Saturday, 26 April 2014

“Mainland Locusts”, or: What Does Mainland Chinese Tourists' Bad Behaviour Actually Tell Us About the Chinese?

A few days ago, Hong Kong and Chinese media reported on the case of two mainland Chinese tourists who let their child urinate on a street in the Hong Kong district of Mong Kok. Videos shot by passers-by show a crowd of angry Hong Kongers gathering around the couple, shouting at them, and grabbing the child's pushchair to prevent them from going away; the mainland couple yelling back at the crowd, while the child, frightened by the clamour, cried (watch video below).

This is only the last of a large number of similar incidents, many of which have been documented on social media, thanks to modern technology and the readiness of Hong Kongers' to film unusual things and upload them online.

Just a few days ago, I had a conversation with a friend from Hong Kong who came to visit, and we also talked about the topic of mainland tourists in Hong Kong. I think her view represents that of a large part of the Hong Kong population: in recent years, Hong Kong has been overrun by swarms of mainlanders, and too many of them make Hong Kong a worse place to live in. 

There are several reasons why Hong Kongers dislike mainland tourists. I think the most recurrent are:

  • mainlanders are uncivilised
  • they buy luxury goods, and in this way they destroy Hong Kong's small local shops. Big department store chains, luxury brands and jewelleries that serve mostly mainland tourists conquer Hong Kong's streets and displace small businesses
  • they buy too many flats, driving up home prices
  • they take advantage of Hong Kong's welfare state and freedom, and many of them go to Hong Kong to have their babies or to live off government subsidies

In short, mainlanders as a group are made responsible for the decline of Hong Kong's quality of life, way of life, and often also for the decline of the middle class. 

The controversy surrounding mainland tourists is heated and very divisive. It manifests the contradiction of the “One country, two systems” model, on which Hong Kong's unification with the PRC was based. Despite the fact that Hong Kong is de facto integrated into the mainland's economy and that many Hong Kongers live and invest in the mainland, the relationship between the two sides is all but clear and coherent. It is, indeed, an extremely contradictory and ambivalent relationship.

But should mainlanders truly be blamed for all the bad things people say about them?

First of all, I would like to point out one principle that in my opinion is fundamental: there is no such thing as collective guilt. Guilt is always individual. Mainlanders who behave badly should be held fully responsible for their actions, but the blame cannot be abstractly extended to all mainlanders as a group, including those who haven't done anything wrong. Unfortunately, blaming an entire group is something that happens all too often, not only in Hong Kong. 

Nevertheless, I agree with the Hong Kongers who condemn mainland tourists that make their city dirty. Some mainland netizens have defended the parents who let their child pee on the street, saying that a child in that situation cannot help, and that parents are also stressed and don't know any better way of solving the problem. However, I would like to point that children from other nationalities don't seem to have such urgent need to pee everywhere and that probably this is just a matter of mentality and habits. 

However, I think we should be careful not to blame the whole group of mainland tourists, or the entire Chinese society.

I have met many mainland Chinese who have absolutely nothing in common with the stereotype of the uncivilised and arrogant Chinese. This may be due to their education or family background. Let me tell you one of many examples.

In 2012 I was invited by a Hong Kong friend to visit her university. She said that she had been planning to cook an Italian recipe: “pasta alla Bolognese”, and she wanted my help. She asked me if I wanted to join her and one of her fellow students – a mainland Chinese - in making this experiment. I gladly agreed.

I met them at Shatin station. We went to a big supermarket, bought the ingredients, and then we took the Metro to University Station. Then we walked to their beautiful, modern dormitory, which really impressed me (check out a few pictures I took at the Chinese University of Hong Kong). Unfortunately, we had forgotten to buy wine, so I and the girl from the mainland went to a nearby supermarket on the campus, while my Hong Kong friend began cooking. 

As we walked, we chatted and had an interesting conversation. She was a very nice girl, very mature for her age, and clever; she was funny and had good manners. When we returned to the dormitory, we did our best to prepare a good Bolognese, and, despite some difficulties, we made it. As we were cooking, other students gathered in the dining room and watched us. They were curious (by the way, I was the only Westerner), and when we finished cooking, we shared the food with all of them. 

Some of these students were Hong Kongers, others were mainlanders. When I think of them, and when I think of all the mainland Chinese friends I met in Germany or Italy, I can't understand what they might have in common with the rude tourists and the uncivilised mainlanders people complain about. To be sure, many mainlanders are different from 'us' Westerners and other East Asians in that they have grown up in a state that is unlike any other in the world. It is a state that has a Communist one-party government, a country with a long and complex history, a country that has experienced terrible upheavals, wars, and crises. 

But at least many people who have a high education don't seem to me to be that different from the rest of us. When I think of mainland China, I don't just think of its government or the misbehaviour of tourists; I think of the many people with whom I have shared a part of my life as a student, whom I met every week, with whom I went out to dinner or travelled together. 

So, how should we understand the misbehaviour of some Chinese tourists? What are its causes, and how widespread is it? Of all the mainland tourists each of us has seen, how many were uncivilised? Could the bad conduct of some tourists be explained by the fact that China was (and still largely is) a rural society and many new rich actually grew up in an environment that wasn't modern and urban? And do we have double standards, do we emphasize every bad thing mainlanders do, while people from other countries can get away with their misbehaviour without any collective blame?


Zhongshan Hall - A Witness To Taipei's History

Zhongshan Hall is probably one of those buildings in Taipei that most tourists won't even notice. Despite being located in the heart of Taipei, just a few minutes walk from Ximending, and around 10-15 minutes from Taipei North Gate, Zhongshan Hall is not a major tourist attraction. The square in front of the building is – surprisingly enough in the bustling city - one of those relaxing and quiet areas that have preserved their clean, calm Japanese-era atmosphere. 

