Sunday, 30 December 2012

Ha-Joon Chang: 23 Things They Don't Tell You about Capitalism

Ha-Joon Chang (source: Wikipedia)

As a European who during the last few years has been compelled to hear bad news about the economy of my continent, I wanted to know more about capitalism in order to understand what's going on. And what's going wrong.

I never believed the myths neoliberal economists have been telling us for decades now. One thing is the theory, and another thing is the reality. My generation has witnessed the failure of the promise that neoliberals made in the 1980s and 1990s. When Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan turned neoliberal thinking into a mainstream ideology that has been dominating the West for decades, they told us that their economic policy would create more wealth by fostering entrepreneurial spirit. They told us that free market and free trade were the only way to more prosperity, and that government interference, bureaucracy, and 'leftism' were the shackles from which we had to free ourselves. 

But what has been the result of forty years of neoliberalism? The first test was the integration of the former Soviet block into the capitalist world. This test showed the flaws of neoliberal thinking. Eastern Europe (including East Germany) experienced rising unemployment and the collapse of its industrial sector. Whole societies were shaken by the shock therapy that did not deliver the impressive results that were expected. When neoliberal policies failed the test, their advocates came up with an excuse that we have heard over and over again whenever such policies were unsuccessful: it's not neoliberalism that is wrong; it's governments that are too corrupt and inefficient. This excuse has helped shake off all responsibilities from the proponents of neoclassical methods. The fact that many corrupt and inefficient governments that did not adopt neoliberal formulae (like China or S. Korea) succeeded in creating growth and employment, and that the same neoliberals who advocate free market and free trade are very well aware of the "rising China", is simply not discussed.

Forty years of neoliberalism have brought about a widening wealth gap, social insecurity, unemployment, financial speculation, inbalances in international trade, stagnating or falling wages, and deindustrialisation in some parts of the first world. And I always wondered: why does it have to be like that? Why are we told that we live in the best of all possible worlds when we clearly see that this isn't  the case?

Is it really true that our standard of living is too high and we have to put up with a more modest (austere) existence - i.e., more work and less consumption? Is it true that the rich who have been getting richer year by year are benefiting the majority of us? Is it true that the banking sector has done great things for the economy and all the bonuses and hyperbolic earnings of bankers are justified?

I wanted to find answers to these questions. I therefore had to buy this book. And when I read it, I was not disappointed.

Ha-Joon Chang (Korean: 장하준, Hanja: 張夏准, born in 1963), is a so-called "heterodox" economist. What does that mean? Well, I guess it means he doesn't belong to those economists which propagate free-market economics. Calling Mr Chang "heterodox" is in itself a clear proof of the predominance of the neoliberal narrative in today's economic discourse.

Mr Chang's origin might partly explain why he rejects neoliberal ideology. He comes from a country (South Korea) where state intervention actually has played a major role in its astounding economic success. The same is true for East Asia as a whole. Something free market advocates might find puzzling. I think of what Milton Friedman once said: Japan is successful despite having state intervention. The word "despite" is used to turn a simple fact - that Japan's protectionist economic policy with heavy state regulation made it the 3rd richest country in the world - into a bizarre exception that cannot be rationally explained.

In 23 Things They Don't Tell You about Capitalism the Korean Cambridge professor analyzes 23 myths that economists have been propagating for decades, deeply influencing the thinking of both us citizens and our politicians. Free marketeers argue that the government should stay away from business. The state should be minimalist. It ought to guarantee the rule of law and other basic functions, but it should not interfere in the economic activity of the citizens. Whenever governments attempt to influence the economy - so do free marketeers say - the results have been disastrous. Therefore we should let the market regulate itself. 

It sounds great, doesn't it? We are told that if we all pursue our own interests all of us will in the end benefit from each other's selfishness. We need no control. We can be as greedy as we want, and in doing so we keep our economies going. So long as we have individual freedom, we will live in a prosperous, free world. Wonderful. But is it really true?

Mr Chang argues that part of the assumption that the market is a fundamental element of the economy is true and that the market shouldn't be replaced by Communist-style planned economy, where the market is suffocated by state regulation. Mr Chang is not an anti-capitalist. "Being critical of free-market ideology," he says, "is not the same as being against capitalism." In his book, the Korean economist explores some of the commonplaces mainstream economics have created.

In the first chapter, for instance, Mr Chang explains that "[t]here is no such thing as a free market". We think that the market is free because we accept rules and regulations as though they were 'natural'. But they aren't. Think of child labour. If markets were really free, then child labour should be allowed and subjected to the "rules of the market". Of course, it isn't. Our states prohibit child labour because we consider it immoral, even though there might be some capitalists out there eager to exploit any underpaid work force in order to maximise gains. When in 1819 the British Parliament discussed an act aimed at regulating child labour (the Cotton Factory Regulation Act), opponents "saw it as undermining the sanctity of freedom of contract and thus destroying the very foundation of the free market." Nowadays, no one would dare suggest that "labour ought to be free". We regulate labour because we think it's a moral duty of the society to protect our children from exploitation and give them a better future. Interestingly enough, through the regulation of child labour and the subsequent introduction of compulsory education, the well-being of society was better served - completely against the short-term interests of the industrial magnates.

Or think about copyright and patent laws. If the market works perfectly without state intervention, then why do we need such regulations? Well, it's obvious. The state must guarantee by legislation that it's worth investing time and money in new ideas. If there were no copyright and patent laws - which have to be enacted and enforced by the state - there would be less investments.

In Chapter number 7, Mr Chang refutes one of the core myths of free-market economics: it is not solely the free-market that has made today's rich countries rich. Virtually all of today's richest countries had at some stage of their history a protectionist economic policy. For example, it isn't true that the United States of America became the greatest industrialised nation in the world through free market and free trade. In fact, trade tariffs in the USA averaged 20% and were often as high as 40-50 % for much of its history until after WWII. One of the strongest promoters of protectionism was lawyer and first United States Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who in his Report on the Subject of Manufactures argued that "industries in their infancy" had to be protected and supported by the government before they could afford competition from the outside. For one century and a half the country did not depart from this approach.

