Showing posts with label international_media. Show all posts
Showing posts with label international_media. Show all posts

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Appreciating Tsai Ing-wen's linguistic tightrope walk on independence

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The Ties

You are living on your own, financially independent and managing all of your personal affairs. You were estranged from one of your family members for a while - a step-parent, but they act like they're actually related to you. You didn't talk for years despite living fairly close to one another. You're pretty happy with how successful you've been.

But this step-parent, well, you've had quite a bit more contact over the past few years, and you're starting to remember why you were estranged in the first place: honestly, they're kind of a dick. 

For example, they keep insisting that you live with them, because you were forced to crash there for awhile a long time ago. They even keep your old room, and tell people you still live there (even when you did, it didn't really feel like your home). They try to tell you who you are allowed to talk to, and even make plans to renovate your home for you. Although they have a lot of money, parts of their own home are an absolute nightmare and you have no intention of allowing them to touch yours. But they just won't shut up about it, and even threaten to bring in a demolition crew if you don't do what they want. At best, they're deeply emotionally abusive.

But they also have a lot of power in the community - big donations to various projects, tons of connections, friends in high places. To fully disavow them would mean to cut yourself off from everyone else. You've tried talking about it to your friends, and they agree with you, but "don't want any trouble". Among acquaintances, if you say so much as a word against them, you’re shut out of community events. Sometimes people who are really friendly with this relative insist that their version of events is accurate. You're completely flummoxed that nobody else seems to see how crazy this whole situation is.

How does nobody find it weird that they insist I still live in my old room when I clearly don't?

So the best you can do under the circumstances is smile wanly and pretend you don’t hate this person, to keep things friendly with everyone else. When someone insists you and your step-parent must be blood relatives because you share the same surname, you don't respond. You considered changing it once and would still like to, but the last time you brought it up they threatened to set your house on fire. 

Publicly, you don’t argue, and you seem happy to keep things the way they are. 

In your heart, you are seething. 

The best you can do, whenever you get the chance, is to refer to your house and your life and encourage people to call you by your chosen name. 

Occasionally, someone will come along and remark that you clearly do want to keep things the way they are, because you aren't aggressively trying to change the situation (at great cost to yourself). You hate this, especially when your well-meaning friends do it, but you keep on smiling and don't contradict them. Technically, it's true. 

Some may ask if you plan to "make a decision" about whether to continue on your own or live in that abusive step-parent's house, and you gently point out that you don't need to make a decision because you are already on your own. They say "huh, but how will you ever be independent if you don't choose?"

How am I not already independent? you reply, because you are. Why would I need to declare otherwise? 


Defining "independence"

This is why no administration or dominant party in Taiwan has been able to consistently advocate for formal (de jure) independence for Taiwan: China has rendered that impossible. Similarly, the KMT can't advocate for the eventual unification with China that they so clearly desire, because the Taiwanese public will never accept it. On both sides, smaller parties take up harder lines on these issues, but they are unlikely to become major players for a variety of reasons. 

What's left is a tussle over the ideas that are still possible to negotiate: what the "status quo" and "independence" really mean. In other words, whether or not the Tsai administration is pro-independence or pro-status quo depends on how you define those terms.

If you define "pro-independence" as "must advocate for formal independence" and the status quo is "not officially pushing for formal independence", then I suppose you can say that Tsai and the DPP are "pro-status quo". 

However, there are a lot of other ways to define "pro-independence" - such as deciding that it means you believe the country is already independent. 

If you define "independence" as a future state you haven't reached yet, there's not much of a way forward. You are constrained by all of those angry voices who call you a troublemaker and shut you out if you try. But if you define it as the state you are already in - which is technically true - then it not only becomes attainable, but in fact is already attained. Any future changes - such as wider recognition - then bear on the status of your already-existing independence. 

This is exactly what Tsai has done.

"We don't have a need to declare ourselves an independent state," the 63-year-old president told the BBC in an exclusive interview, her first since the election. "We are an independent country already and we call ourselves the Republic of China (Taiwan)."

How can anyone say that is not a pro-independence stance? She uses the word “independence” obliquely to describe it. 

What she's doing isn't pro-status quo, as it is commonly understood. It's re-defining independence as de facto attained. In this creation of meaning, the status quo is independence.

It also neatly addresses another concern of pro-Taiwan allies: that when we talk about "independence", a lot of people who are not familiar with Taiwan's status take that to mean "independence from the PRC". Then they hear "I'm pro-independence" and think oh, if you want independence it must mean you don't have it yet, which must mean Taiwan is a part of China. Oooh, that sounds like separatism. The media makes separatists sound like bad guys so I don't think I support that.

Explaining how "pro-independence" is supposed to mean "formal independence" - de jure recognition of a status Taiwan already enjoys - often leads to confused looks. Why would you have to fight for a status you already have? 

Tsai's defining of "independence" to mean "the status Taiwan already has" is, therefore, a masterstroke. It allows the conversation to move forward to supporting not just independence (which we have) but towards recognition (what we want). That argument isn't possible officially, which is why Tsai isn't making it. But unofficially, she is intentionally laying the groundwork for current activists and future leaders to do so. 

