movement often consider it a success because the trade bill that sparked the occupation was essentially killed? And how the Sunflowers themselves have been known to refer to it as a failure, because it brought about no lasting change in Taiwanese politics? Yeah, like that.

Because, of course, the ultimate desire of the Sunflowers was to reshape the way we approach political dialogue and Taiwanese identity vis-a-vis China. The ultimate goal of the Hong Kong is even clearer: true democracy. It was never wholly about extradition to China, not even when this began.

Which leads me to the last part - universal suffrage and 2047.

Seriously, if the protests hadn't broken out now, what did you expect was going to happen 28 years from now?

The Hong Kong China government was never going to offer true universal suffrage or true democracy. It wasn't willing to do that in 2014, and it's not willing to do that now. It has never intended for Hong Kong to move towards universal suffrage; the intent was always to veer away from that, and towards authoritarian rule. The plan is still on for China and Hong Kong to fully integrate in 2047, and the essential problem remains that Hong Kongers simply do not want to live under a fully Chinese political system. They don't want it now, and they'll never want it.

Even scarier, if China did offer Hong Kong more democratic reforms, ultimately they'd try to control that democracy through subtler means - the same way they've been interfering in Taiwanese elections despite having no authority in Taiwan. 


That's a problem that has no solution - there is no middle ground. Even if there were, the CCP is not a trustworthy negotiating partner. As I've said before, there's no emulsifying ingredient for compromise between China's oil and Hong Kong's water. What China plans in the long term is wholly unacceptable to Hong Kong, and what Hong Kong demands is wholly unacceptable to China. Period, hard stop, brick wall, what now?

So while Hong Kong China tries to stave off current protests, the larger problem still looms: what exactly are we going to do as we approach 2047? 


I've said it before and I'll say it again - we all know how this ends. Even if the protests die out tomorrow, in the long run it either ends in a broken Hong Kong, or it ends in a bent-and-cowed China that allows true democracy to flourish within its borders.

Which do you honestly think is more likely? 

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Being a democracy activist in Asia is an act of extreme courage

Screen Shot 2019-08-31 at 12.19.45 AM


Asia woke up this morning to the news that several Hong Kong activists were being arrested or attacked for their alleged roles in the ongoing protest movement there. Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow Ting, Andy Chan, Jimmy Sham, Althea Suen and more (including some pro-democracy lawmakers) have been targeted in various ways - cornered and beaten, shoved into private cars and taken to police stations to face charges or arrested at the airport before a planned trip abroad. One activist was released from police custody and then attacked.

These are only the high-profile arrests. Hundreds more have been quietly arrested in previous weeks:



Notably, the Civil Human Rights Front march that Jimmy Sham was likely involved in organizing hasn't taken place yet. 

What that means is that these activists are being targeted - arrested or beaten - in some cases for things that China Hong Kong anticipates their doing, not things they have already allegedly done.


I cannot stress this enough. It's full-on Minority Report, as a friend put it: arresting someone for a "crime" that has not been committed (yet, allegedly, not that a peaceful march is a crime at all.)

That's not the sort of thing well-functioning societies do; it's the sort of thing fascist states do. It's White Terror. It's pre-massacre. If that alarms you, it should. 

The march has been officially canceled but I'll be very interested to see what actually happens tomorrow. 

These demonstrations are officially 'leaderless', and while organizers certainly exist, it sure looks to me like the Chinese Hong Kong government just decided to go after former protest leaders and other activists almost randomly, either assuming that they must be somehow involved or not caring and just looking to arrest some public pro-democracy figures on whatever charges they could drum up. 

In fact, there are serious doubts as to whether Joshua Wong had a leading role in the Wan Chai demonstration:



That this sudden crackdown on pro-democracy activists happened right before this weekend's planned march hints at China Hong Kong's true intentions: not to actually bring 'leaders' of these demonstrations 'to justice', but rather to scare demonstrators into ending the movement.

Add to this the detention in China of British Consulate employee Simon Cheng on unclear grounds (Cheng has since been released) and the disappearance of Taiwanese activist Morrison Lee after entering Shenzhen (in China) from Taiwan, and you've got yourself quite the 'crackdown' list indeed. What's more, with Cathay Pacific now stating that any employee who protests this weekend or joins the planned general strike next week may face termination, other companies are likely to follow suit. Even more than that, there are rumors of Hong Kong locking down its Internet access much in the way China does its own.

