Thursday, October 30, 2014

Nightmare in Taipei: A fiction

In my years as an aspiring novelist, I have written several tales (most of them unfinished) in which a hapless protagonist would run into difficulties at the airport due to extraordinary circumstances, in which the laws of logic that tenuously hold our world together, as J. G. Ballard would surely have put it, suddenly ceased to apply. In one, the main character, on his first visit to the People’s Republic of China, was swallowed by a Kafkaesque security system and only set free (or sent packing, that is) after he agreed, following weeks of resistance, to tell the lie that the authorities wanted to hear. 

Little did I expect, then, that I myself would become involved in such a fantasy when I returned to Taiwan from an overseas trip earlier this month. I write this from a dank hovel in one of the remoter corners of the city, hiding in the shadows for fear that the sunlight will again expose me as the fraud that I am not. As long as the Other is still out there, I cannot be myself. It’s simply too dangerous.

I got off the plane bleary eyed and my joints hurting after spending nearly 24 hours at various airports and crammed in economy class. Ours was the first landing of the day, and so I could expect a quick resolution of the necessary hurdles at the immigration desk. Upon reaching the dimly lit immigration area, I discovered that I was alone there. Only two kiosks were open, and I sauntered towards the one under “Resident Card Holders.”

It’s hard to explain, but in recent years I have come to enjoy the immigration process; it’s the lining up that annoys me. Where most passengers tighten up upon presenting their passport to the agent, I can say that I am genuinely relaxed and good humored. The predictability of routine events, I suppose, has something to do with it.

I crossed the red line and with a smile handed my passport and residency card. The agent, a woman, swiped my passport and hit a few keys on her keyboard. The usual. She asked me to look into the little orb-shaped camera on the desk, something that travelers are asked to do on occasion. Again, there was nothing unusual in this, so I complied. Sometimes they took your picture. Sometimes they didn’t. The standard random little things that airports did to people.

The first signal that something was wrong was when the woman’s brows knitted quizzically. She rose her head to stare at me, pulled up her reading glasses, and brought my passport, open to the picture page, to within a few inches of her face. She looked up at me again.

“Is this really you, Mr. C—?” she asked.

My only reaction was to laugh. “Yes,” I said. “I can assure you that this is me.”

The woman seemed unconvinced and again repeated the motions of staring into my passport and comparing the picture there with the man who was standing before her on the other side of the booth.

“I don’t think it is.”

“I’ve admittedly put on a few pounds,” I replied, still amused and convinced that the agent had decided to have a bit of fun. “And my beard is longer than it was three weeks ago. But that is definitely me. I am I.”


Motioning me to stay put, she took hold of a telephone and without dialing delivered a short barrage in Mandarin. A minute or so later, a male officer arrived and the pair exchanged a few words while the man stared intently at the computer screen. She handed him my passport, which he inspected before staring at me with narrowed eyes. By this point, I was no longer amused. I suddenly became keenly aware that I needed a shower.

“I’m sorry, but you are not him,” the man said, holding the open passport up so its inside faced in my direction. The picture of me stared defiantly back at me, and for a second it seemed like I was in fact starting at a stranger. “This is not Mr. C—.”

“Of course this is me,” I said, my voice rising. I turned around, fearing that a line of impatient travelers had by then formed behind me, but was shocked to see that I was still alone. “How can you say this is not me!”

The man emitted a laugh, but his eyes contained no humor.

“Because,” he said, his head shaking contemptuously, “the real Mr. C— entered Taiwan the day before yesterday using a legal passport.”

The room started to spin. Very slowly it spun, but enough to make me feel like I was about to throw up. It was one of those moments when the fabric of reality seemed to have unraveled, like the split second before a terrible car accident shatters the normalcy of routine life. In that brief but eternal instant, one finds himself seized by overwhelming doubt: Was I wrong all along?

No, surely it wasn’t so.

“What is this,” I asked, laughing. “Operation Shylock?”

“Now don’t be silly,” the female agent retorted, evidently not amused by my reference to American literature. “That was a work of fiction.”

With that, powerful hands grabbed me from behind and I was dragged away from the immigration area and deposited into a small detention room.

Hours went by, during which I was visited by a number of agents who asked me a series of questions about my true identity and the reasons why I was trying to enter the country illegally. Was I a terrorist? A secret agent? Did I traffic drugs? Firearms? Round and round it went, with no apparent issue. I didn’t know what to do. It was as if gravity had ceased to exist, and try as I might I could not bring back the Newtonian forces that would make everything normal again. Someone brought food, but I didn’t touch it.

I may or may not have dozed off for a while. When I came back to my senses, a new agent was standing above me. He was smiling broadly.

“Good news,” he said as he helped me get off the little couch I’d been slouching on. “They’ve cleared the whole thing up. An unfortunate mix-up, really. You are free to go, Mr. C—.”

My two pieces of luggage, which I had not been able to claim since my arrival, stood by the door. I seemed I was indeed a free man. I walked right by him without saying a word, grabbed my suitcases, and exited the room.

“Wait!” the man came running after me. “Your passport.” I took it sullenly and walked away. I dragged myself over to the taxi area, grabbed a cab, and gave the driver the address of my apartment in Taipei, where I lived alone. The world was normal again, everything was as it should be. The industries, houses and temples, all grayish blue against the verdant mountains in the early morning, zipped by outside the window, all in their proper place. Even my passport had been stamped.