In doing this, she leaves  just enough room to claim that the Republic of China still exists and that you may call her stance "pro-status quo" if you wish. It’s a game of social constructionism that is, frankly, genius. She is using language to define and construct a shared reality that is palatable to Taiwan, which can be interpreted in different ways to avoid conflict, but is understood by those who need to understand it.


Pushing Ahead

This fascinating language game has allowed Tsai to push further, rhetorically, than any of her predecessors - including Chen Shui-bian, often seen as far more of a pro-independence hardliner. If we compare what Chen said in his inaugural speeches in 2000 and 2004 vis-a-vis the Republic of China, and what Tsai said in her 2020 acceptance speech (she hasn't given a 2020 inaugural address yet), Chen once, and only once, added "Taiwan" to "The Republic of China", whereas Tsai did this with every mention of the Republic of China, a name she invoked less often than Chen in both 2016 and 2020.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't believe that Chen Shui-bian then immediately got on the international news and remarked that Taiwan was "independent" and China must "respect that". Tsai did. Chen didn't acknowledge the 1992 Consensus but I don't think he ever referred to a "Taiwan Consensus". Tsai did - and in fact I believe she invented the term.

She was able to do that. He - as far as I know - was not. She created space to push for Taiwan and call it independent under any name. He could not. Through finding new ways to define reality through careful language choices, she has been able to walk along a precipice that none of her predecessors could even approach.

Under her administration, we may yet succeed in changing the name of China Airlines, and it's possible that Academia Sinica will change its name as well. This will be a bigger success for Taiwan's visibility internationally than any of the name changes Chen initiated (only one of which remains - Freedom Square). If they succeed, the KMT and CCP will certainly take these moves as a challenge to what they see as the status quo. They are helping Tsai set up a situation in which her administration's actions - seen by some as “pro-status quo" - are actually "pro-independence", without her ever having to say so. 

In the meantime, officials in her administration have free reign to call Taiwan a “country” or “nation” as often as they please. Here's one example. Here's another:
Ou reiterated Taiwan is a sovereign and independent country. 
"China has never ruled Taiwan for one day, and only the popularly elected Taiwan government can represent the country's 23 million people internationally," she said.

Tsai herself does so as well, surely knowing that the international media won’t allow their journalists to throw around those words when referring to Taiwan (opting instead for flaccid terms like “island”, “territory” and - most deflated of all - “place”). But if she says it, they can quote her, and the word “country” makes it into the final copy:

“They don’t like the idea of being threatened all the time. We are a successful democracy … We deserve respect from China,” she said. “We have a separate identity and we’re a country of our own.”



It is absolute genius, and it makes me want to be her best friend and have sleepovers with her where we drink wine and play with cats. 


Defining "the status quo"

Let’s consider how all the other sides in this fight define "status quo". 

If you go by international treaties, the "status quo" means that Taiwan's status is undetermined. No binding treaty ever addresses it. Even if you believe that the declarations of Cairo and Potsdam are binding (they're not), through a post-colonial lens, they're still not valid: the Republic of China had never governed Taiwan at that point, so Chiang Kai-shek's desire to control it is just another form of imperialism.

Tsai clearly doesn't adhere to that definition, as she has assigned a status to Taiwan: as already independent. There's nothing undetermined about it.

If you go by another rubric of how a country is defined - that it has a government, contiguous territory, a currency, a military etc. - what you get is a de facto nation, like Taiwan. This is closest to what Tsai is trying to express: that de facto independence is still a form of independence, and is sufficient grounds to push the meaning of "status quo" in a Taiwanese context from 'undetermined' to 'determined, awaiting recognition'. 

Then, there is how pro-China forces define "the status quo". To the KMT, "the status quo" means "Taiwan's status is undetermined, but we respect the 1992 Consensus...with different interpretations". Considering that realistically, the Republic of China will never govern all of "China", this is a fancy way of being a unificationist. The KMT insists that this is open to interpretation, an assertion that the CCP has never agreed to. 

Ma Ying-jeou spent 8 long years insisting that such a position could be credibly called the "status quo". Notably, nobody from his own side attacked him for that, because they all understood that "the status quo" meant "Taiwan's current status is unclear but its fate is ultimately Chinese". Handed Tsai's re-jiggering of "status quo", a definition co-constructed with her supporters (that is, the closest thing we have to a consensus of Taiwanese citizens), neither Ma, nor the KMT, nor the CCP would call it anything close to the "status quo" as they see it. To them, that's a push for independence, and they will angrily say so at any opportunity.

What they don't realize is that this helps Tsai in her creation of meaning through language that Taiwan's current status can be described as "independent". The perlocutionary effect of her words lands in part because it has been validated by the opposition. By insisting their definition of “the status quo” is the only valid one, and Tsai's is in fact a pro-independence stance, they are helping to co-create the idea that the status quo, if defined in another way, can be called independence. 

Clearly, there is no objective definition of "status quo" (or "independence") that a neutral observer can point to and say that this or that Taiwanese leader does or does not advocate for it. If the meanings of these terms are not necessarily fixed, then the interrelationship between them can't be so easily defined or interpreted, either. You can't insist that there is only a reality in which Taiwan is not already independent (because it is not formally so), when the daily experience of people in Taiwan clearly show that there is a reality in which it is (because it acts that way, regardless of how it is treated by others). 


