Thursday, July 23, 2009

How to insult a people

The characters were the result of long, painstaking efforts by public relations experts to reflect the make-up of the general public and were “absolutely not” meant to discriminate against anyone from any social stratum. Thus spoke Ministry of Economic Affairs Deputy Minister John Deng (鄧振中), defending a comic strip explaining the intricacies of the proposed economic framework cooperation agreement (ECFA) between Taiwan and China.

Of course they were not. One character is Fa Sao, a 40-year-old Hakka from Hsinchu who works as a supervisor at an import-export company. Fa is active, self-motivated and highly capable. She is a married woman who is fluent in English, Mandarin, Hoklo and Japanese. She is hungry for knowledge and eager to learn more about money-management. Her profile suggests she keeps herself well-informed and is a keen observer of market trends. Fa Sao was recently promoted to company spokesman. Her knowledge of cross-strait trade has prompted her to learn all about the ECFA.

Yi-ge, meanwhile, is a 45-year old Hoklo-speaking (that is, native Taiwanese) man from Tainan City who works as a salesman in a traditional industry. Yi-ge is a vocational school graduate who speaks “Taiwanese Mandarin” (whatever that is) and knows very little about the proposed ECFA. He is content being a follower, but when it comes to protecting himself, he “goes all-out.” If, for example, he were ever accidentally short-changed by a clerk at a breakfast restaurant, he would do almost anything to get the money back, even if it was just NT$5.

One is rational, educated, and works in the business sector. As she is in exports and imports, she likely does business with China. From her description, Fa could therefore be seen as “a good, rational Chinese.” Yi-ge, however, has an “extremist” and “irrational” streak, adjectives that interestingly have often been used by both China, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and pro-big business media to attack their pro-independence nemesis, former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), as well as the Democratic Progressive Party and independence activists in general.

Deng can say all he wants about the ministry not wanting to insult anyone, but the fact of the matter is, surely, at one point in the process of creating the cartoon, someone in the army of “public relations experts” that came up with this brilliant idea would have noticed that by design or accident, the depictions were prejudicial, if not outright racist. Surely, someone would have raised an objection, or called for caution. If this happened, then that person was silenced, as often happens in government. If no one did, then it means that whoever was involved in the creative process all agreed on what can only be seen as defining characteristics based on biology, which is the first step toward outright racial discrimination.

According to the cartoon, Taiwanese natives (Hoklo speakers) are less educated, know very little, “go all out,” are finicky about money and followers, while non-natives (mainlanders, Hakka and so on) are active, self-motivated, highly capable, fluent in many languages, hungry for knowledge, well-informed, eager to learn and in big business. Yes, all of this is an accident, as if it were not part of a long, sad pattern of describing the people in Taiwan using different terms. In fact, to this day people in China — the big happy Chinese family, who care so much about Taiwanese they want to bring them in their fold, by force if necessary — describe Taiwanese as “primitive,” “uncouth,” “uneducated” and “low-class.”

If you’re informed and from the “upper class,” you are for an ECFA. If you’re uninformed and from the supposed lower social stratum, you’re against it. This is a perfect Manichean view of the world, one that has no room for opposition to an ECFA based on “irrational” fears that it is part of Beijing’s long-term efforts to annex Taiwan by creating undue economic dependence. The message is that people oppose an ECFA because they are ignorant, and that Taiwanese tend to be more ignorant than Mainlanders, Hakka and so on.

