Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Embracing Amnesia

A review of Louisa Lim’s ‘The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited’ 

It is often said that ignorance is bliss. But what are the consequences when ignorance, encouraged, imposed and enforced by an overly paranoid state apparatus, mixes with the volatile juices of xenophobia and nationalism? According to an engaging and all-too-human new book by journalist Louisa Lim, the results are a widening moral vacuum and loss of humanity — and very likely, a threat of unprecedented proportions to global peace. 

Using the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989, as her centerpiece, Lim’s The People’s Republic of Amnesia uses eight interlocking themes to demonstrate that while the policy of amnesia imposed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) following the bloodshed in Beijing has bought it time, such measures can only mean that the vicious circle of repression and corruption that has haunted China since time immemorial will never be broken. 

My book review, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here.

Is Xi Losing Control of China's ‘Peripheries’?

Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Taiwan — they’re all connected. And President Xi seems to be panicking. A look at the quick unraveling of Beijing’s previously calibrated approach to Taiwan 

As tens of thousands of activists continue to defy the authorities in Hong Kong by occupying entire city blocs in the heart of the city, and with weekly reports of escalating violence in restive Xinjiang, the central government in Beijing seems to be losing its grip on what the Chinese regard as the “peripheries.” Recent comments by President Xi Jinping about yet another piece in China’s puzzle of instability—Taiwan—suggest that the leadership may be panicking. 

Before we proceed, it’s important to point out that the two territories and Taiwan are different issues altogether: The first two are politically part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) while Taiwan is a self-ruled entity operating under its own set of rules and constitution, that of the Republic of China (ROC). Furthermore, Taiwan is democratic and was never part of the PRC, whereas Hong Kong was “returned” to the PRC in 1997 and can only aspire to a democratic system, a situation that is at the heart of the current impasse in the former British colony, while Xinjiang is ruled with a mix of intermarriage, displacement, and repressive policies under a veneer of economic development and “ethnic harmony.” 

Still, fundamental differences notwithstanding, Beijing has proposed—imposed, rather—a one-size-fits-all solution for Hong Kong and Taiwan, known as the “one country, two systems,” or 1C2S, model. Despite the model showing cracks in the one territory where it has been applied, as evidence by Hong Kong’s angry response to China’s White Paper on 1C2S in June, Beijing is adamant that it is equally viable as an instrument by which to bring about the “re-unification of China,” or, to put in terms that better reflect reality, the annexation of Taiwan. 

My article, publishes today in The Diplomat, continues here.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Where have the Sunflowers gone?

The Sunflower Movement scored a major success by putting Taiwan back on the map. But it has since split and new forces are seeking to prevent its re-emergence 

The question has been nagging at the edges of my mind ever since it was first thrown at me after I gave a presentation on social movements at a forum organized by SOAS in June: How do we define success in the context of civic activism? Furthermore, how do we evaluate success when the battle over an idea, a policy, continues to rage and has not come to a proper resolution? Having now been asked to share a few thoughts about the Sunflower Movement on the six-month anniversary of the occupation of the Legislative Yuan in Taipei, I would posit that while the dispute over the agreement which prompted the activists to do what they did remains unfinished business, the unprecedented occupation itself and the publicity it engendered were, in and of themselves, a great success. In fact, I would argue that the Sunflower Movement was the best thing that happened in and for Taiwan in the past decade. 

My article, published today on the China Policy Institute Blog, University of Nottingham, continues here. (Photo by the author.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Ask the Departed, Ask the Living

Through a process of dehumanization of its people, some experts argue that Taiwan should be ‘given’ to China for the sake of global stability. They are wrong 

With a glint in the eye, the China “expert” has a solution to the many challenges that are associated with China’s growing assertiveness. Not without theatricals of regret, the expert admits being resigned to the idea that we inhabit an “imperfect world.” The world is unfair. But something must be done about China to avoid some cataclysmic conflict, they say, one that would presumably involve the U.S. Concessions must therefore be made to sate the hungry beast, for “peace.” Ask them what they mean by concessions, and nine times out of ten the answer will be, Taiwan. Hand over democratic Taiwan to authoritarian China, their argument goes, and all our troubles associated with the rise of a dangerous hegemon will go away. 

