Monday, August 16, 2010

Enough with words, a call to action

The pages of this newspaper [the Taipei Times] and other liberal publications are filled with beautiful slogans about the need to “protect” Taiwan based on lofty principles such as democracy, justice and human rights. Commendable as these prescriptions may be, in and of themselves they are impotent in the face of the present challenges confronting this nation.

Although the intentions of the opinion writers who propose such measures are undoubtedly honorable, their prose often lacks the rigorous intellectual inquisitiveness that would give them true meaning, leaving us with little more than a constellation of presumptuous abstracts. In fact, more often than not, the ideals they espouse are at best a means to contrast what the authors are trying to protect with the entity that poses the most formidable threat to it — China.

However, using words to describe what China is not is hardly the kind of call to action that will ward off the threat to Taiwan’s continued existence.

An understanding of the opponent makes this abundantly clear. Sloganeering doesn’t gain traction with the Chinese Communist Party and the politicians and business leaders in Taipei who seem inclined to be co-opted by the Chinese. It doesn’t move, sway or frighten them.

This op-ed, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.


mike said...

Before I say more, let me just comment that, in my view, the DPP has quickly been reduced to the role of a largely ineffective breaking mechanism.

Does that reflect your own view, and to what extent might you be willing to consider alternative loci for political action?

I am not bereft of ideas for action and I suspect you know others of a similar attitude.

Dixteel said...

I agree with what you said. More actions are required than words.

Sometimes I also find some pan-green politicians' words naive or lack particality.

The words, however, do have their places in Taiwan because you need words to communicate and persuade others that you, not KMT or Ma, have the better idea. This is especially true when KMT has brain wash Taiwan's population for decades. Of course, I am not talking about just simple slogans. But communicating ideas in terms people can readily grasp is important IMO.

Otherwise you might find yourself charging alone with no one following.

Taiwan Echo said...

Well put, Michael. There have been similar calls like yours in the green camp. In the I Love Taiwan forum (mostly in Chinese), very serious debates went on with the side arguing the need of sloganeering, street protest, anti-blue ... vs the side arguing accepting all peoples in Taiwan so to fight against China in unity. This kind of debates, as well as articles like yours, would certainly turn the green camp to a more practical path gradually.

If we study Tsai's ideas since she took over DPP, we would find that Tsai have this in mind for a long time, and is steering DPP toward that goal.

So, at this moment, I am optimistic.

J. Michael Cole 寇謐將 said...

Thanks to all for the comments. Yes, Mike, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has for the most part been relegated to a position of acting as a braking mechanism rather than an initiator of ideas. While there is a definite need for such an institution, a more action-oriented platform is also necessary, though this is one that will have to be initiated by Taiwanese themselves. I have yet to see the emergence of a consolidated campaign to achieve this goal, and I fear that time may be running out.

I fully agree that words are the best instrument to persuade and by which ideas can be communicated. I agree, as well, that a shared idea, emerging from academic discourse, are prerequisite to action. However, as I argue in my piece, empty slogans are not enough, and writing must eventually transcend the realm of ideas and serve as a blueprint for action. Yes, freedom and democracy should be at the forefront, but what do these terms mean concretely, and how can we act — within their ambit — to bring about the political change that is required to safeguard Taiwan?

DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen faces an uphill battle transforming her party into one that can turn to action while deflecting accusations that it is a “troublemaker.” It’s going to be a challenging balancing act, as it can ill afford, through action, to be discredited. My optimism lies in the possibility that non-DPP members who disagree with President Ma Ying-jeou’s policies (and their numbers are growing) will join hands with the DPP, in true bipartisan fashion, and flesh out action plans. Should this transpire, it would be more difficult to blame the DPP, or “Taiwan separatists,” for causing trouble. In that respect, I think Tsai and others could do a better job reaching out to empowered individuals outside the party — not an easy task ahead of key and highly political municipal and presidential elections, obviously.

darren taylor said...

Wow, Michael, I'm fascinated by the angle in your article. Are you guys kind of constrained about detailing specific proposals for action?

Your article contrasts slogans and abstractions with practical actions, and even 'hard' power. You set up a series of contrasts, but never explain what the concrete action that is not advocacy of democracy, and explaining what China is not, might be. A little coy.

You, we are both products of alternate paths to independence. I for one don't think the American revolution was a great thing, or the only way it could it have been done. It was a bloody war waged by the educated and wealthy classes.