After the rise of the first industrial powerhouse - now deindustrialized England - in almost all other countries industrialization was favoured in one way or the other by the state: Germany had high tariffs to protect its market from the flood of English products. Japan, China, South Korea and almost all Asian countries achieved their "economic miracle" through protectionism and state intervention.

In Chapter 18, Mr Chang shows us that the highest degree of freedom for private companies might be detrimental for the interests of society and the overall economy. The reason is that a company might pursue short-term gains and neglect the long-term well-being not only of the company, but also of the whole country. General Motors (GM) is a good example of this.

After WWII it was the biggest company of the USA and the biggest car manufacturer in the world. When the United States opened up to foreign imports, GM was unable to match competition from Japan, Germany, South Korea and other countries. GM did not invest in making better cars consumers wanted to buy. Instead, it shifted its business model to finance. In 2004, 80% of GM's revenues came not from car manufacturing, but from its financial branch, General Motors Acceptance Corporation (GMAC). In 2009, GM went bankrupt and had to be rescued by tax-payers' money. It was easier for GM's shareholders and managers to earn loads of money through finance, thus sacrificing jobs and the industrial infrastructure of the US, instead of investing in better cars. And that's because the American government didn't set limits to what GM could or could not do in the interest of the nation and the workers. 

Chang Ha-Joon's book gives a thought-provoking insight in the history of capitalism and the misconceptions that surround the alleged superiority of the neo-liberal model of free market economics. Mr Chang proves that the market is not a self-regulating entity in which we should trust blindly. The interaction between market and other forces such as the state is way more complex than free-marketeers have long argued. A deep understanding of this interaction is a key to develop better, more efficient economic policies.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Love or Bread? (愛情還是麵包?) - Family Planning, Concepts of Happiness and "Materialism" in Asia

What would you choose? Love or Bread?” This is the question which parents in East Asia often ask their children when trying to convince them to marry the “right person”. It is a question that reveals some key elements of East Asian culture and mentality.

It is well known to Western observers of East Asian matters that in the countries of the Orient family planning plays a much more important role than in the West. When I was in Europe I seldom met people who began thinking about marriage when they were in their early twenties, let alone before they had found a suitable partner. In Asia, the way people think about their future is completely different, and I believe that if we really want to have a deep cultural exchange, we need understand these peculiarities.

As I have already explained in one of my earlier posts, in order to talk about and understand a culture, it is necessary to observe it. Observations are based on subjective experiences and therefore limited to particular cases, and every generalization derived from observations must always be regarded as hypotheses, not as an objective truth that applies to every single individual of a group. 

For example, if I say that Italian people are emotional, this may or may not be true in every single case, but if most Italians I've met are more emotional than most Germans I've met, I can form a judgment based on these observations, knowing that it doesn't necessarily apply to all Italians or Germans. Moreover, when talking with other people I can compare my observations with theirs and formulate a hypothesis, which is only a possibility and should not become a stereotype.

Family values are very heterogeneous, depending both on individual choices and local culture. For example, in Southern Italy - where I come from - family ties are still very strong. But even in places like Germany or Northern Italy, which have high divorce rates and where a large number of couples live together without getting married, you can still find a lot of people who have a traditional standpoint on family. In this post I will try to highlight some phenomena that I have observed in Europe and in Asia. In my view, the ideal of marriage and family has undergone a severe decline over the last decades in the West, whereas in Asia it is still very much alive, and this is mainly due to the difference between what I would call the individual norm of the West and the social standard of the East. 

Individual Norm versus Social Standard – Why in Asia Family Matters 

As I have said in one of my previous posts, Western analysts often use the antithesis between shame society and guilt society to explain a core difference between East and West. This distinction is extremely useful, but it is not sufficient because it doesn't take into account some of the major characteristics of the evolution of Western societies during the past three hundred years. 

I will argue that what makes Asia really different from the West, is that in the West the erosion of old values – especially those related to Christian thinking and society – has led people to question social conventions and to find in themselves the meaning and the purpose of their own lives, whereas Asian societies tend to keep collective values with which individuals identify themselves. Let's briefly examine this development. 

While in the Middle Ages the Christian religion permeated virtually all aspects of life in Europe, the beginning of the modern era witnessed a weakening of religious values. The Enlightenment openly challenged the supremacy of the Christian narrative, starting a secular discourse that has turned upside down the foundation of Western societies. 

Continue Reading

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Visiting Beijing Without Visa - New 72-hour Visa-free Transit Policy

Beijing at night
If you step over at Beijing Capital Airport and you have to wait long for your next flight, you might be wondering if you can leave the airport and take a walk around the city. This is the same question I asked myself a few days ago. I arrived in Beijing from Taipei at 4:00 p.m., and my next flight was at 1:30 p.m. of the following day. I really disliked the idea of idling around at the airport for so many hours, so I decided to try and find out if it was possible to go out without having a visa.

The answer is yes. And it is extremely easy. We often hear in the news that China has severe human rights issues, and we imagine that there must be strict control of personal freedom, police everywhere etc. I do not doubt that when you challenge the authorities you will sooner or later get into trouble. And, of course, websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Blogger are blocked (but, strangely enough, newspapers like Time or Der Spiegel can be accessed without any problem). But except for that, as a visitor, you don't notice any particular restriction. The one day visa is a good example of this.

I arrived at Terminal 3. After the body temperature control there are the passport control for Chinese nationals and foreigners, and the domestic and international transfers. On the left there is a “special line”. An officer was standing by the counter, apparently doing nothing. I walked up to him and explained my situation: “I will fly to Rome tomorrow at 1:30,” I said. “Is it possible to go out of the airport and visit the city?”
“Show me your ticket,” he said dryly. I gave it to him and he took a brief glance at it. Then he pointed to a desk: “Fill in the arrival card and come back.”