The cab dropped me off just outside the four-story apartment complex I’d lived in for several years. I was home, finally, looking forward to the grounding that home provides us after extended travel overseas, not to mention the nightmare at the airport that I had just awakened from.

Grabbing one suitcase by the side handle, I unlocked the front door and began ascending the four flights of stairs (mine was one of those 1950s-era buildings that didn’t have elevators). I reached my floor, panting. I’d drop off the first suitcase in and go back downstairs to bring up the second after a bit of rest and a glass of water.

Then just as I was about to insert the key into the lock, I heard it, which sent cold chill down my spine. The unmistakable sound of the TV playing inside my apartment. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Xi Jinping Turns the Screws on Taiwan

Beijing’s recent hardening on Taiwan, from its insistence on 'one country, two systems' to accusations of espionage using Chinese students, stems from a mix of paranoia and cold political calculation 

Not unlike other authoritarian and totalitarian regimes throughout history, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has always had a paranoid streak, whose stridency has ebbed and flowed according to the times. In periods of high instability, such as during the Cultural Revolution, the CCP leadership went to extraordinary lengths to eliminate its enemies — real and imagined. Unrest in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and signs that Taiwan may be “slipping away” after half a decade of cautious rapprochement, seem to have engendered a new phase of paranoia in Beijing, as evidenced by the detentions of and travel restrictions imposed against dozens of Chinese individuals in recent months. 

Those measures have been accompanied by an increasingly xenophobic line in Zhongnanhai. President Xi Jinping, the hoped-for reformer who, as it turns out, is very much the strongman, has repeatedly warned against “pollution” by Western values and has directed the implementation of policies to counter such nefarious influences. Chinese agencies and propaganda outlets, meanwhile, claim to have uncovered “evidence” of several plots hatched abroad to destabilize China. 

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

Monday, October 27, 2014

LGBT Rights v. the Anti-Rational Passions of the Right

Opponents of same-sex marriage in Taiwan might not be aware of it, but much of the rhetoric they use comes from ultra-conservatives on the American right, climate change deniers and white supremacists 

One thing that can be said of the organizations that have mobilized in recent years to oppose same-sex marriage in Taiwan and elsewhere is that they are tenacious. Over and over again, they have repeated the same rhetoric with the expectation that, by dint of insistence, they will obtain what they want — or in this particular case, prevent others from obtaining what they want. Two strategies, religious texts and pseudo-science, are at the bottom of those efforts. Knowing where the language comes from can help Taiwanese society make enlightened decisions on the ongoing controversy. 

The principal actor in Taiwan is the Protect the Family Alliance, a group that has taken the lead in opposing proposed regulations to the Civil Code that would legally recognize unions between individuals of the same sex. Time and again the Alliance, which in no small part has been inspired by a rigid interpretation of Christianity, has resorted to what can only be referred to as fantasy to make its case against homosexual unions, with warnings of attendant social ills that have much in common with the fire and brimstone sermons of ancient times: social chaos, the spread of AIDS, bestiality, incest, polygamy, erosion of morals, assault on human rights and freedom of speech, and so on. 

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

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

From Gunboats to Nuts and Bolts

The age of major U.S. arms sales to Taiwan is probably over. But Washington can still play a key role as Taipei shifts to indigenous production 

Despite the recent optimism expressed by some of the participants at the 13th annual U.S.-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference held earlier this month in Williamsburg, Virginia, the days when the U.S. sold billion dollars of military platforms to Taiwan are probably over. It has been more than three years since the U.S. released a major arms package for the island, the longest period since the early 1990s. Barring a radical shift in Washington, we can expect that the U.S. government will maintain its current strategy of seeking to avoid angering Beijing with major sales of military equipment to Taiwan — and this despite a hardening stance in the U.S. vis-à-vis a China that, after years of cajoling, has become increasingly belligerent. 

For those in Taiwan who contend that China remains a major military threat (the authoritarianism of President Xi Jinping should dispel any belief to the contrary), Washington’s reluctance to directly sell to Taiwan the defense articles that it needs — submarines, 4.5/5th-generation aircraft, modern surface combatants and so on — can be alarming, as major arms sales have historically carried the important symbolic value of political support. A decision by Washington to no longer sell major weapons systems to Taipei could therefore be interpreted as a sign that the U.S. is ready to “abandon” Taiwan. 

But don’t throw in the towel just yet. An end to major arms sales — one of the lynchpins of U.S.-Taiwan relations since 1979 — doesn’t necessarily mean that Taipei has lost the support of its longstanding ally. Rather, this development reflects the current geopolitical situation, one in which China now ranks as the world’s second-largest economy in a global economic system where Beijing carries a lot more weight than it did just a decade ago. 

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

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Are Chinese Exchange Students the Key to Reform in China?

Tens of thousands of young Chinese study abroad every year, including here in Taiwan. But doubts remain as to the impact that their exposure to Western liberal ideas can have on the future of China 

No matter what we think about President Ma Ying-jeou’s opening up of Taiwan to visitors from China, one indisputable outcome of that policy is that it has created opportunities for Chinese to learn about Taiwan. For the first time, Chinese tourists, students, and businesspeople can experience Taiwan for what it is without the filters — in the education system, the media, and the political discourse — that warp Chinese perceptions on life on the other side of the ideological divide. Since the policy was implemented, millions of Chinese have visited Taiwan, thousands of them students. While this gives us reason for hope, we much nevertheless ask whether the majority of the Chinese who cross the Taiwan Strait are here to learn. In some cases, they evidently aren’t. 

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