Perhaps most terrifying of all, Lizard Person Chief Executive Carrie Lam said that "all laws" were on the table as possible tools to end the protests. This includes the absolutely terrifying Emergency Regulations Ordinance, which is basically a state of Martial Law:


Such regulations grant a wide range of powers, including on arrests, detentions and deportations, the control of ports and all transport, the appropriation of property, and authorising the entry and search of premises and the censorship and suppression of publications and communications. 
The ordinance also allows the chief executive to decide on the penalties for the offences drawn under the emergency regulations, with a maximum of life imprisonment.

All of this was done by the Hong Kong government officially, but we know who's really running the show. To wit:


The Chinese central government rejected Lam’s proposal to withdraw the extradition bill and ordered her not to yield to any of the protesters’ other demands at that time, three individuals with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.... 
Beijing’s rebuff of Lam’s proposal for how to resolve the crisis, detailed for the first time by Reuters, represents concrete evidence of the extent to which China is controlling the Hong Kong government’s response to the unrest.

Of course, it's unclear what China hopes to gain by escalating rather than choosing a path that would bring peace (do not think for a moment that they couldn't choose such a path; they just don't want to. Don't pretend that Beijing is not responsible for its own choices.)

Is it a trap to provoke protesters into actions that could be spun by Chinese state media as "violence" and used as justification for further crackdowns?





Or, perhaps China Hong Kong isn't sure at all what to do about a leaderless protest with very specific demands - including the one thing they are completely opposed to offering (that is, true democracy) - is desperate to stop it, has started panicking and has started randomly arresting figureheads thinking they're all the same kind of 'roaches' anyway. Or, perhaps,  China Hong Kong law enforcement really is stupid enough to believe that these arrests along with talk of 'emergency powers', random attacks and disappearances and more will 'scare' democracy activists away and end the protests. (It won't.)

I don't know, and I'll be watching social media carefully this weekend just like everyone else to find out what the effects will be.

Given all of this, all I can say is - it takes guts of steel to be a democracy activist in Asia these days. Not a dilettante at a keyboard like me, but the ones in gas masks on the streets, the ones likely to be arrested, attacked or disappeared. That's true regardless of where you come from in Asia, and is especially true in Hong Kong now.

It's dangerous to travel, as you never know which countries might detain you at China's request as Thailand did with Joshua Wong. A Taiwanese activist friend of mine has said that as a result, he worries about travel to other parts of Asia. The Philippines, an ostensibly democratic nation, is turning 'death squads' on political activists. Constant threat of attack, detainment or disappearance bring both pride and anguish to their families. Taiwanese and Hong Kong activists now disappear in China regularly - Lee Ming-che, Simon Cheng, Morrison Lee - those who are banned from China got the better deal than those allowed to enter only to be thrown in a cell.

And yet, the protests must go on. The activism must continue. Having guts of steel is necessary, because giving in is not an option. They are not wrong - China is - and it's therefore on China to do the right thing. (They won't.)

For a part of the world that is relatively politically stable (well, outside China) and well-developed, it's an absolute tragedy that this is what one risks when one stands up for the basic right of self-determination, even in the Asian countries that protect such rights.

That leads me to a darker thought. During the 2016 US presidential campaign, I remember Hillary Clinton making an off-the-cuff remark (spoken, and I can't find video) about how the international affairs landscape had changed since the '90s - she said something like "we all believed it was supposed to be the End of History", admitting through her maudlin tone that it had not and would not come to pass. 


I remember Clinton shrugging it off, like "oh well, guess we got that one wrong", as though that's all there was to it. A scholar wrote a thing, we believed that thing, we acted according to our belief in that thing but...haha funny story, turns out he wasn't quite right that free markets under neoliberal capitalism through globalization and wealth creation would bring about liberal democratic reforms in currently illiberal nations and that didn't actually happen lol  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ !

But sitting here in Asia watching people I follow on social media - and in a few cases have some mutual friends with - be arrested or attacked for things that either haven't been done yet or would not be crimes even if they've committed them, it makes me furious. Beliefs like that led the rest of the world to praise China's rapid (if uneven, unreliably measured and volatile) economic development while not saying much at all about continued political oppression there, their escalating nationalist and fascist rhetoric, including 'moral education', and increasingly aggressive expansionism.

