As a resident of this island for, as of the end of the month of this article’s publication, what will be twenty-six years, I feel I must voice my opinions of the locals, especially as regards the attitude of many of them to China. What I’m about to say here is not a scientifically authoritative set of observations; it’s just the idiosyncratic opinions of a Canadian expatriate who has lived here and informally watched the locals for over two and a half decades.
Take these opinions with a grain of salt; I’m about to say some things many of the locals won’t like to read, but things I feel must be said. Be prepared, for much of what I’ll say will be critical, but with compassion: my intent is to help Taiwan save herself, not to be malicious. Furthermore, the criticisms are not meant to be sweeping generalizations of all of the locals, or even necessarily a comment on most of them, but rather a comment on as many of them as would be enough to prod Taiwan in the direction of provoking a war with China. More on that later.
I find the Taiwanese attitude to outsiders to be a curious one, full of contradictions. While some of them like China, from whence they came in waves over the years (mostly from Fujian province in particular, then with Chiang Kai-shek when Mao’s communists took over the mainland), many others detest the country of their ethnic origin. It’s a classic case of what Freud once called “the narcissism of small differences.”
On the other hand, the one country for which one would think the Taiwanese would have an abiding hatred, Japan, which had occupied the island from 1895 to the end of the Second World War, actually is a country the locals like so much that they visit it constantly, perhaps more than any other country, to my knowledge. My beloved Taiwanese wife, with whom I’ve vacationed in Japan many times, speaks Japanese very well. Just so we’re clear, though, Japanese rule here could be brutally repressive, as with their response to the Wushe Incident, which was dramatized in the Taiwanese film, Seediq Bale.
The locals’ attitude towards Westerners, whom they typically call waiguoren (“foreigners”) or meiguoren (“Americans”), is a mixture of contradictory feelings. Sometimes, they’re fascinated with us, reacting as if we were movie stars, or something. Little kids (and, occasionally, even adults) stare at us as if in a trance, as if there’s something shocking about how different we as non-Asians look from them.
At other times, a minority of locals, those with a more xenophobic attitude (sadly, a reaction any foreigner or racial minority will have to face from time to time in any country) will regard us as comical-looking; these ones may use the racial slur a-do-ah (“big nose”), or mock us by saying “Hello!” and “How do you do?” in an exaggerated tone, equivalent to white racists mocking Asians by bowing, squinting their eyes, sticking out their upper-front teeth and saying something ignorant like “Ah-so!” (which, incidentally, is Japanese, not Chinese, whitey.)
What all these contradictory attitudes have in common is the preoccupation with how ‘different’ we are from them. Such a preoccupation seems to stem, at least in part, from how the locals’ society conditions them, from early childhood, to be remarkably conformist. Social conformity, of course, exists in all countries and all cultures; but some places are more obviously conformist than others. A common way to reprimand bad behaviour among the locals is to call the offender qiguai (“strange”); one is bad because one is different from everyone else.
The real enforcing of conformity happens during elementary, junior, and senior high school…naturally. Kids here are bombarded with piles of homework not only from these schools, but also from their cram schools (buxiban) of many subjects (English, math, science, etc.), home tutors, and music lessons. In all of this intense study, we see how these kids are being prepared for the long working day–as of 2019, the fourth longest hours in the world.
Unlike in the West, the Taiwanese didn’t experience a radical 1960s countercultural rebellion against “The Man.” They’re essentially as we Westerners were back in the 1950s. To be sure, there are a number of individual cases of Taiwanese who go against the grain: I had the pleasure here of teaching a young woman, a violinist, who is now in the US studying the arts and is in a happy relationship with her female partner. I’m delighted every time I encounter such an exception; I’d encourage much more of it if I had the opportunity. But when I speak of conformity, I’m describing the large majority of the locals I’ve encountered, a largeness that I hope, for their sake, will soon shrink…if it hasn’t already, without my noticing.
Now, of course, East Asians have no monopoly on conservatism and conformity. Consider the recent, outrageous overturning of Roe vs. Wade by those Americans far too influenced by religious authoritarianism. But at least there’s a significant number of left-leaning Westerners trying to resist such reactionary behaviour. Sadly, I see far too little of such resistance here; by this, I’m referring to the Western pockets of resistance to such things as the mask and vaccine mandates. I know of no such questioning of authority here; anyone who does, please enlighten me–I’d be so happy to see examples of it here.
Alongside the locals’ non-questioning of authority, their homogeneity, which leads to their frequent over-reactions to foreigners as described above, their self-absorption (brought on, I believe, by their media’s constant focus on Taiwan, with scant exposure of international news to the locals), and their fear of a Chinese invasion, comes their belief that this island is a country, rather than a breakaway province of China. The locals are, essentially, ethnic Chinese, just as a huge percentage of the Ukrainian population is made up of ethnic Russians. Constitutionally, Taiwan is the Republic of China; the ruling Democratic Progressive Party keeps selling the public the idea that Taiwan is a ‘sovereign’ country.