The Use and Utility of "The Republic of China"

As for keeping the name "Republic of China", every president (even Chen) has been pushed by circumstance to give it a little lip service. 

Let's talk about Tsai's strategic deployment of the words "Republic of China": it offers smooth rhetoric on which the KMT can find little or no purchase from where they might attack her. It ensures that the CCP can't use "abrogating the claim to being part of 'China'" as a pretext for a declaration of war (of course, they're going to do what they want to do anyway, but it's best not to give them excuses). 

If you understand her use of "Republic of China" to mean that she actually believes that it not only is but should be Taiwan's name, you could call her "pro-status quo". But here's how I've come to see it: a statement of fact, that "Republic of China" is the official name of this country, without making any statement about whether or not it should be. 

Some might take this as being huadu (華獨) or "pro-independence as the Republic of China". I don't. This is partly because it's pretty clear that Tsai doesn't actually think that "independent Republic of China" is the best future for Taiwan, which her supporters clearly understand as well. And it’s partly because I see her intention in her slightly contradictory choice of words. 

(There is a whole discussion we can have here about “independence” being “independence from the ROC colonial system”, but that’s a topic on its own - when creating narratives and defining Taiwan for an international audience who might not be deeply knowledgeable about or interested in Taiwan’s situation, that’s an issue best kept to domestic debate.) 

I read a lot of advice columnists, and this is one piece of advice I keep coming across: when you have to say something, and you can't give any genuine praise but don't want to lie, say something which is factually true. If your aunt is showing you her new house, say "oh wow, wall-to-wall carpets!" She doesn't need to know that you hate wall-to-wall carpets.

"...we call ourselves the Republic of China" is the "oh wow, wall-to-wall carpets!" of political talk.  It is not only intended to acknowledge the current existence of a government called "The Republic of China", but also as a necessary conjunction: creating space so that the words "independent country" may also be spoken. 


Tsai's 3D Chess

With all that in mind, which do you think is more likely: that Tsai actually believes that the status quo is what's best for Taiwan, and the name of this country should be "The Republic of China", or that she's choosing the most realistic, pragmatic path to advocating for independence available to her? Given the constraints of Taiwan's situation both domestically (KMT attacks) and internationally (PRC threats), given her careful choice of words and given what we know pro-independence Taiwanese believe, it's risible to credibly claim the former. 

She sees that the hard-line "independence" fight simply cannot be waged right now. So rather than gaze helplessly at a dense thicket she cannot enter, she's making a new path into the woods by re-defining the terms available to her: the status quo not as "Taiwan's status is undetermined" (which much of the world quietly believes) nor as "Taiwan is a part of China but unification will take time" (which is what both the PRC and the KMT believe), but "the status quo is independence, because the people see their country as independent, and in fact we are de facto independent." 

That is a valid pro-independence stance.

It's also a type of doublespeak: she's hewing close enough to the "status quo" shibboleths that China insists on (and then rattles their sabers anyway just because they don't like her), while making it clear to everyone else that Taiwan is a country. 

This is also in line with how she approaches issues more generally. While I don't fully sign off on her strategy to get marriage equality passed in Taiwan, the tactics were quite clear: play it safe, lay low, and then BAM! Same sex marriage. Say nothing at all about the 1992 Consensus, merely acknowledging that "meetings took place" in that year, and then when Xi starts rattling his saber about it, BAM! Taiwan Consensus. She takes some heat for several rounds of confusing changes to labor laws and appears to mostly be listening to business rather than workers, but BAM! has quietly raised the minimum wage more than her predecessors in just four years. She didn't say a thing about the issues inherent to tourism from China. She didn't want those tourists nor the economic weapon they represented - most of us didn't. Then BAM! China changes the policy on their own, as she knew they would. She presents herself as a slow-acting, overcautious, ho-hum centrist, and then BAM! The DPP has been quietly filled with young progressives and the socially conservative old guard has broken off to form their own irrelevant party

Taken through that lens, Taiwan's careful word choice and officially leaving the independence question alone while unofficially acting as though the question has already been answered - which it has - is a way of advocating for independence that can't exist if "pro-independence" must mean "actively advocating for formal recognition". 

If you still want to believe that her stance is a "pro-status quo" one, you can. There is room in how these terms can be defined for that viewpoint. But I would suggest that your chosen definitions are so narrow that they create further constraints on what Taiwanese leaders can do. Taiwan already has enough constraints to navigate, which Tsai has worked hard to loosen. Why add more?

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Data and Lore (a COVID-19 story)

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Does this mean...I'm Wesley?


I had always imagined that, living on an island, I'd feel trapped if disaster struck. There are no borders to cross, only open sea. I know it's not a reasonable worry: land borders can also be treacherous, but knowing your only options are a plane or a boat (and probably not even a boat) rather than a truck, car or your own two feet can honestly induce claustrophobia.

So, while the world around us seems like it's collapsing, I'm surprised by how wrong I was in predicting my own feelings about island life in a global catastrophe. Thanks to Taiwan's pre-emptive, centrally-planned and intelligent response to the COVID-19 pandemic, I feel like I'm living in an island of safety, calm and normalcy in a world gone mad.

