Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Taiwan can govern itself, and this should be obvious


My eyes blurred when I saw the picture: Freddy Lim showing off a selfie he'd snapped with former Secretary of State and horror show of a human being, Mike Pompeo. The former advocates for LGBT+ equality, among other things. The latter spends an inordinate amount of time tweeting furiously about "wokeism" in the military, whatever that means. 

Is Pompeo aware of Lim's politics, beyond continuing to support Taiwan's ongoing independence? I have no idea.

Does Lim know about Pompeo's politics, beyond support of Taiwan? Almost certainly yes. I'm including the "almost" only because he hasn't said.

This was disappointing, of course, coming from Lim specifically. I expected it from most politicians, but Lim seems to actually stand for something, and that something is a society very much unlike the bigoted shitfest that Mike Pompeo fantasizes about. When I say they truly only agree on one thing -- Taiwan's sovereignty -- I mean it. 

I've struggled with this publicly in the past. Is it worth having absolute turds as allies when they otherwise promulgate horrifying right-wing values? My heart says no. My brain points out that Taiwan is losing diplomatic allies, not gaining them; official allies Taiwan has aren't exactly staunch supporters so much as checkbook friends; Taiwan has never been more in the world's eye and never enjoyed so much unofficial support; yet it's still not enough as long as Chinese invasion remains a real threat and potential assistance is only tepidly affirmed.

It's a lot to work through. My head aches with it. Yet I've never been able to fully embrace the idea that trash allies are worse than no allies at all. There are many reasons for this, but one sticks out: Taiwan is choosing this. 

Before, all this worry could be mapped along two axes: the degree to which Taiwan needs international support (quite a bit), and the degree to which its supporters have palatable politics in general (some do, many don't). Even this is no easy grid. It goes beyond lack of a clear notion of point at which Taiwan can be picky about its allies; I'm not even sure how to structure the question, or equation, or whatever it is. I think Mike Pompeo is a bigot and I'm tired of having to think about him, but what of the people who think even Nancy Pelosi shouldn't make the cut, because she's too far to the right or to the left for their liking? 

I'd answered that two-sided question with my own split take: you will never hear me praise someone like Mike Pompeo, but I won't stand in the way of what Taiwan needs to do -- and that includes courting support from influential people who can offer tangible help. To be blunt, it means playing nice with US empire because CCP empire is so much worse, and if Taiwan rejects all problematic support, CCP empire will win. Yes, it will.

And I can personally fume about that as much as I want, which changes nothing.

Of course, there was always a third axis to this: Taiwan's choice to accept that support. I do not believe for a single instant that, say, President Tsai is unaware of Mike Pompeo's, uh, portfolio. I know for a fact that at least some of the Taiwanese political figures who engage with him know what he's about. 

The other guys too. Taiwanese voters aren't stupid (or at least not any more so than other countries), and the government they elected isn't doing this blindly. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Marcia Blackburn, Abe Shinzo, et cetera ad nauseam: they know the deal with these people. And I'd make a real cash money bet that they have similar intelligence as the US, so they're aware of the magnitude and type of CCP threats at all times. 

In short, they don't need to be educated by preening Westerners eager to show off how much they know better. Frankly, it's a little offensive to assume Taiwan is ignorant of all this and needs to be told.

It's still difficult, though, because I remain strongly averse to even the whiff of right-wing bigotry. I criticized Freddy Lim for that photo too -- not because I think Taiwan should tell Mike Pompeo to get bent, but because he's Freddy Lim. I actually agree with everyone pointing out these supporters aren't top-notch. I personally wouldn't even shake their hands.

But, at the end of it, if we're going to talk about Taiwanese agency and self-determination, that the Taiwanese people can and should choose their own future, then we must also admit that they chose a government who is choosing to engage with these people. 

That government is far from perfect, but it has been consistently competent, and paid no political price I can see for that engagement. That's as close as we're going to get to proof of a consensus: Taiwan used its agency, decided it needed that support, and chose to engage. And not every Taiwanese person who makes up one speck of that overall national agency is going to be a leftist, or even a liberal. It's always going to be this way, and frankly whether one agrees or not is irrelevant.

Of course, Taiwan being a free society, one can criticize the government all they want. I share some of those criticisms! Criticize away! But the constant pile-on about whom Taiwan should and shouldn't engage with is not only tiring, it's ramped up to the point that it doesn't read like well-meaning criticism anymore. It comes across as I-know-betterism.  You know, hey Taiwan enjoy all that agency and self-determination but be sure to only use it in the ways I approve of! 

Clearly, I'm not a fan. Maybe I used to be, but not anymore.

I can hear the comments now: you wouldn't think this way if the KMT were in charge! 

You're right, I wouldn't. When they were in charge and did a terrible job, I stood with the activists and progressives who pushed for something very much like the Tsai administration. Now the people we supported are in charge, and generally -- some criticisms aside -- I think they're doing a fine job, especially regarding international relations. The people I supported won a bunch of elections and now are competently running the country, and I'm happy about that, and think the other guys wouldn't do as good a job? Yes! Obviously! 

Taiwan as Taiwan (not Chiang Kai-shek's personal ROC pleasure hole) has never been so noticed, so supported, so popular -- and that's thanks to the government everyone is now yelling at for engaging with international supporters they don't like. To be blunt, I don't care for it. In fact, it'd be suicidal for Taiwan. I don't know exactly at what point Taiwan can turn away support, but surely it is not when they still lack formal diplomatic recognition, and only one country in the world has said anything remotely concrete about assisting them if China invades. 

I have one more thing to say: some of us who've been here a long time do support the current government. When we're not fans of the side that got elected, we tend to stand with local opposition. Adhering to this stance even when Taiwan does things we don't personally like -- such as welcome Mike Pompeo or Marcia Blackburn -- doesn't make us right-wingers or closet Trumpers (as I've been called, but most certainly am not) or putting Taiwan in danger by supporting the "provocation" of China. 

If we're saying most of the analysts not in Taiwan are getting it wrong, and our stance is consistent with the very government we wanted to see as far back as 2014, then we're standing with Taiwan's choices. Not just that, but the choices Taiwan makes with the political intel it has, which we can only guess at. No, we don't want Taiwan to bend conservative. No, we don't want to taunt or "provoke" China. Taiwan is steering this ship, and we're supporting it. We believe Taiwan can govern itself. 

In other words, criticize all you want. But be cognizant of what you're saying and what it implies: are you supporting Taiwanese agency by meaningfully engaging and sincerely disagreeing on some points, or are you playing the Let Me Educate Taiwan Because I Know Better game? 

We should all learn where this line is, myself included. I'm not immune, and I'm sure I've crossed it before. But the line, though hard to see, is there. All you have to do is look. 

Friday, September 23, 2022

The Two-Tongued Pretender



"Բարեւ Ձեզ սիրելի կամավորներ: Շատ ուրախ եմ նսրից հանդիպել ձեզ,"  Anna says. She goes by Anna, not Dr. Sahakyan. 

I understand and nod. I'm not a volunteer, not in Peace Corps, and not in Armenia, but the language course videos are online, so why not? 

"Այսօր մենք սովորելումենք ինչպես հարցնել ճանապարհը:"

Now I freak out -- I don't understand this at all. The first twelve videos were introduced in English, but the actual volunteers learning Armenian with Anna have materials and live online sessions, which I do not have. I suppose by the time they get to this point, their service has begun and they're far ahead of me. I figure out what she just said using logic, educated guesses, an Armenian keyboard and Google Translate.

At least my pronunciation seems fine, because I'm able to recall and imitate what my grandfather's generation sounded like when they met for the holidays and had throaty, velar conversations from which I was completely excluded. But I don't really know. There's no one to check if my ը is schwa-y enough or my խ sufficiently tubercular.