Zhongshan Hall (中山堂); the name on the facade must be read from right to left.

Contrary to what one may expect, however, Zhongshan Hall is a very important place in the history of Taipei, and thus I think it's worth dedicating a separate post to it.

Zhongshan Hall (中山堂) is located on Yanping South Road (延平南路), which during the Qing Dynasty was called North Gate Road (北門街). This long street ran from North Gate down to the Qing government district. In fact, from North Gate one could walk directly to Taiwan Provincial Administration Hall (布政使司衙門). This shows that the place where now Zhongshan Hall stands was central in the urban structure of both Qing Dynasty and Japanese Taipei. 

Qing Dynasty

The building that we now see did not exist during the Qing Dynasty. Exactly in the same place stood the Taiwan Provincial Administration Hall, which was the most important office in Taiwan. Inside this building the government issued its policies regarding all the financial, military and tax matters of Taiwan Province (Zhuang Zhanpeng et al.: Taibei Gucheng Shendu Lvyou. Taipei 2000, p. 56). The Taiwan Provincial Administration Hall was a large compound, comprising 18 buildings, constructed in typical Chinese style. It was built in the 15th year of Emperor Guangxu (1889).

The large compound of Taiwan Provincial Administration Hall. This most Chinese of all government buildings is unimaginable in present-day Taipei, as the Japanese demolished all imperial offices 

The Republic of Taiwan 

Japanese Cargo Ship Released After Owner Pays Wartime Debt to China

Today a court in Shanghai ordered the release of a Japanese vessel who had been seized while docking on a port in Zhejiang Province. 

The ship had been seized after the Shanghai Maritime Court had ruled that the owner, Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, had to pay a civil compensation for two vessels that the company had leased during the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45 and that had been lost during the conflict. The owner agreed to pay in order to avoid further litigations. 

This move by a Chinese court is seen as yet another sign that the PRC is becoming ever more assertive and is openly challenging Japan. 

In 1972, China and Japan had signed a Joint Communique in which Japan stated that "the Japanese side is keenly conscious of the responsibility for the serious damages that Japan caused to the Chinese people through war in the past", while China declared that "in the interest of the friendship between the Chinese and Japanese people, China renounces its demands for war reparations from Japan".

However, the question of whether the agreement between the two governments also includes Chinese nationals is not entirely solved. In 2007, the Hiroshima High Court ruled that the Communique did not extinguish the obligation of the Japanese government to respond to wartime abuse claims by Chinese nationals. Other Japanese courts have subsequently ruled otherwise.

Read article on The New York Times 

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Taipei Post Office (台北郵局)

The Taipei Post Office is located in Zhongxiao West Road, just a few minutes walk from Taipei Main Station, and opposite lightly to the left of the North Gate.

Immersed in Taipei's concrete jungle, the post office can be easily overlooked by first-time visitors. Unfortunately, this destiny is shared by many buildings of that area, which during the Qing Dynasty constituted Taipei Walled City, and under Japanese rule was the centre of the colonial capital.

The facade of Taipei Post Office

Thursday, 17 April 2014

James W. Davidson's "The Island of Formosa" and Liu Mingchuan's Modernisation of Taiwan

While I was writing my last post about Taipei Main Station and preparing the next one about Taipei Post Office, I realised it is impossible to talk about Taipei's modern infrastructure without some background knowledge of the modernisation efforts of the last two decades of Qing rule in Taiwan. Those decades seem to us so far away, both because little of what was built then still exists, and because in the meantime many things have happened which have changed Taiwan profoundly. However, they are an integral part of the island's complex history.

Luckily, some books written in those crucial decades can help bring back an era that has almost sunk into oblivion. One of them is The Island of Formosa, Past and Present, by James Wheeler Davidson (1872 – 1933). The book, published in 1903, is a fascinating account of the history, economy and society of Taiwan, as seen through the eyes of a writer who lived in the country during the transition from Chinese to Japanese rule.

J.W. Davidson was a traveller, writer and explorer. He was born in Austin, Minnesota, on June 14, 1872, and he attended the Northwestern Military Academy. In 1893, the renowned American explorer Robert Peary chose Davidson to be the youngest of eight members of the second Peary Expedition, whose aim was to find the passage to the North Pole through the Northern Greenland icecap (see: Robert Lampard: Making New Friends - James Wheeler Davidson and Rotary International. In: Alberta History , Vol. 52, No. 3, Summer 2004).

In 1895 Davidson left the United States for the Far East. He was interested in Japan, then a rising Asian power, and he decided to try his fortune as a war correspondent in East Asia. He moved to Japan at a critical juncture in the history of the continent. In fact, that year the Sino-Japanese War broke out. The chief of the Herald Tribune's Far East bureau informed Davidson that a military conflict might happen in Taiwan. Davidson therefore went to Taipei, where he was the only Western journalist to witness the events that would forever change the fate of Taiwan.

J.W. Davidson
After the peace treaty between China and Japan was signed and Taiwan was ceded to Japan, the governor of Taiwan Province, Tang Jingsong (唐景崧; simplified Chinese: 唐景嵩; pinyin: Táng Jǐngsōng, 1841–1903) proclaimed the short-lived Republic of Taiwan and became its first and last president. Japanese troops soon began their invasion of the island. The governor, contrary to his bold slogans of anti-Japanese resistance, is said to have disguised himself and bribed his own guards in order to flee Taiwan and return to mainland China. The Chinese troops mutinied. They looted and rioted for days, causing great devastation to the country they were supposed to defend (ibid.).

On June 6th, when the Japanese were marching towards Taipei, Davidson, together with an Englishman and a German, left the city, went over to the Japanese camp, and helped the Japanese enter Taipei without firing a single shot. For the help they gave to the Japanese army, in December 1895 the three foreigners received the 5th Class of the Order of the Rising Sun by Japan's Emperor (ibid.).

