Monday, 31 March 2014

What Does Hong Kong Have to Do with Taiwan's Sunflower Movement? Or, Why Anti-Chinese Sentiment Unites People

In the light of the recent protests by Taiwanese students and activists against a planned trade deal with China, I have found myself in the uncomfortable position of criticising the demonstrations and, in some respects, defending the KMT administration led by Ma Yingjiu. 

As I am not a citizen of the PRC or the ROC, I am not involved in party politics and I have no interest in changing the situation in these countries. I am a EU citizen, and that's the place where I want to be politically active. Therefore, when I talk about the politics of East Asia, I try to see things from different perspectives and not to side with one or the other party. Shortly, I am one of those who criticise or praise according to the concrete situation, and not out of ideological affiliation.

As I have said in my last post, I think that the widespread support the current protests have received by international media, the expat community, and a part of Taiwan's media, are not only excessive, but also somewhat ideological. This support seems to me to be driven by a common anti-Chinese and anti-KMT sentiment, which blurs the distinction between the KMT, China, and the economic issue of free trade.

In Taiwan, this is understandable not only because of the polarising issue Taiwanese vs Chinese identity that divides the island, but also because the media reflect these divergent outlooks. For example, the China Times (中國時報, founded in 1950 by Yu Jizhong, a KMT member) and United Daily News (UDN) tend to be pro-KMT and pro-Chinese (not necessarily pro-PRC, though), while Apple Daily and Liberty Times tend to be more anti-Chinese (Apple Daily's founder Jimmy Lai is a notorious critic of Beijing's communist regime). 

But in international media and among expats, the general feeling is anti-KMT, anti-CCP, and anti-Chinese. The KMT is still viewed as the party that unleashed the White Terror, persecuted dissent, proclaimed martial law (lifted only in 1987) and repressed Taiwanese identity. These are all historical facts, but it is also true that the KMT gave its contribution to Taiwan's democratisation and since the early 1990s it has accepted to compete in democratic elections with other parties. Today's KMT is not the same as it was between the 1950s and the 1980s.

China is notoriously a complex matter, regarded sometimes as a friend, sometimes as a foe, and certainly not without reason. I would be the last one to defend one-party rule, as I am a strong supporter of pluralism, tolerance, rule of law, and freedom of expression. I can't justify Chinese nationalism either, since I am in principle against nationalist ideologies as such. 

But since we do live in democratic societies, we should be able to see things from different perspectives, and state our views without fearing of being ostracised. Unfortunately, democratic societies are not necessarily free from a certain pressure to conform oneself to fashionable views or movements. 

As I have explained before, I think that storming the parliament to block a democratically elected government, isn't at all democratic. After all, governments are not elected through opinion polls and should not be ousted by furious protesters in the middle of their term. Moreover, this government represents voters that have the right to be respected, and only elections can confirm or withdraw this popular mandate. These are the rules of the game. 

As I have argued, it is mostly the anti-Chinese undertone of the protests that drew attention on them and helped it gain so much international support. The last proof of this are the demonstrations held in Hong Kong to show solidarity with Taiwanese students and activists

If the protest was about the issue of more vs less free trade, then why should Hong Kongers demonstrate? I've never heard of any Hong Kongers demonstrating against free trade between the EU and China, or in support of anti-austerity movements in Europe.

There might of course be a mistrust towards free trade as such, which I do share. However, the current protest in Taiwan is much more than about economic issues, it's about keeping China out of Taiwan. Since many Hong Kongers share the anti-Chinese sentiment of Taiwanese protesters, they are showing their solidarity to them. The message is: keep the mainlanders out, or you'll end up like us!

It is absolutely legitimate to advocate less free trade with China; after all, the PRC is pointing missiles at Taiwan. I wouldn't sign a deal with someone who's threatening to shoot at me, that's for sure. 

However, there is a lot of hypocrisy here. On the one hand, Taiwanese have for years made money through China. There are Taiwanese who are totally anti-Chinese, but perhaps they are proud of Taiwan's big brands such as Asus or Acer, which manufacture their products in China and amass their wealth on the backs of low-wage mainland workers, and maybe they also work for such a company or go on business trips to China. 

As to 2010, there were over 1 million Taiwanese living on the mainland, with many more travelling there (note). It seems to me that many Taiwanese are willing to make money out of China, but at the same time they want to keep China away. If the great majority of Taiwan's population are serious about defending their native land against Chinese aggressors, why don't they go and protest in front of the headquarters of all the big Taiwanese companies that produce on the mainland, or why they don't strike, or why don't they organise themselves in order to make Taiwan's economy independent of China's? It seems to me they want the easy way: we want to be able to make money in China, we want to be able to travel to China, but the Chinese shouldn't do the same here. How can that work? And is it at all fair?

On the other hand, as the KMT as been elected (and it was elected twice, in 2008 and 2012), it means that it was able to gain enough support among the population, and certainly among the aforementioned business elites with interests in China. Whether this support has meanwhile been withdrawn or not, we will see in the next elections. 

But a rational discussion about how much Taiwan should be integrated into the Chinese economic sphere cannot end with the occupation of a democratically elected parliament in order to favour the opposition and topple or block the government. And, moreover, the economic issues should be considered in all their complexity and without hypocrisy. If the majority of the Taiwanese want to restructure the island's economy in order to make it independent of China,it is their right to do so and choose the party that promises that. But there is no half way.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

The Kuomintang and the Sunflower Movement - A Few Thoughts About the Legitimacy of the Anti-Trade Pact Protests

The recent student protests in Taiwan have become a highly debated topic on the island's as well as international media. The movement, which calls itself 'Sunflower Movement', was formed on March 19, when students occupied Taiwan's Legislative Yuan. The reason for this act of protest was a trade agreement with China which the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) was pushing through parliament in a way that the opposition party DPP and a part of the population regarded as non-democratic (note 1, note 2).