The video ends and I set a reminder to transfer my messy notes to the neater record I keep. I reach to the right and grab my Taiwanese textbook. We've had a few lessons, all of which have focused on mastering pronunciation. I expected the tones to be difficult, but they're not (yet). It reminds me of all the musical training I'd otherwise forgotten, and anyway it's a similar principle to Mandarin, just...more of it, and harder. 

It's the the k and g that get me: I can't hear the difference, so each is inconsistently produced. haven't learned a single actual word that I can remember, but I dutifully listen to the recordings and parrot along. Someone's going to check, and Ms. Deng has struck me as rather meticulous. 

Both methods are strikingly Audiolingual. Armenian has to be; how else does one deliver asynchronous online sessions? You can't teach communicatively without someone to communicate with. For Taiwanese, I suspect it's partly based on how Mandarin is taught (that is, very traditionally), and partly because most of Ms. Deng's students are hopelessly Indo-European: they need and expect the pronunciation support. I'm told by a friend who also takes lessons that she'll be happy to practice speaking authentically once I'm able to speak at all. 

Still, Armenian starts with conversation: Hello, how are you? I'm fine, you? I'm fine, thanks. What's your name? My name is Anna. And you? I'm a teacher. I'm a volunteer. Communicative methods aren't embedded in Armenian; they went through centuries of inefficient teaching and learning modalities just like everyone else. The method is Anna's doing.

Armenian also has something called the trchnakir, a Medieval illustrator's avian dream, in which the letters of the alphabet are rendered as brightly sinuous bird bodies. I know the difference in learning style has nothing to do with that, but there's something poetic in thinking of one of your new languages as music, practiced like I quacked those first notes on a trumpet years ago. I had to learn to read music, of course, before I could do much of anything. It was months before I played a real song. The other is the organized chaos of a watch of nightingales, a murmuration of starlings or a charm of finches. You just up and go.

(Originally from this tweet)

Taiwanese starts with a, á, à, ah, â, ā, å (I made that last one up; my keyboard won't type the actual diacritic). Do all that, then you can have some words. We go over it again, and yet again, until Ms. Deng is satisfied with my ability to stumble around in her language. 

"Okay!" she says. 
"Okay," I laugh. Just okay.

Okay, but why am I doing this? Do I enjoy elaborate constructions of linguistic masochism? (A little, yes.) Why both? Why now? Why these two hilariously unrelated languages? At the same time?

One is about the past, one is about the future, and in both, I'm a pretender. I speak neither language yet, though I can make sounds which imply I kind of do. Generously, I am a small child in the body of an adult, whose tongue can thrash around like a baby: goo-goo gaa-gaa barev dzez, inchpes ek, shnorakalutiun yev hajogutsyun Զեփյուռ կդառնամմեղմիկ աննման: Սարերից կիջնեմ, նստեմ քո դռան. Cháu chháu kâu gâu pōng bōng ng hng ióng hióng 在這個安靜的暗暝我知道你有心事睏袂去, 想到你的過去, 受盡凌遲, 甘苦很多年。

Neither my Armenian nor my Taiwanese is that good, but I understand those lyrics. One of the ways I bolster my motivation is to listen to music I like in languages I'm studying. I look up what is being said, even if I'm not ready to truly learn it yet.

I chose Armenian because I simply felt I had to. For too long, I've acted like a victim of the heritage language denied me, all those ideas and modes of expression that nobody thought important enough to pass on, a cold wall between all those relatives who thought their opinions, ideas and perspectives didn't matter enough for me to understand them. My great-grandmother died when I was 14, and while we had real conversations, I can't say we ever had full, deep, real ones. I both knew her and didn't. 

This memory resurfaces every time a Taiwanese acquaintance reveals that they could barely communicate with their own grandparents because their generation was raised in Mandarin but their elders barely spoke it.

Being a linguistic victim sucks, though, and it doesn't even suck in an interesting way. I'm unlikely to ever be fluent, but if I can have an understanding and some basic Armenian conversational skills, it'll be a victory. Just because my grandfather made a decision in 1953 doesn't mean I have to abide by it. I think it's necessary not just to connect with my heritage, but to move my own story forward as well. As far as I know, I'm the only Renjilian of my generation who decided to re-learn, however imperfectly, what was lost. 

I have no such ancestral connection to Taiwanese. I moved here at the age of 26 for no specific reason: it just looked like an interesting place to be. I stay for a thousand reasons, which deserve their own post. Whatever connections grow from learning this language, they are entirely in the future. I don't know that I'm trying to prove that Taiwan is actually my home now...except perhaps, I am. 

Still, I feel like a fake. My family spoke Western Armenian (the last native speaker died just this summer). I'm learning Eastern, because that's what's available. As for Taiwan, well, I consider this my home but I'll always be seen as something of an outsider, no matter what language I learn.

It turns out that both Armenian -- especially Western Armenian -- and Taiwanese are somewhat inaccessible; both suffer from a dearth of teachers and materials. There are days when I have to tamp down annoyance that I have to work for a heritage language I should already know, and a local language I began learning about 15 years too late.

That's a long time to put something off, so I felt a strong need to start now. Not in a year, not after I'd gotten some Armenian under my belt, and not until I could improve my Mandarin (as I used to tell myself). Now. If I wait too long, I'll wait forever.

The inaccessibility is a bit seductive, though. Many have the opportunity to learn Mandarin. Who is so lucky as to have an experienced Taiwanese teacher dropped in their lap by recommendation? I have to learn it via Mandarin, which frankly provides more motivation to improve said Mandarin than I've felt in years.

Armenian is the same: most Armenians speak Russian as a second language, and the diaspora all have other tongues now. Russian is more common as an offering -- how many have the patience to practice Armenian from Taiwan, with no feedback and no real reward? I'd be surprised if there were six Armenian speakers in the whole country! 

Both languages need more speakers: Taiwanese was the target of an intentional campaign of eradication, and even today is insultingly classified as a dialect despite being mutually unintelligible with Mandarin. Unsurprisingly, 
Taiwanese is an endangered language. Western Armenian is endangered as well, and I'm unlikely to be able to access it unless I learn Eastern Armenian first. 

Neither language is widely considered useful: I've already been advised to just stick with Mandarin -- or worse, to spend my time practicing Simplified characters. I blanch at the thought! I've also been told to just learn Russian as I'll get more utility out of it.

That's just fuel, though. I'm sick of the utilitarian argument. It's a privilege to be able to float around in languages that aren't international, that you don't need for anything in particular. But it's also what draws me.

Maybe I have something to prove or I just like learning "useless" things, but I'm not doing this for utility. My intrinsic motivation to learn Mandarin died awhile ago; I persevered because it was useful. I was never a huge fan of the politics of it. Yes, Taiwanese has a settler-colonial history too, but it should have never been suppressed the way that it was. In any case, most expats come to Taiwan expecting to learn some Mandarin. Some succeed, some don't. How many come and decide to learn Taiwanese?

I know more than one, but there could be -- should be -- even more than that. 

As for Western Armenian, it should still be widely spoken across Anatolia. But it isn't. You know why. 

With opinions like that on why languages are worth learning, who needs usefulness?

And yet, blue eyes in Armenian culture portend bad luck -- they're said to be more susceptible to the effects of the evil eye (I think this is why charms against the evil eye across the Mediterranean are blue). Yeghishe Charents even wrote of it -- Blue-Eyed Armenia. And here I am, a blue-eyed white lady learning two wildly disparate languages and wondering what bad luck might await. 