As the only war correspondent in Taiwan, Davidson had the privileged position of a journalist who befriended the invading troops and followed them on their southward march of occupation. As his fame grew, the US government offered him the post of "consul agent in Formosa". He lived in Taiwan until 1903, studying the history and culture of the island. Afterwards he was sent to Manchuria, and in 1904 he became the commercial attache and acting consulate general in Shanghai.

The following excerpt from Davidson's The Island of Formosa tells the story of the most progressive Chinese governor of Taiwan Province, Liu Mingchuan. This account, written only a few years after the Japanese conquest of the island, at a time when the memory of the Qing era was still fresh, and much of the architecture and infrastructure built under the Qing government still existed, offers an interesting insight into Liu's attempt at modernising Taiwan and the mixed results it obtained.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Taipei Main Station

I remember my first hours in Taiwan. When I arrived at Taoyuan Airport I went to buy a sim card for my phone, and then a ticket to Taipei Main Station. It was 5 pm, the sky was cloudy, and the weather hot and humid (at that time it was shocking to me that the weather could be like that in November). A bus driver shouted at me in Chinese, asking me where I was going. Then he pointed at an old bus. Hoping that my Chinese pronunciation - which I tested for the first time - had not betrayed me, I boarded the bus, and so began my adventure. 

I still recall the excitement and nervousness of those moments. I looked outside the bus window, trying to see as much as possible as we drove through the outskirts of Taipei and entered the city. I couldn't believe that I was really in Asia, so far away from Europe, in a country where everyone spoke Chinese and where I was truly a foreigner.

Around two hours later - the bus was quite slow and there was a lot of traffic - the electronic display finally announced that the next stop was Taipei Main Station. I was relieved; the journey had felt so long, and I had begun to worry that I might have taken the wrong line. 

For you, too, Taipei Main Station is likely to be the place in Taipei City where your feet will touch the ground for the first time, and the area around the station is the one that will give you the first impressions of the Taiwanese capital.

In retrospect, I guess that a part of me was disappointed. I had thought Taipei would either be an ultramodern, shiny global city with glittering facades and skyscrapers, like Hong Kong; or a traditional, old city with a lot of historic buildings. What I saw was a actually in between; neither ultramodern nor traditional, it had a rather 1970s-1980s-style look. There was only one skyscraper, and Taipei Main Station itself looked quite unprepossessing: a large, light brown square structure with a Chinese-style reddish roof, a mix of old and modern architecture. 

Taipei Main Station

Thursday, 10 April 2014

The Blogging Therapy

For over a year blogging has been part of my daily life. Before going to Taiwan I had never thought about blogging. When I was still in Berlin and planning my first trip to Taipei, a Chinese friend of mine told me that I should start a blog so I could keep my friends in Germany and Italy updated about my new adventure. But I had no idea how to write a blog, and at that time I had no interest in it, either. 

Perhaps I should have started to write a blog in those days of euphoria, when Taiwan was an entirely new and exotic place to me, when I had so many emotions and felt so much enthusiasm. I used to update my private Facebook page, instead. I had never used Facebook so much before, and I turned my life in Taiwan into a sort of show. In hindsight, I think that show was a technique of self-persuasion. 

While at the beginning I felt as if Taiwan would be my new home and I was passionate about it, after a few months I became much more sober and disenchanted. I began to see many aspects of Taiwanese life and society that I had not been aware of. It was only then that I discovered blogging as a way to cope with that new situation. I guess this also explains the rather sombre atmosphere of this blog when compared with other travel and expat blogs.

I used blogging both as a public diary and as a place for reflection. I wanted to make sense of the new place where I lived, which was so different from what I had imagined, and so fascinating, because I felt there was so much to learn. Many of my blog posts are bits of my learning process. At the same time, blogging became important to me in moments when it was hard to find someone to talk to. 

I remember a scene from “Lost in Translation”, when the female protagonist calls a friend of hers. She feels lonely and wants to talk to someone; but her friend is in a hurry, and she does not understand her. These are situations that happen in everyone's life. There are feelings that one cannot put into words, or that other people cannot truly understand. One must cope with them alone, unless one finds a special person, a kindred person willing to listen. But that doesn't always happen.

The past two months have been for me one of those moments. After my father got sick in February, things have been complicated. I had to leave Taiwan all of a sudden, with a return ticket in my hands which I never used. 

I realised that I had to deal with the situation without any help. I couldn't express my anxiety, I couldn't talk about my suffering with anyone. I isolated myself, didn't write to or call my friends. One thing alone was on my mind, and when you feel like this, talking with a friend isn't easy. Most people's lives go on, but mine came to a halt for a while. 

As a matter of course, I spent most of my time in the hospital where my father was treated. I went there twice a day.

Despite the stress and worry, I tried to keep on blogging. It was a way to stop thinking about bad things, and focus my attention on something else. In this respect, it was very helpful. 

At the end of March Taiwanese students organised the biggest protest the island has seen in many years. This event made me feel that Taiwan was very far away. I wish I had been there to witness this historic event, and to get a first-hand experience of the atmosphere.

In the first two days the general euphoria affected me, but then I became more sceptical. At that point, blogging turned into a burden. I received a lot of criticism because of my rather unconventional point of view. Actually, I don't enjoy these heated debates where a different point of view infuriates people. Especially when one is not having a good time for private reasons, such diatribes only add to one's own distress. But whenever one expresses one's opinion, one has to expect criticism. For the sake of peace with others, one could avoid overexposing oneself, so as to be considered nice by everyone. 

But that's exactly what makes blogging so interesting. Blogging is absolutely free. You decide what to say and what to write about, without any external influence. As a form of communication and self-expression in a time of fast change, displacement and frenzy, blogging is a parallel world, a space you can form and adapt to your needs, where you can talk to yourself and to others without constraint. 

