Beware the Lame Duck

lameMuch has been written, even on the Chinese Nationalist (Kuomintang, or KMT) website, about Ma Ying-jeou as a lame-duck president. With his approval ratings in the basement, a cross-Strait political agenda—I say political here because, let’s face it, Taiwan’s “economic integration” with China, conducted at the hands of the (not “pro-status quo” but rather) pro-unification KMT, is very much politically motivated—reaching what appears to be the end of its tolerance domestically, and seemingly constant domestic controversies, it appears as though Ma’s days as a wielder of power on Taiwan and even within the KMT are numbered. (Perhaps they are already over?)

But journalists and analysts should beware of labeling him and his administration—and his party—anything but sunk politically. From a constant barrage of ideological and politically biased responses to various social movements—blaming, for example, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) for the Sunflower Movement—to a shadowy yet no less real quite authoritarian grip on all major institutions, political and otherwise, on Taiwan, the KMT and Ma Ying-jeou still have a great deal of power at their disposal vis-à-vis society at large as well as the utterly impotent and arguably irrelevant political opposition to do basically whatever they desire at virtually any time they desire it. That is, of course, once “political oversight,” also known as voting, is done.

The criticisms of the Sunflower Movement and the hundreds of thousands—and probably millions—of its supporters reflect this. Voting still matters to the KMT so long as one shuts one’s mouth and puts one’s head down after the ballots are (bought and) counted. (And let’s be honest: both sides buy votes.*) “Show your disapproval at the ballot box,” retort the KMT talking heads. “If you’re unhappy—well!—you voted for us! You are to blame!” “Social movements are anti-democratic,” retort others, “because they interfere with the workings of democratic governance. Show your disapproval at the ballot box if you want to be ‘good democrats’.”

I’ll leave my own criticisms of voting and “democratic governance” for another post sometime in the future. Suffice it to say that if this is the Ma administration and KMT’s response to any and every show of disapproval, then Taiwanese have much to fear from a lame-duck president, particularly if he and the KMT believe the DPP may regain the presidency in 2016. Taiwanese have much to fear, that is, after the 2014 county and municipal elections, of course, because to be too provocative too close to potential “demonstrations of public disapproval” might prove fatal politically (although I don’t ever rule out the potential for a Thailand-like military [read KMT-controlled military apparatus] coup in Taiwan; call me an extremist).

A president—nay, a politician, any politician—unconstrained is a politician irresponsible. This is not an “if, then” statement; it is essentially tautological. Political leaders do not fight tooth and nail through the political orders and echelons in countries to “give back to the people” or to serve at the “benefit of all.” But beyond my own cynicism with regard to politicians and diatribes against them, we can also state this much: the KMT is not a practical, pragmatic, “realist” good guy fighting against the “troublemaking, extremist, idealistic” independence movement. There really is no middle ground in Taiwan politically even though a large portion of the population is quite satisfied with Taiwan’s de facto independence, as countless polls have shown. But between parties, extremism—probably for political points and to gain the support of party bases, which are always portrayed as extreme—exists.

But I think it is quite clear that over the past few years, especially since Lien Chan visited China to undermine and isolate Chen Shui-bian in 2005, the true colors of the KMT have shone through. Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency thus far ought to confirm this. The KMT will undermine the wills of a large portion of Taiwan’s population to close the gap between Taiwan and China. I have argued before among friends, colleagues, and even professors, that the only trustworthy group that could move relations with Beijing forward would be a Nixon-like character within the DPP. But even though some DPP members have floated ideas regarding the elimination of support for Taiwan’s de jure independence from China from the DPP’s party charter, the DPP has yet to do this (and let’s just say right here that this would probably confirm the DPP’s irrelevance politically on Taiwan because the the DPP and KMT would become virtually the same party under different names) and I highly doubt the People’s Republic of China (PRC) would deal with the DPP under any circumstances. But I might be surprised.

The county and municipal elections this year will be a litmus test for popularity among or between parties—or at least that’s how it will be portrayed. The power party, the KMT, will be up against the marginally relevant and essentially impotent opposition DPP. Support the KMT’s “integration” (read “unification”) agenda with China or the DPP’s “independence” agenda. Which party is the ideological antagonist and which is the pragmatic protagonist? Well, the KMT has been portrayed as the former and the DPP the latter for so long, especially in Western (read American) media that one would think the answer a foregone conclusion. But it isn’t. In reality, the KMT is the ideological player placing all its chips on the China card; it is, as my pro-blue friends and colleagues repeat ad nauseum, the only true and rightful government of all of China (including Mongolia, let’s not forget). Unification—or, as they like to say, “re-unification”—is “inevitable.” (Ah, yes, “inevitable”: that word that historian A.J.P. Taylor put into such great [completely ideological] context.)

On the other side is the “ideological” but far more realistic DPP. Taiwan is already independent. It is only under Ma’s administration that Taiwan has been a forced supplicant to Beijing. Otherwise, Taiwan answers to no higher authority (although Beijing and Washington occasionally put their feet down). In a perfect world, Taiwan could be independent and would be independent. But this is not a perfect world. Taiwan’s position is precarious. But Taiwan could be, can be, and should be independent by law.

