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.


Robo said...

Ben, I think you've blown things a little out of proportion. Sure, it's not the most interesting article, but I don't think there's anything wrong with saying that Taiwan would do better by encouraging more westerners to come live here and be "ambassadors." I know that most people back home where I'm from had no idea where Taiwan was or its relationship with China, but just through my coming and talking to them about it, they've become more aware of what's happening here.

That's all I felt this guy was trying to say, although in a not so eloquent manner.

Prince Roy said...

I think Taiwan has too many expat ambassadors, and most on the line of 'Taiwan is xxx because my Taiwanese girlfriend says xxx, so it must be so'.

The guy you're shredding here removed your comment on his blog.

Richard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
HeiShouDang 黑手黨 said...

You're dead right, Robo.
All he's doing is saying that foreigners who live in and love Taiwan can do their bit to correct some of the ignorance out there in the world.
What is wrong with that?
It's so easy to be sarcastic and criticise other people's work.

Ben Findlay said...

This was an editorial from the Taipei Times - probably Taiwan's leading English language newspaper. It deserved to be ridiculed.

If it were just a blog entry, Rob & heishoudang, I'd agree.

Michael Turton said...

Well, Ben, I don't know what to say. The author is a wise and experienced person who knows what he is saying and why. I too have often thought more imagination is the answer to lots of public policy problems.

You might consider rewriting this post, and removing the personal comments. The author is someone you are likely to meet and someone I know to be a gentleman and a scholar. He's on the right side, even if you think he is going about it the wrong way. You might also consider an apology -- believe me, I have apologized for much worse stuff than this. It's a hazard of posting that one's net persona tends to be much worse than one's real one.


Ben Findlay said...

Your thoughts are appreciated, Michael.

I've made minor alterations to a couple of previous posts - but then realised I'd been disengenuous to the people who had commented. I therefore feel that I can't now alter the piece.

I do somewhat regret the tone (but not the content) of my post and have hopefully learned something.

I also think that someone who writes editorials for the Taipei Times has to expect - and learn from - criticism. That is a hazard of writing editorials.

I hope M. J. Cole has a thick enough skin to see past my net persona.

Mark said...

Robo, I think the one who "blew things out of proportion" is writer of the editorial who compared Taiwan not being able to enter the UN or WHO to the genocide in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing in Sudan.

Assuming Ben's comment on his blog wasn't profane or off-topic, deleting it seems like a bit of an over-reaction.

Prince Roy, I agree completely. Why it is that every third foreigner here wants to be an "ambassador for Taiwan" is beyond me. It seems arrogant to think that just living here a few years makes you a representative of all the millions of people here. Why not let your Taiwanese girlfriend be the one to tell them what Taiwan is like?

Patrick Cowsill said...

"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."

If they are a secret weapon, Taiwan has yet to realize them. Actually, Taiwan does a pretty good job of pissing off its so-called ambassadors. Look at Taiwan's messed up visa policies, the difficulties the ambassadors have in procuring them and renewing them, and then compare these policies to those of China, other Asian countries or just about any place in the world. Look at how hard it is for the ambassadors to immigrate here. (The last time I checked the figures, 11 Americans had successfully become naturalized Taiwanese while every year in the States, 10,000 Taiwanese become citizens.)

On the ambassadors "appreciating its democratic accomplishments", I just have one question: when was the last time any of these expat ambassadors actually voted in Taiwan?

Why don't the ambassadors wake up? Taiwan does not really want them.