Actually, there is one constraint. Because I decided that this blog would be mainly about East Asia, I couldn't write about Rome. During my long walks in the city, I see a lot of things that interest me. I took a lot of pictures of buildings and streets, of old Roman ruins and unknown places. I would have liked to write about these things and share pictures, something which is definitely more relaxing than politics.  

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The Green Gang, Chiang Kai-shek, and the Republic of China

In one of my latest posts I talked about China's traditional secret societies and their role in overthrowing the Qing Dynasty. Sun Yat-sen's revolutionary movement was inspired by secret societies such as the Society of God Worshippers that led the Taiping Rebellion (1850 –1864) - a revolt that almost succeeded in toppling the Qing government.

In this post, I will talk about the way in which one of China's traditional secret societies, the Green Gang, adapted to the modern world by first serving the interests of foreign powers, and then by cooperating with the Kuomintang one-party-state on the mainland (1927-1949).

The Origins of the Green Gang

The origins of the Green Gang can be traced back to the 15th century, when a spiritual leader named Luo Qing (羅清, pinyin: Luó Qīng) founded a Buddhist sect, the Patriarch Luo Sect. The sect evolved from the famous White Lotus, which had played a major role in the overthrow of the Yuan Dynasty and the establishment of the Ming Dynasty (note). In the 16th and 17th centuries, the sect spread throughout China and became known as the Three Patriarchs Sect, because it was headed by three spiritual leaders (see Brian G. Martin: The Shanghai Green Gang: Politics and Organized Crime, 1919-1937. 1996, p. 10).

The Three Patriarchs Sect was most popular and influential with soldiers and the boatmen that worked on the ships that transported grain tributes on China's Grand Canal. The sect became a mutual aid organisation that provided various forms of assistance. For example, the sect established a number of temples where the boatmen could stay when they were out of work. These temples are known as 'hostel-temples' and they constituted important centres of workship and social networking (ibid., pp. 10-11).

Yet as the power of the sect grew, the Qing state began to worry about the disruptive social and political consequences of such an organisation. Not unlike today's CCP, the Qing state was anxious whenever people united in religious or political organisations that could challenge state authority. In 1768, during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (乾隆, 1711-1799), the government tore down the Luo Sect's temples in Hangzhou and confiscated its land properties. This crackdown did not destroy the sect. But it forced it to become a secret society in order to survive.

The sect developed a more structured system of hierarchies, rituals and symbols. Each of the boatmen's fleet was led by a ship that displayed the banner of the Patriarch Luo. Each sub-group of the sect was named after the fleet to which its members belonged. The sect now created a set of regulations, entrance requirements, secret codes, and it determined the boatmen's wages (ibid., p. 11). Every boat had a leader who had the power to set up a shrine dedicated to the three patriarchs and to recruit new members. The authority of the leader was so high that even Qing officials had to follow his orders on board his ship (ibid.).

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Taiwan, Europe and the Problem of Nationalism

Recently I have been criticised by some people because I used the term "Taiwanese nationalism", which to some apparently sounds too negative. 

In this post, I will briefly explain what I mean by nationalism and why I am in principle sceptical about it. I am not arguing that nationalism is not a legitimate ideal. But I view nationalism as very problematic; first, because it presupposes a collective identity and the subordination of the individual to the community; second, because the "nation" itself can hardly be defined rationally and objectively.

I won't be using any academic material as reference this time; since I want to respond to recent critical comments, I didn't have time to write down any quotations. This post will just be a blueprint, perhaps to use in the future for a more detailed analysis. 

The Problem of the Nation

On April 2, 2014, the Italian police arrested a group of Venetian separatists who allegedly were plotting to commit terrorist acts (note). Some of them were also involved in a violent action that took place in 1997, when armed people stormed San Marco Square in Venice. The aim of their movement is to found a separate state comprising the whole Veneto region.

Veneto is not Italy - 2009 campaign for
Venetian local elections
(source: Wikipedia)
Since the 1980s, nationalist independence movements within Italy have been on the rise. Especially in the North, parties and movements in different areas have been founded which advocate the secession of some regions from the Republic of Italy and the establishment of new independent states. The most important of these parties is the Northern League (Lega Nord) which promotes the creation of a Northern Italian state, the so-called Padania. But there are also many other movements in different parts of the country.

Before 1861, Italy existed only as a geographical entity but not as a state. There were many different kingdoms, and some of them were ruled by foreign dynasties. The nationalist movements of the 19th assumed that Italy was a nation and that it should have its own state, like the French and the English had their own states. After many decades of war, finally in 1861 a united Italian state was founded, and Italian nationalism was so strong that it led to the rise of Fascism in the 1920s. But in the 1980s, Italian national identity began to be called into question by several separatist and nationalist movements. 

Italy is just one of many cases in history that show: the nation can hardly be defined rationally, and its meaning and interpretation change over time.

What is a nation? This question has been asked many times, but one can barely find a coherent practical definition. 

The nation has often been defined as an imagined community of individuals with a shared history, language and culture (one may also add ethnicity). The problem is: what is a a shared history, what is a common language, and what is a common culture or ethnicity? 

First of all, the difference between dialect and language isn't clear. But also a shared history or a shared culture are extremely subjective criteria.

The assumption that there are communities of people that inhabit a certain territory and share the same identity, is a fiction, a construction, an ideology.

In fact, most societies are not homogeneous - as nationalist ideologies assume -, they are heterogeneous. 

First of all, a nation consists of a large number of individuals. They have different ideas, opinions, personal histories, characters, and economic situations. Then, many states also have strong regional differences, and many also have a mixed population. Moreover, because people migrate, individuals enter and exit a certain community.

Let me give you an example: Germany. 

