Tuesday, July 31, 2018

"Ethnic Chinese" Round 2

Beetle in aboriginal colors

Financial Times reporter Ben Bland tweeted this Twitter thread around.

1. Here follows a short thread on why Beijing’s ratcheting up of pressure on Hong Kong and Taiwan should be issues of global concern, highlighting a wider clash of values as the world’s most powerful authoritarian state grows in influence and determination.
It would be great if this idea got into the media more....
2. The move to ban the tiny Hong Kong National Party seems at first sight like a massive over-reaction, just like many of Beijing's other recent moves to squeeze Hong Kong and Taiwan.

3. Many democrats say that the idea that the Hong Kong National Party is an imminent threat to national security is laughable. They argue that the authorities are merely looking for an excuse to send a warning to others about the risks of discussing/promoting controversial ideas.

4. While the authorities may be “killing the chicken to scare the monkeys", there's no escaping fact that the democratic values embedded in Hong Kong and Taiwan do represent a fundamental threat to the authoritarian system in China and undermine the rhetoric of the “China dream”.

5 Communist Party theorists have long railed against risks of “peaceful evolution”, whereby democratic ideas seep in over time, chipping away at party legitimacy. HK/Taiwan are points of entry into China for such dangerous ideas as labour unions, civil society & free speech.

6 .That is why Xi Jinping warned Hong Kongers last year that any attempt to use the city to “carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland” crossed a “red line” & was “absolutely impermissible”. That is also why we’ve seen booksellers kidnapped.

7. The near unanimous rejection in Taiwan of unification with China and the widespread opposition to the Communist party in Hong Kong represent a fundamental challenge to Beijing’s perception of sovereignty.

8. Moreover, the attitudes of many in Taiwan and Hong Kong undermine the idea of a unifying “China dream” that will uplift all ethnic Chinese globally, and create a global "community of shared destiny".
All the above is good, here is where he starts to go wrong.
9. The fact that many of the 30m or so ethnic Chinese closest to mainland China (in HK and Taiwan) are not buying into the dream suggests that selling it further afield will be difficult.
I have discussed the fact that Taiwanese are not "ethnic Chinese" here. But Catie Lilly, a professional historian who is kind and sweet and fiercely intelligent (yes, crushing hard) pointed out that "ethnic Chinese" is a term more often used by outsiders -- I should add, outsiders for whom the term "Taiwanese" is never used.

In the post I linked to above, I observe that when journalists use the term "ethnic Chinese" they are using it the way Beijing wants them to -- as an ethnic signifier that implies a link to China. Had Bland simply used the term "Taiwanese" it would have been obvious what the problem was: the Taiwanese aren't ethnic Chinese, so naturally ethnic-based blandishments have no appeal.

Hence Bland's observation is wrong on its face. Beijing's appeal to "ethnic Chinese" elsewhere may work among populations that consider themselves Chinese in some way, especially if their identity coheres well with the faux Chinese identity Beijing is urgently constructing (an eerie echo of the faux Chinese identity the KMT constructed in Taiwan) to wipe out all of China's hundreds of local identities.

For example, I was in Malaysia last year and visited the family of one of my students, whose forefathers came over to Malaysia from Guangdong at the turn of the previous century to mine tin near Ipoh. My student's father was a very nice man who insisted on explaining to me that Taiwanese were Chinese, just like him, and that Lee Teng-hui was forwarding a Japanese plot and had brainwashed Taiwanese, etc. Obviously there are many "ethnic Chinese" who buy into all the garble-blargle Beijing is putting out about China and Chineseness, and who would view an annexation of Taiwan to China as a good thing and a signal of China's greatness.

Finally, as I have pointed out before, Beijing's "soft power" measures aren't aimed at Taiwan, but rather at two audiences, its own people and at the international media. Beijing has to convince them it has done everything it can to lure Taiwanese over, and having exhausted peaceful options, war is necessary. As for the media, no need  to go over that again.
10. Tsai Ing-wen has called Taiwan the “canary in the coalmine” for how China’s rise will affect democracies around the world. Likewise, events in Hong Kong show what happens when the Communist party’s projection of power bumps up against democratic ideals and practices.
Quite true, all of this. It is good to see media workers writing in this vein, for once. Some of us have been saying this for years.
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