And here is where one ought to beware the lame duck. After the 2014 elections, President Ma has no constraints on his will, and the KMT may be able to use an unpopular and unconstrained ideologue to push forward its ideological agenda without any further potential “demonstrations of public disapproval” (i.e., elections) getting in the way. They have not shunned the use of force against peaceful protesters, nor will they. Force is too useful—and too necessary—for the tyrant to renounce. And only the KMT, let’s forget, could use force in such a situation. A president unconstrained by concerns for public approval and a political party unconstrained by further elections and concerned about its ability to retain the presidency in 2016 might be pushed to the only “pragmatic” conclusion. What that might be is anyone’s guess, and I leave it for the reader to speculate.

Suffice it to say that a polity without the means of protecting itself from its masters and reduced to sitting peacefully while its masters bash their skulls in is not a polity; it is a subservient mass of meat heading to the grinder. I don’t ask people to “wake up” because I know that what they might “wake up” to and the conclusions they may draw might be far different from my own, and that is perfectly acceptable in a free society. To plead with someone to “wake up” and to attempt to force them to see one’s own point of view is antithetical to individual liberty. I simply ask others to think if they so desire and hope they may desire.

And these words I give readers to think on if they so desire: a politician—nay, a political group—unconstrained is one irresponsible. Beware the lame duck.

*[Update]: Several readers have taken issue with this statement, calling it “[ir]responsibl[e]” since the vast majority of reported vote buying has been done by the KMT and its candidates (84% of all cases, by some reports) in recent elections. I hesitate to alter original content unless there are grammatical and/or typographical errors; hence, this appears as a footnote. The original content states that both sides buy votes, not that both sides do so equally. To add clarity to this statement, I submit this is quantifiable fact, as is the original content (i.e., that both sides buys votes). I apologize for my part in the misinterpretation of the meaning here, although I will also submit that (mis-)interpretation is also the burden of the reader. I appreciate the criticism, although I do hope that future relevant and constructive criticism can be posted as comments below respective posts. Thank you.

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Another Taiwan Tragedy: Taiwan, China, and Vietnam

Those who have followed me on various social media outlets know I’ve been quite critical of Taipei’s handling of the latest round of Sino-Vietnam tensions which have invariably—yes, invariably—involved Taiwan. Regardless of my political and ideological inclinations regarding the current government in Taipei, I find Taiwan’s inclusion in the recent spat an unnecessary but ultimately unavoidable tragedy for Taiwan. Allow me to explain before the word “contradiction” leads the skeptical reader to close this window and refrain from reading the remainder of this post.

More than a few locals have made the assertion that Vietnamese for one reason or other cannot tell the difference between Taiwan and China. I have politely shied away, with the exception of several incidents, from commenting simply because I know that get involved directly will only cost me time better spent doing just about anything else. Most have criticized the government for not “acting sufficiently” to protect Taiwanese nationals in Vietnam. What that means for them is anyone’s guess, although for me it means that Taipei must make a move it will not make.

To be sure, Taiwan’s—or, rather, the Republic of China’s (ROC)[1]—territorial claims in the South China Sea are no different that those of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).[2] Vietnam’s direct grievances are with the PRC, but the ROC is indirectly involved not merely because the actions of Vietnamese protesters have involved the ROC but because the ROC’s position is at once both clear and ambiguous.

The ROC, to be brief, claims precisely the same territories, as the “rightful government of all of China,” as the PRC. This inevitably involves the ROC in all South China Sea territorial disputes regardless of the PRC’s unwillingness to acknowledge the existence of the ROC, and vice versa. Hence, it is not so much that Vietnamese cannot tell the difference between Taiwan and China (or the ROC and PRC, respectfully) as it is that to the Vietnamese there is no difference between the two when it comes to territorial disputes. Until Taiwanese realize this—and from my experiences, very few people on Taiwan, whether they consider themselves Taiwanese, Chinese, or Taiwanese-Chinese, would consider changing the ROC’s territorial claims in the South China Sea—theirs will forever be a tragedy.

For as long as China tests the limits of its neighbors’ tolerance in Southeast Asia, so too will Taiwan inevitably get sucked into the fray (again, regardless of recognition). It is possible, from this perspective, to see a future Taiwan labeled a pariah just as China might be labeled a pariah among Southeast Asian nations, not to mention those states that will pay a price should tensions lead to open conflict (namely, Japan and the United States).

And what is worse, if China’s rise continues and if it continues to test the waters (no pun intended) regarding U.S., Japanese, and South China Sea claimant states’ resolve (and perhaps even initiate conflict), Taiwan’s risk will only grow. Where I diverge from the average local, it seems, is that I view this as Taiwan reaping only what it has sown (and I use “Taiwan” here because even “Taiwanese” tend to back the ROC’s South China Sea territorial claims).

Taiwan’s position is both clear and ambiguous because although it quite obviously claims the same area as the PRC (clear) its position with regard to the PRC’s testing has been ambiguous. This is because, if I am allowed to make an educated speculation, in the perfect world of the ROC (and perhaps even Taiwan) the PRC would collapse, the ROC would become the government of both Taiwan and China, and the ROC could then use all the resources of a “united” or “re-united” China to push the same territorial agenda. Moreover, in order for the ROC to legitimately claim to be the sole and rightful government of all of China, it must make essentially the same territorial claims it has always made. And let’s not forget that the current government would likely not want to risk alienating China and being labeled “splittist” for backing away from China-centric territorial claims.