I am not terribly concerned that Taiwan will be felled by COVID itself. Even if there is a spike in cases, the time the country bought itself through a strong, early and professional response will be priceless: it is time Taiwan has had to prepare for that potentiality, and considering how they've treated the issue so far, we can be fairly sure they've been using it wisely. 

People are doing their part too - for every anecdote I hear about someone not practicing good pandemic hygiene, I see 20 people who do.

Of course, my confidence extends only to health. I worry quite a bit about the economic backlash. We have enough savings to weather a brief storm, or even a somewhat-prolonged quarantine, but what about an interminable economic crisis? A lot of my clients are businesses, and when the economic crash really hits, the first thing they're going to cut is English training. My teacher training work might see an uptick, but it's honestly hard to say.

Let's not think too much about that, though. There is literally nothing I can do about it except spend less on non-essentials. Once it was clear that climate change was real, I never expected the second half of my life to be easy anyway.

So, what has Taiwan been doing right? I won't write out a whole list because there are lots of places where you can read about that: see here, here, here and here. Suffice it to say, a large component of Taiwan's response has been data collection and public regulation. Most notably, for certain people quarantines are mandatory, and everyone that person had been in contact with might also be asked (or required) to quarantine. Quarantined individuals have their phones tracked and are notified if the government can see there is a violation. The CDC calls them every day (though this is a lot friendlier than it sounds). Isolated people report their temperature online once a day. All face mask production lines were bought up (in essence, expropriated) by the government, and masks are now rationed. Huge amounts of personal health data - including masks purchased - is tracked on National Health Insurance cards. Some public transportation, including all Kuo-kuang buses and all airport MRT trains - require face masks.

This gives the government a massive amount of data to work with, which has some fantastic benefits. There is an app (which is a bit difficult for foreigners to use) that can track which pharmacies will have masks, how many, and when. Apparently one can now pre-order masks. Potential disease vectors are swiftly located and locked down to prevent transmission.

Watching the news from the US right now, where the response seems to be to run out in the street screaming and flailing one's arms, it sure feels like they could learn a lot from the way Taiwan has handled this, starting with universal health coverage.

On the other hand, I have to wonder how much of this Americans would realistically put up with. The scale of data collection really is astounding. If you are identified as a risk, you lose a lot of personal freedom - both in terms of data privacy and freedom of movement. It is, to be honest, a lot to ask.

This is the point at which a different writer might start waxing rhapsodic about Confucian societies and collectivism and the people are more willing to submit to authority because 5,000 years or...something like that.

I won't.

This is a country where people set their sights on overthrowing a dictatorship and succeeded. Where protests are practically a hobby and producing protest gear a side hustle for many. Where your average person would be pretty upset if they couldn't day drink under their favorite temple awning (or in front of their favorite convenience store). Where an entire generation of people under 40 defied their elders by voting for same-sex marriage. There's no Confucian about it and I'm sick of the trope.

Instead, I'll say this: as an American, I'm fine with the level of intrusion into my personal life and willing to give up the data. I suspect - though don't know - that most Taiwanese are too. Not because of some 'different, exotic Asian values' fake East-West divide (a divide that online trolls really seem to push, which is how you know it's fake).

Rather, most Taiwanese are okay with Big Government  right now because this particular circumstance is a true emergency, because they know that this particular data is useful and important for a centrally-coordinated response to work, and because they trust this particular government. 

While we can heave a sigh of relief that this government was re-elected (for a peek into how a Han administration would have handled it, you need only look at Trump's non-response), unfortunately, this perspective doesn't offer many solutions for what to do when you don't trust the government. I don't often agree with libertarians but they're right about this: you only want the government to have as much power as you'd be comfortable with them having if you didn't trust the people in charge, because eventually, someone you don't trust will get elected.

In other words, I'll give this information (and power) to Tsai Ing-wen. I would never be happy to give it to Donald Trump. Or Han Kuo-yu. Would you want either of them at the helm of a government that has just taken sole control of key medical supplies? Would you want either of their administrations insisting they had the right to track your location?

All that data, though, has kept Taiwan feeling more like a cozy ark on a rising flood, rather than a prison from which there is no escape. And perhaps, considering that dictatorship existed in Taiwan in living memory so they know the difference between authoritarianism and a centrally-planned response, maybe we should take their word for it that government data collection for this purpose is acceptable?

So what's happening beyond the rough seas? Between many Western countries' totally botched responses - including a massive failure to test leading to rapid, undetected community transmission - and China's repeated cover-ups and lack of reliable data, there is fertile soil for misinformation and fake narratives to take root.

I had opined, when this all began, that such an obvious and self-evidential failure and clear, documentable cover-up on the part of the CCP might just offer up a silver lining: that the CCP itself would fall. That the systemic failure would be so inescapable that they would not be able to control the narrative. I figured it would be so undeniably true to anyone with working brain that China did not "buy time" for the world, but rather that the CCP's initial cover-up is what caused the disease to go pandemic in the first place, that something would possibly - maybe - give to loosen the grip of that brutal dictatorship on a country that absolutely deserves better.

