Thursday, 11 October 2007

Why should I care about Taiwan's geopolitical future?

A recent exchange on Michael Turton’s blog has caused me to directly address this question. It should be easy enough to answer: Taiwan is a free democracy whose population overwhelmingly desires official international recognition of a de-facto sovereignty. Taiwan is guaranteed catastrophic invasion if independence is officially declared. Historic and legal arguments should, however convincing, be irrelevant.

So why ask the question at all? Because I see little evidence that Taiwanese people really, really care.

Yes, Taiwan continuously tries to enter international bodies. Yes, there is going to be a referendum on the UN question. Yes, there are regular protests and marches against Chinese threats. But how is any standard westerner supposed to know about the convictions of Taiwan’s population? Where is the prolific debate in languages westerners understand?

Where are the regular blanket advertisements in western media? Where are the powerful NGOs loudly making Taiwan's case and vilifying the opposition's factual and moral flaws through well financed journals and websites? Why does Taiwan not have any lobbying influence remotely comparable to The American Israel Public Affairs Committee when the case is magnitudes less equivocal?

Where is the tireless, relentless campaign to reach Chinese people with the truth? Where are Chinese people’s funded opportunities to see reason? What possible hope can there be without this?

Taiwan is a rich country of 23 million people. There are no excuses for their pathetic efforts. When they really start to show that they care, I’ll really start to feel justified in caring myself.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Mashing a Sweet Potato

Michael Turton linked to a recent editorial in the Taipei times written by a Canadian expat. He thought it was an “excellent” piece. I’d like to think he just picked up the general idea in a few seconds of skimming and jumped to conclusions.

The only way this huff can be considered excellent is as an example of a comically unhinged Taipei Times editorial. It’s touchingly naïve, risibly stupid, and quite gargantuanly soppy, arrogant and pompous. It says a lot about the Taipei times that they employ this numskull to share his wisdom on the editorial page.

Time for a fisking.

Let's face it: Despite its best diplomatic efforts and a just cause, Taiwan has been losing the battle for international recognition.

Strive as it might, no amount of moral suasion is likely to change anything at the UN or in the ivory tower of global diplomacy. For when it comes to making a place for Taiwan, what is required most on the part of those who would grant Taiwan that recognition is imagination -- and how precious little there is of that at the UN and in the foreign ministries of this world.

The sage introduces his focus word – the pricelessly naïve “imagination” (“Hey dude, if only these guys had imagination man…if only they could imagine what it’s like to be Taiwanese… ”). I think the truth is closer to “For when it comes to making a place for Taiwan, what is required most on the part of those who would grant Taiwan that recognition is an overwhelming desire to tell China to go sit and swivel -- and how precious little there is of that at the UN and in the foreign ministries of this world.”

Nothing better exemplifies this than the customs officer in an otherwise vibrant democracy who, upon perusing a foreigner's passport, asks him how long he has lived in China. Or, worse still, for that same customs officer to meet an indignant response to the effect that the foreigner has lived in Taiwan, not China, for almost two years, with a general shrug of indifference.

As he expands on his blog, he’s recounting his own degrading experience. I have also encountered a customs officer in an otherwise vibrant democracy (New Zealand) who upon perusing my passport asked me how long I’ll be “staying in China?”. Oooh, how could she! Well, perhaps this clearly deliberate insult has some origin in visas, re-entry permits and stamps issued by Taiwan not mentioning Taiwan at all. My newest passport sticker dated July 13th 2007 reads “RE-ENTRY PERMIT TO REPUBLIC OF CHINA”.

Remember the hilarious debacle when Hu jintao visited America last year? “Ladies and Gentlmen – will you please stand for the national anthem of The Republic of China”. Oh what a peach that was! If only they’d then played that anthem…

Maybe it’s just me, but the visa seems pretty unambiguous. REPUBLIC OF CHINA. That’s what the place that issued the visa would like itself to be addressed as. But, as he and I have both had to endure, some willfully malicious customs officers shorten this to CHINA. Nothing, indeed, better exemplifies the lack of “imagination” at foreign ministries around the world.

