Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Notes on a crisis and the ugly side of human nature

Taiwanese express their anger
Online comments about the ongoing dispute between Taiwan and the Philippines are giving us a glimpse of the ugly side of human nature 

International disputes, such as the one that has gripped Taiwan and the Philippines following the gunning down of a Taiwanese fisherman by a Philippine coast guard vessel on May 9, inevitably arouse strong passions among the public; nationalism flares up as people rally round the flag. In the Internet age, everybody feels entitled, and has the ability, to share his or her opinions on everything. One unfortunate consequence of this empowerment — unprecedented in human history — is that it makes experts of each and every one of us, however ill informed or bigoted one might be. With the emergence of blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and the comments section on news Web sites, the traditional filters of education, expertise, and experience, which in the past promised a modicum of professionalism, are no more. As a result, when crises occur and tempers are set aflame, things can get ugly.

The spat between Taipei and Manila is no exception.

Two things have stood out since self-made experts and netizens began broadcasting their views on the Internet. The first, mostly on the Taiwan side, has been the tendency among some (invariably Caucasian) expatriates to accuse Taiwanese who were angered over the killing of one of their own of racism — “Han chauvinism,” even. Taiwanese who didn’t think Manila had shown enough contrition, who agreed with how the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration was handling the matter, or who criticized it for not doing enough, all were supposedly animated by a superiority complex vis-à-vis “lesser” brown men.

Little did they know that their assessment of what motivated and united Taiwanese, their belief that Taiwanese were acting irresponsibly, were being racist, chauvinistic, fit perfectly well in an equally racist hierarchy of being, with the Wise White Men at the top of the food chain, free to pass judgment on the lowly colored races below them. Those who accused Taiwanese of chauvinism never sought to understand what it was about the incident that mobilized a large, politically heterogeneous segment of society. Instead of interpreting the reaction as nationalistic sentiment (normal in every society) and anger over a perceived injustice among a people that is continually victimized by the international community (mostly by “Han Chinese,” ironically), the wise arbiters needed to come up with theories as to why the usually meek Taiwanese were now up in arms. And instead of evaluating the Ma administration’s policies as a response to those domestic considerations, they instead came up with alternative explanations and conspiracy theories (Beijing’s hand). Some even flirted with the idea of unwitting “Han chauvinism,” which played right into China’s strategy for taking over the whole damn South China Sea, was at play. In the latter theory, Taiwanese are depicted as unaware, perhaps even “brainwashed.”

Meanwhile, those same critics who often deplored Taiwan’s inability to act like a normal country were now conjuring alternative ways to explain its response, including Taipei’s insistence on a government-to-government apology from Manila rather than its less-than-optimal response under its “one China” policy. As if that policy was invented by Taipei, and not the result of Chinese aggression and the willingness of the international community to play along. Critics also saw signs of racism in Taiwan’s decision to escalate with the Philippines, arguing that it unlikely would have been as hardline had it been China, or Japan, that had killed the fisherman. But here again, the reasons are far simpler: Taiwan is more powerful than the Philippines, but is much weaker than Japan and China. Which leader in his right mind would play David versus Goliath? The Taiwanese Navy cannot intimidate the People’s Liberation Army Navy or the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces. But it can certainly flex its muscles against the much weaker Philippine naval assets. It’s a law of international relations — the stronger pick on the weaker and usually avoids unnecessarily picking a fight with those who are stronger than them. But somehow it was beyond the ability of the Wise Ones to accept the fact that Taiwan was reacting like any other normal country would have reacted in such a situation.

Did Taiwanese get carried away and allowed nationalistic sentiment to cloud their judgment? Probably. Did the Ma administration overshoot when it tapped into that upsurge of emotions and didn’t know when to stop drinking from that fountain? Very likely. Countries, governments, people the world over commit such mistakes all the time. But there’s little more to it than that. Skilful or flawed, there is nothing unusual about Taiwan’s response. The second ugliness, which this time does have something to do with race, occurred mostly on the Philippines side.

The comments sections under the articles I have written on the subject for The Diplomat, or articles I edited for the Taipei Times, are filled with expressions of hatred. Granted, some Taiwanese commentators — even legislators — have used less than flattering language when describing the Philippines, alluding to the corruption that haunts the country and how vastly disorganized the place is. But in the racial-name-calling game that accompanied the crisis, the Filipinos have gone well beyond what the Taiwanese have mustered. Here are a few cringe-worthy examples. See if you can see the trend:
  •  “Chinks, keep away from our waters/land or else die”; 
  •  “Taiwanese and Chinese are just one blood one attitude! They must both vanish to [sic] this world!”; 
  •   “Taiwan is an island that can never be country. Dream on Taiwanese”; 
  •   “These poaching thieves robbers Chinese are or will never be in moral high ground. We just know them Chinese. In their racists [sic] eyes, they think they can kick a ragtag doll which they believe the Philippines is”; 
  •   “Idiot chinese attitude [sic]! Rude.” 
 There are many, many more.

Two themes stand out. The first stems from the Philippines’ inferiority complex and focuses primarily on reminding Taiwanese that Taiwan is not a country, but merely an island or a province of China. You may be stronger and wealthier than us Filipinos, it says, but at least we have a country. That point is often made in reference to the inability of Taiwan of applying international law because of its unofficial status, or to the illegality of its EEZ claims, since it cannot be a signatory of UNCLOS. What they fail to realize is that EEZs are customary international law, which means that even non-signatories are bound and protected by them.

The second, more prevalent one is meant as an insult. It compares Taiwanese to Chinese, which were are repeatedly told are of “the same blood.” It is meant as an insult because, as we know, the large majority of Taiwanese do not regard themselves as Chinese (another blow to the “Han chauvinist” theory). Filipinos know that, and are equally aware that the comparison will sting. Perhaps one positive offshoot of such rhetoric is that it demonstrates awareness among Filipinos that Taiwanese are indeed not Chinese.

What a fascinating subtext to this very complicated story!

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