Showing posts with label international_discourse. Show all posts
Showing posts with label international_discourse. Show all posts

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Anatomy of a Good Taiwan Article

This isn't new, but you've surely noticed that I've been busy. I don't need to comment on the main points of the article - I have no complaints and it's not current enough. That said, it seems like every time a terrible (or even "okay") piece on Taiwan comes out, it's easy to jump on it and say why it's terrible. 

I thought, why not flip the script and use this very good New York Times article by Edward Wong and break down why it's well-done, as a sort of how-to for people who perhaps don't 'get' Taiwan, but want to. It's not perfect, but the sub-optimal parts can be discussed reasonably. 

Let's start with the title: 


So many great things here: 

1.) The main headline is entirely about Taiwan and the US, prioritizing that relationship over any sort of clown-dancing China is doing on the side

2.) It's positive: there's no fearmongering. One democratic country with a lot of problems but also a lot of power trying to do something positive for a friendly fellow democracy. 

3.) It uses the correct verb: recognize. Taiwan is already sovereign; it is absolutely correct to write about whether other countries recognize that fact or not. The fact itself should not be in question. 

4.) It doesn't mention China in the main headline, and where it does do so, it correctly uses the 'authoritarian' epithet. This is accurate.

5.) There is no language that obfuscates China's choices: no tensions mysteriously raise themselves, China is not passively "angered" by any "moves"

Write more headlines like this when talking about the sovereign democratic nation of Taiwan, please. Write about Taiwan's other key relationships without headlining China or making China look like the victim of others' actions. It's not "a move likely to anger China", China is choosing to be angered by the completely reasonable actions of independent nations. 

Then there's the draw: 


WASHINGTON — A visit to Taiwan by an American cabinet secretary. A sale of advanced torpedoes. Talk of starting negotiations over a potential trade agreement.


All of these are positive things (some may not be a fan of the torpedoes but I implore you to consider the enemy we're fighting - fists alone won't stop them). All of them interesting to readers. There's no need to invoke China in the first sentence to get people to read about Taiwan. 

The Trump administration has taken action in recent weeks to strengthen United States relations with the democratic island of Taiwan and bolster its international standing. The efforts are aimed at highlighting a thriving democracy in Asia and countering China’s attempts to weaken the global diplomatic status of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its territory.


China does make it into the second paragraph, but is properly contextualized: the attempts to harm Taiwan are things China does, they are not actions by Taiwan or the US which cause China to be upset. China's "attempts to weaken the global diplomatic status of Taiwan" (a completely accurate assessment of their actions) compared in the same paragraph agains "highlighting a thriving democracy". This is wonderful - it does away with the charade of 'neutral' reporting in which there are no bad guys, even when there certainly are ("In A Move Likely To Anger The Wolf, Red Riding Hood Arrives At Grandmother's House") and goes with accurate reporting, which at its best is a clear-eyed depiction of a world that certainly has gray areas, but also mostly-bad guys and mostly-good guys, too. 

Wong then points out that Beijing claims Taiwan, which is true. It does away with all the old bombast of "renegade province" which is "to be reunited with the Mainland by force if necessary", wording which is fearmongering -- by force!!! -- and inaccurate (if you call Taiwan a "renegade province" often enough, even if you leave it open to questioning, people will start to think it is in fact a renegade province. It is not.) 

In fact, here's another great thing about this article: 




Check out how many times the word "Mainland" is used - zero! It is entirely possible to write an article all about Taiwan without once implying that Taiwan has some sort of Mainland area which is part of its sense of national identity (it does not). 

I'm not a fan of calling Taiwan an "island" rather than a "country" -- the Sri Lanka rule applies here -- but I'm willing to let it go. 

It gets a little problematic after this: 

That feeds into a bigger campaign by national security officials: to set the United States on a long-term course of competition and confrontation with China that any American president, Democratic or Republican, will find difficult to veer away from in the future.

“Taiwan is the most important thing from a military and credibility point of view,” said Elbridge A. Colby, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development. Mr. Colby wrote the Trump administration’s national defense strategy, which emphasizes competition with China and Russia.

You're not going to win over many New York liberals with this, New York Times. It's fine to talk about Trump's approach, though it's quite hard to say that Trump wants only to confront China (the next paragraph talks about how pro-China so much of Trump's narrative is so this feels a bit contradictory) and I don't particularly like the contextualizing of Taiwan as a chess piece dropped into that game of checkers. This piece sings when it talks about Taiwan as itself, and flounders when it tries to turn the whole thing into a "Taiwan as pawn" narrative. Taiwan is so much more than that, and the people in Taiwan certainly have a lot to say about the two big powers duking it out while they sit in the middle just trying to live peacefully with missiles pointed at them. 

It's so off-kilter with the rest of the piece that I wonder if some zealous BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MOVES LIKELY TO ANGER CHINA AMID RISING TENSIONS editor hurked it in there without Wong's consent. 

This paragraph splits the difference uncomfortably: 

Taiwan has been a fraught issue between Washington and Beijing for seven decades, and it is re-emerging as a potential focal point of tensions, as United States national security officials press their campaign against China. The officials also see bolstering Taiwan in a more urgent light given the crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong by Xi Jinping, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party.