I’m sorry, Taiwanese readers, but I must be frank with you. Nationalism is a form of collective narcissism. One thinks one’s country is ‘great’ because one was born there.
Just so we’re clear: nationalism has a danger of degenerating into fascism. See what’s happened to Ukrainian nationalists to see what I mean. Excessive patriotism, combined with economic hard times, tends to lead to such things as Naziism. Note today’s economy, and do the math to see what I’m getting at. Now, most Taiwanese are kind, gentle people who are very unlikely to develop the violent ways of fascism, but I worry that the combination of economic hard times, this nationalistic pride among the locals, and especially, American manipulations of the people here towards Sinophobia could make some disturbing changes in my home.
Indeed, the US government in its evil machinations encourages Taiwanese ‘nationalism’ as much as it can. Mike Pompeo, former Secretary of State under Trump and confessed liar for the CIA, made a visit to Taiwan to embolden the locals in an anti-China stance. At one point during his visit, he wore a mask designed with a combination of the American and Taiwanese flags. The obvious message behind this design is that an ‘independent’ Taiwan is to be inextricably linked to the American empire. Translation: Taiwan is to be subservient to American interests.
If the Taiwanese think that, with their long work days as mentioned above, a link to ultra-capitalist, imperialist America will give them freedom, they should think again.
Indeed, far too many Taiwanese naïvely think that the US is here to protect us against a Chinese invasion, so they welcome neocon assholes like Pompeo. They don’t realize that the American government has ulterior motives: namely, to Balkanize China (and Russia, by the way), thereby weakening her. Call Taiwan a country, break Hong Kong off from China, use the unsubstantiated hoax of the Uyghur ‘genocide’ to justify breaking Xinjiang off from China, etc.
Though only fairly recently did Taiwanese news media start to show a substantial amount of international news, when they (and Western media) discuss such important stories as the Russian/Ukraine war, it’s to see how the conflict is to be paralleled with the danger of such a war happening here with China. Sadly, their coverage of Ukraine largely parrots the disingenuous Western reporting of the war (e.g., Taiwanese news reports of international news all too often show CNN reports with Chinese subtitles).
Accordingly, the average Taiwanese, if not the great majority of them, accept uncritically the MSM narrative that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was an “unprovoked” act of aggression by the villainous Putin. I suspect that a precious few Taiwanese (if any–indeed, my “precious few” is me being generous and hopeful that more locals are properly informed of what’s really going on in eastern Europe than I think) are aware that the Russian intervention is actually a reaction to eight years of Ukrainian neo-Nazi provocations.
It started with the broken promise not to push NATO “one inch” eastward beyond reunified Germany. Never a friend to Russia, NATO has absorbed many of the former SSRs, to the uncomfortable point of touching Russia’s borders at Latvia and Estonia. Belarus has held out, but the push to make Ukraine and Georgia join NATO means, if one day achieved, nuclear missiles can be placed in those countries and pointed at Russia, something this nuclear-armed country can never be expected to tolerate.
(It’s useful to compare such a predicament to the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the USSR tried to give missiles to Cuba to point at the US. The Taiwanese might also want to consider how the people of China feel about the Trump administration’s sale of a billion dollars of weapons to Taiwan to be used one day on China. The Taiwanese see it as defence; China sees a threat.)
Tensions escalated in 2014 when the CIA helped to orchestrate a violent coup d’état in Ukraine, ousting the democratically-elected Viktor Yanukovych and replacing his government with one that includes neo-Nazis, as their military also includes. The eight years since that coup, leading to the war starting in late February of this year, have involved the neo-Nazis, in their bigoted hatred of the ethnic Russians of the Donbass regions, not only to pass legislation denying those Russians the right to use their language (naturally leading to Russian separatism in those regions), but also to violent attacks on those Russians, causing thousands of deaths.
Furthermore, in the few months leading up to the Russian invasion, the US was sending hoards of weapons to Ukraine, provoking Russia all the more. Attempts to negotiate peace (i.e., the Minsk Accords) were disregarded by the Ukrainian government. True, Zelenskyy campaigned and was elected on a platform of peace, but the neo-Nazis threatened to kill him if he tried to sue for peace with Russia. Also, the ‘democratic’ Ukrainian government has banned eleven opposition parties.
Finally, contrary to the nonsense and propaganda of the Western mainstream media, Ukraine is losing the war…badly. They haven’t the necessary equipment or organization, and Ukrainian soldiers are refusing to fight, knowing they face certain death if they try. The purpose of the MSM lies that Ukraine is ‘winning’ is to promote the US/NATO agenda of protracting the war, using Ukrainians as cannon fodder, in order to bleed Russia slowly, and thus weaken her, as the mujahideen in Afghanistan was successfully used in the 1980s to weaken the Soviet Union.
