Monday, June 02, 2008

Book Review: Humanity at Stake

Humanity at Stake
Abraham Young
2008. Published in the United States by CreateSpace and distributed by Amazon. 130 pp. Website:

A few weeks ago I was in class at NCKU when a young woman walked in. Although the room seats 40 there are only seven of us in the class, but after inspecting the roomful of empty seats she strolled over and took the seat next to me. Thinking she wanted to talk, I leaned over, and a moment's conversation led to the discovery that she was an exchange student from Shanghai. I immediately invited her to lunch. We spent the next couple of hours in a local lunch box joint, discussing Tibet and Taiwan in Mandarin at her insistence, with her raising the by-now drearily familiar arguments. The conversation was not quiet, though we did not raise our voices, and it was obvious to me that many of the locals were silently listening in. After we stepped out of the diner, the young woman ran off to buy a drink and an older Taiwanese woman who had been sitting at the table next to us walked over to me. "Thank you," she said, as she struggled to free her bicycle from the horde of bikes parked for the lunch rush. Looking down the road, where the Chinese woman was buying tea, she spat out: "Those Chinese are so arrogant!" All I could think was: well, maybe you should have told her that yourself.

Fortunately for Taiwan, Taiwanese-Americans have long been speakers on the island's behalf, and this new book is the latest offering in that five-decade long effort to give an international voice to the island. From its unusually long subtitle to its promise on the back cover to donate $1 to Human Rights Watch for every copy sold, Abraham Young's Humanity at Stake: On why the world should now end China’s military & political aggression, understand Taiwan’s democracy, and defend 23 million citizens’ human right to self-determination represents a unique approach to educating novice readers on the various points of view in the Taiwan issue, and on why supporting Taiwan is so important. Its appearance is all the more timely given the recent political developments in cross-strait issues.

Young's book is a description of a dialogue between a relatively educated young American who knows a smattering about Taiwan, a young Chinese man, and an American of Taiwanese descent, told from the point of view of the last. As he describes them:

Here’s the kid from Taiwan, here’s the kid from China, and on the third side of this square table there’s the Mr.-All-American pilot, who is intelligent, friendly, has real knowledge of the world, has visited and pondered the cities of China, and though never visited Taiwan, has engaged in U.S. military to deal with the important dilemmas of international relations, overseas.

We have everything we need here for a real simulation—a so-called Strait-talk —with the exclusion of military arms to play offense, defense, and deterrent.

The three then go on to discuss the various arguments. The book is divided into two basic parts -- one explaining the past, and one staking out options for the future. Readers who have been around pro-China trolls or been on discussion forums will recognize the arguments used by the Chinese and the disparaging commentary in the international media: that Taiwan is like a Hawaii, or that Taiwan's democracy is "corrupt" or that Taiwan's leaders "overreact." The reality, as Young shows in the second half of the book, is that there is no credible argument for annexing the island to China. There is nothing that China cannot get from Taiwan as a free and independent state, except, of course, the satisfaction of ownership.

In addition to the dialogue, Young presents his interior monologue, displaying many of the same reactions all of us go through when confronting the combination of ignorance and aggression that represents the PRC point of view. This helps draw the reader in to Young's point of view and make the work more interesting. An additional positive feature of the work is that Young does not turn his Chinese interlocutor into a caricature of the bombastic, violent Chinese trolls everyone on the net is familiar with, but presents him as a sympathetic and intelligent human being.

The book contains extensive, even elaborate footnotes that provide further background to the points Young makes in his responses. These usually have internet sources, enabling the reader to easily explore the issues in greater depth. Contemporary issues, such as the WHO exclusion, also make an appearance. A typical discussion reads:

However, this last point does not even need to be made to Wang and Chris, as their silence, their silence at the painful reality of 1,200-plus Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwan shows that there is no single argument—moral, logical, or just—that validates China’s past and present military aggression and missile arsenal, much less the continued growth on both menacing counts, which has been clearly the case.

Not just in reference to the basement where Wang, Chris, and I now stand, the real elephant in the room is this: not a single person, up through the highest levels of government, within China, the US, or Taiwan is capable of providing a single validating argument for this.