There are those mysterious tensions again! Where do they come from? (They come from China. China creates the tensions.) Taiwan again is treated like a barren rock devoid of people with ideas, opinions and desires of their own, being fought over by two foreign bloviators. But it does get better: highlighting Taiwan does indeed help to remind people of what the CCP is doing in China, most visibly in Hong Kong but elsewhere (East Turkestan, Tibet, Inner Mongolia) as well.

It also leaves the reader unclear as to whether Taiwan is a pawn to the US, or a friend. Perhaps by noting this, you can see how unhelpful such "two big guys fighting over a rock in the sea" rhetoric is. It's just not appropriate to the actual situation, and it stands out here among so much other excellent prose. 

I do particularly like this bit: 

President Trump himself admires Mr. Xi and is “particularly dyspeptic about Taiwan,” once comparing it to the tip of a Sharpie marker and China to the Resolute desk, John R. Bolton, the former national security adviser, wrote in his new book. And the president is willing to sacrifice U.S. support for the democratic government for trade relations with China, he added. But campaign strategists have told Mr. Trump that he needs to appear tough on China for re-election purposes, giving pro-Taiwan U.S. officials an opening.

It doesn't make the Taiwan squad look bad -- everyone with an agenda does this, it's normal. What it does, however, is swiftly pop the balloon of inflated ideas that people have about Trump as a friend to Taiwan. He is not. Stop thinking of him as one; he is not our way out of this. He never could be. And he's not nearly as anti-China as some people think. 

President Richard M. Nixon began a process of diplomatic opening in 1971 with Communist-ruled China to get Mao Zedong’s help in countering the Soviet Union. The United States established diplomatic ties with China in 1979 and broke off formal relations with Taiwan, which had been a sanctuary for the Kuomintang, or Nationalists, since their loss in the Chinese civil war 30 years earlier. Every U.S. administration has tried to maintain an ambiguous position on Taiwan based on the “One China” policy.

I don't love this paragraph because it glosses over how brutal and basically just murderous the KMT was during those years. Plus, it says the US broke off ties with "Taiwan". No. It broke off ties with "The Republic of China", represented by the KMT, not Taiwan (Taiwan was not a democracy then so the people didn't get a say in how the KMT portrayed them abroad). There would never have been any need to break off ties with "Taiwan" because "Taiwan" does not claim "China". The Republic of China does, but that framework sucks, yet we can only really get rid of it when China backs down. The US could help with that by...perhaps recognizing or strengthening ties with Taiwan, which it has never done. 

The ambiguity has helped maintain stability across the Taiwan Strait, one of the most militarized areas in the world. But as China has grown stronger and more assertive, and as Mr. Trump has begun dismantling international commitments under his “America First” foreign policy, some U.S. officials and Washington policy experts say the United States’s traditional approach to Taiwan helps hard-liners in Beijing and increases China’s threat to the island’s 24 million people.

This is fine -- I don't love strategic ambiguity, but I accept that this is how it works right now. What is great about this paragraph is that it again points out the many ways in which Trumpism fails Taiwan. Trump is not good for Taiwan, the people working to bolster Taiwan are doing the work. It helps dismantle the narrative that the only good vote for Taiwan is a vote for Trump, when that is clearly not true. Trump's America is incapable of governing itself, let alone assisting Taiwan. We can't have that. The Democrats may have been cooler on Taiwan all these years, but to start to change that you need a firmer foundation of governance in the US, and Trump can never provide that. Otherwise you are literally building a castle on a sand dune. 

Also, while this is the first mention that Taiwan has people on it -- real people with real thoughts about their own country that the world should listen to -- and it comes rather late in the piece for my liking, it is there. That's more than you can say for most articles. 

Those officials, as well as Republican and Democratic lawmakers, aim to do as much as possible to show explicit U.S. support for Taiwan.


I won't paste the whole paragraph because at some point the New York Times might get salty that I'm basically just commenting word-for-word on their content. I figure I have to leave some out in good faith. But this sentence is fantastic: it highlights that Taiwan is a bipartisan issue, and there are Democrats who support it that we can reach out to. 

For those shrieking that Taiwan should never deign to talk to the right, I'm sorry, but no. 'Bipartisan' is not a dirty word in this context. Think about it: do you really want US support for Taiwan to swing like a pendulum every time a new party gets in power? For all that pro-Taiwan legislation that has passed unanimously to suddenly be a point of contention, with fights to get it through? We know what that's like when Republicans support Taiwan but not Democrats, and it would be utter stupidity to insist that only Democrats are acceptable, not Republicans (not even absolutely shitty Republicans whose domestic policies are horrifying, which pretty much all of them are). For those who think neither is acceptable and only "the left" will do...um, okay, I like the left too (mostly - not all of 'em). But the left doesn't have nearly as much popular support as you think and at some point Taiwan is going to need real assistance. Call me when "the left" is capable of providing essential military aid to Taiwan in the event of an invasion. Until then, bye

There are a few paragraphs after this about things the US has done for Taiwan recently or the ways it's stood up to China, which are all good reading. It points out that some of these efforts have failed, which again shows you that as much as you may want a pro-Taiwan savior, Trump is not your guy. 