I did as I was told. I wrote my name, passport number, flight number, but left the purpose of the visit and the address in Beijing blank. I went back to the special line and handed the paper to the officer, who checked my passport, ticket and the arrival card. Then he put a huge stamp on my passport, writing by hand the date of my arrival (December 19th) and the day of my departure (December 20th) and gave me passport and ticket back. I was about to go to line up at the passport control, but he made a gesture indicating the exit behind his counter. “You can go,” he said.
This was the simplest bureaucratic procedure I'd ever seen. I got a one day visa for Beijing within just a couple of minutes. 

Don't forget that in order to get this visa, you need to have a ticket that shows you will depart within 24 hours and your luggage must have already been checked in (if your luggage arrives in Beijing with you, you won't be given the visa).

Outside of Dongzhimen Subway Station
I walked directly to the shuttle train and went to the arrival hall. From there I took the Airport Express which goes to Dongzhimen Subway Station, in Beijing's city centre.

I had a walk around Dongzhimen and then I took line 2, changed at Jianguo Station into line 1 and went to Tiananmen. Unfortunately, Beijing was terribly cold and I couldn't really enjoy my one day visit. After one year in Taiwan, which has a pleasant temperate weather all year, Beijing's piercing cold was too much for me.

The good news for all those who will step over in Beijing is that from January 2013 the immigration authorities at Beijing Capital Airport will be able to issue 72 hours visas.


On the 1st of January 2013 a new regulation came into effect. Travellers who step over at Beijing International Airport and are provided with a plane ticket for a flight that leaves Beijing after a maximum of 72 hours can easily obtain a 72 hours visa free entry, valid only within Beijing. 

The procedure is the same as I described above. Just fill in the arrival card, go to the special line left of the Immigration Inspection and give your passport, the ticket for the next flight and the arrival card to the officer. Within a few minutes you will get a stamp on your passport that will allow you a 72 hours stay in the PRC capital. This new policy is valid for citizens of the following 45 countries:

On the right you can see the China Immigration Inspection
and the desk where to fill the arrival cards. The special line
to get your 72 hours visa is on the left, where people
are queuing

-- Austria;
-- Belgium;
-- the Czech Republic;
-- Denmark;
-- Estonia;
-- Finland;
-- France;
-- Germany;
-- Greece;
-- Hungary;
-- Iceland;
-- Italy;
-- Latvia;
--the Republic of  Lithuania;
-- Luxembourg;
-- the Republic of Malta;
-- the Netherlands;
-- Poland;
-- Portugal;
-- the Republic of Slovakia;
--the Republic of Slovenia;
-- Spain;
-- Sweden;
-- Swiss;
-- Russia;
-- the United Kingdom of Britain;
-- the Republic of Ireland;
-- Cyprus;
-- Bulgaria;
-- Romania;
-- Ukraine;
-- the United States of America;
-- Canada;
-- Brazil;
-- Mexico
-- Argentina;
-- Chile;
-- Australia;
-- New Zealand;
-- the Republic of Korea;
-- Japan;
-- Singapore;
-- Brunei;
-- the United Arab Emirates;
-- Qatar.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

To Beijing

And so I am going back to Europe after a long year spent in Taiwan. Hopefully I'll come back to Asia as soon as possible.

I will fly to Beijing and then to Rome. I have a long stepover in Beijing. Hopefully I can leave the airport and take a walk around. It would be great if I could, though I'm not sure if this 24-hours visa exempt permit really works.

One Year Ago

I was at Taoyuan International Airport. My ex-girlfriend called me. I was surprised. We hadn't been talking with each other for a week. She'd refused to reply to my sms, to pick up the phone when I called her. Then, one day before my departure, she suddenly wrote me a long e-mail, at about 3 a.m.

I was happy that she'd called me, although she hadn't come to the airport to see me off. I was so silly. I'd gone to Taiwan for her, and even if she wasn't with me at the moment of my departure, I was still grateful that she was talking to me.

"We can be friends," she said.

"Why do you call me when I'm leaving to tell me that you just want to be friends with me?" I said. "Yesterday night I was tossing and turning in my bed until I received your e-mail, and then I was so happy, because I thought that we could solve our problems."

"We can be friends. This time I mean it."

"You always make one step forward and then one step back. You drive me crazy."

"I didn't call you to quarrel."

"All right, have a nice Christmas." I hung up the phone.

Then I regretted. The fear of losing her forever, of not hearing her voice any more was too powerful. I called her again. "Okay, listen. Fine, let's not quarrel."

"What time are you leaving?" she asked.

"In one hour." Until the last moment, I'd hoped she would come to the airport. Just like I'd done when she was in Europe. But she wasn't there.

I was checking in and talking with her at the same time. They told me my case was too heavy.
"I'll call you back," I said. "I must throw away some stuff."

Two boxes of tea and a package of pineapple cakes ended in the garbage bin.

I called her again, checked in, went to the security control. "Wait, I'll call you again in a few minutes."

It's hard to accept the loss of a person you love. But love sometimes is similar to an illness. Hearing her voice gave me a feeling of relief and peace, like a painkiller does to a sick person's body. It's just an illusion, a temporary, addictive palliation, before the pain resumes.

We kept on talking until the flight attendant on the plane asked me to switch off the phone. "Good-bye. Have a nice Christmas," I said.

When silence fell, it was as though the world around me had become empty.

Monday, 17 December 2012

A Few Thoughts about the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Territorial Dispute

After reading  an interesting post that defends China's position in the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands dispute, I began to think about this subject from a different perspective. In fact, I've always believed that the Japanese were right. But can there really be right and wrong in such issues?