Saturday, 5 April 2014

The Sunflower Movement, the Media, and Showbusiness

Popular protests in the digital age are made half on the streets and half online. Whether a political movement is successful or not, whether it is supported by a large number of people or not, depends on how the media depict it, and on how skillfully the protesters use the most formidable peaceful weapon of our time, the internet. 

While I was following the events around Taiwan's Sunflower Movement, I felt like a man who goes out to take a nice walk in th park, but ends up in the middle of an unbearably noisy and smoggy highway full of cars. There's just too much information around, there are too many different interpretations, and, above all, too many people shouting and screaming, arguing that they - and they alone - are right, and those who disagree are the absolute evil and do not represent anybody. 

The protesters claim that they represent Taiwan, that they love Taiwan, and that they want to save Taiwan. Therefore, whoever agrees with the trade pact, or whoever disagrees with it but opposes the occupation of the Legislative Yuan, is evil, a traitor, and will sell Taiwan to China. This is the typical ideological language of those who regard disagreement as betrayal, and governments that do something they dislike as dictatorship. Pro-DPP, anti-KMT and anti-Chinese media and independent commentators (most notably many among Taiwan's expat community) agree with this absolutistic view. Many of them, I presume, believe that the KMT is a foreign regime that, if it likes China so much, should go back there. 

Pro-KMT and pro-Chinese media and independent commentators, for their part, have tried to discredit the protesters on a personal level, arguing that they should go to back to studying rather than waste their youth demonstrating. An article on Taiwan's China Times even called the three major leaders of the student protest, Chen Wei-ting, Lin Fei-fan and Wei Yang, "naughty boys". The paper argued that Chen and Lin are affiliated with the opposition party DPP, and Wei is a member of a youth activist group. According to the China Times, the three leaders 

have all undergone instruction and training from Wang Dan and Wu'erkaixi, the famous student leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement in China, on how to conduct urban guerrilla warfare. During the latest movement, they have been on hand to check the latest warfare results (note).

I think this article deserves no comment. 

Democracy can only exist if there is tolerance toward different ideas and identities, that is, if all ideas can coexist peacefully. But if two sides regard each other as traitors of the nation, as unreasonable and evil, this peaceful coexistence becomes fragile. Even in the United States, the polarisation of politics has led to an impasse that has lasted for nearly the entire Obama administration. 

I regard the perspective of both sides as legitimate and justifiable. However, in my personal opinion, the way in which the Sunflower Movement has blocked the parliament is not democratic (whether it's legal, I doubt, but I'm not familiar with ROC law). The protesters claim to represent "the people". They are the only true voice of the people, the true Taiwan. They claim to show through opinion polls that Ma Yingjiu and the trade pact are acting against "the people". 

Recent polls, however, have shown that a growing number of Taiwanese wish for an end of the occupation (note). But that's not my point. 

Governments are not elected through opinion polls. For instance, Margaret Thatcher was at times extremly unpopular. Polls show that between 1979 and 1983 support for the Conservative Party dropped to 23%, and to 24% between 1983 and 1987 (note). Yet she managed to win two general elections and pursued her own programme. This is what the democratic change of government is about. 

The interesting thing is how much Western commentators support in Taiwan what they would condemn at home. How would we react if students occupied Westminster to block the government, thus giving an extraparliamentary help to the opposition? How would we react if students occupied the Congress and blocked the Obama administration because they think he is a socialist, or he is selling the US out? Well, this is not how a democracy is supposed to function properly. Because in a democracy, no one can claim to represent "the people", but only certain groups of people. And after one receives the mandate in the elections, one has the right to govern, within, of course, the legal framework of the constitution and the law. 

Not unlike Margaret Thatcher, Ma Yingjiu has a neoliberal, pro-free trade economic viewpoint. But the main reason why he is unpopular with the protesters is because he wants to bring Taiwan and China closer. Yet, closer cross-strait ties is exactly what Ma promised to the electorate during his campaign, and he won two elections. It was clear from the start that Ma intended to further integrate the Taiwanese and Chinese economies and improve cross-strait ties. In 2012, after Ma was re-elected, the LA Times wrote:

Ma won 51% of the vote, compared with 46% for his chief rival, Tsai Ing-wen, after a tense campaign packed with criticism of his overtures to China. Ma had urged voters to see his attempts at rapprochement as a stimulus for the local economy, but was accused of getting too cozy with Taiwan's rival of more than 60 years. (note).

This doesn't mean that I myself agree with Ma's position. First of all, I am opposed to neoliberalism, and second, I would negotiate with China only if the PRC renounced the use of force to achieve eventual unification. Nevertheless, sacrificing the democratic mechanisms of Taiwan's fragile democratic balance is not a way to solve the China-Taiwan issue. 

Meanwhile, the media coverage of the Sunflower Movement seems to have become a sort of circus. There are anti-Chinese ideologues that keep on depicting the Ma administration as an enemy of Taiwan; there are pro-KMT and pro-Chinese groups that try to defame the students and that propagate the idea that the trade pact is necessary and vital for Taiwan's existence (which they can hardly prove). And then, there are the media that profit from the protests and try to make a spectacle out of it. 

Now also some Taiwanese erotic performers have begun dedicating their songs or writing articles in favour of the protesters. An interesting mix between self-promotion, political activism, and the objectification of the female body in Taiwanese society I talked about in one of my posts.

One of them is the erotic model Xuebi (雪碧), who wrote a song about Lin Fei-fan, the student leader I mentioned before. The title of the song is I love Lin Fei-fan (我愛林飛帆). The news network NowNews published an article about this.