A core element of U.S.-Taiwan ties is the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which obligates Washington to provide weapons of a “defensive character” to Taiwan.... 
But some administration officials argue the arms sales, and increased transit by U.S. warships through the Taiwan Strait, fall short of what Washington needs to do. They say Washington must make clear to Beijing and Taipei that it would defend Taiwan if the People’s Liberation Army tried an invasion or a blockade. The Taiwan Relations Act does not address that, and past administrations have left the matter vague.


These snippets are solid -- I would have liked a clarification of what the US's One China Policy actually is in there (it doesn't mean the US believes that Taiwan is certainly part of China, it means the US acknowledges the various claims of the two sides and that the matter should be solved peacefully - that's it). But this does good work: it reminds people that the US's stance has never been close to "Taiwan is a part of China".

No matter the policy options, the United States should “make clear its support for Taiwan,” said Shelley Rigger, a political scientist at Davidson College.

But she cautioned that U.S. officials should formulate Taiwan policy based on strengthening the island rather than striking at China.

“It doesn’t seem to get said enough: There’s a certain sense of conflation or confusion of what it means to be helpful to or supportive of or affirming Taiwan versus taking a position that is more challenging to the P.R.C.,” she said, referring to the People’s Republic of China. “How willing are U.S. officials to pull Taiwan into that deteriorating picture, and how willing are they to be attentive to voices that say, ‘Be careful’? Beijing won’t punish Washington, but it can punish Taipei.”

Many articles like this quote some pro-China think-tank dip (like Evan Medeiros) or some CCP-affiliated "expert" in Beijing. I don't always agree with Shelley Rigger -- I am explicitly pro-independence and pro-US support, and take a fundamentally anti-ROC editorial line, and think most US support for Taiwan is valid and affirmative rather than just anti-China challenges. Also, I do think we should be challenging China, what with them being actual literal 21st century fascists, including all the genocide. But maybe an article about Taiwan is not the place for that. 

However, she is a fundamentally pro-Taiwan voice, which is better than quoting some tankie they could have dredged up from the sewer. And she's not wrong here, or at least not entirely. Some actions do indeed challenge China and use Taiwan as a pawn without actually helping them. Voices from Taiwan itself should certainly be listened to. Beijing can more easily punish Taipei than Washington. 

But - as China is determined to see every action that supports or affirms Taiwan as "challenging to China", making it literally impossible to take a pro-Taiwan position that does not "challenge China". That really needs to be said - there's no way forward to support Taiwan that magically won't piss off a country that's decided it will be pissed off by absolutely everything that doesn't go its way. But, it is good to differentiate between challenges to China which China gets angry about, and support for Taiwan...which China gets angry about. 

More good stuff here: 

Some analysts have criticized Mr. Trump for his apparent lack of knowledge of the nuances in the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. In December 2016, before taking office, he and Ms. Tsai talked by telephone — the first time an American president or president-elect had spoken to a Taiwanese leader since 1979. Though pro-Taiwan policy experts in Washington welcomed it as an overdue move, the action created tensions with Beijing that Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, scrambled to defuse. It was clear Mr. Trump had no idea of the import of the call.


I truly cannot stress enough that Donald Trump Is Not Your Friend. He's not a strategic genius who will come bounding in with a sword to defend Taiwan, which he solemnly supports. He gives exactly zero shits about Taiwan, he's not smart enough to be much help, and...he just ain't it. I will say this as many times as Edward Wong's prose allows me to, because he deconstructs the Trump-for-Taiwan mythos so damn well. 

Also great: 

The administration took a restrained approach with Mr. Azar’s visit. Mr. Azar stuck to a carefully calibrated message throughout his three-day trip, referring to Taiwan as a “jurisdiction” and limiting his criticism of the Chinese Communist Party mainly to health-related issues.

U.S. officials said the visit was aimed at highlighting Taiwan’s success in containing the coronavirus outbreak.

China expressed its displeasure by sending two fighter jets across the median line of the Taiwan Strait. On Thursday, China’s military said it had conducted several live combat drills near Taiwan “to safeguard national sovereignty” and implied the exercises were connected to Mr. Azar’s visit.

This sets up Azar's visit for what it was: a totally normal thing for two normal countries to do, that absolutely no reasonable person has any right to be mad about, and China choosing to get mad about it and actively creating tensions over it. 

Ah, so now we know where the tensions come from. 

Let us also now take a moment to close our eyes, breathe in the humid Taipei air - aaaahhh - and note that the phrase "split in 1949" did not appear once in this article. Apparently, you can write an article about Taiwan without it. Wow!

All you have to do is just...not write that. Put your fingers on the keyboard and type literally anything but that, because the ROC and PRC may have split in 1949, but the PRC has never ruled Taiwan, so Taiwan could never have "split" from the China that exists today. (And that's not even getting into how such language obfuscates Taiwan's Japanese colonial past, which didn't officially end until 1952, and which never ended with Japan ceding Taiwan to the ROC. You may have thought that had happened, but I tell you, legit, it did not.)