The reality is that the disputes that exist today in Asia are the consequence of two hundred years of Western-shaped nationalism and of a post-colonial narrative of modernization and "national rejuvenation". Xi Jinping's talk of the rejuvenation of the nation is, interestingly enough, very similar to what Guomindang's leader Chiang Kai-shek called "Revitalization of China" (振興中華). 

For millions of people in Asia, Western domination meant that they were second-class world citizens. That they were weak, backward, at the mercy of foreign military and economic power. The Western discourse of modernity deprived them of their pride and forced them to see themselves as "disciples" of the powerful West. 

One can observe in all Asian countries that were threatened by the West a similar pattern of nation (re-)building. Beginning with Japan, Asian countries established a Western-style nationalism, and they created a narrative of rebirth and self-strengthening that defined itself as a state of emergency caused by the sudden change in Asian peoples' worldview: from the traditional East Asian hierarchy of nations with China as the centre, the world became a chaotic place full of threats and enemies. The focus of the modernization and "catch-up" narrative thus lay on material progress. Because material progress means power, and power means "freedom from foreign aggressors". 

One can observe this in the "Little Dragon" Taiwan, where people learnt to define their identity - and their alleged superiority over and diversity from mainlanders - in terms of economic success. Modernization has been a process of convergence between state and people for the purpose of rapid industrialization, in which all human, technical and political resources have been channelled into the mission of achieving material and spiritual progress. In this way, aggressive export policies were enhanced, and the people were told to sacrifice themselves, devote all their strength to working hard, saving money, keeping quiet (trade union power is marginal and working conditions as well as salaries lag far behind the productivity of these countries).

Nationalism has been a key component of this narrative. Just like the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, during which France (at that time the richest and most populous continental power in Europe) asserted its dominance, sparked a strong nationalistic reaction in the countries that the French had conquered and devastated, the wars of the past two centuries have given Asians the awareness of their own weakness. In a world of national states, nationalism, with its ideological potential of mass mobilization, served as a major political factor in the modernization of Asia. The education system has been a precious vehicle of this state ideology, because history can easily flare up the people, especially if history is taught simplistically. 

Let's remember how Europe was until World War II. A number of states had been fighting each other for centuries, and even today, during the economic crisis, it's easy to detect the power of national ideology in Europe, both in the relation between states and in that between locals and immigrants. The only thing that has  - hopefully - been entirely overcome in Europe, are major territorial disputes. 

The arguments with which the People's Republic of China (PRC), the Republic of China (ROC) and Japan justify their sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands have as much truth in them as historical and legal  evidence may have: that is, an evidence that depends on every state's own interpretation. They use old maps and legal arguments as proves, but what can old maps prove? Does China expect to convince Japan, however founded China's claims may be? 

If we used the same legal arguments in Europe we would go back to fighting each other. Just look at a map from the last century, and you'll see that the potential for territorial dispute is huge. The problem is: an issue in which emotions weigh more than rational arguments and in which both parties are right from their own perspective, is hard, if not impossible to solve. 

After World War II, Germany has accepted a loss of 1/3 of its national territory. Italy has lost territories, Great Britain has lost a whole empire. Losing a piece of land is actually not the end of the world. In the national ideology of the 19th century, a nation is like an organism, and its territory as an integral part of it cannot be severed without destroying the organism. Only after a catastrophic war did European powers come to terms with territorial losses. The precondition of the peace that followed the war, however, was the complete destruction of the continent, which made it clear to the majority of the people that when nation fight each other, no one wins. Asian nations have a different historical experience. China won WWII, but in reality, they feel as though they'd never won. That's probably because the USA treated China as a minor power and didn't let Chinese represent the interests of their country. Giving the Diaoyu islands to Japan upset both the Communist and the KMT government. But Japan was an ally of the US, and it was Asia's only economic powerhouse for decades. Neither the US nor Japan predicted that China would rise, and so they missed their opportunity of deepening their friendship with the country and solve the most critical disputes. Now that China is more powerful it is to late to redress the wrong done. 

The PRC and Japan will both try to get their own way. It's hard to believe that they will sit down, talk and find a compromise. Which country would ever accept a loss of territory? These small islands are not vital for the two nations, but they are vital for the definition of their national pride and identity. Like the conflict between Israel and Palestine, every step might cause nationalist feelings to flare up. 

In this respect, the West should better abstain from intervention. The United States have already secured their backing of Japan. In my view, this wasn't a wise choice. People like to compare every armed conflict with the last world war, saying: "If we had intervened earlier, this wouldn't have happened!" But you can't compare every single conflict with the world war and every authoritarian state with Nazi Germany. Just like Stalin wasn't Hitler and the USA fought at his side against the German dictator, and just like Gorbachev was very different from Stalin, so today's China is way more liberal and less authoritarian than any dictatorship of the past, except probably for the last decades of KMT's rule on Formosa. If the regional conflict between the two Asian giants should arise, the best possible solution would be to remain neutral, mediate, try to find a reasonable settlement. But we cannot meddle in a conflict that is per se a consequence of two centuries of war, nationalism and hatred, of which the West has been, directly or indirectly, a cause.   

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Trip to Tainan

Tainan Train Station
Last weekend I made a one day trip to the Southern Taiwanese city of Tainan (Chinese: 臺南, pinyin: Táinán), the former capital and one of the most important centres of culture, history and architecture of the island.

This blog post is also intended as a special thanks to Grace, a Taiwanese friend who was so kind to show me around, and very patient, too. Since Tainan doesn't have an extensive public transport net, Grace picked me up at the train station with her motorcycle, a vehicle that, along with cars, is regarded by locals as indispensable for living comfortably in Tainan. To my great embarrassment, though, I had to admit that I cannot ride a motorcycle. That's why we had to take buses to move around. It was the first time she ever took a bus in Tainan. And now I know why: buses come more or less every half an hour, and service stops early in the evening. No wonder Tainanese snob public transport. Grace had no idea about the routes and about where the bus stop was. We went to the visitors information centre right inside the train station. Anyway, I liked the fact that she also became a tourist like me. 