I bring up all of this in keeping with the paralleling of the Russia/Ukraine war with a possible China/Taiwan war, so the locals here can understand how the US plans to use Taiwan as cannon fodder to provoke such a war here, while lying in the media that a Chinese invasion will be ‘unprovoked.’ The Taiwanese typically think that China is going to invade Taiwan just because the CPC ‘wants to,’ or something (actually, China wants to reunite with Taiwan peacefully, and will use military force only if they have to). Similarly, the locals here usually buy into the Western media narrative that Russia invaded Ukraine just because Putin ‘wanted to.’
Since the Taiwanese are naturally terrified (as I, a resident here, am) of this island becoming a war zone, the first step toward preventing such a calamity is to see what’s happening in Russia/Ukraine and China/Taiwan in its proper geopolitical context, something the MSM (and therefore also the Taiwanese news media, part of the TV version of which, by the way, is aptly called TVBS!) will never allow us to see: that these conflicts are actually US/NATO moves on a global chessboard, if you will, to prevent the replacement of US unipolar hegemony with a much more sensible multipolar world, including Russia and China as emerging powers, which could create a balance of power that in turn could conceivably promote peace and end our decades-long plague of American imperialism.
It would be laughable (if it weren’t so infuriating) that the American government–whose Attila-the-Hun-conservative, Bible-thumping Supreme Court just overturned its women’s right to abortion–goes around judging Russia and China as ‘autocratic’ and ‘authoritarian.’ The government of the same country that spies on its citizens and censors its media left, right, and centre has the gall to judge Russia and China as infringing on human rights. The country’s government that has been invading and bombing countries all over the Middle East and occupying countries all over the world with its military bases, has the audacity to judge Russian and Chinese “aggression.” The government of the country that has, over and over again, interfered with the democratic and electoral processes in many countries has the cheek to accuse Russia, baselessly, with interfering in the 2016 US election to give it to Trump, who ended up putting sanctions on Russia anyway!
Still, the average Taiwanese knows little of these issues, since the local media largely doesn’t discuss them, and any time I discuss them with my adult English students here, they never mention any prior knowledge of the issues. They just parrot the mainstream opinions heard on the TV.
Granted, many–if not most–people in Western countries also parrot those mainstream opinions, but we also have access to alternative forms of media that can give us the news from different perspectives. To my knowledge, there isn’t any such alternative media here in Taiwan, and if there is, it must be extremely scant. If, on the other hand, anyone out there reading this knows of such alternatives, please give me some links in the comments; I’d really like to be proven wrong about this, though I don’t think I will be.
My theory for why such alternative media here is generally lacking ties in with what I was saying above about how most Taiwanese are conservative and conformist. Apart from accepting uncritically far too much of the American spin on world affairs, the locals here simply don’t have sufficient time to examine world events from different angles. This is not their fault.
Starting in childhood, they get up early and go to school or work, where they slave away all day until they finally get home, too exhausted for any deep thinking. To be sure, they’re just as capable of deep thinking as we are in the West, but their version of the capitalist system brainwashes them, from childhood, into being little more than obedient workers whose whole life objective is making as much money for the family as possible.
Of course, the notion of TINA has been spread around the world, not just here, thanks to the hateful neoliberal agenda; but at least there are significant pockets of leftist resistance to it in most of the rest of the world, to varying degrees. I’m aware of no such resistance here, to any significant degree. Again, this is not the fault of the locals. As I said above, their time is so consumed with work and the need to make money that they simply can’t make the needed level of commitment to doing such things as promoting workers’ rights, or opposing imperialism.
Indeed, I remember back in the 2010s when an attempt was made to set up an IWW union here, and it barely materialized beyond one meeting of us in Taipei on a Sunday afternoon. The leader, an American with, I’m sorry to say, an attitude far too abrasive for his own good, got frustrated with our inability to commit to regular union meetings. Two Taiwanese members emailed him a long message explaining, among other issues, how difficult and unpleasant it was for them (as it also was for me, by the way) to wipe out their one day off to go from their city of residence to Taipei for these monthly Sunday meetings (we often work on Saturdays here: that’s how bad capitalism can get in Taiwan).
People here are so tired from their long workweeks that long sleeps over the weekend are, for them, the highest bliss. There is simply far too little time for most locals to spend questioning the system that wears them out so much. That little bit of weekend free time is for family, exercise (often in the form of hiking in the hills), online games, or watching the latest, mindless Hollywood action or superhero movie. Free time is usually about escape, not fighting the Man.