While Taiwan's press was divided on whether the movement was legitimate or not, with the pro-KMT and the anti-KMT camps offering their own respective interpretation, Western media have universally celebrated the movement as a proof of Taiwan's democratic maturity.

As I have explained in my previous post, I am quite sceptical about the Sunflower Movement, mainly for three reasons:

1) the protesters are trying to delegitimise an elected - though unpopular - government through extra-parliamentary means;

2) the movement has a strong Taiwanese nationalistic undertone;

3) the media are glorifying the movement in a simplistic way;

1) the trade deal with China should not come as a surprise. The KMT (Chinese Nationalist Party) is a pan-Chinese party. One can see this clearly by visiting the official page of the KMT. The party's self-introduction explains:

The Kuomintang (KMT) is a political party with a long history and a wholesome ideal. This ideal is the establishment of the Republic of China (ROC) as a free, democratic, prosperous and dignified modern nation. The KMT’s long history is a glorious record of its committed struggle to the realization of this ideal. 
In 1894, at a critical juncture in the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-1895, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, with clear perception and vision, traveled to Honolulu to appeal to the overseas Chinese there to form a revolutionary organization with the aim of rescuing the Chinese nation. Named the Revive China Society, it was the beginning of the KMT. 
This event also marked the start of China’s drive for modernization. It has been 106 years since this remarkable process of change and development began (note).

It is obvious that the KMT regards itself as a Chinese and not as a Taiwanese party, and that it is committed to maintaining the principles established by the 1911 revolution in mainland China. Therefore, Ma Yingjiu sees himself as the President of the Republic of China, not as the President of Taiwan, which in pan-Chinese ideology is not a country but a province of China. 

Of course, the attempted revival of pan-Chinese nationalism during the Ma administration borders on absurdity. For instance, in 2013 a government document urged school teachers to explain to their students that the capital of the Republic of China is Nanjing, in mainland China, and that Taipei is just the current location of the government. In fact, the KMT's original purpose when it retreated to Taiwan in 1949 was to use the island as a base from which to retake the mainland and return to Nanjing. This prospect is completely unrealistic, to say the least. Another example is Mongolian and Tibetan Commission Minister Tsai Yu-ling (Cai Yuling, 蔡玉玲), who stated that Mongolia remains ROC territory (even the PRC has recognised Mongolia as independent!) (note).  

However, the KMT administration has been democratically elected. Ma's government defeated the DPP in two elections, in 2008 and 2012. According to the New York Times, the KMT gained support among business elites who have interests in China and people who wanted to maintain the status-quo with the PRC (note). Perhaps, also people who were disappointed by Chen Shui-bian's administration might have enlarged the KMT's electorate.

That the KMT wanted closer ties with China must have been clear to everyone. This was not only a consequence of the KMT's ideology, but also part of its electoral campaign programme. 

The DPP and anti-Chinese forces cannot delegitimise a democratically elected government by taking to the streets and trying to impose their own agenda. Rather, they should organise in order to defeat the KMT in the next elections and pursue their own policy. Apparently, the deligitimisation of the KMT is the goal not only of the opposition, but also of a large part of the expat population and foreign media. They all seem to be extremely anti-Chinese and anti-KMT. 

2) The anti-Chinese component of the Sunflower Movement is a mix of anti-Communism (to which KMT indoctrination during its one-party regime contributed greatly), Taiwanese nationalism, anti-KMT sentiment and anti-Chinese stereotypes. I have witnessed anti-Chinese stereotypes among the Taiwanese populationmany times, and although I am not denying that certain mainland Chinese individuals behave badly and that the CCP government gives enough reasons for criticism, anti-Chinese feelings often go too far.  

Former Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian fomented native Taiwanese nationalism which was directed against 'mainlanders' and non-Hoklo speakers. Chen's policies upset a part of Taiwan's population, including 'mainlanders',  Hakka, and aborigines (see John F. Copper: The KMT Returns to Power: Elections in Taiwan 2008 to 2012. 2012, Chapter I). Taiwanese nationalism also gave rise to more radical groups, such as the Taiwanese Nationalist Party (TNP), founded in July 2011, whose programme is based on ethnic strife and ethnic cleansing. The party's goal is, in fact, that of "expelling the Chinese and safeguarding Taiwan” and of holding a referendum for independence. As Chinese, the TNP defines all the people "who were born in or have lived in Taiwan for an extended period, but who identify [themselves] as Chinese” (note). I will explain in another post why I consider nationalism (and especially this kind of exclusive nationalism that politicises ethnic strife, collectivises identity and blurs the difference between individual and public sphere) as a negative force in politics.

In a previous post ("Does Taiwan Belong to China?") I wrote that, in my opinion, both pan-Chinese and Taiwanese nationalism are legitimate ideologies. It is up to every party to gain enough support and consensus among the populace and to secure the viability of their different perceptions. Since the KMT has managed to gain consensus even after the demise of the one-party state, it should be allowed to govern. Blocking a government and imposing on it a different agenda is not a sign of democratic spirit, but of intolerance and of ochlocratic tendencies. Of course, this argument is not valid if the KMT has breached the law. In this case, popular protest may very well be justified in order to restore legality. 

The nationalistic attitude of some protesters hinders a rational discussion about the economic reasons why the trade agreement might not be good for Taiwan. As Hsiao Hung-pai has explained in an article published on The Guardian, it is the free trade component of the agreement which many workers are afraid of. These economic considerations are certainly reasonable and are understandable as a reaction against neoliberalism, of which Ma Yingjiu seems to be a strong proponent. But again, if people don't like free trade, they have the chance to vote for a party that does not support it and change the government.
3) Public opinion seems to have double-standards when it comes to popular protests. When the police forcibly evicted activists from the Executive Yuan, leaving hundreds injured both among protesters and policemen, there was a public outcry, which is certainly justified since some police officers seem to have gone beyond the limits of what their duty allows them to do (note). 