For a brief period, it seemed that the world might just hold the Chinese government to account for this, or at least report clearly on who was to blame  - not China or the Chinese people, but the CCP.

But even before the US botched its response by completely failing to prepare, one could watch the narrative change almost in real time.

First, the media started saying that China "bought time" for the rest of the world, how its "decisive" and "bold"  response - note the adjectives used instead of the more appropriate draconian and inhumane - saved lives, how it "acted quickly"  (see here, here, here, here and here).

I thought when I hate-read these pieces that, yes, dragging screaming people into their homes and boarding the doors is, I supposebold in a sense. But are we really all pretending that the initial cover-up which is directly responsible for the pandemic going global in the first place just...never happened? Are we truly allowing COVID-19's origin story to be re-written so easily?

I'm not the only one who's noticed, fortunately.





Of course, it's difficult to argue now that the US or Europe could have done better, as they have now both failed so spectacularly. The difference, of course, is that in a liberal democracy you can say so without getting shot, and theoretically can put better people in office next time.

I can empathize, however, with people whose governments did too little thinking that maybe the government that did too much - and now claims that cases are in decline - had the right of it. Even if that sentiment ignores the facts. Even if you are in essence saying "it would be acceptable to drag my screaming neighbor into their house, padlock the door and walk away with the key. It would be acceptable to do that to me, too."

These are the same people who think it's un-American to even ask them not to gather in crowds. Do they think China couldn't possibly be as bad as it actually is, or that it's OK to do that to others but "it would never happen to me" or...do they just use the cognitive dissonance like a white noise machine to help them sleep at night? I truly don't know.



Untitled
Neither of these are good! 

It doesn't help that the facts are hard to come by. It's honestly surprising to me how many people understand that the US has no idea how many COVID-19 cases currently exist within its borders, but actually believe the numbers from China, despite China's clear history of lying about them. Now people are saying cases in China are on the decline, but can we really trust that, when nothing the CCP has said since the initial cover-up can be trusted? I don't, and you shouldn't either.

The CCP understands this better than anything: in the absence of trustworthy data, you can make up your own lore.

While all of this has been going on, there's been an ongoing discussion of whether calling COVID-19 "Wuhan Pneumonia" or anything relating to its place of origin is racist, as these viruses can originate anywhere. I don't know that changing a disease's name can really combat racism, but it almost doesn't matter. I'm not qualified to say whether referring to Wuhan in the disease's name is, indeed, racist - totally not my lane. I don't use it - it's too long and seems unnecessary. Holding the CCP to account and not treating people in racist ways both seem like more important things to worry about than exercising my 'right' to call a disease by a common name.

 But I will note that in Taiwan it's called 武漢肺炎 (that is, Wuhan Pneumonia) in Mandarin. It's slightly amusing to me that the CCP insists that Taiwan is a part of China, but also that calling COVID-19 "Wuhan Pneumonia" is racist...against Chinese. By that logic, Chinese people are racist against themselves.

Anyway, I've noticed a particularly bit of nasty ret-conning on the English front too.

I support a general push not to stigmatize people by using place names in disease names going forward, but there seem to be a lot of gullible people who now think we've never called diseases that in the past, so "Wuhan Pneumonia" is a unique example of racism on this front. Of course, those same people will still use disease names like Ebola, Nipah, Zika, Marburg and MERS.

Don't laugh - I saw someone arguing that "we've never named diseases after places!" under a chart that included all of the above. So I suppose I consider users of the term "Wuhan Pneumonia" exactly as racist as I would consider users of the terms "Ebola" and "MERS".

It's been disconcerting to watch how the CCP propaganda machine has taken advantage of this confusion.

First, insisting that its response was appropriate and effective. Then, trying to tell the world (and their own people) that we should be grateful. Then, getting behind a call to label everyone saying "Wuhan Pneumonia" racist moving to a general call not to "blame China" (which, of course, runs in tandem with labeling all blaming of the CCP "blaming China" and therefore "racist"). And now, we've got CCP officials spreading rumors that the virus did not originate in China at all.

I still don't intend to call COVID-19 "Wuhan Pneumonia", but I do note that it's a lot easier to convince idiots outside the Chinese-speaking world that COVID-19 did not come from China if everyone's afraid of being called racist for discussing how it absolutely did.

And so from an undifferentiated mess of information - most of which is unreliable as China's numbers can't be trusted - we have a myth of CCP "decisiveness" saving the world. Lore spun from literally nothing into a narrative that credible people actually believe.

I had hoped that cold, hard data would carry the day. That it would be clear what works (a response like Taiwan's) and what doesn't (running around screaming like a hemorrhaging goat like the US). How draconian, inhumane methods like China's are not necessary if there is initial transparency and swift action. I had hoped that this clarity would lead to much-needed changes in how governments operate around the world, from an end to CCP tyranny to drastic changes in the US's broken system.

Instead, it seems that between data and lore, the latter can pose as the former because most people can't tell the difference.

We will all pay the price for it.


Monday, February 24, 2020

Please, sir, I want some more.

Screen Shot 2020-02-24 at 11.59.58 AM
Photo: screen grab from the 60 Minutes interview



If you’re watching Taiwan-centric social media, you’ll know that Bernie Sanders was finally asked about Taiwan, in an interview with Anderson Cooper.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Ring the bells in celebration!