The worst possible outcome is that I make a short study of both, learn neither well, and they enter the dormant part of my brain where French and Spanish are buried. Just another person who "took a language class" but never actually learned the language. Or I'll try and try but never master tone changes in Taiwanese, and always be stuck sounding like a tortured goose. Or I'll go to Armenia again, someday when it's safe, and proudly try out whatever Armenian skills I've gained by then only to be laughed at because my pronunciation sounds more like a series of sneezes than comprehensible language.

I also wonder, given the endangered status of both languages, if I'm actually helping by being a new person -- something of an outsider -- interested in learning. Or am I just rubbernecking as both languages fall, like birds shot out of the sky by the KMT, or the Young Turks?

As China amps up its provocation and bullying of Taiwan and Armenia stands on the precipice of invasion by Azerbaijan, am I doing anything meaningful by learning Armenian and Taiwanese? It strikes me as a statement: I will help preserve what you are trying to destroy. But am I really helping, or indulging myself? I can't help but think it's closer to the latter.

And yet, I keep practicing pronunciation until Ms. Deng moves us on to actual words. When I feel I've done enough, I head over to Youtube. Anna's classes are a challenge now, but if I'm tired I can always watch Bopo children's television and learn colors, or animals, or whatever.  

Perhaps I'll never succeed at either language. Perhaps Armenian won't lead to whatever window on the past I'm looking for. Certainly, learning Taiwanese won't make me a local. Neither language will lead to a better job, more money or even many conversation partners. But it's worth it. 

Monday, September 19, 2022

What is a country? Part II: Fighting the Gish Gallop


A tour group from China snaps pictures of Liberty Leading the People

In my last post on this topic, I chose to combat disinformation that Taiwan is not a country by clarifying all the ways that it is. Not just because we want it to be so, but because international conventions do, in fact, light a pathway toward recognized Taiwan statehood. 

Since the last post was about all the arguments for Taiwan as a nation, in this post I want to address all the (very poor) arguments against it, which so often get flung at Taiwan advocates like a hail of bonobo feces, for daring to take principled stances supporting the nation's essential nation-ness.

If you ignore it, you risk all that disinformation influencing reasonable onlookers who mistake quantity for quality ("well all these Chinese people say Taiwan is Chinese, so there's probably something to that!")

But if you do fight back, it really is like trying to swim in the feces tsunami. Or fight a thousand-headed hydra bursting from Twitter's wine-dark sea. Except the hydra is made of bonobo feces. Please just let me have this metaphor.

This is intentional: it's called gish galloping. The unending pummeling of poorly-considered arguments that are easily refuted, but there are so many flying around that you can't ever get to the end of it all. It tires you out and makes no visible impact. 

Because it's difficult to know what to do about this, I put together a list of the most common monkeyturds that get flung around in this kind of gish galloping. That is, all the bad arguments against Taiwan statehood that we hear again and again, changing with the seasons or the news cycle and sometimes resurfacing, all because someone in a United Front Work Department office made a decision about what their botmasters and gormless trolls are going to argue about for awhile, until the Western tankies pick it up while checking Twitter while drinking $8 pourovers and pass it on.

So let's hop on the bonobo feces train! 

"International law" says Taiwan is a part of China.

Of course, there is no such law. There is not a single binding international treaty that gives Taiwan to the People's Republic of China, but there are theories based on treaties or conventions that provide some guidance. You can read about those in my previous post on the topic. But "international law says Taiwan is Chinese" is simply not true. 

How do I know? Well, name the law, if you can. Show it to me. Is it binding? Does it apply to Taiwan specifically? Was it consented to by all parties involved, including the Taiwanese people?

Bet not.

"The UN says Taiwan is part of China!" 

Some insist it's due to UN resolutions on which government represents 'China' -- but if Taiwan is not a part of China, then of course it doesn't matter if it doesn't represent China at the UN! 

Not only does it not matter, but citing the UN as the final authority on Taiwan statehood fundamentally misrepresents what that organization does. It does not mint new states, and never has. Did no countries exist before some countries decided to found it? Did the People's Republic of China blink into existence in the 1970s? Did the Republic of China stop existing in 1949 when it lost the war, or the day it lost UN recognition? 

Let's keep it going. In 1993 the UN used its warlock-like powers to create the concept of Monaco. A Google search says Monaco's been A Thing since 1297, was officially recognized in 1861 and its constitution dates from 1911, but according to this logic, none of that matters — it wasn't a country at all until the 1990s. Switzerland was clearly neutral in previous wars not due to any principled stance, but apparently because it didn't exist until 2002. 

Taiwan doesn't already represent itself in that organization only because, decades ago, it was run by an incompetent, undemocratic and frankly foreign dictatorship that had no care for Taiwan's own interests -- Taiwan could have been Taiwan. A different, better future had been possible, but the KMT robbed Taiwan of that option, along with so much else. 

Regardless, other countries can and do engage in relations with Taiwan, both officially (in a few cases) and unofficially. That meets one criteria for statehood under the Montevideo Convention, and the others are met as well.

The UN not giving Taiwan a seat doesn't change that, so clearly the UN doesn't get to decide whether or not Taiwan is sovereign.

"Other countries have One China policies!"

This argument conveniently forgets that the vast majority of those policies merely maintain that one government represents China, and acknowledge that China claims Taiwan. Most if not all of them leave room for an independent Taiwan that does not represent China.

Their policies are not the same as China's "One China Principle" -- an idea which no major power has agreed to verbatim.

Besides, it's really odd for so-called anti-imperialists to point to, say, US or UK policy as the final word on another country's international status. That feels pretty imperialist to me.

Some will say that the US also acknowledges that “all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China” (in the Shanghai Communique, often misattrinbuted to the Taiwan Relations Act). 

Which was true, if you're talking about a dictatorship in the late 1970s that didn't represent the Taiwanese people, and which no longer exists. Now, Taiwanese don't see themselves that way, and nobody asked them in the 1970s when that policy was penned, rendering the wording somewhat irrelevant. The people on one side of the Taiwan Strait (mostly) no longer maintain that they are “Chinese”, and certainly not that “Taiwan is a part of China”. Acknowledging ‘both sides’ maintain a certain belief is just what it implies: an acknowledgement of what other parties believe. That’s it. Regardless, it becomes meaningless the moment one side no longer believes it. 

"Taiwan hasn't declared independence!"

Who would it declare independence from? China? You mean the PRC? It is already independent of that. The ROC? That's a name change and some constitutional reform, two issues that countries usually handle internally. In and of themselves they do not constitute a “declaration of independence’. They don’t need to, as Taiwan is already independent.

I don't go around declaring "I am Jenna!" as some sort of prerequisite for being Jenna. There's no application you fill out. There's no form. There's no DBC -- Department of Becoming a Country -- to which you submit paperwork. 

So I struggle to understand what 'declare independence' even means regarding Taiwan. Is Taiwan sovereign and fully autonomous now? Yes? Then tell me -- Taiwan should declare independence from whom?

(Don't worry, if your answer was "the ROC!", we'll get to that shortly.)

"No countries recognize Taiwan!"

Oh, but some actually do -- the ROC has a few diplomatic allies. As we saw in the last post, however, this isn't what makes a country. Every one of those allies could abandon Taiwan, and it would still be a country. When it comes to diplomacy, all Taiwan needs to meet the criteria for an independent nation is the ability to enter into relations with other countries, which it has, and has exercised. 

"But they recognize the ROC, not Taiwan as a country!" 
Yes, and I bet every single person making those claims is aware that the ROC as a sovereign entity from China is functionally nearly identical to Taiwan in the same role. (Not exactly the same: changes will eventually be necessary, but it's close enough for now). 

If China would allow any country to recognize both China and Taiwan as distinct entities, many if not most would immediately do so.