Hence, another of Taiwan’s tragedies: were China and neighboring states (and perhaps Japan and the United States) to come to blows, Taiwan simply could not sit idly paring its proverbial fingernails. It’s fence-riding strategy would force it to make an impossible decision: join the other claimants (plus perhaps Japan and the United States) in denouncing China (a de facto renunciation of the ROC’s own territorial claims) and perhaps even coming to blows with the Asian behemoth, or joining the PRC and becoming a regional pariah. One can only guess as to the path Taipei might choose, but it may vary with who is in office.

My own humble opinion is that Taipei is better off renouncing claims in the South China Sea beyond Itu Aba Island, which it already administers. Of course, I risk becoming a pariah in my own adoptive home for such a claim, and I’m sure I’ll be greeted with more than an occasional snicker from the die-hard reader. But let me qualify my opinion by adding to it: Taipei would be best served by renouncing all claims in the South China Sea beyond Itu Aba Island (and perhaps renouncing even Itu Aba Island), but it also certainly will not do so. That ought to put an end to the snickers—but not put and end to another of Taiwan’s tragedies.

 

[1] I make the distinction here not due to ideological or political inclinations but simply because there is no island named “the ROC.”

[2] To be sure, the ROC’s territorial claims in Asia and the Pacific, at least at present, are even more strident than those of the PRC; see, for example, here.

Review: Learning What from the 521 Massacre?

After the dust has settled and the smoke has cleared a bit from the 521 incident on the Taipei MRT that left four people dead, over twenty people injured, and a psychopath in custody, I thought it might be time for me to weigh in on the tragedy. I will do so in response to an article which triggered a rethinking of my own position on capital punishment.

On May 25, Thinking Taiwan published an article titled “What We Can Learn From Mass Murderers,” which can be accessed here. Although thought-provoking due to its departure from the moral diatribes that tend to dominate the discussions on capital punishment, and thus a welcomed fresh perspective, “What We Can Learn” is also problematic.

The central argument of the piece, briefly, is that Cheng Chieh (the accused perpetrator) should not be put to death in an “emotion[al] . . . desire for vengeance” but should be kept alive in order to become a lab rat. On the surface, this argument seems both logical and practical; the article itself uses the example of Hannibal Lecter from Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs to drive the point home. But three principal problems appear in the article.

First, the article runs through a list of psychological and behavioral traits common to both mass murderers and serial killers: “sociopathic behavior, an accompanying sense of being victimized by society, a strong narcissistic streak, and an inability to empathize,” “[t]heir [mass murderers and serial killers] impulses were driven by an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality and a narcissistic desire for recognition, to leave their mark in history,” and the feeling among “[m]ost mass killers in the non-terrorist/genocidal/familicide category [that] they needed to do ‘something big’ . . . .” It also runs through several common causal factors for such behaviors: “An abusive family environment, a nagging/promiscuous mother, or bullying in the schoolyard, among others, are recurrent red flags.” It also lists several subcategories of mass murder: “terrorism (killing for political or nihilistic purposes, e.g., al-Qaeda and Aum Shinrikyo), familicide (attainment of power, e.g., the Nepalese royal family massacre), or genocide (the extermination of a race, again for predominantly political purposes, e.g., Rwanda).”[1]

It seems a great deal is already known about the average mass murderer: one can even list subcategories of mass murder, causal factors, and personality and behavioral traits. This demands the question, however: if so much is already known about mass murderers (and serial killers), why must one particular mass murderer (as the case may be) be kept alive to be studied? One need not study all individual apples to understand the apple.

But perhaps we are comparing apples to oranges? This possibility may be a way out of the conundrum presented above, and it may salvage the article’s main argument. Here again, however, we run into problems. First, if we focus on individual mass murderers, then the above subcategories, causal factors, and personality and behavioral traits are rendered meaningless because they lack relationships between individual mass murderers. More formally, they are not common independent variables shared by a group of dependent variables; they are simply random data. This may be interesting for the biographer, but in attempting to form a theory of social behavior and psychology, they are utterly useless until some relationship can be found.

Second, if these factors (or variables) are indeed random and particular to the individual and the context of the act, and if there is no overarching relationship between shared independent and dependent variables (i.e., if there is no pattern), then keeping Cheng alive teaches us nothing unless we seek to write a biography or seek to, for whatever reason, become interested in his life. In this sense, study becomes a more professional form of fetish. One should study all species of fruit simply because one enjoys studying fruit species; there are no two apples. Study becomes “intellectual curiosity” that the article argues it need not become, or study becomes potentially an art. Either way, very little, if any, benefit can be derived from sparing Cheng.

Third, it is possible to argue that one might study Cheng because he undoubtedly fits into both categories: likely, his personality fits somewhere into both the general and the specific categories of study, listed above. This is usually the realm of inquiry that all scholarly inquiry tends to fall under. Cheng is an apple, essentially, but there are certain variations to this particular apple that must be explained, as they do not seem to fit precisely into any previously constructed theory of apples. This is the article’s best argument, but inexplicably the article then rules this possibility out by stating that such criminals are a) “not [capable of] weigh[ing] costs and benefits along rational lines” and b) useful because “investigators (like FBI agent Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs) often turn to psychopaths to help identify serial killers on the loose, because they, above all, are cognizant of the things that make them tick. In the absence of such sources, we can fall back on scientific models, which can only be established if we study killers like Cheng.”[2]