Another one is a 17-year-old girl from Kaohsiung, whose half-naked sexy pictures have been published by Taiwanese media (I think that explicit pictures of underage girls should not be shown, though). Anyway, she wrote a song entitiled We are not a mob (我們不是暴民). The song says: 

"We hold sunflowers, but we are chased away. We really aren't a mob, please look into my eyes, look at our sincerity, don't tell me you can't see it at all, tears of blood are streaming, my eyes are filled with tears, we just want the government to see our dream."  (拿著向日葵,卻還得被驅趕,我們真的不是暴民,請看我的眼,我們的真誠,難道你們全部都看不見,世上流著血淚,眼眶帶著淚水,只是想要政府看見我們的心願) (note).

Revolutionary enthusiasm, polarisation, showbusiness ...

Friday, 4 April 2014

Sun Yat-sen, the Kuomintang and China's Secret Societies

In my previous post, I wrote about Zhang Anle, the former leader of Taiwan's notorious Bamboo Gang. Taiwanese and foreign media have reported that over the last few days Zhang's followers showed up at the sites of the Sunflower Movement, trying to intimidate the protesters. Furthermore, Zhang organised his own demonstrations to support the KMT-government's proposed trade agreement with China. Zhang is openly pro-unification, has founded a political party to achieve this goal, and is said to have close ties with both KMT and mainland Chinese political circles. Some KMT opponents have argued that Zhang's pro-trade-pact intervention and his menacing demeanour may signal a return to KMT's gangster politics.

But how can a political party have ties with gangsters? And why has the KMT been accused of colluding with the mob? In this post, I would like to show that the KMT has indeed a history of co-operation with criminal syndicates, and that the nucleus of the KMT itself was an illegal secret society.

Secret Societies in Chinese History

Secret societies have a long history in the Chinese-speaking world. Some of the most famous secret societies in Chinese history are the White Lotus (白蓮教 pinyin: báiliánjiào), the Tiandihui (天地會; pinyin: Tiāndìhuì, literally Heaven and Earth Society; also known as 洪門, pinyin: Hóng mén ), the Society of God Worshippers (拜上帝會 pinyin: Bài Shàngdì Huì) led by Hong Xiuquan who organised the Taiping Rebellion; the Big Swords Society (大刀會; pinyin: Dàdāohuì), and the so-called Boxers (義和團; pinyin: Yìhétuán, literally 'Righteous and Harmonious Band').

Seal of the Hongmen secret society, from Xiamen, China's Fujian Province.
19. century (source: Wikipedia

In old China, secret societies could have various forms. The simplest of them consisted of fraternities of people from the same or neighbouring villages that, for the sake of mutual aid, formed an association. These fraternities had a loose structure. Some of them could develop religious, political, military, or criminal characteristics, in which case they can hardly be distinguished from religious sects or groups of bandits. But there were also more complex societies, which had a system of blood oaths, rituals and secret codes that made them somewhat similar to the Western freemasonry (see David Ownby: Brotherhoods and Secret Societies in Early and Mid-Qing China: The Formation of a Tradition. 1996, pp. 2-3). 

Throughout Chinese history, the relationship between secrets societies and the state has been ambiguous. The White Lotus, for example, was a Buddhist religious sect, but it played a major role in the overthrow of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). The founder of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, was a poor monk who became a military leader in an army of rebels closely associated with the White Lotus. But after the successful revolution, Zhu, who took up the Emperor title Hong Wu, realised that the very religious sects and secret societies that had led the revolution threatened his fledgling dynasty, and he turned against them (Victor Purcell: The Boxer Uprising: A Background Study. 1963, p. 149).

During the Qing Dynasty, secret societies were a major factor of instability. They were the vehicle through which different people, often social outsiders or members of marginal religious sects, organised powerful social groups that could at times challenge state authority (not unlike Mafia syndicates in the West).  

In the 18th century, the most influential of them was the Tiandihui*. Research suggests that the society was formed around 1761 and 1762 in the Goddess of Mercy Temple, Gaoxi township, in Zhangpu county, Zhangzhou prefecture, southern Fujian (Ownby 1996, p. 58). The society had religious and secret rituals, such as burning incense, passing through a gate of swords or knives, and worshipping various gods. There were also blood oaths, with which the members pledged loyalty to the group. During the ceremony, the initiated drank chicken blood or human blood mixed with liquor, and were threatened with death if they betrayed the society.

A branch of the Hongmen (or Tiandihui), in Toronto.
(Source: Wikipedia)

The Tiandihui is important for the history of Taiwan under Qing rule. In fact, one of the many rebellions of 18th Qing Empire took place in Taiwan, and it was the first one in the whole of China which was organised by members of the Tiandihui.

The Tiandihui came to Taiwan in the 48th year of the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1783-84) when a man named Yan Yan, a cloth merchant and a member of the society, moved from Pinghe county in Fujian's Zhanghzhou prefecture to Taiwan. He settled in the city of Zhanghua (彰化), where he opened a shop. There he met Lin Shuangwen (林爽文, pinyin: Lín Shuǎngwén), who came from the same county in Fujian as he. Lin Shuangwen asked to join the secret society and he was initiated by Yan Yan (ibid. p. 62). Lin seems to have used the Tiandihui for illegal activities, and in 1777 he led the bloodiest rebellion in Taiwan's history.

Lin was a notorious criminal, who is said to have been arrested several times by the local yamen (imperial office). After the failed uprising, Lin, Yan Yan, and many other people involved in the revolt were arrested and interrogated by Qing prosecutors. Their confessions and testimonies belong to the most fascinating historical documents of the bygone Chinese Empire.

Lin's wife stated in her confession: 

My husband has a crude and violent nature, and was never peaceful with me. The year before last when [he] wanted to rise up, I urged him several times not to, but he wouldn't listen, and took a knife and said he was going to kill me. I didn't dare say anything more (ibid., p. 66).
The confessions of other people associated with Lin confirm his violent nature. 