Truly, every candidate should be asked this. I would very much like to hear Warren and Buttigieg’s answers. 

Sanders' reply was encouraging:


Cooper: If China took military action against Taiwan, is something you would...? 
Sanders: It's something...yeah. I mean I think we have got to make it clear to countries around the world that we will not sit by and allow invasions to take place, absolutely.

This is good - or at least, good enough. It’s enough that I could vote for him with confidence if he gets the nomination, a future which looks increasingly likely. 

However, it seems like Taiwan advocates and allies are perhaps reading a bit too much into what Sanders actually said. Headlines like "US will take military action" aren't helpful - he didn't say that. He said the US would "make it clear" and "not sit by", which is not necessarily the same as a military response. I understand that there's not a lot to go on when divining answers to US presidential candidates' views on Taiwan, but this reads to me as thirsty people in a desert thinking everything is water. Interpreting it too much is about as useful as reading an oracle bone.

Though my overall take on the US election vis-a-vis Taiwan leans pessimistic, I have been thinking that regardless of the candidates’ histories, all of the senators in the race - Sanders, Warren, Klobuchar - have voted for legislation that either chastises China (the Uighur and Hong Kong human rights acts) or actively supports Taiwan (the Taiwan Travel Act and TAIPEI Act) in the past few years. That’s good news, and it shows that it’s possible to envision a Trump-free US that still supports Taiwan. 

I also love hearing the cries of millions of Bernie supporters, the ones who’ve gone half-tankie and extremely against US engagement abroad (because to them the US is always evil in every situation and in fact is the only font of evil in the world, the CCP cannot be evil because it’s not the US, QED) hearing clearly that their candidate has a realistic foreign policy vision. 

They are music to my ears. 

However, I have questions. 

First, what changed since 2011 when Sanders voted against selling F-16s to Taiwan, and 1997 when he voted against missile defense? Those were measures that could have helped Taiwan defend itself. I understand that viewers might not be that interested in the answers to such detailed questions on Taiwan, but I do wish Cooper had challenged him on this. I’d very much like to know his answer. 

A friend pointed out that in those years he hadn’t had to articulate a clear foreign policy vision. Now that he must do so, he’s had to really think about what that might look like, and his ultimate conclusions might break with his past views. I can appreciate that, but I really would like to know Sanders’ actual response. 

Second, Sanders mentions US engagement abroad as part of an alliance or coalition of allies: 


I believe the United States, everything being equal, should be working with other countries in alliance, not doing it alone.

Great. Theoretically, I absolutely support this. It’s good for Taiwan as well. A single, powerful, ideological enemy of China with an extremely poor reputation regarding military engagements abroad standing up for Taiwan alone could give China something to twist into a pretext for invasion. An alliance of liberal democratic nations standing up for Taiwan would be more likely to help Taiwan achieve its goal of recognized, de jure sovereignty (as the Republic of Taiwan) with less risk.

But what happens if other liberal democracies and natural allies of Taiwan and its cause don’t stand up with the US in the face of Chinese invasion? Does that mean we let Taiwan be annexed? 

The UN is in China’s pocket - any coalition would have to take place outside that framework. Europe (with perhaps a few exceptions) is weaker on China than the US, almost certainly to their detriment. Australia feels practically like a Chinese vassal state, and New Zealand’s prime minister might be great in other ways, but she’s not strong on China. I honestly think Canada is a coin flip - one day chummy with China, the next calling for Taiwan’s inclusion in the WHO. Japan, possibly - they’ve been expanding their fighting capability in recent years, but overall don’t they lack an offensive military force? Anyone else in Asia? Probably not. 

What does the US do if it can’t get a coalition together? Wash its hands of its best friend in Asia? 

What happens when American liberals and lefties - his support base - wring their hands because the world has not stepped up as we’d hoped, and say the US should not get involved because nobody stands with them? Does Sanders listen, or does he do what’s right anyway? Does he understand that standing with Taiwan is fundamentally different from other conflicts the US has been criticized for in the past?

In short, "we need a coalition of liberal democracies" is only a great solution if it is likely to actually happen. And I'm not at all sure it is likely. So what then?

Again, I wish Cooper had asked this. 

Lastly, I have to wonder what this means for “us” - the Taiwan allies and supporters. Yes, it’s great news. 

But, Sanders is clearly not going to support Taiwan unilaterally standing up for itself, or a change in the ROC colonial framework. He probably understands that Taiwan’s fight for sovereignty has already been won, the question is recognition. But I doubt he has too much interest in changing that, and if he did, it certainly wouldn’t help him in the election to say so. 

While I agree in theory that diplomacy is always a better answer, it does feel like “diplomacy” has been something conducted by high-level officials alongside foreign interests, which seeks to avoid conflict by creating and extending the existence of quagmires - swamps of intractable situations that suck to live in, but “at least it’s not war”. These negotiators, especially the foreign interests, don’t actually have to live in the morasses they create. They don’t have to live in Palestine, Taiwan, Kashmir. So it doesn’t matter that much to them if the quagmires persist, and they might even begin to call them “beneficial for both sides” (as Andrew Yang did). They might even believe it. 