It doesn't really matter though: the Montevideo Convention does not stipulate that relations with other states have to be official diplomatic ones, or even that they have to be entered into -- merely that it is possible for that state to do so.

"But it's in the ROC Constitution! Taiwan itself thinks it's part of China!"

I've read the constitution, and it never explicitly claims current PRC  territory. The closest you get is Article 4, which states that the boundaries of the ROC are its existing boundaries and "shall not be altered except by a resolution of the national assembly."  Cool, but it never states what those borders actually are. The National Assembly no longer exists, so either way this is article is either tautological ("the borders are what they are") or dead law. 

Right now, those de facto borders are Taiwan and its outlying islands. There's a mention of Mongolia and Tibet in Article 26, but it's linked to the erstwhile National Assembly, so again...dead law.

Besides, the additional articles to the constitution were very clearly described by Lee Teng-hui as a "two-state solution". Perhaps the constitution is difficult to amend, but new ideas can be agglomerated; for all intents and purposes, Taiwan dropped any claim it once had to PRC territory in the early 1990s. Not even a fabricated '1992 Consensus' about 'one China' (which was not a consensus: even the KMT admits the two sides did not actually agree) can un-jigger Lee's brilliant jiggery.

Some will say this issue is still "controversial" in Taiwan. I say it's not: Taiwan being separate from 'China' is a mainstream position, whether you consider it independence or the status quo. 

"What about the 1992 Consensus?"

You mean that meeting in 1992 in which the two sides didn't agree? And the legitimacy of the Taiwan side is deeply questionable as it was at the end of the dictatorship and of questionable diplomatic merit? Yeah, no. No actual Taiwanese were consulted about what should happen at these meetings, and if I'm remembering correctly, the delegates were from the KMT, not diplomats.

But it doesn't matter! They didn't reach an agreement! “We didn’t agree” is the opposite of a “consensus”. What the KMT came away believing was not the same as what the PRC believed as those meetings ended. It was by definition not a consensus at all. (Interestingly, KMT chairperson Eric Chu basically admits this in an entertainingly awful video). This is why the actual term was made up much later: because there was no consensus. History books published around 1999 -- before the consensus was fabricated -- don't mention the 1992 Consensus. Of course they don't, as it didn't exist yet.

"Taiwan's not independent because the ROC is a colonizer!"

This one's tough, because I actually agree with it. The ROC on Taiwan is a colonizing entity that lost a war in the country it came from, and it should be reformed out of existence in favor of a Republic of Taiwan (or any name that voters agree on) with an appropriate constitution.

However, just as we commonly refer to the PRC as 'China', the idea of 'independence' to the general international public means 'not a part of China' -- that is, the PRC. 

Saying "Taiwan isn't independent because of ROC colonialism" just sounds like "Taiwan isn't independent" to people who don't follow these issues. It also hands ammunition to tankies, little pinks and the paid botmasters of the United Front Work Department, who love to go on and on about how Taiwan isn't independent because of the ROC. To untrained ears, it sounds like the same point. It's a bit of an own goal: why harm our own cause by making it more confusing to international audiences?

Issues of names, flags and constitutional changes are typically internal matters. Czechia and Eswatini made those choices domestically. Countries amend their constitutions and change flags all the time: there's no international body to appeal to in order to do this. So rather than giving ammunition to tankies, let's perhaps agree it needs to happen, but it's an internal matter.

Functionally, the country I live in now, regardless of its imperfect constitution and weird name, is a country. People commonly call it Taiwan. That's the fact on the ground. Claiming it's "not a country" is basically telling people to ignore the observable world.

"It's been part of China since ancient times!" 

No, it hasn't. Most of Taiwanese history has been Indigenous history, period.

The western third of Taiwan -- not very much at all -- was controlled by China from the late 17th to the late 19th centuries. For much of that, China was fairly clear that they either didn't want Taiwan (Shi Lang had to convince the emperor to keep it), or treated it as a "defensive hedge", a "ball of mud beyond civilization". That is, not really part of China. You might even say they treated it like a colony.

China only began to claim all of Taiwan in the late 19th century, though it never effectively governed that final two-thirds. As late as the 1870s, one simply could not say that the Qing actually ruled most of Taiwan

The most generous amount of time one might apportion in which the same government ruled both China and Taiwan might be a decade or two: perhaps short period before it became a Japanese colony in 1895, and from 1945-1949.

By historical timelines, China's claim on Taiwan is as limp as an overcooked noodle.

"But the turn away from Chinese heritage is DPP brainwashing!" 

I've already covered this and the answer is womp womp, you are wrong.

Taiwanese attitudes changed no matter who was in power, and in fact changed more under the KMT than the DPP. The biggest spike was around democratization -- and an election in which the KMT won the presidency. 

Democracy and freedom of speech -- the ability to say what you really think -- caused Taiwanese to start saying what they really thought. I'm sorry it doesn't line up with your Great Chinese Culture Embedded in Ancestral DNA worldview, but that's how it is. 

"But the US stoked Taiwan independence separatism to sell weapons and encourage conflict for their benefit!" 

Wrong again bucko. Seems like you got a little bonobo feces stuck in your ears. Read this and clean it out.

Taiwan home rule has been an idea floating around since at least the 1920s, when the US would have no reason to care, or attempt to start a conflict. It persisted, and grew thanks to KMT brutality (provably so, as you can see by the rise of Taiwanese democracy activists who trace their roots back to the 228 Massacre, approved by Chiang Kai-shek and meted out by Chen Yi). In fact, it was probably a notion as early as 1895, or before that, though the evidence is less clear. 

Many of those early Taiwanese independence activists were leftists (but not necessarily pro-CCP), some were openly Marxist. Why would the US court them at that point in history? There are conservative independence activists now -- they tend to be older and rather stuck in the 1970s regarding other attitudes -- but it was a movement inspired by liberal thought, and to some degree, in some groups, Marxist thought. 

Pinning this on "the US" isn't only a logic sinkhole, it also denies Taiwanese agency. Do they really need Big Daddy America doing their thinking for them? Are they incapable of critical thought without the CIA spoonfeeding revolutionary sentiment?

Of course not. That's ludicrous.

"The ROC is evil because the Nationalists were the capitalist bad guys who pushed separatism on Taiwan!"

Yep, the KMT sucked pretty hard. No disagreement there. Guess what, they still do! The great news is that they're no longer in power, and they're not really associated with the idea of Taiwanese independence: quite the opposite. To blame the KMT for Taiwanese independence activism is frankly offensive. They're the ones who executed those same activists, often without trial. Taiwan independence advocates by and large can't stand the KMT. It's absolutely strange to act like they're one and the same.

If you honestly think that "Taiwanese independence activists" and "the KMT" are natural partners, feel free to read any of the links in this post. It will disavow you of that notion very quickly.

You’ll understand that Taiwan is Chinese if you just read about the issue!” 

This only matters insofar as the Pink Floyd guy decided he was a late-blooming Sinologist. I have read up on the issue — in fact, Brendan and I read every general history of Taiwan available in English and compared them. I’ve read plenty of books that discuss specific areas of Taiwanese history. 

What have I learned from “reading about the issue”? That Taiwan isn’t Chinese and arguably never really has been. 

As Brendan likes to say, Taiwan advocates actually want you to read more about Taiwan. People who think annexation is an acceptable outcome might say “read more”, but they don’t expect you actually will. They want you to listen to them, not read further. I’ve never seen them recommend, say, a book. I’ve just recommended about 20. Please read them. 

But it’s the only way to peace! Taiwan independence is destabilizing!”

