Friday, September 14, 2012

China’s Achilles’ heel: Symbols

Taiwanese artist Chao Tsung-song in front of the mural
By consistently overreacting to art and other symbols, the Chinese may be telling us a lot about where their weaknesses lie 

There is something about art and symbols that really gets under the skin of Chinese Communist Party officials and makes them behave in ways that even they must know is against their self-interest. 

This is exemplified by the deplorable decision made during the London Olympics this summer to take down the Republic of China flag from Regent Street after Chinese representatives in the UK pressured British officials to do so. Chinese officials apparently could not bear the idea that a symbol of Taiwanese nationhood, disagreeable though it may be to some Taiwanese, could flutter alongside the flags of other nations. However, rather than strengthen China’s interests, the move damaged its image while bringing into full contrast the reasons why Taiwan is not — and cannot be — part of China. The controversy received substantial coverage in the media, especially after hundreds of young people bearing flags gathered on Regent Street for various photo ops. 

Over the years, Chinese officials, sports coaches and students have constantly lost their senses over art, images, films and other manifestations of freedom, ripping flags, boycotting festivals and sometimes resorting to physical violence. It is hard to tell whether this instinctive reaction to symbols stems from growing up in a society where propagandistic images played such a powerful role in cultivating nationalism, or from the realization that symbols can spark an emotional response in people.

The letter
The best example of this occurred earlier this month, when two officials from the Chinese Consulate General in San Francisco attempted to intimidate David Lin (林銘新), a Taiwan-born American who erected a large mural depicting Chinese repression of Tibetans and Taiwanese, by writing letters to and then visiting the mayor of the town Lin lives in: Corvallis, Oregon. 

My unsigned editorial, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

9 comments:

Michael Fagan said...

"It is hard to tell whether this instinctive reaction to symbols stems from growing up in a society where propagandistic images played such a powerful role in cultivating nationalism, or from the realization that symbols can spark an emotional response in people."

In either case, the wish to prevent unwanted symbols from being seen is indicative of fear.

The CCP has only two thin-ice alibis left to stand on - one is the aesthetic of nationalism beneath which the "masses" must be sublimated, and the other is the leeky vessel of economic development.

They probably think they are struggling to keep their heads above water, and they are probably right.

Michael Fagan said...

"...the virtues of the First Amendment, which enshrines rights and responsibilities."

Actually, there are no "responsibilities" set forth in the First Amendment; it merely proscribes the Congress from pursuing certain legislative acts. The limitations of the First Amendment were decided later by the Supreme Court, hence it is the opinions of the Supreme Court which "enshrine" any free-speech related responsibilities, not the First Amendment itself.

Anonymous said...

In cases of law and the Constitution, the Supreme Court does not "decide". It interpreted what the First Amendment should entail, then the interpretation was adopted by the legislative and executive branch. There are still many gray areas of the First Amendment that are up for debate from time to time, and ideologically, it is the legislative branch's responsibility to not make any law to interfere with an individuals right to express, speak and assemble.

Michael Fagan said...

No: the relevant distinction is between "decision" and "action". The SC decides, the Congress acts - "adopt" is metaphorical.

"...it is the legislative branch's responsibility to not make any law to interfere with an individuals right to express, speak and assemble."

What is the difference then, if there be any at all, between a "rights" and "permissions"?

Anonymous said...

Thanks, constitutional expert. You know everything and you're never wrong.

Michael Fagan said...

OK well when you're done sucking on my infallibility, then you might want to consider the question I put to you...

I'll answer it for you in the meantime: the difference between a "right" and a "permission" is in the location of authority.

Where a right describes the limit within which a person may authorize (from "author") his own actions without any obligation to consult others, a permission describes the limit within which he may act on someone else's authority (generally, the Left identify this "someone else" as community, hence my joyful abandon in calling them "commies").

The distinction is relevant thus: so long as we are dealing with "negative" rights, and not the made-up "positive" ones, then the rights of one person will generally tend to be circumscibed by the rights of another. My right to freedom of expression is constrained by J.M.'s right to control the published content on his blog.

If we are dealing with permissions that we merely call "rights" for PR value, then these permissions are constrained merely by the will of the external authority alone, which begs the question of whether these "rights" will be upheld in accordance with professed principles, or merely in obedience to the caprice of popular political opinions.

So although the Congress is charged with defending "rights", the fact that it is an elected body ought to - at the very least - raise the suspicion that what it is actually defending are permissions that can be rescinded if sufficient political pressure is brought to bear.

This is the point which the pan-green supporting academics, DPP officials and so on, in pretending to be outraged by what was done to the Wangs and the Miaoli farmers, could not quite bring themselves to admit: they do not support the rights of the people, but only politically contingent permissions. They understood well enough that were they in government rather than the KMT, then they would also like to reserve the power of "expropriation" for their own political uses - and to hell with the rights of the people.

GengHoong Wu said...

As a casual reader of this blog, I enjoy both the content and especially the reader comments regardless of their perspectives, including the prolific entries by Michael Fagan. Though not knowing Mr. Fagan, I cannot help but question his intent in posting some of the comments as they seem to be mere rhetorical questions disguised as fodder for community digestion. This discussion on the distinction between "right" and "permission" is a prime example to obfuscate rather than enlighten. Surely we can all engage in a philological discussion as to whether we have the "right" or "permission" to comment on this blog, but I struggle to see the value and relevance to the larger points being raised in the article. If self-aggrandizement is the primary objective, then I dare say that has been achieved.

Michael Fagan said...

"This discussion on the distinction between "right" and "permission" is a prime example to obfuscate rather than enlighten..."

Quite the opposite. I make it a point of practice to take care over my choice of words so as to be clear.

But it is noticeable that you do not say why the distinction between rights and permissions is unclear.

It is also noticeable that do you say what it is you suppose I am "obfuscating".

And it is also noticeable that do you challenge the distinction.

"I struggle to see the value and relevance to the larger points being raised in the article."

There is none, for the distinction was raised in response to Anon's elaboration on the role of Congress and the SC.

"If self-aggrandizement is the primary objective, then I dare say that has been achieved."

Well gosh, thanks. Let me know when they plan to hold the reception for me at the Grand Hotel...

Anonymous said...

Dr Cole, correct me if I am wrong, but the point of writing unsigned editorials in newspapers is that readers do not know who wrote them. And in the case of unsignged newspaper editorials, UNE for short, they should stay that way, unsigned for at least 10 years of time. To then post them on your personal blog telling readers YOU wrote that editorial is both unethical and unprofessional, You should really not do that anymore, unless it is a private blog that only invited readers can come to. As it is this blog is public. I think your editors at the China Post would be angry if they found out you are doing this. THAT is why UNE are "unsignged", they are the voice of the post. No other edtorial writers in the West do this. If so, show me one.

Signed,
Loyral Reader of the China Post