The problem here is twofold. First, it is not that mass murderers are not rational; I think it is safe to say that cognitive psychology has ruled out the possibility of any one form of rationality. Moreover, even “rationality” itself has variants: what cost I weigh against what benefit and what weight I give to particular costs and benefits are extremely subjective. What person A interprets as a costly gamble person B might consider a viable option, person C a worst-case scenario, and person D a wonderful opportunity—and that’s just in a four-person game. Say what one will about cognitive psychology; it does not, of course, completely destroy the idea of the rational actor. But rationality, no matter how it is defined, cannot explain why “rational” people behave differently in the same situation. Some intervening variable has to be inserted—for example, a lack of information, time constraints, lack of sleep, etc.—to operationalize the rational-actor model. It is not, therefore, that mass murderers are not rational per se; it is that variations in rationality exist.[3]

Second, and perhaps most problematic of all, if scientific models are something one can merely “fall back on” when resources (i.e., useful mass murderers and serial killers) are scarce, then one has to wonder why all the discussion of personality and behavioral traits common to serial killers and mass murderers needs mentioning at all. Creating scientific models connecting variables to behaviors is how those traits were recognized in the first place. Essentially, then, what the article argues for is keeping serial killers and mass murders alive because they are resources—experts—to use in times of need. But here is the problem: if we reject (or merely “fall back on”) scientific models, then there is no reason to believe that a past serial killer or mass murderer can tell us anything about any current serial killer or mass murderer. Variables are not merely impossible to isolate here; variables cannot exist. It becomes a serious leap of faith: without and theoretical explanation for why one should use serial killers and mass murderers to understand others of their kind, we simply have to believe that they communicate with the same mother ship or supreme sadistic being.

What we come to, then, is three possibilities: first, all sociopaths (there’s a loaded phrase for you) and psychopaths (and there’s another one) are formed from the same mould. No reason to study individual socio- or psychopaths exists. Apples are apples. Period. It is possible to predict and stop all acts of violence.

Second, there exist no such things as socio- or psychopaths. Such terms are merely heuristics. There exist only individuals who behave in disparate ways, and some behaviors are violent. No model can be formed because no relationships between variables exist (indeed, no “variables” exist). Apples are not oranges are not bananas are not kiwi fruits, etc. Period. No acts of violence can be predicted or stopped.

Third, scientific models are imperfect but necessary in locating variations in behaviors across individuals who perpetrate what the layman terms “random acts of violence” (although mass murderers do not consider them “random,” remember). Apples have variations which must be studied and accounted for theoretically if any acts of violence are to be predicted or stopped.[4]

The third possibility is, thus, the strongest, but by rendering scientific models to the background by making them contingent upon individual cases, one undermines the third possibility’s viability. In the end, we are left believing that all serial killers and mass murderers somehow communicate telepathically, yet we lack a rational (read theoretical) explanation for why this may be the case. Interestingly, here we the observers become irrational actors.

This should not be read as a criticism of the article per se. It should be read as an inquiry into why individual criminals merit study. It should also be read as a critique of those who argue that theory construction and model formation are merely exercises in abstraction. I, an opponent of capital punishment under most circumstances, do not agree that Cheng should be kept alive purely for scholarly reasons. Learning things from him may be an unintended advantage of keeping him alive for moral reasons,[5] but it does not follow directly that keeping him alive will produce any scholarly—or social—benefit.

In the end, the greatest hope is simply that such acts never happen again, yet we know as a mathematical fact that they almost invariably will. Thinking Taiwan has shed a different form of light upon this problem—that is, keeping mass murderers and serial killers alive with the hope that they may help us to understand the minds of criminals in order to prevent similar acts from occurring again. It is a fresh perspective that, to be fair to the article’s author (and given my initial thoughts above), probably needs more critical thought than could have been afforded in an initial foray on a new media website. Due to these considerations, the critiques offered here should not be read as outright rejection. The article forced me to revisit deep ontological and epistemological questions that demand addressing in all forms of social-scientific thought. It is my guess that others have approached it in a similar light, and, hence, my main purpose for writing this initial critique.

My condolences go out to the families and loved ones of the slain as well as to those injured and their loved ones. It is my hope that you will be the remembered ones—you and you alone.

 

[1] Emphasis in original.

[2] Emphasis mine. For the circular logic of this statement, see below.

[3] See note 4.

[4] Hence the hedged “which can only be established if we study killers like Cheng,” referring to establishing “scientific models,” above. But again there is a problem: it is unlikely that scientific models will ever be foolproof no matter how many individuals are studied (and a theory that attempts to account for all variables is non-falsifiable). There are an infinite number of variables that can influence a model, many of which are discovered after a theoretical model is formed. Hence, we are again not relying on models in this sense but on variations (i.e., individuals). If a model is forever contingent upon individual subjects, then no useful model can be formulated. Possibility number three becomes possibility number two de facto.

Moreover, it is revealing that the article seems to believe that such acts cannot be deterred. One of the criticisms I have heard countless times over the past several days is how Cheng has become something of a “negative celebrity”: we seem to know so much about him now because he did what he did. Interestingly, his stated goal was to commit an act that would be remembered and make him remembered. Perhaps no deterrent can be found herein, but he certainly had a goal and the means to reach it—and he appears to have achieved it. Remembering that much of deterrence is psychological, one might be able to create a theoretical construct in which the ends (fame) are unachievable given the means ([mass] violence). I leave that possibility to social psychological theorists to ponder.

It should also be noted that any action that cannot be deterred also likely cannot be stopped unless preempted. This is a major problem for any free society.