However, I have seen little sympathy for many other protesters in other countries who were injured during demonstrations. The many victims of police violence against anti-austerity protesters in Europe have been ignored, or worse, mocked, while the EU, international organisations and the US not only watched idly, but also approved (note, see also a gallery of pictures of injured protesters). Many Taiwanese, too, have shown little interest in those people who suffered injuries during protests, as it was of no consequence for themselves or was done against 'lazy' people who somewhat deserved to be maltreated a bit. 

The reason why Taiwan's protests are seen in a positive light, is, in my opinion, their anti-Chinese element. This has actually become the main message of the demonstrations, while the economic component has been downplayed. 

Monday, 24 March 2014

Good Protesters and Bad Protesters: A Comparison Between Taiwan's Demonstrations and Europe's Anti-Austerity Movement

A few days after the beginning of Taiwan's protests against a planned trade agreement with mainland China, I am still struggling to admit to myself that I am not caught in the general euphoria. 

I am going to say something very unpopular, but I think the hype around these protests shows again how schizophrenic media coverage and popular perception can be.

First, I shall briefly summarise the events that led to this crisis. 

In June 2010,  Taiwan and mainland China signed the Cross-Strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), a general agreement that strengthened economic cooperation between the two countries. The follow-up to this agreement was the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA), signed in June 2013 (note). This pact would open 80 sectors of China's service industry to Taiwanese investors and 64 sectors of the Taiwanese economy to China. Among these areas are finance, healthcare, transportation, and tourism (note). Given that the fortunes of many Taiwanese millionaires are tied to mainland China, the trade pact was welcomed by the island's business elites, but it was extremely controversial with the general public. 

As the Asia Times Online reported in August 2013, the signing of the agreement 

sparked a two-day occupation of the legislative podium by opposition Democratic Progressive Party and Taiwan Solidarity Union lawmakers. The boycott ended only after all legislative caucuses agreed that the agreement would be reviewed line by line instead of being rammed through a ratification vote, as desired by the rightist Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) government (note).

The breach of exactly this compromise led to the demonstrations of the past few days. In fact, KMT lawmakers blocked the clause-by-clause review, causing an uproar. As J. Michael Cole reported, 

on March 17, with the legislature brought to a standstill and the DPP occupying the podium, Chang [i.e. Chang Ching-chung, pinyin: Zhāng Qìngzhōng, 張慶忠, a KMT lawmaker] citing Article 61 of the Legislative Yuan Functions Act, announced that the review process had gone beyond the 90 days allotted for review. The agreement should therefore be considered to have been reviewed and be submitted to a plenary session on March 21 for a final vote (note).

This action, which was deemed undemocratic by opposition legislators as well as by a large part of the Taiwanese public, sparked protests and sit-ins in front of the Legislative Yuan, which ended up in the occupation of the building by students and activists. 

The reason why the trade agreement with China is so divisive (after all, Taiwan has signed trade agreements with other countries) reflects the divide between Chinese and Taiwanese nationalism on the island (I will talk about this in my next post). While the KMT and its coalition partners seek closer ties with China, the DPP, other opposition groups and a large part of the Taiwanese population are afraid that by allowing PRC nationals to invest in Taiwan, Beijing will gradually undermine the independence of the island and pave the way to its eventual annexation. They also charge the KMT government of acting against the will of the people and making big decisions behind closed doors. 

The general public both in Taiwan and abroad sees these protests as a proof of the strength of the democratic spirit of Taiwan's civil society, and they are endorsing the demonstrators. This perception of the demonstrations echoes that of Ukraine's Orange Revolution and of Egypt's Jasmine Revolution. 

Police forces have not removed the protesters from the Legislative Yuan, but they have evicted by force those who had stormed the Executive Yuan. Dozens of injuries among protesters and students are reported (note).

There are two aspects of these demonstrations that I find at least questionable: 

1 - protestors are occupying government buildings. Of course, they are defending Taiwan's democratic processes, but they are also undermining a government that has been elected democratically. In a democracy, a government may do things that a large part of the people dislike (world leaders like George W. Bush, Silvio Berlusconi, Margaret Thatcher and others have at times been extremely unpopular), but the democratic response to it should be to wait and defeat the government in the next elections. Moreover, I haven't so far understood if the KMT breached any laws or if it just ignored an inter-party agreement. If the KMT did something illegal, it may be justified for protesters to storm the Legislative Yuan and restore legality. But if the KMT did not breach the law, I don't see the reason for an occupation of the institution.

2 - the nationalistic and anti-Chinese undertone of these protests, about which I will write in another post.

Let's move now to the other side of the world, to Spain, where over the last few weeks there have been massive anti-austerity demonstrations. The so-called "March of Dignity" aimed at drawing attention to the poverty caused by austerity measures. Tens of thousands of protesters marched in Madrid, and in the final hours of the demonstration there have been clashes between violent protesters and the police, resulting in more than 100 injuries (note).  

The completely different way in which protests in Spain and Taiwan have been covered by the media is astonishing. While in Taiwan the protesters are heroes of democracy, in Spain they have either been ignored or they have been portrayed as members of 'yet another' anti-austerity movement. It seems that if you protest against China you are a hero, but if you protest against neoliberal and austerity policies that lead people to hunger and suffering you are a parasite, a leftist, and a good-for-nothing. Why haven't all the popular protests in Greece, Spain, Italy, and other countries been celebrated as proves that the people still believe in democracy? Why has the fact that, no matter whom you vote for, most European governments pursue the same agenda, not been denounced as undemocratic? 

If you take a closer look at the comment section of CNN, it seems to me that the majority of the people reacted very differently on Taiwan's and Spain's protests.