It’s one thing to be resigned to a slow resolution to avoid a war. It’s another to forget that the resolution process isn’t actually the goal, and start viewing it as a permanent feature of the geopolitical landscape - a swamp we’ve convinced ourselves cannot, or should not, be drained. To convince ourselves that those who live in the swamp actually like it that way.

I do wonder, then, whether Sanders’ Asia policy vision — which I admit is realistic, and generally palatable — is another form of “let’s let the Taiwan quagmire sit awhile”. 

On top of that, China is not a trustworthy negotiating partner. They make agreements, yes, and then immediately ignore them. They bully and pretend to be offended. The only way to win against their tactics is not to play. I think Sanders may understand that, but I’m not sure.

On a related note, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how my own uncompromising vision of the future - a globally-recognized Republic of Taiwan - squares with what is diplomatically possible. 

Along with that, I’ve been thinking about language: whether Taiwan allies are beginning to show a worrying trend towards self-censorship - asking for less than Taiwan deserves, because articulating our actual goals could “anger China”. Begging for crumbs when we all know Taiwan deserves a whole meal. 

“Sanders is unlikely to support an end to the ROC framework” is simply realistic; I don’t necessarily agree with him, but I can’t argue with it as an accurate description of his probable Taiwan policy. 

“Don’t ask for diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, it could provoke China”, however, perhaps edges up against the line of adopting China-approved language. “Don’t say that, it could sound sinophobic” does too. Some language is sinophobic, but there are instances when it isn’t — rather realistically describing CCP actions or simply stating a strong pro-Taiwan position — yet could be seen as anti-China by someone looking to take offense.

I understand that my big-picture vision of Taiwan is not immediately diplomatically possible, and that what strong Taiwan allies articulate for the country’s future sounds scary to some. But, the Chinese government absolutely wants us to be terrified of sounding “China-hating” (when we’re not - we’re pro-Taiwan). They want to paint Taiwanese who are justifiably angry at China’s treatment of them as extremist, xenophobic, nativist splittists. They want us to clip our own wings and curtail our own wishes so that we might not ask for everything Taiwan actually deserves. It helps them if we genuflect and kowtow for crumbs rather than the whole meal, so they can scream and cry that we’re getting even some crumbs. 

I’ll vote for Sanders and his “status quo” take on Taiwan - and yes, it is a status-quo take, just dressed up in prettier language — because it is nudging the Overton window in the right direction. I’ll take it. Warren is still preferable, but this is acceptable.

But, please, I want some more

There are many paths to a recognized and decolonized Taiwan, and diplomacy will always move more slowly than we’d like it to. We should all very much appreciate the slow process of moving the line, so that more and more space for Taiwan becomes available. I personally don’t care to hear, however, that we should not clearly articulate the final goal, because it could provoke China or scare the architects of the swamp. Let’s all recognize that Sanders’ views on Taiwan are acceptable for now, but no more than that.

Basically, we can't forget that there is a difference between pushing for a realistic policy accomplishment or incremental push forward in the discourse, and the actual end goal, and there is a line between advocating for what is realistic (crumbs), and insisting on what Taiwan deserves (the whole meal). 

In the end, when figuring out what we actually want, it’s better not to limit our wish lists to procedural goals or interim solutions. The big-picture wish list should include a full vision of Taiwan existing confidently as Taiwan, and nothing less. Those of us with actual power (so...not me) can work on incremental change, but the general supporters? People like me? Let’s perhaps not convince ourselves that it’s dangerous to ask for too much. 

Friday, February 7, 2020

The CCP's mind tricks are working better on the West than on China right now

Untitled
Found on Twitter from user AlexTheBullet (I don't know the origin of the image)



Chinese people: The Chinese government has been thoroughly incompetent at handling coronavirus!

The Chinese Communist Party: We are doing an excellent job.

The rest of the world, including the WHO: You are doing an excellent job, also these are not the droids we’re looking for


Watching the coronavirus horror unfold in China, I’m acutely aware that I’m close by geographically but worlds away politically and in terms of public health and safety - and those differences are the only thing keeping those of us in Taiwan safe.

It also means that in Taiwan, people generally have access to what’s going on in both China and the West. Information from the latter is freely available and increasingly accessible. At the same time, many Taiwanese have friends or family in China, many of whom are currently waylaid in Taiwan. Speaking a mutually intelligible language (mostly), they have a better idea of what is going on in China than most Westerners, for whom ‘China’ is much further away geographically, historically, relationally and linguistically. 

It should be obvious that Taiwan, alongside Hong Kong, is one of the most informative places from which to observe the nexus of knowledge, belief and awareness in both China and abroad. 

And what I am seeing now is truly astounding. 

Alongside the unfolding of a national tragedy, China is also experiencing a brief window in which freedom of speech is somewhat possible. And if you listen, what you hear is a furious outcry - the howl of a nation. 





