Saturday, October 11, 2014

Not seeing the Taiwan forest for the China trees

Went to a performance of the Chiotian Drum Troupe yesterday. Here is one of the troupe leaders.

Today brings us several articles on the Hong Kong protests, including one from Jeffrey Wasserstrom, the well known scholar, in Foreign Policy, and another from John Garnaut, the Australian journalist who actually gets Taiwan.

Several years ago I had a conversation with an acutely intelligent friend who is also an acutely intelligent observer of Taiwan, and he pointed out that the Chen Shui-bian Administration had done such a good job separating Taiwan from China that at academic conferences his work on Taiwan had less relevance because it wasn't about China, which was hot. Indeed, this separation has gone so well that Taiwan has vanished off the media radar, as we found when the Sunflower protests were so woefully underreported. Wasserstrom's piece surprisingly reproduces this China-centric view of the Hong Kong protests, reviewing the way the protesters replicate the past behaviors of students protesting in China, with a nod to the Occupy movement in the US:
The Hong Kong protesters have shown themselves tremendously resourceful, able to borrow freely and creatively from many different sorts of movements. They are aware of --and draw strength from local struggles of the past. They borrow from the playbook of Chinese revolutionary heroes and from the mainland students of 1989. As their leader, they have even picked Joshua Wong, a noted participant in the 2012 protests in Hong Kong. They have also looked for inspiration to other parts of the world. The student protesters allied with Hong Kong’s Occupy Central activists, for example, who embody the spirit of New York City’s Occupy Wall Street movement and are largely concerned with economics and inequality.
Yet though the piece is about searching for an analogy for the Hong Kong protests, it totally omits any reference to Taiwan, whose recent Sunflower protests in many ways shaped the current round of protests -- there are many links and parallels between the two, from the links between the protesters themselves to the reporters who covered both -- and were treated in the same way by the government, right down to the deployment of nationalist gangsters against the protesters. Moreover Hong Kong and Taiwan face a similar set of economic and social problems -- high housing prices, rampant income inequality, rule by tycoons, and so on, as well as an increasingly powerful non-China local identity, especially among the young, incompetent and divided pro-democracy parties, and an overarching China invasion that threatens many aspects of local lives and identities.This omission is all the more puzzling because Wasserstrom interviewed Shelly Rigger on the Sunflower protests in Dissent...

Thus, one could hardly find a better analogy for Hong Kong than Taiwan, but Wasserstrom thinks of China in terms of China -- deployment of Chinese history to explain Chinese history is a kind of legitimating shibboleth among China hands, like the way New Testament scholars deploy knowledge of Greek to fence the boundaries of their field, or business scholars use advanced statistics to turn data porridge into scholarly bisque. But the Hong Kong protests can't really be understood in terms of Chinese historical protests (isn't part of the issue the fact that Hong Kongers don't feel Chinese?). They have to be seen in some other context: globally as part of the global movement against the growing concentration of wealth in a few hands, the rule of corporate power, the widespread corruption at the top of governments, and the disappearance of economic opportunity for the middle classes, and locally, against the overarching drive of Beijing to annex and suppress democracy and local identities, like the protests in Tibet, Xinjiang, and.... Taiwan.

PS: Don't miss this piece on the secret history of Hong Kong democracy: the reason that Hong Kong never got self-governance from the Brits is because Beijing threatened to invade if Britain made Hong Kong a democracy. Hence the bullshit from fake leftists that compares/criticizes Britain's never giving Hong Kong representative government with China's current deal is.... bullshit.

John Garnaut, the Aussie journalist, does what Wasserstrom failed to do, and locates the Taiwan/Hong Kong protests in their proper context: the problems of "mainlandization" of China's peripheries and corporate power, where corporations serve Beijing's goals:
Before the umbrella protests of Hong Kong it was easier to believe that it was only a matter of time before the peripheries were fully absorbed into the empire and made safe for Chinese Communist Party rule. And that's the way the way that Hong Kong's great multinational banks, the world's top four accounting firms, and even the Australian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong still see the odds, judging by their recent statements.