[5] Or spiteful reasons. That he allegedly has sought the death penalty leads me to believe that if he is not given death, he may one day question his actions and how they so utterly fell short of their goals. See note 4.

Sic Semper Tyrannis: Fear or Loathing in Taiwan?

vulgarOver the past several days, the media both in and coming out of Taiwan have covered, with wildly varying degrees of accuracy and depth, what began as a student protest in Taipei and has since spread to other cities and involved larger segments of society. Many folks—scholars, analysts, average-Joe bloggers and commentators, journalists, politicians, and even well-known criminals*—have put in their two cents. I have refrained thus far from doing so publicly. However, a recent translation of a “viral essay” translated by the folks at Foreign Policy magazine finally coaxed a response out of me.

In it, a one Richard Chiou-yuan Lu writes that the protests are essentially the product of what appears to be a somewhat irrational fear of China among Taiwanese. This fear is the driving force behind the protests, Lu asserts, because

if the counterparty to the agreement were a country other than China—or a democratized China that would treat Taiwan as an equal and stop trying to achieve its political agenda through business, and didn’t want to swallow us up—we’d happily accept the pact. [If the pact were not with China but instead with] “Japan” or “the United States” in place of China—there would be no issue. When Taiwan signed a free trade agreement with New Zealand in June 2013, the public wasn’t out for blood then.

My biggest problem with this statement is not that it is incorrect per se but that it leaves out so many variables as to be, instead of instructive, utterly uninformative. Lu writes as well that

[m]any [Taiwanese] people don’t understand what the CSSTA [Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement] says, so some protesters don’t even know why they oppose it. No one in Taiwan dares to write in support of the pact because sentiment here has almost reached the point where anyone who dares to support the CSSTA is seen as a traitor. But could Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou really have been that flagrant in selling us out? If everyone believes that the agreement is bad for Taiwan, why did Ma insist on signing it?

Besides the fact that Lu does not substantiate his claim that Taiwanese are essentially ignorant of the contents of the agreement, he also casually skips over the much more daunting question: why has the public lost faith in President Ma and the Kuomintang (KMT) government? Without first asking this question, the final two sentences read like caustic condemnation of “irrational” and “ignorant” fools protesting because they have been misled or fickle twits posing as a roused rabble.

Let us start off by addressing certain aspects of domestic discontent with the Ma-led KMT government. A minority, although by no means a miniscule one, was opposed to a Ma presidency both in 2008 and 2012 to begin with, voting instead for the other candidates. This provides a base for discontent. Add, for example, perceptions that the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) has not provided the economic benefits the government promised it would but has instead provided both the KMT government and the Chinese government a coercive political lever over Taiwanese society (as its opponents said it would); shoddy handling of natural disasters; discontent over the use of nuclear power; heavy-handed legislative and administrative tactics; rising prices, due both directly and indirectly to government policy, along with wage stagnation (except for the wages of civil servants, which rise conveniently around election season); a slowing economy; illegal seizures of citizens’ land and/or property or land/property seizures without “just” compensation; corruption among officials; the use of political connections to allow certain companies, especially construction outfits, to obtain government contracts; a sense among some that either opposition parties do not really oppose or are hardly less corrupt than the government, or that they are utterly impotent; a feeling among some (and, I would argue, a growing number of the population) that they are powerless and that Taiwan’s political system is gradually returning to its authoritarian past; unjust and unreasonable sentences handed down to military officers responsible for the death of a young conscript; court decisions made by ultraconservative, pro-KMT judges; the strong opposition, primarily consisting of KMT politicians and their supporters, against equal civil-marital union rights for homosexuals; the general sense among many that the government cares more for the well being of Chinese and is more concerned about being accountable to China than to the domestic Taiwanese populace who elected them and to whom they are responsible—in short, a whole list of grievances that are either not at all or only remotely related to China, and one has an enormous array of reasons to protest. And the above list is by no means exhaustive.

In short, the current protest, while related to China, has many factors, most of which either have no relation or only an indirect connection to “fear” of China. To chalk the protests up to this single cause is at best overly simplified and at worst deliberately misleading.

I tend to blame resentment of domestic policy, resentment of China policy, and resentment of the box of an international environment into which Taiwan has been put—in short, not “fear of China,” although this certainly factors into the resentment of China’s policies and positions towards Taiwan and the government’s policies toward China. Rather than “fear” per se, this has generated a general sense of “resentment” or “loathing” of the overall domestic and international situation.

Many Taiwanese I have talked to who have been abroad recently have commented that their being Taiwanese means others equate them with being Chinese (that is, People’s Republic of China [PRC] Chinese, for anyone who would like to argue this point). Stories of dirty looks by Japanese officials before those officials realized that the Taiwanese visitors were not from the PRC, for example, have frequently been inserted into my discussions with those who have been to Japan over the past five years or so. Others have commented on how far Taiwan has seemingly fallen behind developmentally when compared to other countries it was once similar or even superior to developmentally; South Korea, for instance, once held in contempt by some here, has suddenly appeared to those who have been there recently to have leapfrogged Taiwan. Although these examples are anecdotal, because they have appeared in multiple conversations with different people at different times, they cannot be merely isolated incidents and the personal reflections of particular individuals alone; similar sentiments must exist elsewhere. Several discussants, in fact, were utterly shocked by their most recent experience; they had been to South Korea twelve years ago and felt they were then in a closed, somewhat backward society; the visit then, they said, made them feel proud to be Taiwanese. When they visited South Korea again roughly a year ago, they could not believe the difference: Taiwan had suddenly appeared the closed and backward society, while Korea had been transformed and far outpaced Taiwan. And indeed, many economic indicators substantiate the claims that South Korea is now superior developmentally. The conclusion I reached based on these conversations was the one all of the commentators repeated several times: What has Taiwan been doing these past ten years? How have our people fallen so far behind?

