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

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Pound for pound of what, exactly?


I don’t have a good cover photo so enjoy these amateur door gods. 


I admit I haven’t been blogging as much lately, partly because I’m busy with work, and partly because spending a lot of time with a research topic has made me less inclined to opine on issues I don’t know as well. I’ve been asking myself what value the opinionations of outsiders and non-experts really has, at least after a certain point. (That’s not to say I think there is none; it’s just not where I’ve found the most meaning in my life and Taiwan advocacy recently.) I’ve found more meaning in using all this training and experience I’ve been accruing in the past decades to figure out how to help voices more worth listening to than mine get where they want and need to be to express their ideas in a foreign language. 


With that said, please allow me to opinionate on Ruchir Sharma’s recent op-ed in the New York Times. For a Business Guy, focused entirely on business rather than matters of justice and right and wrong, it was pretty good. That is, if you ignore some of the more questionable assertions about Taiwan lifting itself out of poverty post-WWII. For example, conveniently forgetting that pre-WWII it was one of the most prosperous places in Asia due to a “competent government” (lol) that focused on “small business” (sure, after the US forced them to and then kept Taiwan afloat with aid while the KMT spent almost all the government revenue on the military). And calling Taiwan a “small” island of “just” 24 million— would Sharma call Australia small? Probably not? Well, their populations are similar.


In any case, focusing on how Taiwan — often shunted aside as less important in the face of China’s massive market — is actually far more important due to the vital industries it houses is one way to make the case for caring about this country, in a way that some people will hear. He speaks their language, and that’s great. Those of us who care about Taiwan simply because it’s the right thing to do, don’t speak that language very well, and that case needs to be made to anyone who’ll hear it, in any form they’re likely to buy it. 


But something else was missing from Sharma’s essay that has been nagging at me — what it actually took to get Taiwan to where it is. First and foremost, it’s important to discuss the way foreign workers, who do most of the fab-and-factory-floor level grind work, are treated. Taiwan’s economic miracle is in fact ongoing, although it may not seem that way. Certainly growth seems, and is, slower than those heady days of repressive “competent” leadership. It has grown, however, even in the face of a bully neighbor who has tried to throttle its progress. Not even coronavirus has been able to stop Taiwan. 


But the gains it has made even in the years I’ve lived here have been largely due to a supply of foreign labor that is underpaid, overworked and treated abhorrently. (I’m not the first person to point this out, either.) 


At the other end, while Taiwan does have some very well-paid (and also overworked) engineers and experts, it’s worth pointing out that the majority of Taiwanese workers are underpaid and overworked, though not to the same degree as the foreign blue-collar workers. They also tend to face stifling, bureaucratic work environments, which I can speak to anecdotally after years of focusing on business English.


All that “value” Sharma speaks of has been made possible by these two groups. Profit margins either remain razor thin or don’t trickle down to worker salaries and benefits (such as, say, hiring enough people so that no single worker is doing a job 2-3 people should be doing, and taking real vacations is possible.) If I were into toxic positivity, I’d call them superheroes. 


So while I’m grateful for this Business Guy making the Business Guy case for Taiwan to other Business Guys — a case I cannot personally make — I do feel like the tone of the op-ed places profits above working conditions and human costs. 


In other words, sure, pound for pound Taiwan is the most important place on earth. But pounds of what? Because hearing about factory dorm fires and coronavirus cases and seeing my students looking constantly exhausted, rarely taking vacations and — before the CCP virus — eyeing better-paid jobs abroad with better benefits, I’m starting to think he means pounds of flesh.

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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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.



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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.