"The present situation is damaging to Hong Kong's international reputation, may harm Hong Kong's international competitiveness, and is creating an uncertain environment that may be detrimental to investment, to job creation and to Hong Kong's prosperity into the future," said Austcham, in a statement on September 29 which echoed Communist Party propaganda almost word-for-word, and incited a heated internal backlash.

Geoff Raby, a former ambassador who represents Australian corporations in Beijing and sits on the board of Andrew Forrest's iron ore company, Fortescue, was empathetic with the protesters he surveyed in central Hong Kong. Indeed, their earnest faces were haunting reminders of those he'd seen a quarter of a century earlier in Tiananmen. And, to him, their hopes are as futile now as they were back then. To contemplate otherwise would not just be wrong, as he put it this week in the AFR, but "ideological". So much so that Canberra should resign itself and allow history to take its inevitable course if the People's Liberation Army is once again sent in. "It will be a time for cool reason, rather than ideological enthusiasm,"according to Raby.

Similarly, when the Sunflower protesters occupied the Taiwanese Yuan, in response to President Ma Ying-jeoh bypassing the island's hard-won democratic institutions to sign a wide-ranging economic integration pact with the mainland, economists at ANZ felt qualified to instruct the island's misguided youth what was good for them. "The protest in Taipei may heighten the anti-Mainland sentiment that is seen in Hong Kong," they said in a research note of March 26. "Turning back such economic integration will only exacerbate the current plight of the middle class, increase youth unemployment, and lead to a loss of thousands of high quality job opportunities."

The mainlandisation of China's peripheries has been accelerating and intensifying under the emperor-like Xi Jinping ever since he assumed the presidency – the third and least important of his titles – in March last year. Raby, and the anonymous author of that Austcham statement, and the China economics team at ANZ bank all assume that China's journey to empire is inexorable, whatever speed bumps lie along the road.
Kudos to Garneau! This linkage between China's power and corporate power is mirrored by the linkage between the Hong Kong protests and the Taiwan protests, and mirrored as well in the support of the American and European Chambers of Commerce for the KMT's pro-China politico-economic goals (noted most recently in my post on FTAs). Ma Ying-jeou and the KMT have deliberately cloaked their pro-annexation structural changes in the language of neo-liberal economic discourse to evoke just this response.

Independent Taipei mayor candidate Ko Wen-je is in the US at the moment. The always excellent Ketagalen Media covered his stop there....
On Wednesday, independent Taipei mayoral candidate Dr. Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) began his US tour, visiting San Francisco Bay Area and meeting with academics, students, industry leaders and Taiwanese American supporters. During a dinner speech Ko gave, he listed Taipei’s largest problem as the high housing prices, and Taiwan’s greatest issue as the social immobility caused by inheritance of wealth and power.
That same concern is mirrored in recent surveys of Hong Kong youth (here), who see social mobility as more difficult and the wealth gap in Hong Kong as growing since the handover. All over the world, it's the same cry for social justice in the face of the same issue: authoritarian government with its totalizing identity politics intertwined with corporate power with its totalizing economic dreams. Social identities, after all, are consumption identities...

Also see: Lorand Laskai on LARB connects Hong Kong and Taiwan. Ian Rowen on the Taiwan-HKK links.
Don't miss the comments below! And check out my blog and its sidebars for events, links to previous posts and picture posts, and scores of links to other Taiwan blogs and forums!


an angry taiwanese said...

Scholars write things to secure their survival, their first priority. Reporting facts is a by-product. The existence of academic publication ethics is to use that survival instinct to 'coerce' scholars to report facts. But it doesn't work all the time. Scholars always put their survival first and it's easy to survive in an old niche they have carved out.

STOP Ma said...

I have heard that "Britain never gave HK democracy" meme countless times.

Good to now have some evidence that completely destroys this propaganda.

Thanks for the link!

John S said...

China scholars like Jeffery have to be somewhat careful when they publish papers, books and articles. If their main focus is social and political developments in China and Hong Kong, it is self-defeating for them to bring Taiwan-related developments into their analysis (or their articles).