For readers who are unfamiliar with the Taiwan issue Humanity at Stake is an extremely readable introduction to the issues, packed with useful information. I look forward to the next edition, when the whole work is translated into Chinese using simplified characters. If Taiwanese really want to preserve their freedom, they need to start talking to the Chinese.


Greg McCann said...

Intriguing review. I've met too many such Mainlanders during my travels. One response that always silenced them was: "If Taiwan is a part of China, then why hasn't Hu visited there? Why didn't Jiang Zimen visit? Why didn't Deng Xiao Ping? Mao?" Ask these questions and it will become apparent.

skiingkow said...

The book sounds interesting.

I am always amused when I bring up the point involving the 1500+ missiles pointed at Taiwan to my Chinese colleagues. They ALWAYS try to avoid this fact and divert the discussion. The last time I used the trump card, my colleague became noticeably irritated and sarcastic.

"1500?!" he said. "It's more like 1 million...2 million...1 billion missiles. That's right! Each Chinese citizen has a missile pointed at Taiwan." I really didn't have a clue what he meant -- only that he is very agitated when faced with the fact that it is CHINA that is the true aggressor in the cross-straits issue.

Richard said...

Just bought it from Amazon, looking forward to reading this. Thanks for the heads up!

Anonymous said...

Republic of China owns Taiwan. Sounds to me, Taiwan is part of China (with different interpretation, that is. LOL)

Anonymous said...

you are right on talking to Chinese. I would say it is more crucial to us to talk to people from the Blue Camp. All the effort Taiwanese made for bettering the island's democracy could be easily sold to China with little in return.

Richard said...

"you are right on talking to Chinese. I would say it is more crucial to us to talk to people from the Blue Camp"

Very true, mainly because a large majority of the "old guard" of the KMT still have a "mainlanders" mindset (naturally since they fled to Taiwan, but with the intent of taking back China)- that being a mindset that there is one China.

Anonymous said...

How will the simplified Chinese version be distributed on the mainland?I'm sure it would be banned as splitist propaganda.Perhaps the more effective means would be as an ebook sent in over the internet.Perhaps Taiwanese should raise some of the book's points in PRC chatrooms and then challenge (invite?) others to read it.When I see how PRC citizens are so moved by the suffering of their compatriots due to the earthquake I wish more Taiwanese would ask mainland Chinese"Your missiles will kill our children as horribly as the quake killed yours.Why should your taxes be used to kill people who are no threat to you?You claim to have moved beyond the barbarities of the Cultural Revolution and yet what is your reaction when I ask you to let us live in peace?You sound like a Red Guard after hearing someone question the wisdom of Chairman Mao.You claim we are compatriots but how would you feel towards someone who threatens to invade if you don't surrender?Perhaps someday both sides of the Taiwan Straits will be united but it should be a marriage not a rape."

channing said...

greg, there are endless masses of online people who lack social lives and political maturity. They were taught "One China" in school but they cannot explain the nonexistent jurisdiction that Beijing has over Taiwan. Rather, they simply seek attention and stir up political arguments to vent their own tempers.

These are the same people who pick fights with foreigners living in Taipei. "You live in Taipei? Welcome to China."

The educated populace will have their opinions, but at least they can back it up with technicalities

channing said...

Sorry, I didn't mean the people you met...just that there are many more of them.

D.T. said...

@ STOP Ma, I'm sorry but I find your strategy and comments to be extremely hypocritical and unproductive. Your comment emphasizes the China's missiles as if they were a singular demonstration in the activities of the world's military organizations. Political theorist Simon Critchley once remarked that "war and killing may be unavoidable, but it can never be justifed". Your comment surely evoked a sense of shame in your colleague, knowing that his/her own country is inevitably involved in an aggressive military stance, but what of your own country's operations? Things are not as one-sided as people tend to believe.

There is not one country that is innocent in the operations of deceit, espionage and military subterfuge, no matter what they believe. Instead of ridiculing Chinese colleagues about the missiles, why not try communicating how you/or Taiwanese people felt about this since August 1995?