The opposite is true. Taiwan will never consent to be annexed by China, and simply wants to maintain the sovereignty it already enjoys. There is no peaceful resolution that ends with Taiwan as a part of China, because Taiwan will always fight back, at least as long as the current Chinese government is in power (but likely after that as well — and I do believe the CCP will eventually fall.) That is an assured path to war. It’s unlikely to be a short war, though it may fall out of the news cycle as the ongoing violence will be within Taiwan. 

I don’t want that, and you probably don’t either.

So if you want to avoid that war, advocate China not attacking Taiwan. It is very easy to not invade one’s neighbor (a lesson Russia might’ve done well to learn). Doing so is a choice, not an imperative, and it’s a choice China can choose not to make. China’s choices are not inevitabilities dropped from the heavens. Their threats are not immutable. Their anger and their red lines and temper tantrums? These are choices, and should be treated as such. 

That’s the path to peace. So the outcome most likely to avoid war is one in which Taiwan remains separate from China. 

Got any more?

I'm happy to expand this post with more gish gallops, strawmen, goalpost moving or other tactics that little pinks use to make life on social media unbearable if you care about an issu
e. Let me know, and if I get some good responses I'll add them to the post.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

In Taiwan and Hong Kong, subversion is contextual


I read an interesting piece in Hong Kong Free Press today, about Hong Kong residents mourning the death of Queen Elizabeth II. The pull quote did indeed pull:

A business executive who gave her surname So admitted that Elizabeth II’s death had made her nostalgic and that she felt “less of a connection” with China’s Communist Party leaders in Beijing. “I only realised how good it was after I lost it,” she said, referring to the city since its handover.

An 80-year-old retiree, who gave his surname Poon, was holding a bunch of red lilies and spoke bluntly. “In the past we had human rights, equality before the law, and protections in many aspects,” he said.

“But now, I would not comment on the present, I dare not.”

This sort of thing catches my eye, because in my echo chamber, it's socially acceptable to mock, criticize and deride the royal family and feel nothing -- except perhaps pleasure -- at the death of a queen. I don't particularly disagree: I'm no monarchist and I do not believe some people are naturally born to higher stations than others. 

What would likely be less well-received is expressing sadness, condolences or fondness for a dead monarch and her family. I haven't expressed anything like this because I'm neither sad nor fond, but it feels like subversion to consider saying anything like it around my own friends. I know I sound like a "conservatism is the real subversion!" right-wing shock jock here, but bear with me. 

Of course, I'm aware that there are other social circles and echo chambers where the opposite is true, and there are people who suffered under British imperialism, and who don't appreciate being tone-policed for their lack of solemnity or grief.

I know in my gut, however, that there is a whole range of possible feeling about some events that don't boil down neatly to "White Supremacy and Exploitation" or "God Bless the Noble Queen".

How do I know this? 

Because I live in Taiwan, where people sometimes express nostalgia for the Japanese colonial era, even though it was exactly what the name implies: colonial. Taiwanese as second-class citizens, no human rights to speak of, cultural brainwashing disguised as "education", freedom of speech allowed to a degree or banned depending on whether the central government was feeling benevolent that year. 

One only feels "nostalgic" for an era like that if the era that came after it was even worse. 

You can see it in Hong Kong now: who would mourn the end of a foreign colonial power on your land, which did not grant Hong Kong anything like democracy? Who would have complex feelings about the death of that foreign colonizer's queen? 

Anyone who realizes that the current era is worse, it turns out. Which is to say many, if not most, Hong Kongers. Beyond news about absurd prosecutions under the National Security Law, you can see it in the demographics: just about anyone who can leave is doing so, or trying.

To the rest of the world, this might look like colonizer bootlicking. In fact, more than once I've seen it called that: Hong Kongers who miss the old British system and imply they do not care for their new, more local masters are called all sorts of names. Taiwanese who point out that the Japanese era looks pleasant in comparison to the KMT brutality that followed are similarly called brainwashed, colonizer-loving, kissing their own chains.

I assure you the opposite is true. Just because a new colonial master is more local (say, the CCP or KMT) does not make them better. In fact, they're likely to be worse, as few around the world want to call this colonialism what it is, when the colonizers and colonized "look the same". The international community mostly looking the other way -- "hooray, they're decolonized now, China will definitely be better for Hong Kong because they're all Chinese, so good luck"? This opens up whole new horizons for brutality! 

The same thing happens when either Taiwan or Hong Kong express more hope in countries like the United States, or want more connections with the international community (including the US and UK) than China. Don't they know these countries are the Great Satans, the Imperializers Supreme, the Bad Guys? Hong Kongers and Taiwanese are mocked for turning to the 'evil' West rather than embracing Chinese regional hegemony. 

Yes, it's leftists who do the most mocking. And when you tune out all the obviously paid trolls, a rather large proportion of them are Westerners (some white, some not) mocking Asians for being realistic about the horrors of CCP rule. 

In the end, this produces a set of opinions that look like bootlicking to your average Western leftist (or even progressive or naive liberal), but are actually subversive, hewing to the principles of the non-tankie left -- freedom, justice, human rights -- if not their most common modes of expression.

Indeed, I have friends who are not white and not monarchists, yet currently have complicated feelings about the death of Queen Elizabeth II, likely for exactly these reasons.

I think it's better to recognize and understand that, rather than dismiss any sort of sentimentality, say, the British monarchy, as an exercise in White supremacy or Medieval notions of nobles and subjects. It runs at times a little too close to Western liberals and leftists once again telling some Asians how to feel. 

"If you're anti-imperialist, you should oppose this" isn't wrong, per se; it is actually how I feel about the monarchy and a great deal of US and UK foreign policy. To someone in Hong Kong or Taiwan, however, it might sound rather like how the CCP wants them to feel. It's not the same as "you are obligated to hate those foreigners and their colonial structures in order to prove you are a true Chinese and embrace our colonial structures instead!" But on the surface, it's not far off. Refusing to buy into it at all is, in that sense, a form of subversion.

Taiwanese who express an interest in Japanese culture aren't brainwashed colonial subjects. It's part of Taiwanese history, and frankly a somewhat brighter part than the KMT's White Terror, if only in comparison. Hong Kongers who express nostalgia for the British colonial years aren't Western bootlickers. Neither is right-wing, "CIA", a "color revolution", "imperialist" or "colonizer-loving" for wanting the same access to human rights and democratic norms that Westerners, including the leftists who mock them, enjoy. That's true however imperfectly they are applied or accessed in the West.

Here, too, I understand the impulse of those Western leftists. I was raised in a liberal home (90s liberal, so still pretty problematic by today's standards), went to college and only really saw "colonialism and exploitation" through models of what we had done to the rest of the world. Imperialism was something white people did, colonizers were always "foreign" and you could tell because they looked different. "Decolonization" looked a lot like handing Hong Kong "back" to China or the US getting its nose out of Asian affairs. I had only a vague concept of the CCP's evils (I was young during Tiananmen Square, but I remember), and no concept of Taiwanese pro-democracy activism.

I had absolutely no context for someone saying "mourning the past is not a crime" as a way of pointing out that in their supposedly "decolonized" current society, mourning the past is absolutely a crime -- and shouldn't be.

In other words, Queen Elizabeth II is just one tableau onto which people, including Hong Kongers, expressing our own perspectives and emotions, but the result is a kind of funhouse mirror because that canvas is not remotely blank. It's not even flat. Whatever is expressed is about the queen, but also not about her at all. 

To us, the monarchy looks like a big fat cog in a system of class-based oppression. It's hard to wrap one's head around it taking on another quite opposite meaning in a different context: a yearning for freedom, or at least the simulacrum of it that was lost.