From Taipei to Tainan

Street in Tainan
There are many trains and buses that go from Taipei to Tainan, but the fastest way to get there - around 2 hours - is the 高鐵, the High Speed Rail (HSR). A single ticket costs 2300 Taiwan Dollars (around 62 Euros). Quite expensive, given that you travel only for about one hour and forty five minutes and the train itself is not as comfortable as, for example, German ICEs.

One curious thing about the HSR to Tainan is that Tainan Main Station and the HSR Station are not located in the same place, and not even close to each other. When I arrived and got out of the station, all around me there was a huge green area, trees and a highway, but nothing that resembled a city. I wondered if that could possibly be Tainan, because it rather looked like countryside. Then my friend called me and I found out that I had to take another train to go to Tainan proper. A very nice guy from the tourist information centre took the trouble to accompany me to Shalun Station (Chinese: 沙崙車站; pinyin: Shālún chēzhàn), which is right in front of the High Speed Rail Station. He also helped me buy the ticket and we had a short talk. In case he ever stumbles upon this blog, I'd like to thank him for his kindness. And for the nice talk in Mandarin, which is always a great thing.

It took me less than two hours to get to Tainan HSR Station from Taipei, but almost one hour to go from Shalun to Tainan Train Station. The distance itself is not big (see map below), but I had to wait for about 25 minutes before the train left. The journey became therefore considerably longer than I had thought. 

Tainan Train Station is a very nice Japanese colonial building. A station had already been built in 1900, but in the following years it proved insufficient. It was eventually demolished and in the 1930's the current building was constructed. From the station we took a bus to the oldest part of Tainan, Anping District (Chinese: 安平區; pinyin: Ānpíng Qū) . 

Anping and Fort Zeelandia

There are two main bus lines that go through the historic centre of Tainan: number 88, which is red, and number 99, which is blue (see map). We took the blue one, which goes directly from the train station to Anping.

Originally an island separated from Tainan mainland, in the 17th century Anping was chosen by the Dutch East Indian Company as a strategic location for the construction of a fortress, known as Fort Zeelandia in English and Anping Castle (安平古堡) in Chinese. Taiwan was particularly important for the Dutch due to its favourable position. It served as a base for trade between the headquarters of the Dutch maritime empire in the East Indies (Indonesia), South China and Japan. The Dutch soon discovered that Taiwan also had an immense agricultural potential, which they readily exploited. Though Dutch rule in Taiwan lasted only from 1624 to 1634, it had a huge economic impact on the island. 

When the Manchu Qing conquerors overthrew the Ming Dynasty in mainland China, a Fujianese general named Zheng Chenggong, a Ming loyalist, retreated to Taiwan in the hope of reorganizing his forces and reconquering the mainland (an interesting historic parallel to Chiang Kai-shek). The last Ming Emperor had bestowed upon him the title 國姓爺 (Guóxìng Yé: Lord of the Imperial Surname). It is from the erroneous European pronunciation of this title that Westerners derived the name Koxinga, under which Zheng Chenggong is known in Western historiography. 

Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga)

Museum opposite the fort
In 1661 he attacked the Dutch possessions, and after a siege that lasted several months, on February 1662 the Dutch surrendered, giving up their short-lived colonial rule. Zheng Chenggong and his son Zheng Jing kept Taiwan as a Ming stronghold and governed it independently from mainland China. Until the Qing invaded the island in 1681 and retook it in 1684. 

The Fort Zeelandia we see nowadays doesn't have much in common with the fortress one would have seen four hundred years ago. During the Qing reign, the whole complex was abandoned and the only original part which has survived until now is the southern wall. The rest was rebuilt by the Japanese after they conquered Taiwan in 1895. First they built a Japanese-style custom house, then tore it down and built another one in Western style. [note] There are two museums about the history of the fort, with a lot of 18th century maps, artefacts and reconstructions of the original buildings.  

A typical alley close to Fort Zeelandia

Old Western-style house
Fort Zeelandia Tower
A house. Not in a very good shape

All around Fort Zeelandia there are old streets full of food stands, just like in night markets. In the narrow alleys we discovered some interesting Western-style houses (though I think they were built under the Japanese). There are also several temples, the biggest and most famous of which is the Mazu temple. Mazu (Chinese: 媽祖; pinyin: Māzǔ) is a Sea Goddess that began to be worshipped during the Ming Dynasty. [note] The origin of the strong Mazu cult in Taiwan dates back to the 18th century, when large numbers of immigrants from Southern China came to Taiwan. The journey across the strait was perilous, the ships often overloaded, pilots and sailors who earnt money through the transport of people didn't care much for the lives of their passengers and frequently let them disembark in areas that were too far away from the shore so that they drowned (a practice known as "feeding the fish"). [Davison Chapter 4]. Since the risk of death was so high, upon their arrival on the island the migrants established temples to thank Mazu's for the safe journey.

Mazu Temple Gate. Unfortunately, there was a huge tent right in front of the Temple
so I couldn't take a picture of the facade.

Main altar of the temple

After visiting Anping we took the bus and went to Shennong Street. It is an old narrow alley, one of the best preserved and most traditional in Tainan. There are some workshops, cafe's and restaurants. After a few minutes' walk you reach  a temple, called Yuwang, which marks the end of the street. One of the things I've always found interesting in Taiwan is that some ground floor flats are separated from the street only by a grating or a big window, so that it's possible to look inside. It's almost as if people lived on the street. This lack of privacy doesn't seem to bother them, and it is useful to foreign visitors like me, because I can peep inside and see how such flats look like. In this way I found out that many people set up gigantic Buddhist shrines in the living rooms of their homes, occupying much of the already scarce space. Somehow creepy. In Shennong Street there were some of the biggest "home shrines" I've ever seen. 