Who'd have thought it would be so easy?

But something is missing - an actual Taiwanese voice. Most articles like this ignore such voices completely. It's all about what China or the US wants, and nobody who is actually from Taiwan seems to get asked for their thoughts. Fortunately, Wong closes with a powerful one: 

Wang Ting-yu, a legislator from Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party who is on the foreign affairs and national defense committee, said in an interview that Mr. Azar’s trip was “a break for the Taiwan people.” 
He batted away concerns about Taiwan inadvertently getting caught in the crossfire of U.S.-China relations, emphasizing that the island had its own diplomatic and defense strategies. 
“If they want to give us a hand, then we appreciate it,” Mr. Wang said. “But Taiwan won’t be any country’s bargaining chip.”

I wish a Taiwanese voice had been quoted sooner, but it's also a strong choice to end with this, and sums up Taiwan's complicated views on the matter well. Taiwan needs support, Taiwan needs to be heard. Taiwan is capable of governing itself -- and does so fairly well, actually -- and defending itself. Taiwan needs back-up, not a savior. 

Monday, August 10, 2020

US Official Visits Friendly Democratic Nation, China Escalates Tensions All Alone in Corner By Itself

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I'm still on hiatus but this will be quick. 

And in fact, the bigger story today is the raid of the Next Media/Apple Daily offices and arrest of Jimmy Lai, but I have no specific comment on that, except to say that one way you can show support for freedom of the press in Hong Kong is to subscribe or donate to Next Media and Hong Kong Free Press. They are going to need all the help they can get and we can prove that the CCP's tactics are not supported by the rest of the world. Click on the "About" section on the right on HKFP's Facebook page for an easy link to donate or subscribe. Subscribe to Next Media here -- there is an English edition.

Although the free press is secure in Taiwan and it's not directly related, let me take this opportunity to plug Taiwan Report's Patreon, too. Taiwan Report is a project by a couple of people who just care about Taiwan and are creating content in English on Taiwan simply because they want to, and they deserve your support. I feel this, because I also create content simply because I want to -- but I don't need financial support, all it really takes is my time because Blogger's terrible platform is free -- and because as I've been holed up writing this dissertation, I've had to cut down on my news consumption. Taiwan Report condenses the relevant news into short podcasts that I actually have time to listen to, enabling me to keep up during a very busy time in my life. I am grateful for that. 

These outlets are not just worth supporting because they are some of the last bastions of a free press in Hong Kong, or run by individual people, not companies. They're also worth supporting because the actual global media is doing a pretty terrible job of reporting on things like Alex Azar's visit to Taiwan. 

I don't even mean that they aren't critiquing the fact that he's visiting a country that succeeded in part because it has universal health insurance, without showing any support for the concept in the US even though it works. I mean the headlines themselves are absolutely ridiculous. And I mean that despite respecting some of the people who wrote the articles (I doubt they got to choose the headlines, it's their editors I want to beat with the stupid stick). 

At least the Washington Post did a decent job. This is good work:


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Everyone else, you should be ashamed. But because I don't have a stupid stick to beat you with, I made the bad headlines better. Here you are. Happy holidays. 

Now, back to my dissertation. Because I am ALL IN on corny dissertation titles, I am calling it Voices from a Forbidden Nation, just in case you were wondering if I was going to get political. I look forward to finding out all the universities I now can't apply to for a PhD (if I choose to do one) because the case I build from my research is implicitly critical of China. Yes, even in education.



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Saturday, July 25, 2020

Ted Yoho, AOC and Taiwan’s Bipartisan Dilemma

This week, Republican congressional representative and rotted meat carcass Ted Yoho did two things.

First, he announced the introduction of a package that would explicitly allow the US to use military force if China invades Taiwan. We should all support this: while obviously starting a war in Taiwan’s name is a terrible idea, a stronger commitment to defensive assistance if China were to invade is crucial. Taiwan wants it, defense is not the same as offense, and Taiwan can already govern and defend itself - it needs backup, not a savior. 

Second, he accosted Democrat and peer Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, calling her “out of [her] freaking mind”, “disgusting” and “a fucking bitch”. Why? Because he’s a flaming garbage heap, but also because AOC attributed the spike in crime in New York to corresponding spikes in unemployment and homelessness due to the CCP virus, which the US has responded to so badly that not focusing on the fact that the CCP is to blame for the pandemic is actually a reasonable argument now. 


This disconnect provides yet another reminder that many of our “allies” on Taiwan and Hong Kong issues are not necessarily good people, and that we should not excuse their being terrible people just because we agree with them on a few issues. 

This is a deceptively difficult minefield to navigate. Taiwan and Hong Kong should be bipartisan issues, one of the few things we can actually work with conservatives on. Taiwan has historically been supported more by Republicans than Democrats, and although that is finally changing, the fact remains that we still need to work with Republicans to get important legislation passed.