Surely, then, Taiwanese natives like former presidential candidate Peng Ming-min (彭明敏), who speaks Hoklo, Mandarin, English, Japanese and French, who penned revolutionary articles in French and Japanese about the laws of space before anyone had even conceived of the need for such things, and who wrote documents calling for political reform in Taiwan during Martial Law in such impeccable Chinese that KMT officials were convinced that Peng and his friends had been helped by Mainlanders, are just an aberration. Or my wife, for that matter, who speaks impeccable Hoklo and Mandarin and English and is learning French far faster than I ever will Mandarin, who as a 16 year old just arrived in Canada with her family single-handedly filled all the forms — in English, at a time when she barely spoke it — so that her family members could immigrate to Canada and who went on to obtain a Bachelor’s degree in psychology, in English and, since we relocated to Taiwan, earned a number of diplomas in the teaching of Mandarin and so on. She, too, must be an aberration, like all the “low class,” Princeton- and Cambridge- and Cornell-educated Taiwanese that I have come to know since I moved to Taiwan, some of whom are professors at NTU, in the top echelons of the country’s primary financial institution, heads of the Rotary Club, talented architects, Japanese translators for major businesses, officials in High Court, and recruits at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Many of them do not agree to an ECFA, or at minimum would like to get more information about it before they make a decision. But none is low-class, uninformed, uneducated or extremist, as the comic suggests.

The MOEA’s comic is insulting, discriminatory and no accident. Nothing so sensitive, so downright incendiary, would have been allowed to see the light of day had there not been someone at the top who permitted its release. It belittles an extremely capable people who put literacy levels in China (the real levels, rather than fudged official figures) to shame. It is also part of a long history of attempts by the KMT and China to erase achievements in education made during the Japanese colonial period in Taiwan.

If the ministry is not responsible for its contents, whoever is, from the writers to the public relations experts, should be fired and forced to apologize to all Hoklo-speaking Taiwanese and those who love them, as I do. This is state-sponsored racism, paid for with taxpeyers’ dollars, and it has no place in a democracy.


Thomas said...

I had three strong reactions when reading about these characters this morning.

1) You had no intention to debase anyone yet you just happened, by chance, to hit all of the main stereotypes in the two characters you chose?

2) You employed many many PR specialists and THIS is the best they can come up with? Indeed, Taiwanese must really suck at PR.

3) (This one made me chuckle. The others just made me mad.) Fa Sao has spent a lot of time learning about the ECFA, so she is perfectly capable of explaining it to Yi Ge. But how does Fa Sao know what the ECFA will look like since the contents of the agreement have yet to be announced? Note that this also ties in with number 2 of this list. You spent all that f@#*ing money on PR to create two characters who STILL can't inform the public about the "benefits" of the ECFA. It is clear that they were only invented to be cheerleaders.

I am really hoping for the day that the entire country will call that buffoon in the presidential office on crap like this.

Last comment: I wonder what the DPP is planning to do if the government does not cave in to the demand of the DPP that the government withdraw the characters. The administration has no incentive to heed their call unless this provokes an outcry, and I don't really see what the DPP could do about it if they didn't.

BIT said...

I remember when I was growing up, some of my Taiwanese (本省人)friends claimed they don't know how to speak Taiwanese as if speaking Taiwanese was inferior. Now they are trying to brainwash people again into believing that going againest ECFA are for uneducated people.

Taiwanrox said...

I really wish Ma would reveal the text to the ECFA... no one really knows the text of it.

Άλισον said...

I am a “lower class” southerner who “accidentally” speak multiple languages and will post soon about the ECFA topic beyond the insult to the Taiwanese people.

Anonymous said...

If not for the changes and "localisation" campaign in the last two decades, those top echelon positions would still be reserved for the privileged wai sheng ren.

If speaking in "Taiwanese Mandarin" is low class, how about this speaker(

Anonymous said...

My family is Hakka, has been in Taiwan for hundreds and hundreds of years, were colonialised with everyone else under Dutch and Japanese rule, intermarried with other Taiwanese and aboriginal people, suffered under martial law, struggled too when Taiwan's economy was down and had to fight for everything they earned. And yet they are "non-native" Taiwanese? Really? I find this very insulting. Don't mistake the real people for the stereotypes assigned to them by a stupid PR team. Taiwanese Hakka were just as poorly served by this campaign, because it ignores the complexity of that demographic.

Boston Kindergarten said...

what a karma to stop by here
great sharing
thank you