It would have been easy to fall into that same "America always bad, China must be better" trap, because I lacked context. There is a pre-2006 me who simply had no frame of reference for this particular type of subversion: for mourning a dead queen not because you love being a subject, but because the current government is so much worse. For looking further afield because your regional neighbor is a huge asshole who wants to subjugate and slaughter you. For nostalgia as resistance against a narrative pushed on society by more recent colonizers. 

Now, that context is clear. I hope you see it too.

Monday, September 12, 2022

What is a country? (Taiwan, for one.)


There's a lot of tankie and tankie-adjacent horptyglorp about how Taiwan cannot possibly be considered a country. This is wrong, and I am delighted to tell you why. 

This is the first of a two-part post: in a day or two I plan to do a little mythbusting of all the specious claims made about Taiwan by people whose opinions are most likely bought and paid for.

So what evidence actually supports the case for Taiwan nationhood? There are multiple ways to determine this: by internationally agreed-upon convention; by the status of various binding treaties; or by whether or not the state in question is recognized by other states. 

The fact that there actually is more than one valid interpretation or way to come to a conclusion about Taiwan's status is proof, in itself, that there is no singular "international law", "One China Policy" or "UN recognition" that determines Taiwan's status. 

What's more, by any one of those interpretations, Taiwan, or the government that currently presides over it, either is a country (by convention), or its status is undetermined (by treaty). I happen to ascribe to the former view, but the latter deserves some space as well.

Let's dispense quickly with the "nationhood derives from recognition by other nations" argument. A sovereign government on Taiwan does indeed enjoy a small amount of official recognition, which means it is a country. However, t
he convention discussed below explicitly states that official recognition by other nations is not necessary. I don't see a strong argument for it as the final determiner in what makes a country.

Convention, or treaty?

The most obvious support comes from the widely recognized Montevideo Convention. Though it was conceived and signed at a International Conference of American States in the 1930s, it's widely accepted as a standard by international organizations. 

According to the convention, a state is a state when it has a permanent population, a defined territory, a government and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. 

Taiwan has all of these things, and more (for example, it has a military and a currency). 

Taiwan does need constitutional reform and a name change, but honestly, states amend their constitutions and change their names all the time, and as noted above, the ROC constitution doesn't actually claim all of 'China'. From an international perspective, the ROC as a state, for now, is not meaningfully or functionally different from Taiwan not being part of what just about everyone recognizes as 'China'.

Here's what I find interesting: the "ability to enter into relations with other states" doesn't necessarily entail diplomatic recognition. Relations can take on many forms. In fact, the convention is quite specific about this (emphasis mine): 

The political existence of the state is independent of recognition by the other states. Even before recognition, the state has the right to defend its integrity and independence, to provide for its conservation and prosperity, and consequently to organize itself as it sees fit, to legislate upon its interests, administer its services, and to define the jurisdiction and competence of its courts. The exercise of these rights has no other limitation than the exercise of the rights of other states according to international law.

By this measure, there is simply no question. Taiwan is a state. It is a country. Like Czechia or Eswatini, it can change its problematic name without changing the fundamental fact of its sovereignty; like many countries, it can do the same with its constitution. It simply chooses not to (yet) in order to signal that it is not the entity raising tensions in the region -- that's China.

What's more, there's no law, not even a rule, that a country is only a country through admission to the United Nations. UN recognition would be nice to have, but it's not a need to have. Of course, the UN cannot be considered objective on the matter of Taiwan; with China acting the bully on the security council, Taiwan can never expect fair treatment from that international body. 

Taiwan as undetermined?

To me, the convention argument makes sense. It establishes a clear-cut path for a nation to arise and govern itself without other nations needing to validate it. I favor this because it allows for autonomous nation-building and self-determination. It does away with the presumption that only others can tell you what you are, and circumvents imperialist tendencies to look to great powers (or large international bodies bullied by those great powers) to determine the fate of smaller states.

In other words, it's the best possible balance between the importance of nations working together and finding agreement, and the fundamental human right of self-determination.

But let's talk treaties anyway. Another common argument is that Taiwan is a part of China because this or that proclamation, declaration or treaty says so. Usually the reference is to the Cairo Declaration, but that was non-binding. Some refer to the various treaties surrounding Japan's surrender of Taiwan, but neither of these clarifies the status of Taiwan. 

Rather than repeat what's already been said about this, here's a fantastic link, and a few choice quotes for those who hit the paywall:

At the end of World War II, ROC troops occupied Taiwan under the aegis of the wartime Allies. Ever since, the then-ruling Kuomintang (KMT) has claimed that Taiwan had been “returned to China” and was now part of the ROC. In reality, Taiwan remained formally under Japanese sovereignty until April 28, 1952, when the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951 (SFPT) came into effect. Under the Peace Treaty  Japan renounced control of Taiwan, but no recipient of sovereignty was named. This was a deliberate arrangement by the wartime powers. The United States did not want either of the murderous, authoritarian Leninist parties claiming to be the true government of China, the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the KMT, to have Taiwan. Thus, under international law, Taiwan’s status remains undetermined to this day....

I'm not sure I agree fully with this interpretation. It's true that if we go by binding treaties, Taiwan's status is undetermined. But if, as above, we follow broadly-accepted conventions on what makes a country, then Taiwan's status is clear: it's a country. However, the "undetermined" argument has a place in this discussion. Anyway, let's continue:

Only two internationally recognized documents directly bear on Taiwan’s sovereignty are legally binding in the sense that Gao means: the San Francisco Peace Treaty, and the Treaty of Taipei between Japan and the Republic of China on Taiwan. The Treaty of Taipei is deliberately subordinate to the San Francisco Peace Treaty, and neither assigns sovereignty over Taiwan to China, whether in its Communist or Nationalist incarnation. Instead, they are silent on the issue of who owns Taiwan, merely affirming that Japan gave up sovereignty over the island....

When then Foreign Minister Yeh Kung-chao was questioned in the legislature after the signing of the Treaty of Taipei, he said that “no provision has been made either in the San Francisco Treaty of Peace as to the future of Taiwan and Penghu.” When a legislator asked him, “What is the status of Formosa and the Pescadores?” He responded:

“Formosa and the Pescadores were formerly Chinese territories. As Japan has renounced her claim to Formosa and the Pescadores, only China has the right to take them over. In fact, we are controlling them now, and undoubtedly they constitute a part of our territories. However, the delicate international situation makes it that they do not belong to us...."

Even the Republic of China knows that there's no binding international law, treaty or convention that renders Taiwan theirs, let alone Taiwan a part of China or not a country in its own right.

This is the same Republic of China that, years after a foreign minister admitted the ROC had no legal right to Taiwan, devised a 'two state solution' and overtly referred to it as such. The same Republic of China whose (non-KMT) presidents routinely call the country they govern "Taiwan" and have, on multiple occasions, defined it as 'independent'. The same Republic of China that meets all the definitions of a 'state', not a province.

Taiwan is a country

What should define Taiwan today? This is easy: it can only be defined by what Taiwanese people want for Taiwan. What they want isn't hard to see unless you are deliberately not looking: most identify as solely Taiwanese, not Chinese. Those who identify as both mostly prioritize Taiwanese identity, and most consider the status quo to be sufficient qualification to consider independent.

Does that sound like 23 million people who don't want their own country? No. It sounds like a populace happy with Taiwan continuing to be independent from the People's Republic of China to me. 

If there's a take-home here, it's that Taiwan's current de facto independence is, essentially, independence, and broadly agreed-on conventions of what makes a nation do indeed apply to Taiwan. By that measure, Taiwan is a country. There are different ways of interpreting this, but no sincere effort to understand Taiwan's status ends with 'well it's clearly part of China'. There is simply no perspective that renders such a claim true: the PRC doesn't govern it, and Taiwan doesn't claim the PRC mainland.