But the flipside of bipartisanship on Taiwan is that we have to plaster on a smile and work with utter jackbuckets like Ted Yoho. Frankly, they’re all pretty terrible, it’s just Teddy’s week to shine. I know there are those who would rather ignore the fact that pretty much every Republican supporter of Taiwan and Hong Kong who holds elected office is a horrible person — they’d choose Taiwan every time. That doesn’t exactly work; it excuses their otherwise awful behavior and puts voters like me in a bind when we want to vote for the most pro-Taiwan and Hong Kong candidates, but can’t because they’re unacceptable in every other way. It puts advocates in tough positions because it means pretending to be nice to these human dumpsters. It tarnishes the images of activists — how much flak have Joshua Wong and Nathan Law caught for posing for smiley photos, invariably filled with men, rarely a woman in sight, with walking trash kraken?

It’s easy to say “we have different values but we can come together on this”. It’s easy to ignore the time Yoho said “annyounghaseyo” to President Tsai because...reasons. It’s harder to justify “coming together” on Taiwan with a man who just called AOC a “fucking bitch”. I’m sorry, but at that point, are you not simply justifying ignoring blatant misogyny?

There are also those who think we shouldn’t work with them at all and find another way. That’d be lovely, but it’s also not currently possible if you actually take Taiwan’s defense seriously. Democrats look like they are set to potentially draft a China platform that keeps support of a cross-strait policy “consistent with the needs and best interests of the people of Taiwan”. It’s likely this will pass, as it was language used in 2008, 2012 and up through 2016. While it’s unclear how useful this is, seeing as the Obama administration wasn’t exactly Taiwan’s most helpful friend, this is still good news — it means they aren’t taking a “total opposition” stance to officials under Trump who have supported Taiwan more than their Obama-era forerunners. Their voting record of late — in solidarity with Republicans on Taiwan and Hong Kong — and some statements by Joe Biden, have reflected a trend in this direction. But honestly, we’re not there yet, and we can’t afford to end bipartisanship on Taiwan and Hong Kong.

To add to that, it’s not like the right has the market cornered on misogyny and racism (yes, Yoho’s comments, given the context of the spike in crime, are both sexist and racist). I’ve met plenty of centrists and even self-proclaimed lefties who honestly aren’t much better. From ‘our side’ I’ve heard everything from “BLM should take responsibility for the crime wave in Chicago” (what?) to wanting to protest in front of AIT for Taiwan while making deeply sexist comments about Hillary Clinton. The number of Democrats and self-proclaimed liberals in Taiwan and the US who are accused of being inappropriate with women honestly rivals the behavior of Republicans. Saying we shouldn’t work with the right for these reasons may be principled, to an extent, but it ignores how much of it comes from our own side. 

I’ve thought for awhile that there is no such thing as ‘natural allies’, because people on ‘our side’ are just as capable of being toxic jerks. The only way to continue bipartisan efforts on Taiwan is to think of allies on any given issue as people who agree with you on that particular issue and are not otherwise human dumpsters. 

Unfortunately, Ted Yoho, as with others, has shown that he is in fact a human dumpster. People have been burned by this before, thinking Trump could be good for Taiwan and Hong Kong only to find that his ‘challenge’ to China is more of an inconsistent mess.

Can we really consider a party that supports a president that called concentration camps a “good idea” an ally? Can we really smile and shake hands with Ted Yoho while he calls AOC a “fucking bitch” out the other side of his mouth?

If we don’t, how are we going to realistically make sure Taiwan has the backup it needs in the face of a potential invasion that is a very real threat? Raising fists and taking to the streets didn’t work for Hong Kong and it won’t stop an amphibious invasion of Taiwan — and letting China win is arguably worse than defending Taiwan for real. Of course, we should reach out to liberals and the left, though I’ve found that the far left is so thickly populated with tankies (“Taiwan is evil because they are run by the Nationalists, who are evil bad capitalists grr” - don’t even know where to start with this) that they’re hard to talk to about Taiwan. And honestly, even if and when we succeed, Taiwan is still better off with bipartisan support rather than having its assurance of defensive assistance tied to the whims of whomever is in office. 

I don’t have an answer to that, but I am personally not inclined to think of people like Ted Yoho as allies. As a woman, a congressional representative calling a female colleague a “fucking bitch” and then trying to justify it by saying he’s a family man affects me, because it affects the discourse of what’s acceptable to say about people of my gender. If you do think of him as an ally, please consider exactly what behavior you are excusing and whether or not that behavior affects you. 



Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Revisiting the "Bilingual By 2030" plan: a note of cautious optimism

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Since President Tsai’s 2nd term began, there has been renewed talk from the government and media interest in the “Bilingual by 2030” program introduced in her last term.

Some of what has been said recently is promising: 


"The younger generation of Taiwanese need to learn how to clearly explain to the international community what kind of country Taiwan is, as well as its core values and its people," the president said. 

She said one major problem of Taiwan's current English teaching is that schools focus more on teaching vocabulary and grammar. 

"We need to provide a comprehensive English learning environment so that speaking English becomes a very natural thing in the country" she said, adding that this will be a major challenge for the government over the next 10 years.