My point here isn’t that concessions — or appeasement, to call such proposals by their proper name — are misguided and would only encourage further Chinese expansionism. Nor shall we dwell on the fact that trading a democracy for the sake of pleasing a repressive regime would be an affront to the values that we in the “free world” purportedly stand for. What needs to be discussed is far more fundamental: Did anyone ask the 23 million Taiwanese? 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by Viola Kam/V’Z TWINKLE Photography)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Chinese Civil War Continues

Beijing’s revisionist interpretation of the roles played by the KMT and CCP during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression compounds the ideological gap that divides the two camps 

Much has been said in recent years about the visits to China by retired Taiwanese generals, and for those who worry about leaks of military secrets and propaganda coups, the commentariat has not looked too kindly upon the golf rounds and fraternization. However, as the old brass from the two sides get closer to each other, cracks are beginning to appear in the relationship. Caused largely by ideology and different interpretations of history, those differences raise one important question: If retired and seemingly like-minded generals can’t see eye to eye on their past, how could Taiwan and China ever succeed in reconciling their fundamental differences and build a unified future together? 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by the author.)

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

China Policy Institute Policy Paper 2014: No 3: Taiwan after the Sunflowers: Continuities and uncertainties

A China Policy Institute policy paper on the potential impact of the U.S., China, and the Sunflower Movement on the 9-in-1 municipal elections and the 2016 presidential elections 

Despite the unprecedented occupation of Parliament in March and April, Taiwanese politics have returned to ‘normal’, with little surprises expected in the year-end nine-in-one municipal elections. However, all the elements that brought about the political crisis in the spring are still in play, and those have the potential to shake up politics as the island heads for presidential and legislative elections in 2016. With President Ma scrambling to accomplish his objectives before he steps down in May that year, and amid signs that the pro-independence DPP could make significant gains in, if not win, the 2016 race, the next 18 months promise to be a period of volatility domestically, which in turn could impact Taiwan’s relations with China on several fronts. 

The full report, published today on the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, web site can be downloaded here. (Photo by the author.)

Friday, September 05, 2014

When Surveys Become Instruments of Pro-Beijing Propaganda

A recent poll shows unusually high self-identification as Chinese among Taiwanese respondents. Here’s why the results should not be taken seriously 

Forget the more-than-a-decade-long trend, supported by various polls, of rising identification among Taiwanese as “ethnically Taiwanese” and the attendant drop in identification as “Chinese.” A new poll released this week clearly demonstrates that those were all lies. Taiwanese and Chinese regard themselves as one big, happy, Chinese family. 

The Taiwan Competitiveness Forum (TCF, 台灣競爭力論壇) poll, whose results the state-run Central News Agency (CNA) reported, both in Chinese and English, shows that 87% of respondents considered themselves “of Chinese ethnicity.” More extraordinarily, the share of respondents who identify as “Chinese,” it said, rose to 53%. Based on those results, the polling firm concluded that the Sunflower Movement had failed and that the government should “seize on the growing amity toward China and continue its push to improve two-way ties” by signing the trade-in-services deal and a subsequent trade-in-goods agreement with China. 

Before supporters of a free, democratic Taiwan throw in the towel, there’s a few things they should know. 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by the author.)

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Inevitability and Possible Futures in the Taiwan Strait

Former premier Hau Pei-tsun argues that the Taiwanese cannot be in charge of their own destiny. He’s wrong 

Imagine a world in which national power and the ability to unleash the furies of brute force were the two single determinants of international order. A world in which a handful of Leviathans elevate the principles of the Realist school to an extreme, making alternative, and oftentimes gentler, forms of geopolitical management a thing of the past, wishful thinking for the naïve. In such a system (call it Hobbes on crack), the weak and the small however defined would forever be threatened by larger forces. Resistance would be futile, and pleas for justice in international forums would fall on ears dulled by defeatism and the inevitability of surrender. Hau Pei-tsun, a former premier and minister of national defense in Taiwan, imagines such a world — and he’s fine with it. 