What all of these points of view do have in common is simple: there is no international law that makes Taiwan 'part of China', but plenty of international conventions and interpretations of statehood that support the idea of Taiwan as not just deserving of independent statehood, but already having it. 

Friday, September 2, 2022

The Not-So-Secret Garden: The Hsu Family Mansion in Dashe


I haven't felt like commenting on current affairs this week; if I have nothing unique to say, I don't necessarily see the point of blogging for the sake of it. 

But here's what I do want to talk about: Kaohsiung! I go for work a few times a year, and try to arrive early so I can meet up with friends and enjoy the city. Just before I got COVID -- and remained positive for a highly irritating 18 days -- I took one of these trips, stopping in Taichung on the way. In fact, that's probably how I got sick.

On this trip, I went out to Dashe (大社) to meet one of my oldest friends in Taiwan. She picked me up at Metropolitan Park station and we stopped at a well-regarded dumpling chain for lunch. Then, we decided to find the Hsu Family Mansion (許家古國). For a sleepy town, Dashe is packed with old farmhouses and mansions; in fact, it might be packed with them because it's sleepy: there's no particular reason to tear them down! You can read about some of these places here, although I haven't even been to every place I'd like to see in the area yet.

The Hsu house is notoriously hard to find. Despite being in downtown Dashe, in a lane but not far at all from a main road, my friend who actually lives in Dashe did not know where it was -- only that it existed. "It's like a secret garden," she said. Somewhere in the lanes in a more built-up part of the city, but we had no idea which lanes.

I had to find this place. I knew I wouldn't be the first. Local bloggers have been posting about it for ages. Ultimately, that's how I found it: a local blog with a picture of the correct lane marker


It turned out to be extremely easy once we knew the lane. It's very close to the intersection of Sanmin and Cuiping Roads (三民翠屏路口). The intersection itself is fairly interesting, with several Japanese-era buildings, and the temple (accessed by stairs or an elevator) is eye-catching, with some neat mid-century floor tile and a place to hang gold paper wishing papers that overlooks the road. It's dedicated to the Linshui Ladies, three women from Fuzhou who became Taoist priests and founded their own religious school (some say the term only refers to the oldest, Chen Jinggu). The large Japanese-era building next to it may be related to the Hsu family, and the smaller one across the street, now painted a creamy white, was once a hospital.

Head east on Cuiping Road and turn left at Lane 37, which is also the first lane you'll come across. Keep an eye out to your left until you see the roof of an old house peeking out over newer buildings. 


Technically, you have to cross private property to access the Hsu mansion. In reality, it's a tiny alley that winds past a few houses, and nobody really minds if you walk down it. The actual mansion and its courtyard are indeed private property, however. Someone now lives in the old mansion -- I'm not sure if she rents it or is a Hsu family descendant, and it seemed rude to ask -- and if she's home it's polite to ask if you can take a few photos. She said yes to us, and remarked that "foreigners" love to come here, implying she thought the whole thing was kind of overblown for just an old house. From all those blog links above, I am reasonably sure Taiwanese who enjoy hunting for heritage architecture come here more often, but I guess we big-noses stick out more. 



If you stop by and the resident is not there, it should be fine to take a few photos, but be respectful. It's someone's home. 




The Hsu mansion is an example of heritage arts where the artist matters more than the patron. Obviously, the Hsu family was prominent in Dashe; a Hsu was the chair of the Dashe Farmer's Association. The house was built in 1910, during the Japanese era, and isn't especially unique architecturally. What makes it stand out are the colorful Majolica tiles, the green glazed bottle railing on the second-floor balcony, and the outstanding brick carvings of Zhang Jiao (張叫). 

The Zhangs of Dashe have been known as shadow puppet artists for generations, since one of their ancestors founded a troupe in Dashe over 200 years ago. They became quite famous in the 1940s, performing around the world; the then-patriarch Zhang Decheng eventually awarded official 'national treasure'-level status for his creation of the intricate leather shadow puppets. Zhang Decheng died in the 1980s, but his grandson carries on the tradition. 

Zhang Jiao, Zhang Decheng's father, created the brick carvings that adorn the first floor of the Hsu Family Mansion, including the spring scrolls around the door. His work once graced many old houses in the Dashe area, but most have been torn down, so these examples of his artistry are rare and valuable. Zhang Jiao was also known as "Hanfan" (憨番), which are those creepy little carved dudes, often resembling Westerners, one sees holding up beams in old temples. 

On an interesting tangent, I'm not the only one who's never heard of a Hanfan outside Taiwan, and the story goes that they were modeled after Dutch colonists, as a means for locals to vent their frustrations -- the Hanfan always carry a heavy burden such as a roof beam and generally look a bit ridiculous. I've also heard of Hanfan being carved to resemble the person sponsoring the temple's creation, basically as a way for artists to show they're annoyed by the rich dude issuing orders. Why was Zhang Jiao, famous sculptor and scion of the Zhang shadow puppet family of Dashe, nicknamed "Hanfan"? Somebody surely knows, but it isn't me. 

In addition to the Zhang Jiao brick carvings and Majolica tiles, the Hsu mansion also has cochin-fired pottery reliefs (you can learn more about those here) telling various folk stories, though these seem to mostly be on the second floor balcony where they're difficult to see, and you can't go up. You can kind of see it on the sides of the second story from below, but I couldn't get anything like a good vantage point.


Taken together, the house itself may be an architecturally simple two-story affair, but it is striking nevertheless. Its reputation as a 'hidden spot' or 'secret garden' (although lots of people have been here and it's often written up on government tourism websites) only enhances its allure. One blogger praised its fine use of "color theory", and I tend to agree: it's beautiful because all of those bright colors -- especially the blues and greens -- contrast against the red brick, which itself is beautifully carved.


In other words, the Hsu family certainly had money to spend on cochin pottery reliefs, carved brick from a renowned local artist and a profusion of Majolica tiles, and clearly someone involved in the design process had a flair for maximalist color and pattern.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

The Marsha Blackburn tweet sucked. Use it to educate and criticize, but not attack

I hate this too, but hear me out. 
(From Marsha Blackburn's tweet, embedded below)

Senator Marsha Blackburn is in town, and just tweeted a picture of herself at Freedom Square/Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, where she rather offensively claimed to have learned about the "work" of Chiang Kai-shek at the memorial hall dedicated to "remembering" said "work." 

Anyone who's read a thing about Taiwanese history understands that Chiang's "work" consisted mostly of slaughtering or imprisoning hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese and refugees from China, usually without due process. Rampant corruption and nepotism, attempts at cultural and linguistic eradication, mismanagement of resources and revenue, media and personal censorship and the endless pounding-down of "Free China" propaganda and vilification of Taiwanese identity are his legacy.

You know...work.


As such, the tweet itself went beyond tone-deaf and straight to offensiveness. It's an erasure of all the harm Chiang inflicted on Taiwan, and all the Taiwanese he massacred. It absolutely merits principled criticism.

On top of this, my views on Blackburn are strongly antipathic, for reasons unrelated to Taiwan. As an American politician, her positions are the polar opposite of mine. Frankly, she horrifies me. The internalized misogyny alone must burn her already-charred soul like a mofo. If I were her constituent I would not vote for her. Marsha Blackburn is not a good person.

The tweet was crap, Chiang Kai-shek was crap, and Marsha Blackburn is crap. 

To be fair, most of the responses I've seen have been either civil criticism or attempts at clarifying why the tweet is clueless and offensive. But I've also seen just enough outright attacks that I want to say something.

So, I'd like to advocate for a generous response to her Very Bad Tweet. This may be my most generous take yet, considering my seething and active revulsion towards both the senator and the former dictator. It takes a lot to overcome that. I posit that one should try.