The program follows the same general principles of the “bilingual” English program created in Tainan City under then-mayor (and now Vice President) William Lai. 

I wanted to discuss the various elements of this policy, how they’re being approached on a few different levels, and what the issues are likely to be. I’ve written about this before, but that was back when the plan had just been announced, and nobody was really sure what to say about it, myself included.

Some of my concerns have since been addressed. Others remain, not all of which I'll discuss here. Generally, however, I'm more cautiously optimistic than I was before.

What is the program, exactly?

The first concern is the term “bilingual” - it’s confusing in a Taiwanese context, because Taiwan is already multilingual, so it would have been smarter on the part of the government to call it “Multilingual by 2030”. Thanks to the clunky title, there is a common belief that the goal of this program is to make every Taiwanese citizen fluent in English by 2030. That’s simply not the case. 

The endgame is better as improving the overall level of English proficiency in Taiwan (which is not the same as “making everybody fluent in English”) and making business and government affairs more internationally versatile - a Taiwanese populace that can go out into the world with the language skills they need to study, work or simply talk about Taiwan (or anything else) with foreigners, and a country that is accessible to international business. 

“Proficiency” has many levels, however. Nobody thinks every Taiwanese citizen will suddenly become fluent in English. Even in highly English-proficient societies like Hong Kong and Singapore, actual ability varies quite a bit between individuals. That’s normal. 

Another concern is that the program will simply involve more English class hours in school, which will necessitate importing large numbers of foreign teachers to teach these classes. I don’t know the exact plan for the number of dedicated English instruction hours, but I can say that one big push of the 2030 program is to increase CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) instruction: to teach some non-language classes (such as math, science and history) in English, not necessarily increase dedicated language class hours. This is good, as one basic tenet of language acquisition is that input and interaction in a variety of authentic situations and environments brings about fluency - for example, taking classes in other subjects in that language - moreso than direct language instruction.

One issue with this plan is that there may not be a large enough pool of local teachers who are willing to teach these classes in English, and I’ve already heard of reports of pressure from school administrators on teachers who don’t necessarily want to agree to this, but are being pushed to do so anyway. 

If it actually works, however, CLIL-based instruction has the potential to accomplish what more hours of traditional language instruction could never do. It’s one reason why English proficiency remains strong in former British colonies across Asia: they tend to offer English-medium instruction.

Generally speaking, the more people are informed about the program, or the more involved they are in it, the more optimistic they are about it. That’s a good sign. A lot of ‘involved’ people I know say that it’s a solid idea without a fully-fleshed-out game plan, and how successful it will be depends on how well it’s implemented. It could end up being successful far beyond most people’s modest expectations, or yet another performative act in the country’s repeated attempts to “internationalize”.


The colonial history of English in Asia, and why Taiwan is different

Of course, Taiwan is not a former colony of any English-speaking power. That means it lacks the English “advantage”, but also that English in Taiwan is not necessarily mired in post-colonial discourse. It’s important to remember that in those former colonies, access to English was given primarily to local elites as a way of ‘bringing them into the fold’ - that is, ensuring their loyalty to and even desire to imitate their British colonial masters. For everyone else, the British actually pushed local-language instruction. They framed it as respecting local cultures and customs (at least, one person writing about Hong Kong put it that way, even invoking “Confucian values” long before that term became a drinking-game level cliche), but in another sense, it was blatantly about ensuring that non-elites would not start getting ambitions beyond what the British wanted of them: to remain manual laborers whose efforts enriched the empire.   

If all that makes you feel squicked out - it should. 

What Taiwan seems to be attempting to do is compete with these former colonial nations (yes, I treat Hong Kong as a nation) in terms of English proficiency, without the colonial baggage it came with. I honestly cannot think of another example where that has been successfully done. 

The good news is that this freedom from an English-speaking colonial history means that the English education in Taiwan can be discussed in terms of its utility for Taiwan domestically and in terms of international communication. 


The real key: local talent

This would also not necessitate the mass import of foreign teachers of dubious quality (I’ll get to the quality of instruction later). It would not even require bringing in many teacher trainers to train up locals. 

Instead, the hope is that the country will tap its domestic language teaching talent - the best and most qualified Taiwanese teachers - who can be trained up and mentored to become teacher trainers themselves. The “foreigners” - which includes foreign teacher trainers already based in Taiwan - would at that point take on more of a support and mentorship role. There could be some outside help and possibly new teachers hired from abroad, but mostly the plain is not to kick current teachers out in favor of a bunch of foreigners. Instead, it’s to create a robust CoP (community of practice, in which experienced teachers with training skills induct more junior or novice teachers into the profession) that is self-sufficient and self-renewing from within Taiwan. 

There are other initiatives - translating government documents and websites, ensuring that travel and business information and basic services are available in English - I’m less qualified to speak on those plans. I do hope the government realizes that there is already a strong base of Taiwan-based editors and translators - both local and foreign - who could potentially do a good job with this if they were properly recruited and incentivized. 