These perceptions only add to the discontent. Although it may not be fair to blame the government alone for these problems (and certainly the problem, if it began ten years ago, is certainly not the fault of the KMT alone), the sense is that the focus on rushing to the China market has left domestic investment as a secondary goal—and the perception that priorities are in this sense out of whack can, at least in part, be attributed to government policies which encourage closer relations with China.

Another point that needs mentioning is that the protesters, although supported to some degree by the opposition parties, appear to have organized on their own accord and at that spontaneously. That the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was not out front leading the charge but has, especially after this past Wednesday (March 19th), gradually grasped the gravity of the situation and sought to ride the wave so to speak politically demonstrates not only that the reports in the pro-KMT media as well as in China that this whole situation has been organized by independence forces are utterly false but also that the students themselves have attempted to keep a degree of distance between themselves and the opposition parties. Indeed, reports I have seen on social media from several of the leading protest groups (in Chinese) have been urging politicians not to take advantage of the situation and have instead been appealing to broader Taiwanese society.

Lu’s observation that the protest is essentially anti-Chinese because if the pact were with another country and not China there would be no protest is correct but unimportant. Lu would be dreaming if he were to believe that Taiwan could actually sign a similar agreement with the other two countries he mentions—Japan and the United States—and this would not be due to domestic opposition on Taiwan but, instead, due to opposition—that’s right—from China. This leads me back to my original assertion: the main anti-China elements that do exist are sentiments of resentment and anger, not fear, although fear certainly factors in to some degree. That Singapore and New Zealand have been to varying degrees successful in reaching accords with Taiwan is one thing, as those two countries do not directly concern the Chinese with regard to Taiwanese “splittism”; Japan and the United States, however, concern the Chinese quite a bit on this point. For the Chinese to allow Taiwan to drift between China, Japan, and the United States even unofficially would be anathema to China’s entire construct of Taiwan’s identity within the Chinese world.

I have in the past been a vocal critic of what I see as a general ambivalence and/or acquiescence  I am often met with in Taiwan. I cautiously (albeit somewhat pessimistically) support these protests because I find the protesters’ positions and their demeanor far more in line with freedom and liberty—and they are by far better people—than their counterparts in the government and even among the opposition parties. (I’ll get to why I am “somewhat pessimistic” about them in a moment.)

The above paragraph’s statements fly in the face of what some have protested as the undemocratic and “violen[t]” nature of the protests. Freedom and liberty are not bought and sold by leaders in high places; government offices are certainly not sacred no matter what leaders say or write. Freedom and liberty are paid for by the blood and sweat of those who protect them—to the death of those who fight to protect them if necessary. Politicians suck freedom and liberty dry and call it leadership. But enough of my ranting against government in general. My point here is only that regardless of what KMT hacks like King Pu-tsung say, the fact is that even though American leaders would not accept the occupation of the U.S. Capitol by protesters, as King asserts, American leaders—and this part King conspicuously omits—would also not survive the authoritarian, black-box manner in which the KMT handled this entire episode, from first blatantly lying about their willingness to go over the CSSTA clause by clause and then ramming the agreement through without allowing the clause-by-clause review they had promised. Forget the U.S. Capitol: if this were to happen in the States, I’m quite sure some groups in several states would be seeking secession from the Union and many—and I don’t mean a few hundred—would be camping on the National Mall, if not invading all of DC itself. It never occurs to tyrants that they are being tyrannical; or at least it is never fashionable for them to admit their tyranny. The protests are just the tyrants reaping what they sow: sic semper tyrannis.

All of this said, I am, as I mentioned, cautiously pessimistic about these developments. First, my observation has been and continues to be that there is no movement towards limiting governmental reach in Taiwan. How does this apply to the student movement? For starters, the KMT will continue to be the KMT—rough, authoritarian, strongly China-oriented at Taiwan’s expense—and the DPP will continue to be the DPP—inept, authoritarian in its own right, fraught with internal divisions and its own seniority-inferiority complex (that is, the old guard clinging to power at the expense of any innovation among younger members). In short, politics will not change in Taiwan. Nor will the workings of state institutions. The students have not pushed for institutional change, and the constitution is and will remain not a Taiwan constitution but, rather, a party-state KMT construct. And what really needs to occur—the development of a strong third party that advocates not necessarily independence or unification but real, fundamental domestic institutional change and limits on governmental and state reach; or, better yet, the abandonment of political parties altogether—will never occur, or at least it will not occur during this protest and will not occur until people look past subservience to tradition and authority and towards a new Taiwan without all the constraints imposed by the burdens of the past and, most importantly, the burdens of state and governmental authority. In short, a fundamental rethinking of what Taiwan is and what its people as individuals and a society represent, where they want to go, and how they want to get there is needed; this does not constitute a throwing off of the past but, rather, a throwing off of the burden of the past. A new constitution is only a start. But a real and fundamental change in the institutions and even the thinking of people needs to happen. This does not mean a full-blown imposition of Western ideology; it means basic introspection and a real desire to be free. In the end, I find that far too many simply love Big Brother.