First, chances are this stop was planned for Blackburn. I doubt she woke up and said "hey, I'd really like to visit Dead Dictator Memorial Hall today!" Someone took her there.

Did she have to write a tweet that implied he was a decent guy whose legacy is worth learning about in a positive (or even neutral) light? No, but there's a pretty fair chance that she -- or the social media manager who writes her tweets -- is honestly ignorant of this history. 

I was ignorant too, at one point. Not to the same degree, however: the first thing I learned about Chiang was that this so-called "leader of Free China" was "corrupt and awful to the core", only better than Mao in that his body count is perhaps lower. (I had a particularly good Social Studies teacher when I was young). But I didn't know the extent of his atrocities until I came to Taiwan and not only started reading about its history, but met people affected by the KMT dictatorship.

This indicates a solid opportunity to educate, or offer more accurate perspectives and historical facts. If she hears about the Twitter storm at all, tweets attacking her ("you probably love the idea of mass executions!") aren't going to lead to a change in perspective. Among other possible responses, advocating for her to visit the various museums and memorials, dedicated to human rights in Taiwan might

I know that's hard to swallow, given that this is a woman who thinks taking away the rights of other women is not only acceptable but desirable. But understanding the true horror of Chiang's reign is not quite the same as having an ongoing conflict with basic facts in one's own political milieu. 

Of course, one can argue they come from the same mindset -- and honestly, they probably do. "Imprison all my perceived enemies and execute them without trial!" and "Lock Her Up! Her Emails! Punish Sluts By Banning Abortion!" attitudes are more or less the same neurons firing in different contexts.

And yet, because Taiwan is not her typical political milieu, she might be more open to suggestions that maybe she's gotten it wrong in putting a positive spin on Chiang Kai-shek's bloody legacy. Perhaps. 

That's not the most important point, though. She's one senator. There are more important reasons than simply "educating Marsha Blackburn" to respond to tweets like this in a specific, goal-oriented way.

I don't mean refraining from criticism: she's earned it. I mean offering that criticism in a way that might actually be digested. 

The first is that it would be very easy for foreign officials considering a visit to Taiwan to see these harsh responses and think "well maybe Taiwanese don't actually want us there", and stop visiting. The same is true for calls to criticize all visits by people one doesn't support generally, or all visits by any officials, simply because they aren't ideologically pure enough, or are too "establishment" and therefore must be tarnished or unacceptable allies in some way. To be fair, most are deeply imperfect if not outright problematic -- my point is that it doesn't matter as much as one might think. 

Taiwan does need establishment support. Progress usually happens when social movements have some relationship with power. The ones that don't get ignored. The American left (I don't mean liberals, I mean the left) isn't very powerful not because they're entirely wrong, but because they not only don't have establishment support, but actively antagonize and thus neutralize potential alliances.

If Taiwan did the same thing, and rejected support based on stringent ideological purity, it would have no international support at all. Not just from the US -- there are ongoing attempts to alienate Japan, too.

Worse still, not all Taiwanese or advocates for Taiwan agree on ideology, ensuring absolute isolation. Maybe This Guy is a boomer Republican and craps all over "radical left" Nancy Pelosi's visit, and That Guy thinks Pelosi isn't leftist enough. Then That Other Guy craps on Blackburn's visit, or Pompeo's. Tammy Duckworth comes as part of a delegation and Boomer Republican craps on that too...

Soon, you have no visits at all, just a big load of crap. Maybe these critics have earned leftist (or rightist) cred for themselves, but they haven't done a single thing to actually advance support for Taiwan among people with the power to make a real difference.

Even worse, they've ignored the fact that most locals seem to want these visits: not because they think the officials in question are all great people, but because they understand the necessity of it. 

I'm never going to support Marsha Blackburn. But I will support her support of Taiwan. Not personally -- I don't think I could bear to speak to her -- but because it's good for Taiwan to have bipartisan support so that no matter who is in power, Taiwan has international friends. Love it or hate it, this is what that means. It also means if you don't like Nancy Pelosi or Mike Pompeo, you still grit your teeth. Maybe you say nothing, or offer personal views only.

I too struggle with what it really means to want strong support of Taiwan internationally, and have for some time. It means swallowing a hell of a lot of squick. It means not shrieking in anger every time someone I would rather spit on than shake hands with visits Taiwan. It's absolutely brutal. I know.

But if you advocate for bipartisanism sincerely, this is what it entails. I'm sorry.

There's another reason not to go into full-on attack mode: it makes pro-Taiwan advocates sound like, well, Chinese troll "ambassadors" and other embarrassing mouthpieces. Again, I know this is hard to swallow, but what looks from our side like targeted criticism probably reads as straight-up trollish dunking to anyone who doesn't have a strong grasp of Taiwanese affairs. That's probably most people reading Blackburn's tweets.  That's a fantastic way to convince hundreds of thousands of Americans that people who advocate for Taiwan are assholes and Taiwan therefore isn't worth supporting. At that point we're basically doing the work of the CCP trolls for them. 

Keep in mind that not everyone reading Blackburn's Twitter is some conservative jackass; plenty of liberals hate-read her on social media! Right now they mostly seem to be asking that she just stay in Taiwan or cracking jokes about her wearing a mask in Taiwan, where it's legally mandated. Some are asking why she went at all, seemingly not realizing it's normal for officials from democratic nations to visit each other.

They aren't really engaging with why Taiwan matters. They're mostly not engaging with why Chiang was a bad dude, or Taiwan's impressive progress since his death.

Perhaps we have a chance to make a tiny dent in that bipartisan wall of ignorance. I say we take it.

Of course, by all means criticize the tweet. But criticism with an appeal to learn more is not the same as an all-out attack. 

(Feel free to attack Blackburn on any of her other horrific views, though. Being in favor of forced birth and against human rights for women is a good place to start.) 

Finally, I'd like to offer an idea that even I don't particularly care for, but is worth pointing out. For years, the USA kind of quietly supported the KMT -- probably seeing them as the best bet in terms of maintaining "peace" across the Taiwan Strait. That peace was always a false one, but I suppose it looked good at the time to those who didn't realize that China was using rapprochement with the KMT to secure a path to annexation, a path that inevitably leads to war.

Only very recently have US administrations seemed to warm up a bit to the DPP, in part because the KMT simply isn't that popular in Taiwan and democratic choice should be respected, but also likely in part because in the 2020s, the US has finally figured out that appeasing China does not lead to peace; deterrence is a far more likely (though not guaranteed) prospect.

And yet, I find it so weird that this very small, very recent pivot has got so much of the Taiwan Internet Commentariat obsessed with the (false) idea that the US is using Taiwan to anger China, that the US is going back on its promise not to support "Taiwan independence" (very wrong, for many reasons), or that the DPP are the real 'authoritarians' and 'imperialists' because they have 'imperialist US' backing. Or that the US 'created' the Taiwanese independence movement (so very, very wrong). 

Tone-deaf tweets in which senators visit outdated monuments to dictators who vehemently opposed Taiwanese independence show, I guess, that these visits are not really about a sea change in US policy on Taiwan, or any sort of agenda the US has toward that end. It certainly shows that there's no partisan leaning toward the DPP in Taiwan, either. Official visitors can't possibly be in the pocket of some 'Green Terror' stricken DPP (lol) if they're visiting Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and cluelessly tweeting about it. 

With all that in mind, feel free to criticize the Marsha Blackburn tweet. It's so clueless that it's absolutely earned that. But be smart about it: do it in a way that might actually get through to her team or the readers of these tweets. 

I suggest you do this even if you don't like Marsha Blackburn -- and I most certainly do not.