Would you say, perhaps, that it might be the cold war and 'we're not Chinese' attitudes that prevent you from assuming solidarity with the billion or so people on the mainland? So many Taiwanese think of them as brainwashed and ignorant, but don't you think representational government is in the common interest of everyone? It seems China, in your posts, is a largely amorphous entity, only attaining concreteness in the form of it's ominous government. Are there not too many abstractions in this attitude towards the mainland?

J. Michael Cole 寇謐將 said...

Hi Darren,

Some very interesting points here. First off, I must say that yes, as someone who is (a) a foreigner and (b) works in the media, I do feel constrained when it comes to detailing plans for action. Inasmuch as I want to make this “my” fight, I think there are limits as to what I’m allowed to advocate — or do. Otherwise, do I have ideas for more concrete action? Of course I do. (In fact, it’s a small thing, but if you saw pictures of a few naked people in front of the Presidential Office last week, I’m allegedly the one who gave Dr. Tsay the idea of doing so when I first met him months ago, according to a ‘Taipei Times’ reporter who was at the scene when he did it.)

Also, I must admit to the limitations of my op-ed. It was meant more as a criticism of the way things have been going than a blueprint for a departure from the ivory tower. More like a first shot. I knew that eventually I’d receive criticism that my piece also dealt with abstracts. But I think you know what I was trying to accomplish with it.

People often make the mistake of treating China like a monolith, you’re right, or of believing that the Chinese Communist Party IS China. It isn’t — both aren’t. However, when it comes to the question of Taiwan, the line spoken by both the CCP and Chinese is worryingly the same, more so than on almost any other issue. From cab drivers and investors in China to Chinese tourists or academics visiting Taiwan, the argument about “one China” and Taiwan being a province of China is worryingly unyielding and inflexible. Of course we should never stop trying to reach out and to find like-minded people in China, but based on my own interactions with them, if there is a monolith in the Chinese psyche, it lies there. Even human rights activists, Tsering Shakya and Wang Lixiong argue in their excellent ‘The Struggle for Tibet,’ which I reviewed in the ‘Taipei Times’ in May, often argue their case from the standpoint of nationalism, which emphasizes “Han Chinese” over other ethnic minorities (which Taiwanese in China would be). So in that sense, yes, I believe they’ve been brainwashed.

Darren Taylor said...

Michael, I see your point about Chinese people being brainwashed. When a lot of people hold opinions that are also those of the government they live under, and which that government has been trying to make them believed, I can see why you would call that brainwashed.

I think the central question comes down to how far we go with the logic of democracy, versus the logic of nationalism.

In both of our respective countries, there are likely plenty of people who argue that the nation is an entity with it own properties and life, rather than a collection of peoples sharing cultural, geographic, and political commonalities.

To say that Taiwan belongs to or is a province of China is not at all bizarre or far fetched within the logic of democracy. It's a little similar to saying Canada or the US belonged to or were a part of the British Empire.

The conflict between democracy and nationalism comes when we ask exactly who determines who is part of what country.

The democratic answer would be to say that the people of a country determine whether or not they are part of the country, the nationalist answer answer would be to say that the factions in control of the government of a given country determine who is a part of that country.

We might say that the old idea that the Communist Party was the illegitimate government of China was something only believable through the logic of nationalism, by which we could then disregard the will of the Chinese people, the vast majority who were likely supportive or ignorant of the merits of the differing political systems offered by the CCP and the GMD. The manner of dismissing the people of China who may have supported Mao and the party was usually to say they were brainwashed and ignorant.

The problem with democracy is that you eventually have to choose between letting people choose their own path, even if you don't agree to it, or allowing those with the most power in a given political context to decide who is and who isn't part of a people or nation.

The option of democracy is rather new, and certainly not the situation in which my own country was founded.

I think we both believe in the right of people to choose their own government. But as for being brainwashed, I don't think regarding taiwan as part of China quite qualifies.

After all, what this all comes down to is whether or not the people of Taiwan are going to be controlled by the same government that controls Mainland China, and who gets to decide the question.

All these other debates about what it means to be Chinese vs. Taiwanese, or what belongs to a 'country' seem rather irrelevant and confused. Just as, in your own experience, I would guess that the question of who is or isn't really part of Quebec is less resolvable than who does or not want to be part of Canada, and who has the power to decide.

And can you imagine what sort of nonsense I have to hear all the time about Real Americans?