The freedom fighter isn't going to let a slur like that one slide though. He’s got an indignant response to the effect that he has lived in Taiwan ….and for nearly two years! If, as he sagely advises fellow travellers further down he actually “express[ed his] outrage” I think that customs officer played a shrugging role in the unfolding of a tantrum. May well have been the highlight of his day. Short of correcting himself by saying “Republic of China” what else was he supposed to do?

This calls for a shift in approach, a brand awareness campaign that starts from the bottom up rather than the top down and focuses on a different customer -- people.

Forget letters to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon or missives to the General Assembly, as they are so beholden to narrow interests as to make them incapable of summoning the imagination that is required to address the problem.

But much work needs to be done to make this new strategy effective, for as every expatriate who has lived in Taiwan can testify, people back home know precious little about it. Ask anyone to locate Taiwan on a map, or whether it is officially a country, or a province of China, or a member of the UN. Absent that knowledge, it becomes a feat to imagine what it must be like to be Taiwanese -- and to empathize with them, let alone care about their fate.

Yes. A bottom up brand awareness campaign – aimed at people.

Bollocks to letters and missives, let’s head straight for the John Lennon fans. It’s gonna be tough though – after all, what’s imagination without knowledge?

Now my fellow non-Taiwanese from across the globe, let’s all hold hands, close our eyes and imagine - if we can – what it must be like to be Taiwanese. Let’s try and share their pain, feel their fate. If you belong to the 9/10ths of humanity economically worse off, or the half not entitled to vote, or the almost everyone who has to live under a worse health system, do not feel envy – feel their suffering – for unlike you privileged ones they are not represented at the UN! Shush, Dr Ron Paul, not a word!

This dearth of imagination, in turn, is the worst enemy of a people, as it does not allow for the emotional bond that compels individuals -- and in turn governments -- to act for the sake of someone else. Such a lack allows for all types of transgressions to be visited upon people, from genocide in Rwanda to ethnic cleansing in Sudan. Or Beijing's growing repression of Taiwan.

Yup, just slips off the tongue doesn’t it. RwandaSudan....Taiwan. What? Struggling with the link? Hey man, just have a couple of tokes on this, lie back and…imagine.

So what can be done? One secret weapon, perhaps, lies in the expatriates who live in Taiwan who have come to know and love its people and appreciate its democratic accomplishments, and who wish for it to succeed. All can mobilize to act as ambassadors. When they visit home, for one, they should never allow a customs officer to belittle Taiwan by ignoring its existence. Instead, they should express their outrage and deliver the necessary correction. The worst that can happen is that their luggage will be more thoroughly searched because they rubbed the officer the wrong way -- a temporary setback that, in the grand scheme of things, is minor compared with what Taiwanese would have to endure should Beijing have the upper hand in the battle for identity.

Aha, a secret weapon! Take that China! For there are thousands of ignorant westerners who are pompously mobilizing as self declared ambassadors. We are not weak and helpless like the Taiwanese. We will endure the sacrifice of having our luggage more thoroughly searched as we, with that hilarious indignant western arrogance, ignore Taiwan’s "democratic accomplishments" when they do not accomplish putting the word Taiwan on visas. No, we will not hold back from deludedly correcting and pretentiously snarling at customs officers that "ignore" Taiwan’s existence by correctly doing their job and using the official name.

J. Michael Cole for one is certainly not put off. He knows that any inconvenience he suffers will be minor compared with what Taiwanese would have to endure should they democratically disagree with his nearly two years of hands on experience.

It is no coincidence that courses on how to react in hostage-taking situations teach participants to show pictures of their spouses and children so that an emotional bond can be created with their captors. By giving himself a face, a history, the captive is making it more difficult for the hostage-taker to treat him as a faceless individual who can be subjected to violence, or someone whose fate can be ignored.

Friends of Taiwan should therefore speak up to give its people a face, for they are indeed hostages on a grand scale.