And this:



People in China - many of them, anyway - know that the coronavirus epidemic has been mishandled from the top down and is still not being handled well, that their leaders (whom they never chose) are throwing each other under the bus, that that Xi Jinping is missing in action and that the initial outbreak was mishandled and covered up so spectacularly that it (at least partially) exacerbated the spread of the disease. They are fully aware that Li Wenliang - who was not a dissident - was reprimanded for warning a private WeChat group of his fellow medical school alumni about the danger, and that he can be credited as one of the early voices to speak out about the disease.  Li recently died, and the government (so it seems) half-heartedly attempted to cover it up - and it’s causing an absolute meltdown on Chinese social media.



The replies demanded of Dr. Li when he was reprimanded - that he "was clear" and "could" follow the government's orders - have been given life as a form of protest:





They also know that the government data on the disease can’t be trusted

And they know this because so many of them have known all their lives that the CCP is built on repression and lies, but have chosen until now to survive and endure rather than speaking out and going to jail, or worse. 

Compare that to what I’m seeing from the rest of the world, especially the West. It’s like some sort of Jedi - well, I suppose Sith - mind trick. 

Despite the international news reporting on the death of Li Wenliang, the consensus seems to be that the CCP is doing “everything they can” to stop the epidemic and that their response has been “great” and “transparent”. The WHO has praised China's response, as well. In China, people know that when you officially reprimand those who issue early warnings, that’s not transparency. Some are even saying that criticism of the Chinese government response is Sinophobic or anti-China. While there have been racist incidents against Chinese people - and that is obviously wrong - it is not Sinophobic to criticize a government.

This is despite international media (finally) starting to report on how badly they are actually doing:

This wonder at China’s logistical prowess is symptomatic of a recurrent trope among western commentators. We might call it the “if we could just be China for a day” view....
But when it comes to a public health epidemic, there are worrying limits to the Chinese Communist party’s control. To maintain authority, the Chinese Communist party (CCP) must convince the public that everything is going to plan. This hampers its ability to respond to epidemics....


People are praising the “hospital built in 10 days” (which I suspect plenty of Chinese people realize is a cross between a farce and a death camp - you wouldn't need to build a hospital that fast if you had dealt with the outbreak appropriately in the first place). All the old cliches are coming out: they sure know how to get things done (except for initial containment of the outbreak, I suppose), they’re taking such decisive action (which they hadn’t done before). From the link above, this guy is quoted in the BBC:


"China has a record of getting things done fast even for monumental projects like this," says Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations....

"The engineering work is what China is good at. They have records of building skyscrapers at speed. This is very hard for westerners to imagine. It can be done," he added.

I see numerous comments echoing this trash online.


They’re praising China’s health care system (this is just one example), even though it’s failing, and spectacularly, too. It seems a fair number of Westerners have believed for some time that China had universal or accessible public health care” simply because China calls itself “communist”. It does not.

They are talking about that ridiculous Bloomberg article about how “China sacrificed a province to save the world” as though it was some sort of heroic act and not the tragic consequences of endemic incompetence and corruption in a government ill-prepared to deal with this crisis. And if you think public figures aren’t quoting that nonsense, oh, they are: 





To be fair I think he meant this to be somewhat critical? It's unclear.

Of course, while one might be able to try and justify the locking down of the epicenter, this is what Chinese social media is asking - and the West apparently is not: if the government has been doing such an excellent job, how did it get to the point that they needed to lock down several other cities and put a huge chunk of the economy essentially on hold? Was it necessary, or is it a massive overreaction? We have no idea which it is - and isn’t that even scarier?

Worse still, the international media is taking government data as gospel, which people in China know right now not to do. We don’t know what the fatality rate is because nobody knows how many people died before being diagnosed because they couldn’t get care. China keeps reporting “2.1%”, a number I don’t think anyone in China believes. We have no idea how contagious it is, either. We know nothing.



If the CCP is doing such an excellent job, how is it that China-watchers in Asia are openly wondering if this will be the crisis - not just of public health, but of public fury - that brings down the CCP?





It’s like some sort of demented hypnosis. The media is waking up, but I'm shocked that the commentary has been so...so...tankie.

How did the CCP manage to dupe so many people abroad, when their own citizens after years of forced indoctrination seem to (mostly) know better? How is it that people outside China seem more susceptible to authoritarian propaganda than the people educated since birth to support that system? How is it that the rest of the world seems to put faith in Chinese state media - which is known for spouting government lines rather than the truth  - while being completely oblivious to - or simply ignoring - a billion furious people?

It's like they all read and believe this junk rather than actually listening to people in China who have a brief flicker of an opportunity to speak out.

And those same Westerners are probably patting themselves on the back for being aware of the crisis in China and sympathetic to the Chinese people - whose voices they ignore in favor of state-peddled lies. I don’t think they realize the level of vitriolic, potentially incendiary outrage brewing in China against the very government they praise from a distance.

Truly, it amazes me. 

In China and the region, we know that the biggest danger isn’t coronavirus, or isn’t only that. Far scarier is knowing that we can’t trust the government tasked with combating the epidemic. At all.

As Chinese citizens are showing the world that they don't buy the CCP's crap when it comes to coronavirus, the world seems to be saying "more crap, please!" The death of Dr. Li might turn that tide, but with the WHO expressing condolences, after praising the government that silenced him and not seeing the irony of it all, and then backtracking to say they "had no information" (!!!), I'm not sure.

I wish the rest of the world would realize it too.