Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Taiwanese cannot afford (or, A second manifesto)

A student unfurls a banner at a Jan. 1 vigil
The perpetuation of the ‘inherited’ system of face and conformity must stop, as the downward spiral it engenders is the surest way to defeat 

A wise man once told a wise woman that because of their precarious international situation, Taiwanese cannot afford to give up, to abandon hope. Those were wise words indeed, to which I would add the following: Because of their situation, Taiwanese cannot afford to countenance mediocrity. 

Unfortunately, as a Taiwanese friend wrote me today, Taiwan “inherited,” and never shed itself of, a system that encourages just that. That system draws from the worst elements of Confucianism, greed and self-interest, and permeates every sector, from government to the private sector. And be warned: it also casts a long shadow over the camp that sides with the angels — the “green” camp, a motley crew of legislators, campaigners, publishers, writers and the likes. 

At its core, that system is rigidly hierarchical, with each player confined to a specific role. Leaving that box (through, say, initiative) steps on others’ feet and inevitably results in loss of face for the higher ups, as it creates additional work for them, or demonstrates how overly comfortable, as chiefs of their little fiefdoms, they have become with the underwhelming “status quo” (we might be onto something here; after all, the majority of Taiwanese support the “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait). 

Consequently, normalcy and conformity become the norm, and over time that critter ossifies, leading down the inevitable road to mediocrity. As long as one doesn’t challenge that status quo and does the bare minimum, those up the chain of command will be satisfied and will not seek change. Those who cannot brook stasis, meanwhile, are immediately treated with contempt and pushed aside, and action is taken to cut whatever access they have that has given rise to those “polluted” ideas. It’s OK to be mediocre, to regurgitate the past or directives from above; just don’t rock the boat. 

The ultimate goal of this system is self-perpetuation, which allows those at the top to remain there, while new entrants slave away, to little financial, let alone spiritual, benefit to themselves. That system is very paramilitary, a top-down mechanism that strikes immense psychological violence upon its victims, while engendering huge wealth gaps. There are several Tsai Eng-mengs out there, and not just in the blue camp.

Now, this problem isn’t Taiwan’s alone. In fact, it reminds me of the conditions that prevailed at an equally paramilitary-style government agency I used to work at back in Canada — and that is the principal reason why I left. But Canada doesn’t face the threat of invasion (American culture and fast food excepted), nor does its identity face extinction at the hands of a large authoritarian neighbor. Taiwan does. As such, it cannot afford the system to continue this way. The perpetuation of that “inherited” meme must stop, as the downward spiral it engenders is the surest way to defeat. China doesn’t play by so-called Confucian rules when it comes to seizing Taiwan, but the Confucian traditions of face and hierarchy that serve as the foundations of Taiwanese society do weaken its ability to organize against China. 

This calls, urgently, for rejuvenation, for the rise of a new voice that challenges the establishment. And we’ve seen its emergence in recent months, with the mobilization of young Taiwanese of all stripes in their opposition to corporate deals that threaten to undermine the foundations, hard fought but perpetually fragile, of a free society. Not only has their campaign been sustained, the leaders have not shied from breaking the stultifying cold grip of Confucianism by being “rude” to their elders, whether they be ministers or educators. Theirs is a refreshing battle for ideals, not one’s little turf, book sales, or a few extra votes come the next local elections. Through their refusal to play by the established rules, they are breaking old patterns that can only continue to exist if they aren’t challenged and exposed as ridiculous leftovers of a bygone era. Yes, Taiwan democratized, but in many ways — essential ways — its institutions remain very much authoritarian. The only difference now is that those who are on the “good” side, our side, on Taiwan’s side, can also carry the punishing stick. 

In a few months of campaigning, holding meetings, and using the forces of the electronic age with unprecedented wit, today’s youth is sending a strong message to the graying forces above them that enough is enough. Taiwan is their country, it’s their future, and the mold no longer fits. Mediocrity, self-interest, politicians’ facade of fighting the good fight, behind which lies the terrible ugliness of sloth and greed and egomania; publishers’ claims to support liberty and Taiwan while breaking every rule in the book when it comes to treatment of its employees — out with all that! Down the self-promoting minions, down the egos that suffer when glory isn’t theirs, what for the hard work of others. Down with those who stay the course not because the course is the right one, but rather because it is the path of least resistance. Down with the pressure groups that purport to serve Taiwan’s best interest when, at heart, what matters most is their own glory. Down with those who countenance and encourage mediocrity through self-interest or resistance to change. And out with politeness and proper form and blind respect for authority, seniority, or social standing. Take the initiative. Encourage initiative. Respect experience and knowledge, but always question hierarchical systems. The mold isn’t strength, it’s weakness. A dreadful, fatal weakness. 

Taiwanese cannot afford.

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