And along with far too little time for political protest is far too little time for questioning mainstream media narratives, learning the historical background to things like the Ukrainian conflict, the real reason for NATO‘s existence, and US imperialism. Yet without this learning, how will the Taiwanese be prepared when the American empire starts increasing its provocations on China as they’ve done on Russia?
The locals naïvely think that the American weapons sold to Taiwan and the US military training given to the Taiwanese army are to protect them from a Chinese invasion, rather than part of a provocation of such an invasion. The CIA has been working with Ukraine in its war with Russia, and all those weapons were sent there. Far from being ‘protected,’ Ukraine is being crushed. The same will happen here if the Taiwanese continue to trust the perfidious American government.
I think many Taiwanese already realize, from NATO’s non-intervention in Ukraine to stop Russia (which otherwise would escalate into WWIII and could go nuclear), that the American army won’t intervene to stop a Chinese invasion of Taiwan (to avoid the same cataclysmic escalation). The locals are not that politically naïve.
Still, they must understand that the American government is a false friend; they’ll come to this understanding by studying the history of American interference in other countries’ affairs, the American ruling class’s contempt for the rights of American women, people of colour (including Asians!), the working class, etc. If the American capitalist class doesn’t care about the people of their own country, why would they care about the people of Taiwan?
Understanding these sobering realities will result from the Taiwanese coming out of their shell–not thinking of the rest of the world as some strange, far-away place that has no relevance to the locals’ lives–and learning about the rest of the world in depth. I’m not saying that the Taiwanese know nothing, or next to nothing, about the rest of the world, but to survive the danger of the American government luring them into becoming cannon fodder against China, they’ll need to do much more learning about the world than they’ve done so far.
Let’s all hope that, unless many of them have already done this kind of comprehensive study of these issues, and I’m therefore wrong in my assessment of what they know, they will do this thorough study, and do it soon. Our lives will depend on it.
3 thoughts on “Taiwan”
Someone sent me the link to this post and glad to discover your blog. I’m happy to see put into words things I have only felt or dared not talk about.
I have been in Taiwan for 5 years — before that, Singapore for 3 years, China 3 months (really couldn’t take it) and Japan for several extended stays. Despite Taiwan being more “free,” “democratic,” or “less repressed” than those places, I find this country much more stifling than those other cultures.
For instance, gay people in Singapore live as though they are free, despite the laws and sociopolitical forces trying to keep them silent. And yet Taiwan has gay marriage, but nearly every gay person I meet is afraid to come out of the closet because “dad will have a heart attack, mom will kill herself, and I will be disinherited.” The situation is a metaphor for their sovereignty — “This is a free country, not a breakaway province, but we must call ourselves a breakaway province because we are not free to declare sovereignty or China will attack.” If you can’t call your country what you want, then that is a sign that you really aren’t sovereign.
Japan has some form of counterculture, at least in terms of music and art. And dare I say it — There is a kind of open intellectualism among the Chinese that I don’t find here. Some even criticize their government and support Taiwan in extremely private moments involving a few drinks. But even amongst the general public, they don’t obsess over Taiwan the way Taiwanese do over China. Just a limited observation from staying in Shanghai for 3 months.
I want Taiwan to be an independent country. Yet I can argue both sides of the issue. Taiwan must face the fact that it is, technically, a breakaway province so it can set the parameters of the debate and figure out where to go from here. Instead, there is this reliance on Americans, which concerns me for all the reasons you laid out. I also fear that a conflict is being provoked. Something to keep in mind, though — Although the US only wants Taiwan for its imperialistic purposes, same can be said of China. Even if there were solid historical claims, China’s true interest isn’t in the people, the culture, or the historical significance. Both China and the US have imperialistic and hegemonic expansion on their minds, and that’s it. Taiwan is a pawn.
One thing you mentioned at the top, which I have not experienced in Taiwan, is the kind of anti-foreigner sentiment you described. I did my master’s degree here, so I tended to make friends at school with people half my age. The younger generations are much more open-minded and interesting. But like you said, many disappeared into some semiconductor factory with 16-hour days and were never heard from again.
The kind of anti-foreigner sentiment I have found is baked deep into the societal structure. The culture has been shielded with legal mechanisms that keep foreign influence outside looking in. Even as teachers, we must teach using “Taiwanese methods,” and if you point out the ways in which those methods don’t meet international standards of language teaching, you’re told by a Taiwanese manager who is not fluent in English why you’re wrong. You don’t see “foreign immigrants” working in banks, coffee shops, government offices, police stations, grocery stores, driving buses — the way you would in the West. That is mostly because “immigration” or even “permanent residence” has a number of discouraging barriers. Even if one did immigrate and speak Mandarin fluently, they would be kept on the periphery of society. If we treated foreigners this way back home, we would, of course, be branded racist.
I have rattled on a long while here. Just want to say thanks for your post, and I’ll be checking out other parts of your blog.
Thanks for reading! 🙂