Addressing Concerns: Local and minority languages


There are concerns that focusing on English will damage the status of local and Indigenous/minority languages (some of these criticisms are clearly partisan attacks - ignore those - but not all are). This is an issue, but I don’t think it’s as dire as some are predicting. First of all, there’s a lot of intersectionality in those local languages. Taiwanese is generally considered one, but we can’t exactly call it a ‘minority language’, can we? Outside of northern Taiwan, it’s not. And Taiwanese - suppressed for so long by Mandarin - has also played an oppressor role against Hakka and all of the Indigenous languages. 

I do think if we’re going to talk about English as the potential oppressor of these languages, that we first need to grapple with the damage that was intentionally done to them by Mandarin (and perhaps less intentionally, but still just as damagingly, by Taiwanese). This is where a ‘multilingual’ rather than ‘bilingual’ perspective would be helpful. 

The thing is, these local languages tend to be community-learnt. Attempts to turn local and Indigenous languages into ‘school subjects’ have not generally been successful - if my reading is correct, that’s true around the world. They tend to flourish when their widespread daily use is promoted in communities, supported by a variety of media that users of those languages can consume.

The question is, what do these speech communities want in terms of promotion and support of their own languages in Taiwan? Has anybody asked them? (I’m guessing not.) What kind of funding might they want, and how might it be used? The government would have done well if, while turning its eye to English, it had also focused on building multilingual initiatives - asking these various communities in Taiwan what sort of support they would like, and then providing it. Not every family teaches their children the language of their ancestors, and whatever support they might want in changing that pattern, where it exists, is vital and should not be pushed aside in favor of a sole focus on English. 

English, unlike local languages in Taiwan, will probably not be learnable in a ‘community’ setting such as this for quite some time, if ever. From that perspective, the plan to increase exposure to and use of English won’t necessarily be taking much away from local languages - they would occupy two different spaces, and already do. Tsai has said that one goal of this “Bilingual by 2030” plan is to equip Taiwanese with the ability to tell Taiwan’s story to the world, which is a laudable goal. English - a second language - would be a language for looking out into the world, and welcoming the world to Taiwan. Local languages would exist for living within Taiwan, and maintaining local knowledge and heritage.

That’s not to say that local languages can never have a place in schools in Taiwan. But, it will be hard enough to get local teachers ready to teach non-language subjects in English. How difficult will it be to find teachers who can teach math, geography, health or other subjects in Taiwanese, or Hakka, or Atayal, or Rukai, or Amis? I certainly think it would be a worthwhile effort, but I would not expect immediate results. 


The dividing lines of English

As English seems to always bring class divides with it, there's a concern that middle class and wealthy urban Taiwanese will benefit more and deepen inequality. One can see signs of this already among the children of the upper middle class and wealthy, who are more likely to grow up around English, have family members who speak it fluently, often studying abroad themselves. In a sense, it echoes the way English was brought to Asia originally. Just remember that the same used to be true for Mandarin in Taiwan.

That is a real concern to be addressed if we want to break down these barriers. If a robust CoP is created that has Taiwanese teachers training their junior colleagues, rather than bringing in foreigners to train up locals, then that knowledge will be more easily disseminated to smaller communities and schools with fewer resources. I’d also suggest making education resources more equal across the country, obviously. 

It is quite unreasonable to expect a kid from a more marginalized community to grow up in Mandarin, and then pick up several second languages (English plus Taiwanese, or Hakka, or an Indigenous language). It’s more reasonable to work towards a society where both Mandarin and local languages are learned as mother tongues within various communities, with some education support available in ways requested by those communities for non-Mandarin languages (Mandarin has been so wholly foisted on Taiwan that it hardly needs any support), and English is more robustly taught as a second language. 

In fact, I’ve met more than one person in Taiwan who prefers to communicate in their local language (usually, but not always, Taiwanese), will choose English as their next preference, and will avoid Mandarin if at all possible. That means there is an opportunity for English to push back against Mandarin language imperialism in Taiwan, if people decide to use it that way.


The demand side

Some have spoken of the need to create ‘demand’ for English, not just spending money creating supply of instruction. I’m less worried about this - the demand is there, if we can connect it to learners’ actual motivations. There are teachers in Taiwan who reluctantly admit that many students see English merely as an academic subject, and study it simply to get a test score and further their education. But, leaving aside the massive amount of English-language media that many Taiwanese do consume and express a wish to better understand, there’s the fact that most regional business (not just global business - I mean across Asia) is conducted in English. As much as China might like it to be otherwise, English, not Mandarin, is the language of regional communication in Asia. 

Are Taiwanese youth interested in communicating with people from other Asian countries? Do BTS fans want to connect with each other even though they don’t all speak Korean? Are politically-minded youth interested in the meme-heavy Milk Tea Alliance or its slightly stodgier, more clearly political Network of Young Democratic Asians? Are they interested in working or studying abroad, or working in Taiwan for an international company?

Yes, many of them probably do. 

The demand is there, and it’s not always a function of linguistic imperialism, where the periphery is trying to imitate some sort of White, Western center. We just need to connect it to how we deliver the supply.