The revolt that Lin and other members of the Tiandihui organised lasted for about a year. According to estimates, around 100,000 imperial forces were needed to suppress the uprising, nearly half of which was shipped to Taiwan from the mainland. Out of a total population of about 1 million, around 650,000 people ended up as refugees of war. These figures show the vast scale and the social consequences of the uprising. In 1788, Lin Shuangwen was captured and executed in Beijing.

Other major uprisings organised by secret societies were the Taiping Rebellion, which threatened the very existence of the Qing Dynasty and caused between 10 and 20 million deaths, and the famous Boxer Rebellion. The 'Righteous and Harmonious Band' was used by the Qing Dynasty to fight the Western powers and Japan, in the hope that the enraged rebels would kill and expel the foreign devils. This, again, shows that secret societies could both be used for the sake of the governing dynasty, and as a means to overthrow it. And while Empress Dowager Cixi sought to eliminate the foreigners with the help of the Boxers, a young man called Sun Yat-sen dreamed of toppling the Qing state through his own secret society.

*It is also interesting to note that the Tiandihui or Hongmen still exists today. This is their Taiwanese website.

Sun Yat-sen and Secret Societies

Sun Yat-sen, the Father of Modern China, to whom mausolea and museums are dedicated in mainland China, Taiwan, and the whole Chinese-speaking world, and whose portrait has been seen by people in the entire globe, since it hangs in Taiwan's Legislative Yuan, was an amdirer and founder of secret societies.

Portrait of Sun Yat-sen in the Legislative Yuan of the Republic of China (Taiwan) during the
recent students occupation (source: Wikipedia)

In his most famous work, the Three Principles of the People, Sun Yat-sen sees himself as a successor of the great anti-Qing revolts led by secret societies. He wrote:

The [Hongmen Sanhehui; note that Sanhehui is the Chinese word for Triad] was one among [those secret societies] whose aim was to oppose the Manchus and restore the Mings. It cherished a strong nationalistic spirit (Sun Yat-sen: The Three Principles of the People - San Min Chu I. 1927, p. 57).

According to Sun Yat-sen's own ideological interpretation, the secret societies were driven by nationalism and he therefore saw them as agents of revolutionary change. He believed that the Qing Dynasty had tried to destroy the Chinese national consciousness in order to subjugate the Han race, and - Sun thought - the last remnants of national spirit had been saved by far-sighted men who had created secret societies and propagated the national spirit among the lowest strata of society (ibid., p. 58). 

[N]o matter how despotic the Manchu government became in the last two centuries, the national spirit was kept alive in the verbal codes transmitted by these secret societies (ibid., p. 59).

From this point of view, Sun Yat-sen was not merely a Westernised revolutionary; he was also the successor of a long Chinese tradition of popular anti-dynastic rebellions and revolutions. 

This is also shown by a speech that Sun held in 1912, shortly after the successful revolution had overthrown the Qing Dynasty:

Ever since China was defeated by the Manchus, there have been countless attempts to recover China from the invaders. Everywhere there were associations and societies whose aim was to realize the principle of nationalism. Fifty years ago, the T'ai-p'ing Celestial Kingdom represented a purely nationalist revolution. But a purely nationalist revolution is no guarantee that it will not be followed by an autocratic form of government ... Eight or nine years ago, a small number of comrades started the T'ung-men-hui in Japan and resolved upon three great principles (Sun Yat-sen: Prescriptions for Saving China: Selected Writings of Sun Yat-sen. 1994, p. 63).

Zheng Shiliang
(source: Wikipedia)
One of Sun Yat-sen's closest followers was Zheng Shiliang (鄭士良), the impoverished scion of a wealthy merchant family. Zheng was also a member of the Tiandihui. Sun relied on secret societies to recruit anti-Manchu revolutionary fighters. At the end of the 18th century, Sun went to Taiwan, where Zheng Shiliang organised a group of 10 000 Triad members to be deployed on the mainland, though this attempt subsequently failed (Bertlin Lintner: Blood brothers: Crime, business and politics in Asia 2002, p. 52).

On November 1894, Sun founded in Hawaii the Revive China Society. This was a self-proclaimed patriotic organisation that counted just a few hundred members. Like in other secret societies, the new members had to swear a secret oath, with one hand placed on the Bible (Marie-Claire Bergere: Sun Yat-sen. 1998, p. 50). 

The Revive China society was the first nucleus of another, bigger secret society, the Tongmenhui, which after the 1911 Revolution became the Kuomintang.

The symbol of the Revive China Society was "The Blue Sky and White Sun" flag (see picture below). It was designed by the first 'revolutionary martyr' of Sun Yat-sen's revolution, Lu Haodong (陸皓東; pinyin: Lù Hàodōng, 1868–1895). This symbol remains the official emblem of the Kuomintang, and it is also part of the flag of the Republic of China on Taiwan.

The Blue Sky and White Sun flag (source: Wikipedia)

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Zhang Anle, the Sunflower Movement and the China-Taiwan Issue

Zhang Anle (source:
On April 1, 2014, tensions escalated between the supporters of the Sunflower Student Movement and the supporters of president Ma Ying-jeou's pro-China policies. Zhang Anle (張安樂/张安乐, pinyin: Zhāng Ānlè, in Taiwan spelled Chang An-le,or An-lo), a notorious gangster, and hundreds of his followers, staged a demonstration near the Legislative Yuan to voice their support for the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement between China and Taiwan. Zhang used to be the leader of Taiwan's most powerul criminal syndicate, the Bamboo Gang (竹聯幫; pinyin: Zhūliánbāng).

Zhang, also know as the 'White Wolf' (白狼), has a background worth of a mystery novel.

According to Wikipedia, Zhang Anle was born in 1948 in Taipei City. But other sources claim he was born in mainland China. This is, for instance, what author Chin Ko-lin states, but without specifying Zhang's alleged birthplace. 