And now that big, mean giant is trying to call the shots in Asia well beyond its own borders, and is actively threatening exactly the democracy activists those '90s wonks would have wanted - nay, expected - to succeed.

Basically, the West's oopsie! on believing that freer markets would lead to freer societies has instead led straight to all of the dangers - including threats to their lives - that these brave activists must now face. Believing in hackneyed political philosophy and acting on that, it turns out, has real consequences.

Most of the blame for the poor current state of freedom and human rights in Asia lies with China. Some lies with a few other nations, but none are as powerful as China. But some of it lies with us - the West. We could have figured out in 1989 - the year of both Fukuyama's essay on The End of History and the Tiananmen Square Massacre - that we couldn't just rely on China to liberalize, and that freedoms must be consistently fought for and sometimes paid for with blood. We could have done right by Hong Kong before 1997, actually giving Hong Kongers a say and a true democracy then, rather than relying on China to do the right thing when it was so very clear that it would not. We could have woken up to the need to stand by Taiwan far earlier (some still haven't woken up).

But we didn't. Oops. And Asia suffered for it. 


Another bit of ‘90s era claptrap that hobbles today’s activists in Asia is the notion of ‘Asian-style democracy’ - relentlessly prompted by people like Lee Kuan-yew. This preposterous notion that it’s OK for democracy in Asia to be a bit more authoritarian and much less free ‘because of culture’ - which is what its rationale boils down to - made it that much harder for the millions in Asia, who never consented to this quasi-authoritarian model of limited democracy, to fight for the same freedoms that Westerners expect and enjoy. And it made life more dangerous for activists working for those goals, and who understand that human rights are not ‘cultural’, but universal. That they exist in large numbers and persist in their goals shows that the ‘different cultures’ argument is ultimately specious. 



Asian strongmen - the ones who benefit from the normalizing of this belief - still use the ‘Asian-style democracy’ argument to justify their tactics, China uses the ‘East-West values’ argument, and some Westerners, especially lefties and liberals, lap it up. It allows them to feel good about themselves for understanding ‘cultural differences’ while offering them an excuse to sit back and do nothing without moral guilt. Meanwhile, people who share their vision in Asia fight, are injured, disappear and die, ignored. 

Alongside ‘the end of history’, the troublesome persistence of the ‘Asian values’ paradigm has actively hurt democracy activism here, and continues to harm them. 

Arguably the logic behind the Handover was rooted somewhat in these beliefs (they were popular notions when it was being negotiated in the ‘80s and ‘90s). And now, Hong Kongers are feeling the result. Bad beliefs aren’t just oopsies. They have consequences. 

And now, thanks in some small part to us,  must be very brave and willing to risk everything to fight for democracy in Asia, and we are going to need a lot of gas masks, a lot of umbrellas, and wave upon wave of courageous people.

It should bother you, then, that the people - many of them young, some even teenagers - who are fighting on the front lines of the battle for democracy against authoritarianism are not fighting just for themselves, but for you. This is the front line but if you think China's not coming to subvert your democratic norms too, you're blinkered. In some cases, they already are. It should bother you a lot that they're fighting for themselves and for you, when you helped create a world where it was necessary for them to stand up in the face of bullets, 'private cars', trumped-up arrest charges, water cannons and tear gas. It should bother you that they're risking their livelihoods and their lives to fix a problem you helped create.

And it should bother you that the rest of the world is not standing with them as much as they should. It takes courage to be a democracy activist in Asia, and even greater courage to continue to fight when the world does not necessarily have your back.

So, fellow Westerners, global middle and upper classes, and political influencers. The next time you pat yourself on the back for buying into something that sounds so very clever, think about how many Joshua Wongs are going to end up disappeared, in jail or dead if you are wrong. Think about how many people might have to be brave because you wanted to think yourself smart. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Are things getting better, or worse? - Hong Kong, Taiwan and the world

I hope you enjoy my terrifying gif

At a wedding this past weekend, some friends and I were discussing anxiety, perception and the state of the world. Someone pointed out that most global indicators (except climate change) have in fact been improving: crime rates in previously high-crime areas, global extreme poverty, overall rates of conflict, child labor, child mortality and global income inequality - these are all on the downswing. Life expectancy, productivity (and even leisure time, though it doesn't seem like it), access to electricity and clean water, percentage of people living in democratic nations) are all on the rise.