Shennong Street

Koxinga Shrine

Koxinga Shrine
As I mentioned before, Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga) defeated the Dutch in 1662 and became the ruler of Taiwan. His reign was very short, though, for he died only fourteen months after seizing power. In 1663 his son and successor, Zheng Jing, had a shrine built for his father, who immediately after his death became a folk hero and a mythological figure (read my previous post about temples and religion in Taiwan). The shrine underwent many changes that reflect the history of the island. Under the Japanese it was loosely incorporated into the Shinto-cult, Japan's imperial religion. The Guomindang (KMT) also sought to use the shrine to promote their own political agenda. They renovated it after 1945 and transformed it into a symbol of Chinese national heroism. When Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan, the parallel between him and Koxinga became evident. In the early 1959's, a plaque was fixed over the main altar, with a slogan written by Chiang Kai-shek himself: 振興中華 (pinyin Zhènxīng Zhōnghuá: Revitalize China), on a plaque that was fixed over the main altar. The KMT used the shrine to suggest to the Taiwanese people that their island had already served as a national hero's base from which to reunite China. In this respect, the historical parallel proved to be more accurate than the KMT may have wished, for Chiang Kai-shek also failed to regain the mainland. 


Since it was already quite late and we were afraid of missing the last bus, I suggested to go back to Tainan Station and have dinner at a department store nearby. We went to Shin Kong Mitsukoshi (新光三越). Our dinner was nice, but we had to eat quickly, so we couldn't really enjoy it that much. 
When we arrived at the station, I said good-bye to Grace and went to the platform. The departure of the train to Shalun was scheduled for 21:45 and that of the High Speed Train to Taipei for 22:25. A little bit tight, but it would be enough. However, after a quarter to nine for some reason the train to Shalun was still not moving, and I became increasingly nervous. I started thinking about what I could do if I missed that train, which was the last one I could take. We arrived at 22:15, I ran to the High Speed Rail Station and fortunately I made it. But I still don't see the point of having two different stations for high speed and normal trains. 


-Gary Marvin Davison: A Short History of Taiwan: The Case for Independence

-Mark Harrison: Legitimacy, Meaning and Knowledge in the Making of Taiwanese Identity

-Lonely Planet Taiwan Travel Guide (Country Travel Guide)


Thursday, 13 December 2012

Mo Yan's Nobel Prize and The China-U.S. Power Struggle

It seems that nowadays, whenever you refuse to criticize China for not being a democracy and not respecting human rights, you will be automatically branded an opportunist, a cynic, or a coward. I am constantly amazed by the  subtlety with which the democracy and human rights discourse in the West has been charged with political implications. Let us ask ourselves a simple question: why are the media so obsessed with democracy and human rights in China? Is China perhaps the only country which has such issues? What about, for example, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, India, or Europe?

I argue that the main reason why China has become the focus of a discourse about democratization, is the underlying power struggle between the West, most especially the United States, and China, and that given the extraordinary economic development of the People's Republic, democracy functions as a compensatory element to differentiate the West's identity sharply from that of China, and to define an alleged superiority of the West.

First of all, let me clarify that I am not criticizing either democracy as such, or the attempts made by people who believe in democracy to have a dialogue with Chinese individuals or institutional representatives about issues such as democracy and human rights. I am simply trying to draw a clear line between democracy and human rights as a set of values, and the manipulation of these values for other political purposes.

Instead of criticizing China, for instance, why don't the media discuss about corruption and criminality in Italy? Or about the fact that the current Italian government is not democratically elected? Why don't we talk about rising poverty and rising right-wing extremism in Greece? Why don't we engage in a serious discussion about the causes and remedies of hunger in many parts of the world? About the misery of millions of people? In the perception of public opinion, austerity and technocracies in Europe are justifiable, even necessary, and Southern Europeans are often portrayed as lazy people who should be punished. So we tacitly accept that democracy in Europe might be endangered if unemployment and social unrest rise, without apparently being very alarmed about it. Poverty and corruption in India or Africa are things that seem not to be worth discussing as often as we debate poverty and corruption in China. When it comes to the Middle Kingdom, it seems that the moral standards of public opinion suddenly become very high.
Media work like a magnifying glass which enlarges the problems in one country, and completely ignores, or at best mentions only sporadically, the contradictions of other countries. As I suggested before, the reason is deeply rooted in the Western power discourse that began after the end of World War II.

When the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the two sole world superpowers, the old Western imperialistic, hierarchic worldview merged with the new Cold War narrative. It was Sir Winston Churchill who, in the light of British decline, pushed the United States to take the role which had belonged to the British Empire. America adopted a policy of leadership different and in many ways more humane than the old-style Pax Britannica, though it wasn't completely devoid of cruelty (like in Vietnam) and of hubris. Power had shifted from Europe to the United States, but in the eyes of the West it was still reassuringly in the hands of a Western country. 

It's worth remembering that the ascendance of Japan sparked fear in the West, a fear which was similar to the one Western countries feel towards China today, and which was only mitigated by the fact that Japan, having lost the war, knew that it had to accept a position lower than the United States' in the hierarchy of nations. Nevertheless, until the economic bubble burst, suddenly stopping Japan's astonishing growth, Japanophobia was widespread. The title of a 1991 PBS documentary, "Losing the War with Japan", might sound odd nowadays, but it reflects the fears of Western people back then [watch video].

When the Cold War ended, the triumph of America and its Western Allies seemed a fait accompli. The rise of the "Little Dragons" didn't seem to pose a threat to Western domination. In hindsight, the economic success of the Asian Dragons should have prompted the West to analyse their economic model and maybe to learn from them. In many ways, the development of China would have been less surprising, had Western observers not believed too much in their own political, economic and cultural dogmas.