Institutional constraints: testing

That’s where my own concerns come in. The research is clear that Taiwanese teachers in general are aware of more communication-based teaching methods, and in fact there is a strong (though not universal) desire to use them. (I've read this research but need to get a dissertation draft in - I'll link it when I have time). 

Elementary school teachers report the highest feeling of freedom to teach their learners in communicative ways. At higher grades, however, the washback from the testing system causes teachers to feel they need to focus more on preparing learners for major exams.

In short, a large number of teachers in Taiwan want to do more with language education, but feel constrained by tests that simply do not reflect actual language knowledge. (I’ve seen some of the tests. In some cases the expected answers are actually inaccurate, or only one answer is accepted when more than one answer is possible.) 

If everyone wants to move away from focusing mostly on “grammar and vocabulary” and towards communication,  then the biggest obstacle holding them back is the exam framework. At least for foreign language education, it simply has to go. If there has to be an English requirement for school admission at all, require an international proficiency exam score (the cost of this should be subsidized for students from lower-income families) or simply have an oral interview. 

And yet the exam framework is the one thing nobody is discussing doing away with.


More institutional constraints: language teaching qualifications

My other concern is the language teachers that the government is hoping to bring in from other countries. As it stands now, one can get some teaching jobs in Taiwan with just a substitute teacher’s license, which can be obtained with little or no experience and minimal training in some places. However, reputable and internationally-recognized language teacher training programs - such as the CELTA, CertTESOL, CELT-P, CELT-S, TYLEC and more (there are others, including higher level training programs) - are generally not recognized. 

Part-time postgraduate programs like mine, which is face-to-face but takes place over several years, are also generally not recognized. There’s no reason at all for this, as part-time programs deliver the same content as full-time ones.

There has been talk of Taiwan creating its own language teacher training program, which feels unnecessary as there are so many good ones already available. But without recognizing the programs which already exist, there is no clear existing local framework to assess the quality of these new hires.

When assessing teacher training programs, it’s not difficult to figure out which ones deserve recognition. We don’t have to officially sanction shoddy weekend or online TEFL certifications.  Stipulate a minimum number of practicum hours that candidates must teach and pass - let’s say, 6 - and you’ll have weeded out all the scams and be left with more reputable courses. 

And yet, there is not nearly enough discussion of changing this paradigm. 

Along with that, it would be smart for the government to officially pivot away from native speakerist policies that privilege inexperienced Westerners from a handful of countries over qualified teachers from around the world, which could bring a diversity of knowledge and intercultural awareness to Taiwan. In fact, improving intercultural awareness might be the biggest benefit of Bilingual By 2030. We also need to do away with nonsensical laws:


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What’s odd about this rule is that English is not an official language of the US, UK or Australia - which have no official languages. And yet, you can get a language teaching job if you are from any one of them. Guess where English is an official language - places like Nigeria, the Philippines, India and Singapore. And yet you don’t see schools or the government rushing to hire teachers from these places, either. 

Finally, I have grave concerns about the buxiban system, which I won’t go into here - we all know what the problems are. Buxibans could be a force for good in making English more widely accessible as a tool for communication, but not as they currently exist. Parents, however, often have no clear way of assessing which buxibans attempt to provide quality language learning, and which are overpriced daycare centers. I would like to see that change. 

Cautious Optimism

I’m more optimistic than many about Bilingual by 2030. 

While not all Taiwanese will become ‘fluent’ or even highly proficient in English, nobody is expecting them to. Those who do use their English skills to go out in the world and introduce Taiwan to the international community - whether directly through activism or indirectly as simply Taiwanese citizens living abroad or working with foreigners - will be worth all of this effort. 

If implemented soundly, it has the potential to make Taiwan more interculturally aware - imagine a Taiwan where blackface videos aren’t considered comedy! - without necessarily impinging on or damaging local cultures and speech communities. If the right trainers are found to participate in a robust local community of practice in which Taiwanese teachers take the lead, more teaching qualifications are recognized, a CLIL program is successfully implemented after sufficient (and ongoing) training and support, and the English examination system is completely dismantled, Taiwan might successfully do what few countries have managed: gain the benefits of an English-proficient society without the colonial baggage. 

The fact is that Taiwan can’t isolate itself. Certainly local languages certainly matter and deserve support and attention to the same extent as English, but while Taiwan can’t only look outward, it can’t navel-gaze either. If Taiwan wants to see the world on its terms and maintain its sovereignty in the face of a screeching, frothy-mouthed, annexationist neighbor, it has to get those messages out to the world. Like it or not, as of now the way to do that is better English education which focuses on English as a communicative tool rather than a purely academic subject.

Honestly, it is possible to do both: to promote local cultures and support local speech communities, and support greater internationalization. I honestly think the two are only mutually exclusive in the minds of people with their own agendas.

Generally, I believe that the government understands this. They get the big picture. They see why it’s important and what the endgame should look like.

I do worry that some of the details are being overlooked, some of which - like the complete unsuitability of the exam system and the lackadaisical, uninformed way qualifications are often evaluated - might be exactly the details that bring the whole thing down. I worry that a focus on bilingualism rather than multilingualism will turn out to be a liability. 

But, there is still time to do this right.