Let's read a few comments written about Taiwan:

  • The students are great. They sacrificed their cosy life and stay all night in the  cold rain night. They are better than me just siting in front the screen.

  • Most of these people are students who are protesting the under-the-table secret agreement signed by the Ma regime and the Chinese Communists.

  • fight for our democracy!!! Help Taiwan by spread this News!! Anti-dictatorship!

  • Stupid Taiwan media focuses on students drinking beer instead of focusing on the real problem.  Who cares what a few students do, this is a bigger issue that Taiwan needs to resolve.  The story is not the beer drinking, the story is how stupid Ma's government is, as an expat in Taiwan, I do not want Taiwan to become anything like China or HK.  

If you look at the comments on Spain's protests, they are very split. Some people react positively, others negatively, but certainly there isn't this general feeling that the protesters are heroes: 

  • I've never understood why people protesting against government action feel it's okay to injure the police who are attempting to keep anarchy at bay. If anything, the protesters should go after the politicians directly who pass the laws that these people are protesting against. Go to their homes or offices -- you'd get better results.

  • this is why it's better to not give people free stuff in the first place. The moment the country has to reduce the payouts because of fiscal issues is the moment the people receiving those payouts flip out because they've not developed any other skill besides saying "gimmie" and then taking money. The US should heed this warning
  • You obviously have no clue what the demonstration was about. It's not about welfare, it's about a 21% income tax rate in almost everything, including basic necessities which were at 8% not too long ago. It's about educational, social, and cultural cutbacks. It's about serious salary reductions for public servants (teachers, firefighters, police officers), major cutbacks and reduction of public transportation,pensions and health care. It's about a corrupt political class with extravegant lifestyles who make extra tens of thousands of euros for meals and lodging even though they own properties where they work. It's about a senate for a country with less than 40 million people that is larger than the US Senate which represents more 310 million U.S. Americans, and which actually accomplishes nothing but meanwhile they get lifelong salaries for serving one term. It's about the Catholic church getting 10,000 million euros (about $13.4 B) from public coffers. It's about people getting evicted from their homes by the banks, and still having to pay the mortgage on a home they no longer live in or own. It's about the royal family getting an undiclosed amount (somewhere in the hundreds of millions of euros) from the government so they can go on hunting expeditions and pose with the dead elephant, and travel the world on their yachts while the government maintains their palaces and mansions and they live their luxurious lifestyles, and go about their shady business deals which defraud the nation and investors of millions.I could go on for pages, since this is just the tip of the icerberg but I won't, if you really want to know do some research.

  • It seems that every time there is a protest, and it is at about once a week, there are the scum with their masks that start the vandalism. They have made a career of this type violent actions. Although I believe the unemployment situation is the cause of a lot of the protests, many socialist feel that they deserve a home, food, medical care without having to work for it. For example, many feel that if they cannot pay their mortgage they deserve to live in the home anyway.

So why are the Taiwanese students and activists celebrated as heroes of democracy, while protesters in Europe are seen as a nuisance or as defendants of a hopeless cause it's not worth talking about? Is it because the first are anti-Chinese, while the others are anti-neoliberalism?

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Taiwan, Crimea, and the Fourth End of the Post-Cold War Order

I usually avoid writing about current affairs, because I prefer my blog to be about cultural, historical, or social issues that go beyond the headlines, or to talk about travel and sights. But over the past few weeks, things have happened which I believe will have a long-lasting impact on all of us, and I simply can't ignore them. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea by Russia after a referendum forced upon Kiev by the barrel of the Kremlin's gun, have been a turning point in contemporary history. This war has been fought with the same methods of 20th century politics, and it will trigger a dangerous chain reaction. 

The Crimean crisis is the third big historic event that marks the end of the post-Cold War world order. That world order was based on American leadership and neoliberal economics. After 1991, Russia's superpower status disintegrated, and the country appeared weak, unstable, and innocuous. The Western world believed to have triumphed, and it announced the end of history. But the end of history was in fact only the inability of the West to innovate and to understand how the world was changing. 

American triumphalism, coupled with its neoliberal ideologisation, was the seed of the end of American power. The apex of US power and at the same time the beginning of its decline was the Iraq War; the Iraq War delegitimised the credibility of the US as a world leader. The US violated the basic principle of inviolability of every state's sovereignty and territorial integrity, on which a peaceful world order must be based. In this way, the US declared that they were beyond legality and that they did not believe in the post-WWII system they had themselves established. After the Iraq War, the whole system started to collapse. 

Meanwhile, China with its pragmatic mixed economic policy became richer and more powerful year by year. After the economic crisis of 2008, the decline of the US economy and the rise of the Chinese model could not be denied any more. 

These two years - 2003 and 2008 - mark the two first 'ends' of the post-Cold War order. The Crimean crisis is the third one. 

As I have discussed in my previous post about the history of Crimea, there are good reasons why a large section of the Crimean population want to belong to Russia. However, Russia violated Ukraine's sovereignty, and the referendum does not legitimise the aggression. Because the US had done something similar in 2003 and in other occasions (for example in the case of Kosovo's independence from Serbia, which Russia regarded as unlawful), the US' condemnation of Russia sounded hypocritical. 

Driven by a nationalistic ideology, Russia incorporated a piece of territory that belonged to another state, only on the basis of the ethnic and linguistic composition of that territory, something that reminds of Tsarist policies in 20th century Eastern Europe and of Hitler's annexation of the Sudetenland. In this way, Russia showed its new-found power and strengthened its state-sponsored nationalistic ideology. 

The fourth end of the post-Cold War era will sooner or later come. And its stage will be in the Far East, most probably in Taiwan. 

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Taiwan's Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) both claim that China and Taiwan are one country (see my post about the Taiwan question). But Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party and a large part of the public in Taiwan believe that Taiwan is a nation different from China.