In his youth, Zhang had already established connections with Taiwan's underworld, a sort of mafia generically known as 'the Black Society' (黑社會). In 1964 he joined a criminal organisation that was going to become one of the most powerful and notorious of the island, the Bamboo Gang. Zhang rose to the leadership of the ring, and he was considered by the Taiwanese media the "brain" of the gang (Chin Ko-lin: Heijin: Organized Crime, Business, and Politics in Taiwan. 2003, p. 37).

The Bamboo Gang gained international notoriety in 1984, when members of the syndicate assassinated Henry Liu (Liu Yiliang), a Taiwan-born US citizen who had written a critical unauthorised biography of the then President of the Republic of China Chiang Ching-kuo (the son and successor of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek). The murder was carried out in Daly, California, where the writer lived at the time. 

FBI investigations uncovered the links between the assassins and Taiwan's military intelligence, causing a major row between Washington and Taipei. It appears that the killers were backed by KMT and state organs, possibly Chiang's ambitious son, Chiang Hsiao-wu (Alan M. Wachman: Taiwan: National Identity and Democratization.1994, p. 142). The KMT and the underworld had powerful links from the very beginning of the party's history, when it was still a secret society operating illegally. Sun Yat-sen was relatively familiar with China's secret societies, and Chiang Kai-shek had strong ties with some of the most important criminal gangs during KMT one-party rule on the mainland.

It should be pointed out, however, that after the murder Chiang Ching-kuo unleashed a crackdown on organised crime. The head of the military intelligence, Wang Xiling, and two major Bamboo Gang leaders, Chen Qili and Wu Dun, were sentenced to life imprisonment (though they were released in 1991). Chiang's son was sent to Singapore, where he headed the local Taiwan's trade office (ibid., p. 142).

When the Liu murder took place, Zhang Anle was in Los Angeles, and although he did not kill Liu, he tried to help Chen Qili. Following the investigations in the US, he was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, but for another crime, drug-trafficking. He returned to Taiwan in 1995 (Chin 2003, p. 138).

However, the next year the ROC government unleashed another major crackdown on organised crime, and Zhang fled to China (ibid.). He lived there for 17 years, and returned to Taiwan in June 2013. Upon arriving at Songshan Airport, he was arrested by the police, but released just a few hours later on a NT$1 million (about US$30,000) bail.

Ever since, Zhang has started a 'new life', taking part in TV shows and founding a new party that advocates the reunification of China and Taiwan - the Party for the Promotion of Chinese Unification (中華統一促進黨; simpl. Chinese: 中华统一促进党, pinyin: Zhōnghuá tǒngyī cùjìn dǎng). Zhang has invented pro-unification mottos such as: Peaceful Unification, One Country Two Systems (和平統一、一國兩制), and Taiwan's Independence Means War (台獨就是代表戰爭).

Zhang Anle is one of those personalities whose allegiance to the KMT, the CCP, and pan-Chinese nationalism is blurred and apparently easily exchangeable (see my post about CCP-KMT-relationship). He is openly pro-KMT, and in some cases he even offered his 'services' to them. For instance, in November 2013, he threatened to deploy 2,000 of his men to protect President Ma Yingjiu, who was the target of fierce protests at the time. During the 19th National Congress of the Kuomintang in Taichung, on 10 November 2013, angry protesters even tossed shoes at Ma

However, Zhang seems to have become a tool of China's united front policy in Taiwan. As the Liberty Times reported, in 2013 Zhang was interviewed by the PRC's state-owned paper Global Times (環球時報). He is reported to have said: 

"In Taiwan, I want to nurture the grass-roots level red electorate " (我要在台灣基層培養紅色選民). 

Journalist J. Michael Cole, who visited the headquarters of Zhang's party, reports having seen a large PRC flag in a conference room. Rather than a pro-KMT attitude, Zhang's intentions are tantamount to replicating on Taiwan the KMT vs CCP confrontation that took place on the mainland. If that was the case, it would be a disaster for Taiwan.

On March 18, Zhang Anle and his supporters had already clashed with students of the Sunflower Movement. According to J. Michael Cole, on different occasions "his goons turned up at the site [of the protest] and attempted to pick a fight with the students, threatening them with knives, firecrackers, and homemade bombs."

Pictures of the Sunflower Student Movement
(source: Wikipedia)

The following scene, reported in the Taipei Times, is particularly revealing:

At one point, Chang, apparently upset by pro-Sunflower supporters calling him a gangster, angrily shouted: 
“You are all fucking offspring of Chinese, but you do not deserve to be Chinese. Chinese people do not want you.” 
The students responded with applause and laughter, with many shouting: “We are not Chinese anyway. We are Taiwanese.” (note)

This episode shows how potentially explosive the ethnic, subethnic, and identity issues in Taiwan can be. 

Anti-KMT commentators have argued that Zhang Anle's actions may be a proof that the KMT is resorting to criminal organisations to end the current deadlock by force. The KMT ties with the underworld are notorious, but it should also be noted that the KMT often persecuted gangsters, for example during the 1996 crackdown under Li Teng-hui's presidency. Moreover, what would be the KMT's interest in allying itself with Zhang? After all, he is in favour of the PRC swallowing up the ROC, and this puts the KMT again before the old dilemma: to co-operate with or to fight the Communists? We know that the KMT has paid a high price for not being able to solve this issue during its rule on the mainland, so why should it allow the CCP to establish itself in Taiwan, the last Nationalist stronghold in the Chinese-speaking world? That would undoubtedly mean the end of the KMT.

So the question is whether Zhang Anle and the KMT are allies by chance or by design. If the KMT is using Zhang's illegal tactics to intimidate the students, then it should be condemned, and it would discredit the KMT as a democratic party. But if the KMT is not co-operating with Zhang, one may wonder if this is all but a strategy of anti-KMT groups to delegitimise the KMT and depict it as criminal and anti-democratic.