Go show the third world. I’m sure they’ll be very receptive once they start imagining.

Taiwan is significantly more independent than any EU state.

Friends of Taiwan should realise that nation states really don't mean very much in the 21st century.

Monday, 23 July 2007

Thanks Mike. Do write again soon.

If you're British, this may well be the most wonderfully amusing thing the internet has thus far produced. If you're not British, perseverance will be amply rewarded.

The Guardian only keeps threads open for three days so the fun has now ended.
I hope that someone somewhere goes on to reproduce an edited version. there's an idea...

Friday, 25 May 2007

Phrases I would sometimes like in Chinese on my t-shirt

No, I'm British

I don’t speak English

Stare any longer and I’ll follow you home

I don’t have SARS

I have SARS

Out of my fucking way

650 p/h

Yes it is true

The same as on my head

100nt per question


Where is the airport?

Nosy little sod aren’t you

First day in Taiwan

I don’t want a receipt or a straw

Get up - I’m pregnant

You’re uglier than your photo suggests too

I have no interest in language exchange either

Spoilt foreigner alert

I’m always full

Victim of reverse racism

Ignore this message

Don’t feed the narcissist

Betel nut girls don’t spit

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Football at Carlisle

I do find it humourously ironic that old backward socialist Europe is home of the sporting free; a place where teams aren’t punished with salary caps for the crime of being well run or good; a place where bad clubs get relegated – or even occasionally go out of business - to often then be re-established by their orphaned fans.

As my brother pointed out last night, Taiwan is just the latest in a series of terrible football teams to which I have pledged my support. I grew up in south-west Scotland. This means that not only do I follow Scotland - whose recent achievements have included a one all draw with the Faroe Islands and a drubbing at the hands of Moldova - but I also cheer on Queen of the South – a team in the champions league of clubs with great names but who rattle around in the Scottish "Division One" of football – actually the nation’s 2nd tier league. The stupid title came about when it was decided the top division - as is often the case in English when one wants to make something mediocre sound better - should be given a French sounding name – The Scottish Premier League.

My home’s closest town of any significance however is actually in EnglandCarlisle. They play in the English "league one" which surprise surprise is nothing of the sort. It’s actually the third division. Some unhinged bureaucrat a while back thought that more money could made if the top 2 leagues were re-branded the Premiership (sound familiar?) and the championship - the championship of England’s 21st to 44th best teams. You couldn't make it up.

These days Carlisle United are on (for them) something of a crest. But they produced their finest ever moment at the bottom of a horrible trough.

I'd like to share that moment with you. It's a real beauty I'm sure you'll agree. Please pay attention to the context at the start.

Monday, 7 May 2007

Football in Taiwan

Football (soccer to those philistines who think that a football is oval shaped) has no rivals in terms of global reach and popularity. Baseball, cricket and basketball are nowhere close and have almost no chance of even making inroads into football's worldwide dominance. I therefore think it's a real shame that Taiwan has such a hopeless and pitiful team.

Chinese Taipei - the absurd name that the Taiwanese football team has to be officially known as - is ranked 167th in the world. 167th! A rich country of 23 million people is ranked below Andorra, Liechtenstein, the Solomon Islands and the Maldives. But hey, on the plus side we're one spot above the Turks and Caicos Islands. The idea of Taiwan qualifying for even the Asian cup (let alone the world cup) is risible. These part timers didn't score one goal in the last qualifying competition - and I suppose we should be relieved that they only conceded 24. Just 700 people bothered to turn up at Zhongshan stadium to watch them getting spanked by Syria. The following match, an oh-so-fierce local derby against South Korea inspired 1300 to attend - and I bet half were speaking Korean.

South Korea actually makes a telling comparison. These two countries have a lot in common - "tiger" economies, terrible neighbours, a similar transition from dictatorship to democracy and, most apt of all, an inferiority complex. Sadly, investment in sport is not something they share. Do you remember the 2002 world cup? South Korea got through their group and then (granted, with a home crowd and a suspicious amount of luck) knocked out Spain followed by Italy to reach the semi-finals. The Koreans were drugged delirious with pride at what had been achieved in front of billions. People on every continent were toasting them.