Speaking at a seminar held to coincide with Armed Forces Day on September 3, the 95-year-old Hau told his audience that the future of Taiwan wasn’t for its 23 million people to decide, but rather to be determined by “the Chinese,” about 1.4 billion of them. Although conceding that in a fair world Taiwanese alone should determine their fate (this is the official position of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP), Hau maintained that Taiwanese were not given a choice when, 69 years ago, their land was handed over to the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and, by default, to the Republic of China (ROC). It didn’t matter that the undemocratic arrangement, as David Finkelstein makes amply clear in his book Taiwan’s Dilemma, was initially a bloody fiasco, prompting U.S. officials to debate various scenarios, including a U.N. intervention, a coup against Chiang Kai-shek, or the complete abandonment of the island to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). 

My article, published today in The Diplomat, continues here. (Photo by the author.)

In Praise of Old Times Not So Long Ago

Electronic media and an obsession with instant gratification are denying us many of the pleasures that come with acquiring and experiencing creative arts

Call me a purist, an antiquity—I don’t care. I still buy real books made of paper, ink, and glue, and I continue to acquire CDs. Undoubtedly, the electronic age, what with its iPads, iPods, tablets, smartphones, Kindle, e-books and other devices, has brought wonders in terms of miniaturization, compression, and speed of delivery. But for all its benefits, I cannot help but miss the old days, the pre-1990s, when people still had to go to a store to buy their books and music.

The reason is rather simple. We have sacrificed our senses on the altar of instant gratification. In this day and age, everything must be immediately available. As long as one has access to an Internet connection, books, music, movies and other creative art is downloadable. Wait a few minutes for all those 0s and 1s to flow through the ether and voila! You are now the proud owner of 65 minutes of music, a full novel, or a feature-length movie.

What you’re not getting in the process is the experience of acquisition. For me, nothing beats the excitement of going to a bookstore and seeing what’s new on the shelves. Sometimes I already know what I want, but cannot be sure that the store has it in stock. Ironically, the small sense of frustration that comes when a store doesn’t have what I want reinforces the pleasure on those occasions when it does. Another inimitable experience for me is to come upon a book I wasn’t aware of. It’s a bit like meeting a stranger for the first time. An unexpected, but ultimately rewarding, encounter. None of this occurs when you log on to Amazon.com or other sites to download a book. Any book.

And of course, besides the small excitement of meeting a book in person (not to mention other real people) are all the pleasures that come with holding, weighing, and smelling a book. Moreover, I love the smell of bookstores. Visit, say, the Paragraphe bookstore near the McGill University campus in Montreal (where as an undergrad I spent countless hours and about as much money) or the London Review of Books bookstore in London, which I visited recently, and you’ll know what I mean about the smell. No computer will ever beat that.

Then there is music. Your scribe likes all kinds of music, from classical, jazz, electronic, to soundtracks, progressive rock, and metal (the Swedish death metal band Opeth accompanied me all afternoon as I drafted my latest article for The Diplomat). The same joy of discovery, of expectations, accompanies a trip to the store (I almost jumped when I saw Anathema’s latest offering on the shelves at the HMV store in London, an album that has yet to arrive in Taiwan). The smell mightn’t be there, but chances are that some music will be playing in the background, or someone who works at the store will help you discover something new (one vendor at the music store in the B2 basement of the Eslite bookstore on Dunhua Rd. knows of my interest in Japanese rock music—ACIDMAN among them—and has led me in interesting directions. The same vendor I met, as a drag queen, during the LGBT Pride parade last year. Again, try beating that experience if all you do is download from the iTunes store!). I’m one of those who still enjoys unwrapping a CD and going through the case and the booklets. Some labels still go out of their way to provide engrossing visuals (if you’re into metal, Nuclear Blast still does that, as does the British progressive rock label Kscope). And those, too, have a distinct smell, one that I truly enjoy and that sometimes (given the proximity of the olfactory and memory parts of the human brain) transports me back in time (for example, some booklet have the smell of Ozzy Osbourne’s No More Tears, which I acquired in 1991 when it came out).