Although Crimea and Taiwan are entirely different, there are some common things. The triangle Moscow-Kiev-Washington is similar to the triangle Beijing-Taipei-Washington. An emerging superpower, a small country, and a former world leader are engaged in a power struggle that derives from the complex post-Cold War settlement. That world order is fluid, unclear, and hypocritically harmonious. Taiwan and Crimea are not just two elements of a nationalistic discourse; they are also the trophy awaiting those rising powers that successfully challenge US leadership.

The Crimean crisis has revealed the true face of the PRC. For years, Beijing has been defending the principle of non-interference in other countries' internal affairs and of the peaceful resolution of international conflicts. That was instrumental. Beijing is observing Washington's and Brussels' reaction carefully. And the passive response of the West and international organisations has proved that China could invade Taiwan without having to face a strong international reaction. Or at least, that's the - dangerous and perhaps incorrect - conclusion the Chinese leadership may draw.

Perhaps the West cannot intervene in the current crisis. But it has to understand that a new Cold War scenario has been developing. And the stability of the world will paradoxically be made possible only by a clear understanding on the part of all great powers that a new Cold War is an historical necessity.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Why Does Russia Want Crimea? The Crimean Issue Beyond The Headlines

British cavalry charged against Russian forces at the
Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War
Potemkin called Crimea 'the wart on Russia's nose', and it still itches.Were a civil war to break out in Ukraine, it would most likely begin in Crimea (Anna Reid: Borderland: A Journey through the History of Ukraine 2000, p.187).

While I was preparing a new blog post about the Crimean crisis and the impact it could have for the future of Washington-Beijing-Taipei relations, I realised that the issue of Russian claims on Crimea cannot be understood without knowledge of the historical background of this troubled region. So I decided to write two posts to explain the motivation behind Russian claims on Crimea and the ethnic composition of the territory.

In a speech addressed by Vladimir Putin to the Russian parliament on March 18, 2014, he stated: 

It was impossible to imagine that Ukraine and Russia could not be together. That they could be in separate states. But that is what happened. What seemed impossible, unfortunately occurred. The USSR broke up. The events happened so fast that few citizens understood the full-scale of the trauma of the events and their consequences ... 
The (Crimean) issue has a vital importance, a historic importance for all of us ... In the hearts and minds of people, Crimea has always been and remains an inseparable part of Russia. This commitment, based on truth and justice, was firm, was passed from generation to generation (note).

What is behind Putin's arguments? Is he right? Why are the ties between Russia and Crimea so strong?

Russia, Ukraine and the West

Between 1990 and 1991, the Soviet Union experienced a deep crisis. President Gorbačëv lost his grip on the government and Boris Jel'tsin gradually seized power. He paved the way for the demise of the old regime and the birth of the Russian Federation. The attitude of the Ukrainian People's Republic (UPR) during this crisis became an important indicator of the decline of the Union (Serhy Yekelchyk: Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation 2007, p. 190-191).

Simferopol, capital of Crimea

On the evening of August 24, 1991, the Supreme Rada of the UPR declared its independence from the Soviet Union with 346 votes in favour, 1 against and 3 abstentions (Yekelchyk 2007, p. 191). In December 1, 1991, a referendum to confirm independence as well as presidential elections were held simultaneously. The overwhelming majority of Ukrainians (90.3%) voted in favour of independence, and Leonid Kravčuk was elected as president of the new state (ibid., pp. 191, 194). In the former Soviet bloc, Poland was the first foreign country to recognise Ukraine's independence, while Canada was the first Western state to do so.

In December 1991, the leaders of the main Slavic republics of the Soviet Union, Boris Jel'tsin, Leonid Kravčuk, and Stanislaŭ Šuškevič (Belarus) had a secret meeting in Brežnev's old hunting resort in Belarus. The outcome of this historic summit was the decision to dissolve the Soviet Union and to establish a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Although most former Soviet Republics joined this association, it remained a loose and weak organisation with no actual international weight. At the end of 1991, Gorbačëv resigned as president of the USSR, and the Soviet Union ceased to exist (ibid., p. 192).

Although Jel'tsin's Russia had actively pursued the quick demise of the Soviet Union, the sudden collapse of Russia's sphere of influence along with the country's abrupt economic decline turned out to be a major psychological shock for the Russian people and elites. Soon after the end of the USSR, Moscow began trying to reassert its influence and contain a NATO expansion in the region. Ukraine became the hot spot of this new but veiled power struggle. 

Many Russian politicians were not even sure that allowing Ukrainian independence had been a good decision. The Kremlin's attempt to establish the CIS was designed to curb the dissolution of the Russian sphere of influence, but without success. Ukraine led the group of states which resisted Moscow's charm offensive, and in this respect, it became an active anti-Russian factor in Eastern Europe. 

Historic sites in Crimea (source)
Kiev-Moscow relations were tense. Most especially, the issues of Crimea and the Black Sea Fleet (established by Catherine the Great in 1771) were an endless source of bitterness (ibid., p. 195). In 1991 and 1992, many Russian politicians claimed that Ukrainian control of Crimea was illegal. In 1954, Nikita Chruščëv had ceded Crimea to Ukraine as a token of the two peoples' eternal friendship (ibid.), and some of Crimea's ethnic Russian sarcastically say that he must have been drunk (Reid 2000, p. 173).

Although Crimea had voted for Ukrainian independence by a slight majority of around 54%, anti-Kiev and pro-Moscow sentiments were strong and were to surge in the following years. In fact, the recent referendum for independence and the planned annexation of Crimea by Russia do not come out of nowhere.

As Anna Reid explains, when the Soviet Union collapsed, many of the Russian-speaking population of Crimea remained loyal to Moscow. In Sevastopol', most officers of the local naval base "went over to Russia, refusing to swear new oaths of loyalty to Ukraine and running up the tsarist St Andrew's Cross over the battleships rusting in the oily harbour. They also hung on to the fleet's fine neoclassical headquarters, shoving the disgruntled Ukrainians off to dilapidated barracks in the suburbs" (Reid 2000, p. 171).