When it became clear, in the late 1990's, that China, this huge country which for centuries had been perceived as poor and backward, was undergoing the most amazing process of modernization of the last hundred years, public opinion in the West couldn't cope with this fact. All of a sudden, the world order that had been taken for granted was being questioned. Hysteria and panic were followed by self-reassurances and the reaffirmation of the own moral superiority. Anger, hopelessness, hubris - contradictory feelings began to dominate the China discourse. The West is still not ready to accept the reality of the present and the challenges of the future.

While the free market dogma proves more and more problematic, with the West experiencing decades of poor growth and de-industrialization, trade deficits and an erosion of the middle-class, China's quick and solid industrialization has been impressive, prompting many in the West to view China with a mix of admiration, envy, and at the same time an instinctive contemptuous rejection of her economic model.

In this vacuum left by its dwindling material advantage, democracy has become the West's only tool to assert its superiority. In this respect, the criticism of the Communist government, except for continuing the traditional practices of the Cold War era, is also the last way in which the West can try to redefine its relationship with China without losing its claim to be entitled to lead and dominate the world (at least morally), having the absolute certainty that the goal of freedom and democracy is a righteous one. This dynamic is dangerous, because it is subtle and often hidden behind fear and hubris. In fact, it is far easier to construct the image of an enemy when one is certain of one's own moral superiority. And when an enemy, a threat have been created in the collective subconscious, the need for action in order to eradicate what one sees as a deadly menace becomes more pressing, and easier to justify.  

Mo Yan's Nobel Prize award is only the last example of this ongoing, undeclared power struggle. The Western public asked from a writer, who is also a member of the Communist Party, to challenge the Chinese authorities, and to plead for the release of human rights activist Liu Xiaobo. Defending a man who has been deprived of his freedom is without doubt a noble act, and I am not saying that Western media or organizations shouldn't demand that he be discharged. 
But what is the relationship between a Nobel Prize in Literature and a Chinese activist? Why is it so important that a man who creates art should support certain political ideas? Why do media focus on his political views and demand from him certain statements, instead of celebrating his talent and career? Some people say that he was afraid of speaking out the truth. Maybe. But who has the right to judge another man because he is afraid? I admire people who have courage. For example, the Italian journalist and writer Roberto Saviano, who wrote a book about the mafia (more specifically, the Camorra). I admire him. Because he stood up for the rights of those who are oppressed by the mafia, and because he put his life in danger and is now under police surveillance after receiving murder threats. But can I blame people who are not as courageous as him? Well, I don't. I can't. Not everyone is a hero. Most people aren't. 

The real reason why Mo Yan was criticized so vehemently is the power struggle which the West hopes to win by using democracy as a political tool. We collectively experience a sense of threat when we don't lambaste China. We think that we shouldn't show weakness or make compromises. We are trying to mobilize public opinion in this undeclared, but ongoing ideological war against a country that many already consider an enemy. By doing so, we create an enemy. If we want to talk about Liu Xiaobo or human rights, let's do it. But let's not politicize literature and art. Let's not politicize the media. Let's not construct a new Cold War.

We lived for forty years with the Soviet Union and other dictatorships. It should be much easier to co-exist with China, which is much more open and international than any Communist country ever was. 

There is only one way we can spread democracy and human rights. By being a good example for others. We should fix our economies, create more equality and improve our own democratic institutions. The best strategy to promote values that we consider good is to inspire other people, to make them say: "That's how we want to be." And we are not going to achieve this, as long as we fight deceitful ideological battles and don't improve ourselves.  

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Social Mask and Face in Asia

In 1894, the American missionary Arthur Henderson Smith (1845-1932) published Chinese Characteristics, a book which was to become very influential, for it was not only one of the most popular works about China written by a Western author, but it also inspired the father of contemporary Chinese literature, Lu Xun. 

Smith, who spent 54 years in China, shaped the way Western audiences perceived the Middle Kingdom in the late 18th century and the first half of the 19th century. Today he is probably best remembered for his book China in Convulsion (1901), one of the most interesting contemporary sources on the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, which Smith survived miraculously. [note]

In Chinese Characteristics, Smith introduced to Western audiences the peculiar meaning that the word "face" has in Chinese society: 

In a great range of cases constantly occurring in Chinese social relations, " face" is not synonymous with honour, much less with reputation, but it is a technical expression to indicate a certain relation instinctively perceived by a Chinese, but almost incomprehensible to the poor foreigner.

Smith gives a few examples of what Chinese mean by the word face, such as the following one:

To decline a gift especially prepared, such as a tablet, or even a simple pair of scrolls, might give great offence, unless it is done while the matter is still in embryo—and this for obvious reasons is generally impossible. In a case within our knowledge, a few Chinese resolved to present a foreigner with a token of this sort, which the foreigner resolved not to accept. When a single step has been taken in the affair, it is too late according to Chinese ideas to decline, for the will of the many must be respected. So the inscription was bought, and arrangements were made to present it, when, to the dismay of the donors, the obstinate foreigner, who had not enjoyed the advantage of an education of which a book of propriety is a part, absolutely refused to receive it. Here was a case of the irresistible projectile, impinging against an invulnerable target. The present could not go back, and the crass foreigner would not receive it. In this crisis the middle-man, through whom the business had thus far proceeded, consented to take charge of it, with the concurrence of both parties, the would-be givers, and the would-not-be receiver. After a certain lapse of time, the obnoxious present was surreptitiously sent to the premises of the (theoretically unwilling) recipient, and thrust into an unused drawer. Thus the donors had sent it—somewhere, while the recipient (theoretically) never received it, and what is of chief importance, the "face" of both parties was saved!

Nowadays, we have no opportunity to verify Smith's theories of "face", given that he lived and worked more than a century ago, in a feudal, imperial China that doesn't exist any longer. 