Can you imagine what an experience like that would do for Taiwanese self-confidence? It's a wonderful thought. But it's also less probable than Liechtenstein reaching the final four.This certainly wasn't inevitable.

Of course, South Korea had advantages; it is about the most ethnically homogenous country in the world. Combine that with being the underdog sandwiched between China and Japan and it is easy to see how international sport fired the spirit - and thus opened the cheque book.

Taiwan, on the other hand, isn't even certain if it's a country. But to be 167th best at the only global game is a great shame.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Smile for the big picture

Despite spending most of the last 3 years in Taiwan, I'm new to Taiwan's foreigner blogs. Over the last couple of days I've started looking through a range of them. From the light and banal to the political and incisive; from the wonderfully self deceptive to the cynically self perceptive. Although I've only skimmed through a fraction of it, I've found Michael Turton's site especially rewarding. An Encyclopedic wealth of information on Taiwanese politics and current affairs strained through a strong, intelligent (generally) DPP outlook.

What I find disconcerting about most of the geo-political and economic opinion I've so far found on foreigner-in-Taiwan blogs is how bloody pessimistic it seems to be. Ever since I arrived in Taiwan I've been struck by how pessimistic most Taiwanese are if you get them on to these subjects. I've always argued the bright, happy case with them but they usually just shake their heads and give me a look that says "you just don't get it". I thought that as my Chinese improved, I might gain a better insight into what it was that I didn't get. Instead I've become even more perplexed and frustrated by this stoic, stubborn, fatalistic pessimism. I thought I might find some perky, sanguine views from my fellow foreigners but no - just more of the same half-emptiness.

What the fuck is wrong with everyone?

Taiwan has gone from poor to rich in a very impressive time. It has a globally integrated economy with an educated, intelligent, industrious work force that is willing to learn and adapt. It has a harmonious society where the old are cared for by their family, where streets are safe everywhere, where teenagers eat with and talk to their parents rather than take drugs with their friends. There is low unemployment. There is an efficient, sustainable health system. There is an admirably low poverty rate and yet no bloated welfare system. Infrastructure is good and improving. Taiwanese companies and people are better placed than any others to make money hand over fist on the back of the rising dragon.
Taiwan will never sit at the UN but China's army will never invade. The 21st century will see the nation state become less and less important as globalisation integrates us. Taiwan's differences will become less marked and less important. Taiwan will always be Taiwanese.

If this piece were read by the foreigner-in-Taiwan keyboard community, I'd get lots of erudite, all brains and no intelligence replies hammering my woolly naivety. Enough about the trees and more on the forest. Taiwan is a handsome teenager with no confidence and everyone goes on about the greasy spots without mentioning the beautiful face.

Am I wrong?

Friday, 16 March 2007


Most countries seem to have at least one "lets let off lots of fireworks" nights. The excuse differs - independence from some other country, New Year on some calender, the end of some festival, the triumph of good over evil, failing to light 1800 lbs of gun powder under the houses of parliament - but in big cities everywhere the effects at one "dazzling spectacle" are much the same as another "Breathtaking show". Once you've seen one "largest display ever!" you've seen them all.
December the 31st pitches city councils all over the world against each other. Who can be seen and forgotten by the most people around the world; who can get away with blowing up the most public money. Taipei makes its bid to appear on the "New Year has already happened in Asia" news round up by blasting their fireworks from the tallest building in the world - conveniently also in Taipei.
But, like most places, Taiwan also has its own day - or in this case week. Spending Chinese New Year in Taipei means sniper bangs turning into background noise; 5 year olds buying and lighting rockets taller than them at 1 in the morning. The usual work day pollution subsides leaving one free to appreciate the full flavour of the heavy metals in the firework smoke.

Something also happens in Yenshui.