In short, we didn't know that things were much worse back then, because we didn't have access to the kind of news coverage we do now: so much so that what we are able to know about current affairs far outstrips our ability to take any meaningful action regarding it. (Well, hello Xanax. How are you today?)

Okay, great. But then why do things still feel like they're getting worse? It's not that the argument above is too abstract - I'm quite capable of hearing that overall crime rates are lower than when I was young and the world seemed safe and taking it into account, even feeling a little soothed by it.

It's that the specific situation we're actually living through in Taiwan and Hong Kong is in fact getting worse.

In other words, it's not that the livestreams from Hong Kong I was glued to last night, in which white-shirted gangsters thought to be in collusion with the Beijing government attacked protesters, made me think that the whole world was spiraling toward Hell and none of those positive indicators above mattered. It's that in the specific part of the world where I live, this is the new reality, and it's not looking good.

In Hong Kong and Taiwan in 2014, while gangsters caused trouble for the Occupy Central protesters in Hong Kong and attempted to do the same in Taiwan to the Sunflower Movement and other protests, at least in Taiwan there was a modicum of police response. Though even that seems to be growing more rare: in early 2017 the police protected Hong Kong activists who'd come to Taiwan for a form hosted by the New Power Party, but by late 2017, they didn't seem to be responding much at all to random gangsters beating up protesters. By 2018, there were questions about how close the gang-affiliated associations thought to be sending these thugs really were with the Taiwanese police, and it's already well-documented that they have ties to Beijing and pay protesters (and presumably thugs) to create nuisances that they themselves don't want to seem directly involved in. The whole "China hires gangsters to do their dirty work" is not at all new.

Beijing's actions - and attempts at forcing both Hong Kong and Taiwan into submission - are also getting more obvious. Just a few years ago, it felt as though Beijing was still making a serious yet flawed attempt to at least present a veneer of a workable "one country two systems" framework. It was always a bad deal and nobody bought it, but it had a vintage sheen of politesse. It was ultimately meaningless but at least provided Taiwan and Hong Kong with some maneuvering room to provide some meaningless verbiage of their own as their way of saying "no thanks". Yes, they kidnapped and attacked booksellers in Hong Kong, they erected an entire tourism industry and tried to make us believe it was vital to the economy (it wasn't) only to take it away the moment Taiwan elected someone they didn't like. They've always had ties to certain gangs and alliances in Taiwan and tried to push through their agenda via a Ma administration amenable to their demands.

But Ma was a pro-China president, not a president maneuvered into place by China (though certainly they supported those who supported his candidacy). China attempted a stronger media presence as well, and were rebuffed. If things seemed critical before the Sunflower Movement - and they also seemed critical for a period in 1996, but China was a lot less powerful then - there were inspiring anthems and 2014 and 2016 elections to look forward to. In 2014 there was still a shred of belief that Hong Kong police served and protected Hong Kong citizens, and their presence was not a reason to feel unsafe per se.

Now, in Hong Kong the government just outright calls protesters "rioters" (for a little spray paint and broken glass, and breaking an approved protest route but attacking no one unprovoked) while not mentioning thugs committing actual violence that seem increasingly likely to have been hired by Beijing or pro-Beijing proxies. They attack protesters as though they are criminals. Chinese officials call pro-independence supporters in Taiwan "war criminals" - as though that is even possible. When a majority of a population believe something, that's not a "war crime", it's public consensus.

One candidate for president in Taiwan is a straight-up literal Manchurian candidate, and he's freakishly popular in that weird brainwashy way that Trump seems to be - people loving him for his rhetorical style and not caring that there's no substance behind it. You know how in Snow Crash, people would start randomly uttering syllables that were presumably ancient Sumerian, and follow directives based on them, due to some sort of neuro-linguistic virus? Well. (I suspect pro-China types are simply paid). Even scarier? He might actually win.

And now, in Taiwan, years after the anti-media monopoly movement, few imagined that pro-China forces would stop attempting to openly buy Taiwanese media outlets, but rather that Beijing would simply infiltrate the ones that already exist and give direct orders to their editors. That they'd have them publish pro-China garbage directly from the Taiwan Affairs Office without even bothering to change the characters from Simplified to Traditional Chinese:






You could say the bad guys are getting sloppy, not things getting worse, but I read it as the CCP just not caring anymore - they've realized that with all of the tools used to foment instability in the US (fake news, rallies at which speakers spout meaningless but exciting populist garbage that stokes discontent and chauvinism, trolling, both-sidesism and using the fourth estate's commitment to freedom of speech against itself) and with a particularly Chinese element of paid thugs + plausible deniability, that they don't need to be sneaky or clever about it anymore. They can just be aggressive dicks.