Sadly, neither the KMT nor the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—nor, I am guessing, the DPP—desire this. That the KMT and probably the DPP do not want this is one thing, but that the CCP will not allow even a revision of the constitution for fear a new draft will veer towards “splittism” and independence is just one more reason why China is resented. In truth, China fears Taiwan. But more importantly, I think it is becoming ever more evident that both the KMT and the DPP will work to prevent anything of this nature from occurring. And as long as society is controlled by a party-state constitution and politics revolves around two political parties fighting for what scraps fall from the party-state table, Taiwanese will be doomed to resentment and loathing.

Why am I pessimistic? It is because without a fundamental rethinking as highlighted above, the future will remain too opaque, too murky, too uncertain. There is nothing to stop the KMT from, once the students do vacate the Legislative Yuan under the promise that the CSSTA will be reviewed clause by clause, once again going back on its word and this time making it impossible to reverse by outlawing any interference or by hunting down the people involved in the protests. Indeed, even “oversight” of the CSSTA consists merely requires the Executive Yuan to brief the Legislative Yuan about the agreement; no debate or vote is to take place, and certainly no real oversight. Without knowing this, any verbal agreement—like the one made that has gotten the KMT into so much trouble recently—can just be flouted later because, hey, we’re the KMT, and whatever we say is the law because the law itself is KMT law. Hunting down the protesters one by one may sound farfetched, but let’s remember that Taiwan is not yet three decades out of Martial Law. And what is more, the DPP is and remains impotent and utterly lacks any means—or, quite clearly, the will—to stop such actions. This DPP weakness is not merely electoral, let’s recall; it is constitutional and institutional.

Until real institutional and constitutional change occurs, loathing and resentment will permeate Taiwan’s political scene, whether one is discussing cross-Strait relations or domestic politics.

Even in the U.S. political system a strong third party has yet to emerge. One is needed there, too. But Taiwan should not wait to follow the U.S. example. It may not have time. And no matter what King Pu-tsung says about the U.S. system and thereby implying that Taiwan must follow the U.S. lead, the resentment of Taiwanese cannot wait. They are, as this administration and this political system has demonstrated time and again over the past seven decades, running out of time.

The Chinese have feared for decades a return to civil war, indefinite cross-Strait political separation, “peaceful [political systemic] evolution” in which Taiwan would likely play a part, and/or a Taiwan declaration of independence. Taiwanese have lived for decades in fear of sudden attack from their “brethren” across the Strait. These things are not new. Even the feelings of resentment noted in this post are not all that new. What is new? The intensification of the resentment over the past several years and the recent CSSTA trigger are what is new. The vulgar display of power is not new, but the resentment of authoritarianism and the general perception that authoritarianism is making a comeback in plain view (instead of the typical “black box” of Taiwan and especially KMT politics) is what is new. The question is whether the fix will be just one more short-term, stopgap covering over of the problem or a real effort to fix the more fundamental shortcomings and whether those proposed solutions actually achieve real results. Sadly, most of those in power have no desire or incentive to do more than a mere papering-over, and pressure from society incentivizes only the former because very little deep thought appears to be occurring where it ought to be. Until this is realized, resentment will not only linger but ultimately grow.

As in Howard Beale’s (Peter Finch) famous “mad as hell” speech in the 1976 film Network, I don’t know how to solve these problems, and indeed, it isn’t my place to do so. But like Beale’s speech, I do know that people first have to get completely fed up. Frustration must build to the point that not only individuals and groups but also the system itself cannot “take it anymore.” Each person who is fed up must realize that they are human beings, that their lives have value, and that their individual values are worth far more than any values the system itself claims to appreciate. These things are not the products of fear. If anything, fear is what keeps such thoughts simmering beneath the surface. Fear is what keeps such things from boiling over. Resentment, loathing—in short, utter hatred—is what forces an explosion. And this is something China may play a role in, but the chasms that are tearing open are domestic—and they are completely and totally justified and healthy.

* The attached photo shows pro-unification former Bamboo Union leader Chang An-le, the “White Wolf,” one of the most wanted fugitives in Taiwan, among the crowd during the protests.

Image courtesy of whoamagazine; originally a section of the front cover of Pantera’s sixth album, Vulgar Display of Power, released in 1992.

A Quick Note on Foreign Infiltration and Anti-bigot Bigotry

“Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

I don’t attempt to propose anything particularly new or path-breaking in this post (more of a note than a post, actually). I simply seek to point out that bigotry comes in all shapes and sizes and that using bigotry and hatred to fight bigotry and hatred makes one a . . . bigot and a hater.

Again, there is nothing groundbreaking here. But as I continue to read posts in the blogosphere, particularly some well-known blogs by well-known bloggers as well as commentaries and news articles in relatively well-respected media outlets, I continue to find myself asking myself this question: “Self [okay, I really don’t begin this inner dialogue with the word “self”], what separates the bigots who use bigotry and hated to demand that homosexuals not be allowed to wed or otherwise seek civil marriage-like unions and those who use bigotry and hatred to argue against those who demand that homosexuals not be allowed to wed or otherwise seek civil marriage-like unions? Isn’t a bigot a bigot? To call someone a bigot and then use bigotry to argue against that person—calling him or her a this or a that, raking his or her religion over the coals, shouting him or her down because his or her belief system is different from one’s own, and similar activities—is no better than the original bigoted act. Aren’t they both—aren’t they all—bigots, pots calling kettles black or what have you?”