"Most officers think of themselves as citizens of Crimea and of Russia," said an ethnic Russian. "As for me, I grew up in Crimea, but Russia is my Motherland." (ibid., p. 172).

Sunday, 16 March 2014

How Conservative Is Taiwan? - 5 Cases of Sexuality in Business, Marketing and Media

Is Taiwan a conservative society? Are Taiwanese people prude, family-oriented, and faithful to their partner?

Before going to Taiwan, basing my opinion on what Taiwanese had told me, I would have answered all these questions with yes. But after living there for some time, I began questioning my assumptions. 

In many of my posts I have tried to explain some features of the Chinese/Taiwanese family which make it clear that every Western perspective on East Asia should take into consideration the different values and social structures that the Chinese-speaking world has developed over the centuries.

In this post, I would just like to mention a few interesting cases of liberal sexual conduct and the objectification of the female body, which challenge the image of Taiwan as a prude society. 

One day I was walking around the German city of Potsdam, near Berlin, with a Taiwanese. She often told me that Taiwanese people were conservative, Taiwanese girls naive and innocent. But on the other hand, she told me things that were at odds with these ideas. For instance, she kept on asking me why waitresses in Germany were so ugly. "If restaurants hired pretty girls," she reasoned, "more customers would come. People like beautiful things."

She wondered if she should apply for a job as a waitress. In fact, she was very beautiful, and I assume that some male customers might go to a restaurant only to see her. But she was disappointed to find out that Germans don't give tips. She wouldn't have earned as much as she had hoped, so she gave up the idea.

Over the years, I gradually realised that a lot of women in Taiwan accept to play roles that serve male stereotypes in order to get an economic or social advantage. As I will explain in another post, this willingness is not limited to professional life, but it extends to the search for a marriageable partner, too. 

Let me now give you 6 examples that show that Taiwan is in reality a highly sexualised society, or at least not less 'libertine' than Western countries. I will discuss some of these points more in detail in later posts.

1) Sexy Girls Are Good For Business

The following video shows a TV anchor from a business-focused Taiwanese TV channel. A pretty girl with an extremely low-cut dress and a sexy body appears next to a normal-looking man who explains some serious stuff. 

The use of female bodies as a marketing tool is very widespread in Taiwan. Be it 'beer girls' (girls who work in restaurants or clubs, who approach customers and advertise beer), sexy dentists, sexy shopkeepers, sexy cosplay girls in department stores, etc., it seems that the objectification of the woman for business purposes bothers neither the general public nor women themselves (generally speaking, of course).   

2) Agong Dian

Prostitution in Taiwan is widespread. There are massage parlours, bars, barber shop etc., which offer various sexual services. There are also online services where you can 'book' a girl and then go to her flat or let her come to you. 

In the old district of Wanhua, there are also establishments called Agong Dian (阿公店, literally: "granddad shops"), unlicenced parlours with hostesses, mostly frequented by elder men (hence the name) (note). The  Agong Dians are only one of the different kinds of legal and illegal brothels in Taiwan, not to mention all the prostitutes that operate privately, offering their services online. 

According to a Taiwanese group called Collective of Sex Workers and Supporters, there are around 100,000 sex workers operating in Taiwan (note). This is a large number if one thinks that in 2013 the total amount of residents from English-speaking countries living in Taiwan were less than 15,000, which means that the number of English teachers in the country may not exceed this figure (note).

Nevertheless, the number of sex workers appears to have halved over the past two decades. An article from the LA Times published in 1990 described Taipei as a paradise for sex-related services:

"Taipei is a city of lust," City Councilman Yen Chin-fu said. "Girlie restaurants and bars are everywhere, even in residential and school areas. Some are next to police stations." (note)

The article also mentioned the issue of families selling daughters to brothels. This problem had been analysed by Margery Wolf, as I will show in another post. 

As Taiwan got richer, the sex industry has diminished in size and many of its worst social consequences have disappeared. 

Below, you can see a video about Agong Dians

3) Betel Nut Beauties

If you happen to drive on certain highways in Taiwan, such as some stretches of road in Taoyuan, near Taipei, you may see booths with girls sitting inside. If you stop in front of one of the booths, a young, sexy, scantily clad girl will totter on high heels out of her box and come to you smiling. She is a so-called 'betel nut beauty' (Chinese: 檳榔西施; pinyin: bīnláng xīshī), a uniquely Taiwanese phenomenon (see video below). Betel nut beauties sell products like drinks and chewing gum on highways, and their usual clientele are male workers, such as truck drivers or commuters. As the name suggests, though, their most profitable merchandise are betel nut. 

In the mid-1990s the business of attractive girls selling betel nut exploded in Taipei and then spread to the rest of the country. Competition among girls was fierce, and it led to them wearing increasingly sexy and revealing clothes, to the point of being nearly naked (see Dave Tacon: Taiwan's Betel Nut Beauties. In: Geographical. Volume: 84. Issue: 8. August 2012, p. 32). As the LA Times noted, betel nut beauties don't sell their body. They use their body to sell products (note). From this point of view, they are not entirely different from other similar categories, like the 'beer girls'. 

Starting in 2002, the government cracked down on the 'betel nut culture', which was blamed for damaging the nation's image abroad and for causing moral decay (Tacon 2012). Consequently, the betel nut beauties disappeared from Taipei City and from many other areas, choosing to retreat to less visible places. Their business is still worth millions of dollars, though.

