Friday, July 26, 2013

Reading Orwell in Taipei

If Orwell were in Taiwan today, he would see government behavior that is worryingly familiar

The young Taiwanese man, not even in his 20s, sat across me this morning at my usual Starbucks. He was so absorbed in the book he was reading that he didn’t even notice that I was taking pictures of him. I felt I had to, as the scene was just too appropriate for the current times for me not to document it. The young man was reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

I’m not sure what Orwell, the ever-prescient British author and — we often forget — journalist whose understanding of the mechanisms of repression never seems to go out of fashion, would make of recent events in Taiwan. On can guess that he would disagree with the increased government restrictions on lawful protests and the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration’s disdain for journalists that we have experienced in recent weeks. He would likely say that he’s seen it all before: in Spain during the Civil War, in the British media of his time, and in Soviet propaganda after World War II, all of which served as the raw material for the dystopic world he created for Nineteen Eighty-Four.

More and more, the Ma administration is feeding us lies, and when the public refuses to believe them — pulverized houses and the crushed remnants of people’s lives tend to help cut through the crap — it turns to hardline tactics to silence the opposition. It calls on protesters to behave “rationally” and “peacefully,” but at the same time it breaks its own laws in repressing them, or rewrites them altogether. The National Security Bureau (NSB), which really should concentrate its finite resources fighting the Communist enemy, has stepped in, and “law-enforcement officers” who bear no uniform or insignia, and who will not identify themselves or cite articles of the law as they take people away or restrict their rights of access, are now frequently seen at protests. The ceaseless changing of the rules, the moving of goal posts, all under the umbrella of “the law,” is an art that has been perfected across the Taiwan Strait by the Ministry of State Security (MSS) and the People’s Armed Police (PAP), which anyone who’s had to deal with it will tell you isn’t of or for the people, but really against it.

Now special zones, where people can “express their opinions,” are being created for protesters to gather at when an important Cabinet official makes an appearance. Anyone who strays from those areas — and we can bet that they are located a safe distance away from said important officials, to make sure they cannot see or hear them — will either be brought back into the cage, or, as is becoming increasingly normal nowadays, will be spirited away. (I cannot help but think of the special protest zones that were established by the Chinese authorities for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.)

Journalists are increasingly facing similar constraints, evidently to ensure that devastating images and accounts of protesters, activists, residents, and academics as they are being dragged away, as their rights are being violated by the state apparatus, do not materialize. Constraints on journalists’ freedom to do their work were already imposed during the destruction of houses and commercial establishments at the Huaguang Community (華光) in Taipei earlier this year, ostensibly in reaction to the large amounts of extraordinarily moving images that were emanating from there.

Press passes and academic credentials are commodities of decreasing value these days, with law enforcement officers bluntly telling their holders that they don’t care — and that’s when they even bother to glance at them. Things haven’t reached the same lows observed in China, but one can sense the gradual shift in that direction, and it’s rather worrying. I sensed it as I walked in front of the Presidential Office earlier today, especially when I got to the “wrong” side; there’s something in the air that just doesn’t feel right. I’ve always made it a point to tell outsiders about the good access that journalists normally enjoy in Taiwan. I don’t know whether this is true anymore.

What would Orwell have done at a time like this, when he knew that grave injustice was being perpetrated against a people, but told by those in authority that he was barred from documenting it or would get into trouble for doing so? He would have found ways, and he would have stubbornly sided with the people against the authorities as they warp reality for the sake of their personal enrichment or for more nefarious ends.

And as a veteran of the many-fronted Spanish Civil War (I urge you to read Homage to Catalonia), he would have known which allies to side with, and would have stayed away from the opportunists and mediocrities that are now offering to help the activists and academics who have turned the screws on a government that, in turn, is screwing them. (Picture by the author)

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