Let me say the following before any reader jumps to any conclusions about my own particular position on homosexual civil unions and other marriage or marriage-like ceremonies: I fully support the idea that two people who love each other, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender preferences, ought be allowed to be joined and recognized by the state as any other two heterosexual people who love each other and choose to be united, at least in a free and liberal society. Public law ought recognize such unions. Private institutions, because they are privately owned, ought be allowed to choose whether they recognize such unions or not because the state ought not decide for private institutions those private institutions’ preferences. However, it makes perfectly rational sense for private institutions to recognize such public laws since doing so only increases those public institutions’ standing with the public. It also makes no economic sense for a private institution to decline to serve two people because they are homosexuals united as two married heterosexual would be. Of course, private institutions are certainly able to act irrationally, but it harms only them, as those homosexuals could just go to the next, for example, insurance company that would serve them to take out a policy.

I am also not basing any of this on religious dogma. Although born and raised a Catholic, I have been for the better part of the last twelve years most closely defined as an agnostic, even at one point considering myself an atheist before coming to the conclusion that believing God or gods did not exist was virtually the same, at least theoretically, as believing that He or they do exist, since there is no conclusive evidence either way. Let that end the “Nate has a religious axe to grind” (potential) thread there.

I also have no personal battle here besides having friends and acquaintances in the States, in Europe, and in Taiwan who are homosexuals. And most of those friends and acquaintances, if I know them well, would not hate me for writing here what I am writing. So the (potential) “Nate says these things because he himself is homosexual” thread also ends here, as though that would matter one bit anyway.

Folks should remember that considering oneself tolerant—oh, how I loathe that word here; I much prefer the word “accepting”—does not mean that others one disagrees with are necessarily intolerant. Their arguments may come from completely different perspectives as one’s own. One may disagree with those people rather strongly, but our strong disagreement also should demonstrate to us the potential limits of one’s own tolerance and acceptance. To use words that belittle or slander individuals or groups that hold different viewpoints from one’s own, regardless of what that viewpoint or message is, is no better than being a member of that group. And, moreover, remember that, when one belittles such groups as foreign infiltrations (I am speaking of certain folks who make this claim here in Taiwan), one should also remember that one’s own ability to speak one’s mind without fear of reprisal in a free and liberal society is also the result of what amounts to a foreign infiltration of traditional society, which may or may not have been more or less “tolerant” or “accepting” of such things as homosexuality and/or homosexual unions before “foreign infiltration.”

Taiwan’s Real Tragedy: What the Death of an Army Corporal Says about Taiwan’s Future (Just a Lao Wai’s Humble and Detached Perspective)

In an earlier post I made reference to several reasons why I believe Taiwan’s domestic politics will not save it from Beijing’s pressures. More bluntly, I seriously doubt the resilience of Taiwan’s democracy in the face of a growing China. I tend to find the average Taiwanese—again, this certainly does not apply to all—too complacent, ambivalent, and “tolerant” to seriously challenge dicta from on high. The average Taiwanese—again, this certainly does not apply to all—also appears to hold Taiwan’s military, at best, in low esteem and, at worst, with utter contempt.

The story of army corporal Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘) is to what I was referring when I briefly commented on “the death of a young soldier last year and the hands of officers.” (Anyone can Google his name and find information on his story in either English or Chinese.) Yesterday (March 7, 2014) the verdict came down for thirteen of those involved in Hung’s untimely death. The family expressed outrage. Some of my friends, family, and contacts made comments to my face or on social media. Many scolded the “justice” system, the government, and the military.

But in the end, I fear that the media here, which suffers from collective attention-deficit disorder, will move on quickly to the next outrage, as will the utterly incompetent and ineffectual opposition party. The family will mourn. The average person will say, as I’ve heard so often, “This has nothing to do with me personally,” and move on without a second thought. People will protest, but their voices will not be heard for longer than a few days to perhaps a week or two. And, to echo George Orwell, life will go on as it has always gone on—that is, badly.

To not come across as though I am a lao wai trying to project my values upon others, I can only say these things. I care a great deal for this beautiful island and the many people I have met and come to in many ways admire. I perhaps care less than I used to simply because I am, and should be, powerless to do much about what I feel people who are not and should not be as powerless as I—i.e., the average Taiwanese citizen—should and yet can do against their oppressors. I have to remain detached, or I will become the lao wai everyone hates, forcing his views on others, or worse yet, I will become angry. In a society in which only certain people can become angry and angry people are treated like crazy people (without the average person thinking beyond the situation in front of his or her eyes and contemplating for a second or two why the angry person is angry), being angry is far worse than being almost anything else.

I think Taiwanese should be angry—and they are justified in being so. But there I go projecting again. There I go getting involved. There I go caring more about the average person here than he or she cares about him- or herself. Taiwanese are completely justified in being outraged. But they won’t really be. Give it a few days to a week, and this will all pass. Give it a few years and Taiwan’s loss of anything remotely resembling freedom will all pass. But what can I say or do about it? If these things are what the average person in Taiwan wants, who am I to judge? If these are the things the average person in Taiwan wants, I must calmly accept it an either move on or move elsewhere. In the end, this too shall pass. And life will go on as it has always gone on—that is, badly.