4) 'Booth Babes'

'Booth babes, like the ones you can see at Taipei Computex, are a common marketing strategy in Taiwan. In the male-dominated environment of tech shows, booth girls create a 'stimulating' environment, and attract more male customers. The sexual appeal of the show girls is obvious, though not openly stated, and it is clearly calculated to market products more effectively to a male clientele.

5) Sexuality and the Media

Tabloids like Bild Zeitung in Germany or The Sun in the UK are known for their erotic or semi-erotic sections. Taiwanese tabloids are in this respect second to none. For example, Apple Daily, Taiwan's most popular newspaper, has many articles with sexual content, and even a page entirely dedicated to 'beauties' (see here). 

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Fighting For Japan - Taiwanese Soldiers and the Yasukuni Shrine

Japan's Yasukuni Shrine is one of the most controversial places of worship in the world. This war shrine, in which the souls of soldiers who died for the Emperor are commemorated, has a highly symbolic status. Its connection with Japan's militarism and nationalism makes it a sensitive topic both at home and abroad. In fact, Japan's neighbours, especially China and South Korea, have often filed official protests against the visit to the shrine by Japanese politicians. 

The Yasukuni Shrine (靖國神社) is a site where Japanese war dead are sanctified and worshipped. Although the worship of the war dead is part of Japanese tradition, the Yasukuni Shrine has a specific connection with Japanese nationalism (see Sturgeon 2006, p. 20). 

But what is the Yasukuni Shrine? When was it founded and why is it so important for the history of modern Japanese nationalism and militarism? Before answering these questions, I think it is necessary to briefly explain the origin, meaning and history of the Shinto religion.

Shinto: Japan's National Religion

Shinto is a specifically Japanese religion, a combination of different ancient folk beliefs which over the centuries were influenced by religions that came to Japan from continental Asia, such as Buddhism and Daoism (ibid., p. 27). 

In contemporary times, we are accustomed to thinking of Shinto as a Japanese state religion. Yet throughout Japanese history, Buddhism was much more powerful and influential than Shinto. Even the emperors and aristocratic families favoured Buddhism (ibid., p. 28). 

Masaharu Anesaki (姉崎 正治 Anesaki Masaharu, 1873 – 1949), a renowned Japanese scholar and founder of Japan's Religious Studies, explains that in prehistoric Japan Shinto developed as a polytheistic folk belief with animistic elements. According to Japanese mythology that refers to the Japanese archipelago, at the beginning of the world there were numerous 

deities (or spirits) which shone with a lustre like that of fireflies, and evil deities which buzzed like flies.There were also trees and herbs which could speak ... The God who originally founded this country is the God who descended from Heaven and established this State in the period when Heaven and Earth became separated, and when the trees and herbs had speech (Masaharu Anesaki: History of Japanese Religion: With Special Reference to the Social and Moral Life of the Nation. London 1930, p. 19). 

According to Shinto's view of the cosmos, the godly and the human are intertwined, like in ancient Greco-Roman religions. Gods are "men in the age of the gods, while human beings are gods in the age of men" (Anesaki 1930, p. 21). In the beginning of the world men and animals were gods, and plants and rocks could speak (ibid.).

Shinto was the worship of these primordial deities and spirits, without any particular scriptures, theology, or coherent and unified system (ibid.). In Religious Studies, Shinto is usually defined as an "indigenous religion", that is, a religion which developed naturally out of various folk beliefs. There were no individuals who created a corpus of religious texts, no teachers and disciples, no church organisation. Other than the so-called 'world religions', for hundreds of years Shinto did not spread beyond the boundaries of the Japanese archipelago. It can therefore be described as a truly Japanese national religion which is a unique element of Japan's culture (Inoue Nobutaka [edit.] / Ito Satoshi / Endo Jun / Mori Mizue: Shinto: A Short History. London 2003, p. 2).

Shinto, the Meiji Restoration, and Modern Japanese Nationalism

Despite being one of the oldest religions in the world, in the Meiji era (1869-1912) Shinto was reinterpreted and remodelled to serve the new nationalistic and imperial ideology of Japan. In other words, the Japanese elites did something unique in history. In order to strengthen and modernise Japan, they looked back at the ancient Japanese state in which the Emperor was the supreme ruler. Shinto served well the purpose of igniting a spirit of nationalism and unity in the Japanese population. 

Since ancient times a dichotomy between native Japanese and foreign religions were present in the minds of Japan's elites. For instance, the first historical reference to Shinto, which is contained in the Nihon shoki of 720, mentions that Emperor Yomei (who reigned in 585-7) "had faith in the Buddhist Dharma and revered Shinto" (Satoshi / Jun / Mizue 2003, p. 1). Old texts implied a difference between native Japanese religious beliefs and the religions which came from overseas in later periods.

In early modern times, the 'Japaneseness' of Shinto was consciously employed by Japanese thinkers to resist foreign penetration. For example, the scholar Okuni Takamasa (1792-1871), who perceived foreign powers and their Christian religion as a threat, sought in Shinto the religious and cultural foundation of an anti-foreign movement (ibid., pp. 155-156).

It is therefore no coincidence that during the Meiji Restoration Shinto was resorted to as a means to strengthen the Emperor and the state, and to instill a spirit of nationalism into the populace. An important part of this process was the establishment of a state-controlled shrine system and priesthood (ibid., p. 159).

In April 1868, the new government restored the Jingikan, an ancient office responsible for 'kami'. The purpose of this measure was to centralise control over the country's shrines (ibid., p. 162). In June 1871, the Council of State (Dajokan) issued an edict that abolished the system which had developed in the shogunate period, seeking to restore the ancient order:

Shrines are sites for the performance of state ritual; it goes without saying that they are not the private property of individual families. However, after the medieval period and the disintegration it brought to the Great Way [of the kami], there emerged a tendency … for a priest to be appointed temporarily to a shrine and then for the principle of heredity to establish itself. Elsewhere . . . priestly positions at village and hamlet shrines tended to become hereditary. Priests would take the shrine income as their salary and regard shrines as their private property. This became established practice everywhere in the realm. Shrine priests came to constitute a class distinct from [the ruling] warrior class, and this was in contravention of the governing principle of saisei itchi [according to which government and rites are inseparable]. The harm dealt by these practices has been considerable. 
Reforms are now to be implemented and the practice of heredity [will be abolished]. Priests at all shrines, from the two Ise shrines to those of large and small scale the length and breadth of the realm, will be re-appointed only after the most careful consideration (ibid., pp. 162-163).