One reason is that they know that mentioning Taiwan will simply bring to their papers, lectures, etc. the kind of attention that will have the effect of shifting focus away from the main points and positions they want to convey.

So JW's primary aim in that article was to focus on the local reasons for the Hong Kong protests (expanding "local" to include China-wide 1920s events). Mentioning Taiwan would have (for most readers, even scholars) immediately defeated this aim— especially because most (poorly-informed) people still think of Taiwan as a U.S. client-state. So I can understand why he failed to mention recent protest movements in Taiwan, but I can also see how people who are well-informed about movements not only in Taiwan, but also in China and Hong Kong, will see it is a major weakness of the article.

Professional China scholars' long-term career goals require them to be careful to keep their focus on China and Taiwan separate (and not make too many comparisons). All big universities have a Chair for China Studies. How many have a Chair for Taiwan Studies? These scholars usually serve on the board that hosts their university's Confucius Institute. They want to stay in the running for guest lectureships at big Chinese universities, summer sabbaticals, etc.. They want to be asked to return to present their papers at scholarly conferences in Beijing. Scholars who become genuinely interested in focusing on Taiwan-specific historical, social and political topics have to say goodbye to most of the perks.

Anonymous said...

Don't insult the current HK protesters with comparisons to the Sunflowers.

The HK protesters don't know how the CCP will ultimately handle their protests. In other words, the HK protesters are willing to risk life and limb for their rights. The Sunflower protesters, on the other hand, knew that nothing would happen to them for protesting and that the authorities were there to cater to their every need.

The current HK protesters are more like the 1989 Tiananmen protesters, the Sunflowers are more like Occupy Wall Street.

Readin said...

What is the point really, of a country's "Chamber of Commerce". It seems they're always advocating people take the most evil course available to them.

Mike Fagan said...

"I have heard that "Britain never gave HK democracy" meme countless times. Good to now have some evidence that completely destroys this propaganda."

What are talking about? There were very limited democratic reforms in the years prior to the 1997 transfer, possibly just to stick two fingers up at the Chinese, but it is nontheless substantively true that successive British governors did not give Hong Kong democracy. What HK did get from the British however, was more or less limited government.

Michael Turton said...

Michael, recently declassified documents show that the reason UK did not give HKK democracy or self-rule is because PRC threatened to invade if they did.

STOP Ma said...

Mike Fagan,

Please read the article referenced in this post.


Mike Fagan said...

Yes I am aware of that thanks, but it doesn't alter the fact. Britain did not allow Hong Kong to have substantive democracy.

The whole reason for the transfer was Britain's weakened post-war position. We were never going to tell the Chinese to fuck off simply because we couldn't afford a major conflict without American support. We still can't, even though successive British prime ministers like to strut around on the world stage as if Britain is still a world power. It's embarassing.

That being said, it must be pointed out that the development of Hong Kong took place under non-democratic, but more or less constitutional rule.

I feel conflicted about Hong Kong. On the one hand I can perfectly understand why they feel nervous about the Chinese and want some means of averting political control from Beijing. On the other hand, I don't think full-on democracy is the way to do this and all the talk about say, income inequality, just makes me suspect the leaders are the usual bunch of Leftists driven by envy.

Michael Turton said...

Mike F, just stop posting here. You've got everything completely wrong as usual, and I don't want to waste my time or STOP MA's anymore...


Anonymous said...

"Yes I am aware of that thanks, but it doesn't alter the fact. Britain did not allow Hong Kong to have substantive democracy."

The issue here is that the argument often trotted out in defense of China w/r/t Hong Kong is that the system the CCP is offering is at least more democratic than what the British instituted, yet these documents show that the Chinese government was in fact behind the failure to enact democracy prior to the handover. It's a bombshell.

Readin said...

"The whole reason for the transfer was Britain's weakened post-war position. We were never going to tell the Chinese to fuck off simply because we couldn't afford a major conflict without American support. "

Did it even make sense WITH American support? HK island is surrounded by China with no large internal water supply. Unless America was willing to invade China to make the price of conquest unacceptably high to the Chinese government, how would a defense of HK work?