Besides the olfactory and visual gratification of CDs or vinyls, which admittedly I do not collect, is the sound itself. I was raised by a father who took music very, very seriously. An engineer, my father designed, among other things, recording studios. I remember as a child spending hours sitting on the floor in an audio store, or at home, trying to hear the subtle changes in sound as my father calibrated amps and speakers. It’s a science and an art, and my father often taught vendors a few tricks in the process. Among them is the fact that the best way to prove the worth of an amplifier and a pair of speakers (or now five or even seven speaker, as we’re in the surround age) isn’t to blast the music, but rather to play it at low volume (and if your speakers are not properly aligned, they will cancel each other out and give you the odd feeling that the pressure has shifted inside your head).

But who does that nowadays, when almost everybody uses a computer, a smartphone, or an iPod to listen to music? The thing is, you’re losing a whole lot when you limit yourself to those devices. For one thing, .mp4 compression is awful (something’s got to give, and low and high frequencies are trimmed to make the files smaller). You probably won’t hear the difference if you limit yourself to the earphones that come with your cellphone. But compare playback on a proper sound system, and you’ll realize that you’d been looking at a world (if you’re not stuck zombie-like on the screen of your smartphone like most people nowadays) in which all the colors and contrasts are dimmed. Put that baby in the CD player and, if you’re lucky enough and, say, Steve Wilson (of Porcupine Tree fame) mixed the whole thing in 5.1 surround sound, an entire new universe will open up for you. You will never get the visceral experience of hearing the last note of Arvo Part’s In Principio (ECM) reverberating through the room and your innards if you’re listening to it on your iPod—this I can guarantee you. Music is physical, and depending on the room in which you listen to it, the experience will be a different one (sound bounces off walls).

You will therefore understand my sadness when, after completing my article this afternoon, I went for a walk and visited one of my favorite local music stores, Jason’s Records, which specializes in metal of all types, and received a so-so response when I asked him how he was doing. I’ve been going there for years. The owner knows me, and he also knows the kind of music that I like—so much so that he’ll often play something for me without saying anything until I go to the counter and, liking what I’ve been hearing, I ask him what’s playing. Thanks to him, I’ve made many a wonderful discovery over the years (Swedish doom/prog metal band Katatonia among them).  

“How’s business?” I asked him.

“Meh,” he answered, giving me back my change for Nightwish’s latest studio album (NT$370). “Everybody buys music online nowadays.”

Business hasn’t been very good. We really don’t want those small stores to close. Nor do we want to forget what it’s like to truly experience, to experience in the full, a book or an album. Some of you might be of a generation that never bought CDs, or never had a proper sound system at home. Give it a try. Life is much more generous than you’d think. (Photo by the author.)

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Synchronizing the Narratives: Chinese Political Warfare, Taiwan, and the South China Sea

Growing interaction between Chinese and Taiwanese academics risks sending the wrong signal to Washington 

Timing might not be everything, but it’s at least half of it. At a time when one hopes that tempers would cool down in the disputed South China Sea, a new exhibit, organized by the National Archives Administration in Taipei seeks to bolster the Republic of China’s territorial claims in the volatile region. Although the claims are longstanding, the timing of the「中華民國南疆史料特展」exhibit, coinciding as it did with a cross-strait conference in which academics from Taiwan and China discussed the need to join hands to “defend” the South China Sea from external enemies, sends the wrong signal to other claimants in the region, not to mention the U.S., Taiwan’s principal ally and guarantor of security. 

The exhibit itself, which runs through Oct. 31 at Academia Historica (a second one will open in Kaohsiung Oct. 9 and Taichung Nov. 17), is relatively insignificant. That isn’t to say that one should not be interested in the artifacts for their historical value. It is, rather, insignificant because other claimants also have the ability summon a wealth of documents, maps, photos, and notebooks to support their own claims to the disputed islets, features, and waters within the SCS. And it is insignificant because territorial expansionism and nationalism, not international law, and certainly not dusty documents, are what has been driving the dispute, which periodically threatens to plunge the region into terrible spasms of hostility. 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here.