Beside the centralisation and bureaucratisation of Shinto beliefs, priesthood and rituals, the Meiji state also attempted to bring about a separation of Shinto from Buddhism and other 'foreign' religions. The government ordered the removal of Buddhist iconography, deities and symbolism from the shrines (ibid. p. 163). In this way, the government linked Shinto to the issue of Japanese national identity, aiming at strengthening and redefining the meaning of 'Japaneseness' by isolating what was 'purely Japanese' and separating it from everything 'foreign' (even those foreign things that had been part of Japanese culture for centuries, like Buddhism).

In 1875 the government began unifying the religious practices of Shinto with the publication of the Jinja saishiki ("regulations for shrine rites"), which were revised by the Home Ministry in 1907 (ibid., p. 167).

Through the Shinto religion, the government could create an ideology that depicted Japan as a sacred land and the Emperor as the embodiment of Japan's godliness and immortality. This ideology became a cornerstone of the Japanese education system during the Meiji era and was taught to children in order to strengthen their devotion to the Emperor and the state. Thus the Emperor became a sort of priest-king, a personification of the continuity and holiness of the Japanese nation.

The Origins of the Yasukuni Shrine

During the Restoration that started in the 1860s, pro-Emperor loyalists from the Provinces of Satsuma and Choshu allied to fight against the Tokugawa shogunate. Their aim was to restore the power of the Emperor and turn him into the linchpin of a new Japanese polity inspired by the country's ancient past. In December 1862, the loyalists asked Emperor Komei (the predecessor of Emperor Meiji) to perform a memorial ritual in honour of the soldiers who had died for him. As the civil war continued, the worship of the war dead intensified, and ceremonies were held at shrines like the Gion Shrine in Kyoto. After the insurrections, shrines were built all over the country (Sturgeon 2006, pp. 29-30).

Among these shrines was Shokonsha, built in 1869 in Tokyo. Because Tokyo had been chosen as the new capital of Japan, this shrine became one of the most important in the country. In 1879, the Meiji Emperor renamed the shrine Yasukuni and made it the central official place of worship of all war dead (ibid., pp. 30-31).  

Shokonsha Shrine in 1873

After the Japanese conquered Taiwan in 1895, they tried to integrate the island into their empire. Especially after Japan's invasion of China in 1931, it became compelling for the Japanese to co-opt Taiwan's colonial subjects, not only because they wanted to secure the loyalty of the Taiwanese, but also because they needed soldiers for the imperial army. At that time, the Taiwanese were very much aware of their Chinese origin and identity, and their allegiance to Japan was not an obvious thing. 

Between 1895 and 1945, the Shinto cult was one of the elements that were employed by the Japanese to foster the allegiance of the Taiwanese people to the Japanese Emperor  (Shelley Rigger: Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse2013, p. 22). 

Taiwan Grand Shrine, Taiwan's most important Shinto
shrine. It was demolished after retrocession.
Many Shinto shrines were built in Korea, Taiwan, Manchuria, China, and Indonesia as part of Japan's imperial project (Satoshi / Jun / Mizue 2003, p. 172). In Taiwan, there were 66 official Shinto shrines, the most important of which was Taiwan Grand Shrine, built in 1901 on Jiantan Mountain. After WWII and the handover of Taiwan to the Republic of China, the shrine was demolished. On its site now stands the Grand Hotel (note).

During the Second World War, a large number of Taiwanese colonial subjects were conscripted into the Japanese army. Since they fought on behalf of the Emperor, 40,000 of them were subsequently enshrined in Yasukuni (Rigger 2013, p. 22, and Kingston: Japan's Quiet Transformation: Social Change and Civil Society in 21st Century Japan 2004, p. 335).

The Yasukuni Shrine commemorates not only around 2.47 million Japanese soldiers who died in wars until 1945 (including the colonial war for the conquest of Taiwan), but also fourteen convicted and executed 'class A' war criminals who were enshrined there as 'kami' in 1978 (Kingston 2004, p. 236).

The paradox, of course, is that in this shrine the 'souls' of colonial masters and their subjects are put together. Moreover, the Taiwanese, who according to pan-Chinese thinking are Chinese, fought at the side of China's mortal enemy. Many Korean and Taiwanese families, who, as it should be noted, were not asked by the Japanese government or by Shinto authorities whether their relatives could be enshrined at Yasukuni, fought long, unsuccessful legal battles with the Japanese government to have their relatives 'de-enshrined' (ibid., p. 335).

The complex legacy of the Japanese colonial period in Taiwan is demonstrated by Lee Teng-hui (born in 1923) who was president of the Republic of China between 1988 and 2000. He was educated at Kyoto Imperial University and he speaks Japanese fluently.

In 2007, Lee Teng-hui visited Yasukuni Shrine to pay his respects to his elder brother, who had served in the Japanese army and had been enshrined (note). Beijing criticised Lee fiercely. The PRC has made anti-Japanese feeling and the memory of the past suffering and humiliation an integral part of its new nationalistic ideology (see also my post about the reemergence of Chinese nationalism after 1989). 

The Yasukuni Shrine therefore is not only a symbol of Japanese nationalism and militarism, but also of the complexity of Japan's colonial project, of its appeal and mistakes, and of the contradictory relations between Japan, China and Taiwan in modern times.