A more scientific attempt at understanding East Asian cultural patterns was made by American anthropologist Ruth Benedict in her classic book, The Chrysanthemum and The Sword (1946). One of Benedict's most famous theories revolves around the contrast between guilt societies (West) and shame societies (East Asia). While in guilt societies the individual acts according to abstract moral standards, in shame societies the category of shame exerts control over a person's behaviour. We can understand shame as

"a reaction to other people's criticism, an acute personal chagrin at our failure to live up to our obligations and the expectations others have of us. In true shame oriented cultures, every person has a place and a duty in the society. One maintains self-respect, not by choosing what is good rather than what is evil, but by choosing what is expected of one." [note

Generally speaking, life planning and social interaction in Asia are much more influenced by the expectation, or the pressure, of society, than it is the case in Western countries.   

In one of my previous posts I explained that, as far as I can judge, in Taiwan  the understanding of ideas like politeness or respect is not the same as I learnt in Europe. The notions of "social mask" and "face" can perhaps help make these differences clear. 

One of the things that I really love about Taiwan is that whenever I talk with strangers they will be very nice. I know exactly that whatever I do, there will be a certain level of benevolent tolerance towards me. For example, a few days ago I went to Tainan. A friend's friend, whom I met for the first time that day, showed me around. I unfortunately caused her some trouble, for which I apologized. But I knew she wouldn't get angry. She couldn't have got angry with a stranger. I'm not saying that she wasn't nice or that she was just pretending to be nice, in fact she was extremely friendly. I'm saying that even if she weren't a friendly person, she wouldn't have shown anger to me. Paraphrasing Ruth Benedict, I may say that life in Asia is like a chess game. There are certain rules to follow, which make it easier for people to foresee how others will react. In the case I mentioned above, I could predict that a stranger would always be nice to me, no matter what. This is what I would call a "social mask", a role played in order to interact with other individuals, which doesn't necessarily represent a person's true self. This social mask can also be understood as a wall: strangers will keep a distance from each other through a barrier of politeness.

This seems to me to be consistent with a number of phenomena I've observed in Taiwan, and I'd like to name two of them. The first is the common phenomenon of people speaking in a high-pitch voice, the second is make-up.

If you come to Taiwan, you will for sure hear a lot of people in shops who talk in an almost unnatural high-pitch voice. There are grown-up girls who pretend to have baby voices. Surprisingly enough, the reason is that a high-pitch voice is considered polite. No one expects shop assistants to be natural. They should act and follow precise requirements of politeness, even if they make male shop assistant sound extremely effeminate, and women sound like little girls. As a Westerner, I had never in my whole life associated high-pitch voice with politeness. That's probably the reason why to me this is rather annoying.

The second phenomenon is make-up, which I believe to be one of the most astonishing things I've seen in Taiwan. Girls change their whole appearance through make-up, making their eyes bigger with the aid of contact lenses, using long fake eyelashes, face powder and all sorts of cosmetics. The result is astounding. Watch the following video to see the full extent to which make-up can transform normal girls into beauties.

If you think that this girl is just an exception, you are wrong. Extreme make-up is a very common sight in Taiwan, and just as the high-pitch voice, it is considered a sign of politeness. In fact, bosses might ask their female employees to put make-up on, because if they don't, they'll be considered rude. 

It's obvious that make-up is not just an Asian phenomenon. But I would argue that most Westerners would consider so heavy make-up as highly unnatural, and in the end, as a superfluous mask that hides the true self of a person. Instead of accepting themselves as they are, girls hide themselves behind this mask, even though sooner or later their friends or boyfriends will find out how they really look like. This is, again, one of the most important differences I've observed between Westerners and Asians. When I was in Europe, I had the impression that people value "honesty", in the sense of being one's true self in social interactions, even if that means confrontation with others, while in Asia rules of politeness often regulate social interaction between people who don't know each other. As I mentioned previously, these rules do not apply when people have a closer relationship. It is absolutely normal for friends to quarrel, to get angry with or criticize each other, as well as for bosses to shout at their employees mercilessly.   

One should therefore not mistake friendliness for goodness. The point I want to make is that, as far as I can judge, in Asia social standards are extremely important in defining what an individual should do and how he or she should live. And that the pursuit of such goals is not necessarily related to the general moral directives I learnt in the West. 

Let me tell you a story to explain this point. Imagine the following situation: a 28-year-old girl believes that she should get married before she gets 30, being this what her parents and society expect. She has had the same boyfriend for a long time, but she doesn't really love him as much as he loves her. She doesn't break up, however, because she is afraid that she wouldn't be able to find another guy to get married with. So she keeps the "old" one, but at the same time she looks for a "better" one: a guy who has more money, has a flat and a car and is more handsome. If a girl could get married with such a man by the age of 28, then the expectations of society would be completely fulfilled and she could deem herself lucky. And if she finds such a man, she might break up with her old boyfriend in favour of the new one. Because the point of marriage is, in the eyes of society, not to find true love, but to have a comfortable and stable life. Such stories are not uncommon, as far as I know.

Imagine now another situation: a girl wants to find a boyfriend, because, according to the expectations of society, a girl who hasn't got a boyfriend is considered to be a "loser". That's why parents in Asia might make their daughter feel ashamed of being single and encourage her to find a boyfriend, something that I never heard of in Europe. So, this imaginary girl we're talking about finds two guys, but she's not so sure which is the better one. Again, social criteria are here very important. She will be very nice to them, pretend to be very soft and sweet - a behaviour which does not necessarily reflect her true self. After choosing one of the two guys, she will probably not confront the one she wants to reject, but stop contacting him and find excuses not to meet him. Such as: "I'm busy", "I have to work," or something like this. Although I personally consider this sort of indirect rejections way more painful and disrespectful than an honest and direct talk - if a girl tells me she loves someone else, I would still respect her and I'd appreciate she told me the truth - in Taiwan avoiding confrontation is easier for the girl, and somehow it saves both persons' face, though it won't prevent the guy to suffer.  

Indeed, when you meet someone new, you can often hardly tell if they want to be good friends with you. Because they will mostly be nice and friendly. After a while, however, they might suddenly be "very busy".