How can I look at all that and say "things are getting better"? Sitting in my Taipei city apartment and knowing that what's happening in Hong Kong is China's plan for my own city in just a few short years, the two ideas simply do not reconcile.

The obvious answer is that things are getting better with the exception of this regional strife - that the world is a better place, there are fewer conflicts overall, and this one is relatively contained: it only dominates my thinking because it's happening in my part of the world.

But that doesn't square either. In fact, a lot of things are getting better in Taiwan - just not the China issue. Taiwanese identity and independence remains higher than it had been in previous decades despite some fluctuation. Transitional justice is finally a thing that's really happening. I would argue that Tsai, while imperfect as all leaders are, is the best president Taiwan has ever had (and might write an independent post to that effect). While progress is slow, indigenous issues are gaining traction. The economy is actually pretty strong, considering the global economic situation. The state of journalism is a perpetual concern in Taiwan (when it's not straight-up fabrication or editorializing, or disproportionate coverage with an agenda, it's trash like "Ko-P farted in public! News at 11!"), but there is still robust public discourse to be found.

No, what worries me more is that, both globally and regionally, whenever a bunch of statistics are put together to show us how much better things actually are now, they always seem to come with caveats, and those particular caveats are exactly the deeply serious threats that can sink everything else. Even looking at the two articles I linked to in the beginning, they mention the squeezing of the middle class  (even alongside the other benefits of more porous borders) and the decline of liberal democracy as two things that are going in the wrong direction (and the latter, as I hope I've shown here, is entirely intentional). I'll go ahead and add climate change to that list because...duh. There's also an argument to be made for free markets - by which I do not mean capitalism as it currently exists - but I won't go into that here.

But aren't all of those other improvements we've seen in the world attributable in part to the rise of robust middle classes in developed and near-developed countries, the beneficial effects of liberal democracy which ostensibly aims to benefit all people rather than enrich a few, and stable climate patterns around which economics, human health and agriculture can be planned? Aren't these three things - income equality and upward mobility, liberal democracy and the natural surroundings we build societies in - not so much just three more indicators in a sea of indicators, as the platforms on which all the other indicators rest, and on which they are contingent?

Taiwan and Hong Kong are perhaps particularly threatened by all three. Income inequality in Hong Kong is a major issue; it's not nearly as bad in Taiwan but still a problem, mostly due to low wages. Even so, the KMT has done a fantastic job of convincing Taiwanese that it's a massive issue unique to Taiwan that only they can fix, rather than a global trend we can only hope to mitigate, not obliterate, even when economic indicators are strong. Climate change? Well, both places are island/coastal, in tropical and subtropical typhoon-prone, so of course that's an issue.

Most importantly, however, it can be argued that no other places are threatened as deeply by the undermining of liberal democracy as Taiwan and Hong Kong. Yes, foreign interference in the US political system is an issue, but the perpetrators - China, Russia, home-grown fascists, whomever - aren't actually trying to take over the US or wipe it out as an independent entity (they just want to destabilize and supplant it, or render it irrelevant). China is trying to annex Taiwan and has the legal means to wipe out any vestige of freedom or liberalism in Hong Kong already. The US can probably survive attacks against it (though I'm less sure about the rot from within), though potentially weakened. Taiwan and Hong Kong may not survive at all - not as themselves, anyway. The intent isn't to destabilize Hong Kong or Taiwan, that's just a rest stop on the highway straight to takeover - a takeover that they are no longer as concerned with being non-violent. They want what they want by the end of the 2040s and our lives don't matter.

It's serious enough that you can consider such a statement not as random spitballing, but rather the gray area between speculation and prediction.

The gangs they've hired before? A few stabbings and kidnappings? An attempt to purchase major media outlets? Those were just test runs. Perhaps seeing if they could get Hong Kong and Taiwan to give in peacefully, not put up so much of a fight. Lie back and pretend to enjoy it. That hasn't happened and won't happen. Now we're in the real war, and it's going to get worse.

And if Taiwan and Hong Kong stand on the front line between democracy and authoritarianism, then this is not a unique or regionally specific situation. It's a harbinger for the world.