Monday, May 26, 2008

Setting the record straight

Some readers have reacted to my piece “Why are we sending aid to China?” published in the Taipei Times on May 23 by calling me “heartless,” “callous,” “cruel” and a “demagogue,” with one going as far as accusing the Times in an online forum of being “pro Japanese right-wing” (which is certainly news to its editorial staff). While expected when writing about such a sensitive issue as to whether donors should send money to earthquake-hit Sichuan Province, I believe the criticism leveled at me stems for the most part from a misreading of my argument (for those, that is, who bothered to read beyond the headline) and an (understandably) emotional response that obviates rational reasoning.

First of all, as I clearly state in my article, humanitarian assistance remains a noble and crucial act, one that helps to transcend political divides. Unlike what some of my critics have written — quite invidiously, I must add — at no point do I advocate withholding humanitarian assistance to China. Rather, I question whether countries should be sending money to the world’s fourth-largest economy, which, at US$1.3 trillion, also happens to have the largest foreign reserves and, given its splashy preparations for the Beijing Olympics, faces no shortage of money (not to mention its active military force of 2.255 million individuals who can be mobilized to deal with the crisis). Sadly, some readers seem to confuse humanitarian assistance with financial assistance, which thought they might be part of the same overall package, are in fact two distinct items. I believe Sichuan Province does need outside help, but that help should come in the form of expertise, rescue teams and whatever materiel is required to deal with the immediate emergency in order to prevent further deaths from malnutrition and disease.

Other criticism of my piece has focused on politics, accusing me of exploiting tensions in the Taiwan Strait to encourage hatred for Chinese or taking a sadistic pleasure in the suffering of Chinese. Again, nothing could be further from the truth, as my argument proposes a responsibilization of the central government in Beijing that, in the long term, would better serve ordinary Chinese in neglected provinces that happen to lie outside the booming coastal areas. Absent a fundamental change in how Beijing sees and treats its people, a temporary response funded by outside donors will only be that — temporary — and is an invitation for disasters of equal magnitude in future. Advocating a solution that (a) encourages immediate, albeit non-financial, help by foreign countries; and (b) would ensure that, through responsible investment by Beijing in infrastructure that meets safety standards, no such preventable catastrophe recurs, is hardly “callous” or a sign that I am “anti-Chinese.”

One writer takes the argument one step further and claims that ordinary Chinese will take note of Taiwan’s generosity and that this acknowledgement would somehow convince Beijing to abandon its hostility toward Taiwan. First of all, the view that US$65 million in financial aid by Taipei would sway Beijing is ludicrous, as is the contention, made by the same author, that a more positive public opinion on Taiwan would bring about a change in Beijing’s cross-strait policies. Despite the author’s claim, when it comes to a sensitive issue such as Taiwan, the effect of public opinion on Beijing’s stance has been, is, and will remain next to nil. If all it took was for Taipei to give Beijing US$65 million to resolve the Taiwan Strait crisis, the former would have done that years or decades ago. To think that peace can be bought like this bespeaks a total lack of understanding of Beijing’s motivations and the conflict in general.

Those who accuse me of politicizing aid to China also commit the same error pundits have made for years about the Taiwan Strait — they neglect to take into consideration the fact that it is Beijing, not Taipei, that threatens force, conducts annual simulations of an invasion of the other’s territory, passed a law in 2005 making it “legal” to use military force against the other should it unilaterally declare or move toward independence, points increasingly accurate 1,400 missiles at it (adding about 100 a year) at its opponent, isolates it diplomatically and economically and seizes every occasion to humiliate its people, athletes, medical experts and diplomats. Have those critics ever accused Chinese of being “callous” or “heartless” for not criticizing their government about policies that could result in as many, if not more, casualties in Taiwan, or who fail to criticize Beijing for slaughtering Tibetans, or force-relocating hundreds of thousands of Chinese Muslims?

Not that, despite all this, Taiwan should not extend a helping hand to ordinary Chinese who have nothing to do with Beijing’s intolerance vis-à-vis Taiwan. In the name of humanity, it should, and the expertise it gained from its own devastating earthquake in 1999 (during which, we must note, Beijing did Taiwan great harm by forcing all humanitarian aid to be channeled through China before reaching Taiwan, costing precious time) could be decisive in saving lives in Sichuan. All I argue is that it might not be in Taiwan’s (and ordinary Chinese’s) interest to send money to Sichuan; and yet, my critics accuse me of encouraging those in Taiwan who supposedly revel at the suffering of Chinese (I have yet to find such a person) and seeking to “increase” or “maintain” tensions in the Taiwan Strait, as if Beijing weren’t the instigator and its actions didn’t matter in the equation. In fact, my reference to the Chinese military threat wasn’t even about politics. If ever there was politicization, it was made by my critics, not me. Rather — and I believe my article was clear on this — what I highlighted was the allocation of resources and how all the money used in threatening Taiwan could be better spent helping Chinese in need now and in future.

On a personal note, I did not spend C$6,000 of my own money in 2001 to obtain a diploma in humanitarian assistance only to adopt the belief that aid should be withheld because of politics. In fact, it is partly because of that diploma that I think it was incumbent on me to question whether there might not be ways to maximize the effectiveness of humanitarian aid while pressuring governments to deal more responsibly toward their own people.

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