16 January, 2016

Taiwan's Problem is Not the Communist Party of China

Sometimes I wonder: do those on the mainland realize just how despised they are?

Meet Chou Tzuyu (周子瑜). She is 16. She is a part of the K-Pop group TWICE. One of these days I will have to write about what one must to do to succeed on the Korean pop scene. Today I'll be brief: you must do a lot. Making it in the K-Pop world is an impressive accomplishment for any young performer. It is an especially impressive accomplishment for performers who are not Korean. Chou Tzuyu is Taiwanese.

Miss Chou made the mistake of appearing on a Korean television show with a pair of mini flags in hand. One was South Korea's. The other was Taiwan's. I expect she wanted to show that her success in Korea was evidence of the two countries coming closer together. Maybe she did not expect to show anything--the clip is a few seconds long; she waves the two flags in greeting from her bunk, a place where personal items and trinkets are often stored. But why she did it really does not matter. Thoughtlessly or not, Chou Tzuyu appeared on a Korean television show with a Taiwanese flag in hand.

This was a sin. Or so it would seem. It did not take long for the Chinese internet to blow up. A hash tag campaign to boycott Twice was launched. It grew into an effort to boycott all musicians and groups from JYP, her label. Chinese television channels dropped scheduled concerts; Chinese companies have dropped merchandising offers. I haven't seen any evidence that the CPC has actively supported this, or that the government put any overt pressure on JYP. But they certainly have done nothing to blunt the nationalist social media crusade, as censors often do when tensions with Japan or South China Sea claimants are on the rise. JYP, for its part, tried valiantly to fend off the wolves, but they could not keep them at bay for long. This week JYP asked (read: forced) their little 16 year old star to issue a public apology, to be released on all of its social media channels. The video for the apology is embedded above. [1] Here is what she said, first in Chinese, then in English:

大家好, 我是周子瑜. 對不起, 本人應該早先出來道歉. 因為(我)不知道如何面對現在的情況, (我)一直不敢直接面對大家, 所以現在才站出來中國只有一個, 海峽兩岸是一體的 我始終認自己是一個中國人而感到驕傲. 我作為一個中國人, 在國外活動時, 由於言行上的過失, 對公司, 對兩岸網友的情感造成了傷害. 我感到非常非常地抱歉, 也很愧疚.我決定終止目前(在)中國一切的活動, 認真反省. 再次再次地向大家道歉, 對不起.
Here is my translation of this into English:
Hello. I have something to tell everyone.

Hello, I am Chou Tzuyu. I am sorry, I should have apologized earlier. Because I did not know how to deal with this situation, and I didn't dare to face everyone, I am only saying this now: there is only One China. Its two parts are one. I have always been Chinese--here she stops reading for a moment--and am proud of this. As a Chinese person, during my overseas activities, my irresponsible words and actions have damaged my company and have offended the feelings of people on both sides. I am incredibly, incredibly sorry and ashamed. I have decided to stop all activities in China and will earnestly search my conscience [in the meantime].

Once again, I apologize to you all. I am sorry.

In the two days since it was published, the video has been viewed more than 4 million times, by both Koreans and Taiwanese. It will undoubtedly be seen by many more. If my Facebook feed is anything to go by, this apology has created larger stir in Taiwanese society than the election of Tsai Ing-wen. I don't imagine it will sate the nationalist masses of the Chinese net, however. For them it will never be enough to hear her claim "我是中国人“ (I am Chinese). Miss Chou must also mean it. But how could she mean it? She read her apology from a script.

That is how the internet crusaders will spin this video. But I am sure they are right. Chou Tzuyu probably does not mean it. You cannot watch her pitiful performance and think she would ever do this if she was not being coerced into to doing so. But that is the entire point, isn't?

I did not realize until quite recently just  how many people here in Taiwan despise mainland Chinese. In China people often deride the Taiwanese as spoiled, girlish, and trouble making, but they do not hate them. [2] In Taiwan things are different. I was not quite prepared for this. I have met hundreds of Taiwanese before I moved to Taipei, but most of my close Taiwanese friends I met through Church.  There the warm feeling of brother and sisterhood that attends the saints wherever they gather dampened nationalist tensions a great deal. Most Taiwanese are not Mormon, however, and even those who are do not go to church every Sunday with mainlanders, as they would if they were living in America. Here there is no respite from the anger. The hate is real, especially among the young.

I did not get it. I love China. I love Chinese people. Honestly, I get along with the average mainlander--especially mainlanders from the North--better than I do the average Taiwanese. Their derision did not fit my experience.

But now I get it.

See, there was always this idea that the Chinese people have been fooled--a people indoctrinated, or brainwashed, but salvageable if only you could get the truth to them . The Chinese people are not the Chinese government, folks would say, and what the Chinese government does is not what the Chinese people want. And in some realms that is true. But not here. It was not the Chinese government that forced Chou Tzuyu to renounce her country. No one in Zhongnanhai condescended to ban TWICE concerts or curb their ticket sells. The feelings of the Chinese people were offended, and the Chinese people retaliated. The government did not need to get involved.

To restate the point: Taiwan's problem is not the Communist Party of China. Taiwan's problem is the billion Chinese men and women who would rather a 16 year old girl debase herself in front of the world than wave a flag on Korean television.

Now, with twenty years of internet contact and unhindered cross strait travel behind them, the Taiwanese have begun to realize this. They have seen the enemy for themselves. They know that it is not the Chinese Party, but the Chinese people. And so they despise.

There is danger here of falling prey to sentimentalism, thinking that feelings matter more in the course of world affairs than power does. In the long run I do not think it will matter much how much the rising generation of Taiwanese despise those who live across the straits. Taiwan's independence will not be decided on Taiwanese emotion alone. But still I wonder. Do they know? Do those on the mainland realize how hated they have become?


[1] I have pieced this story together from Kevin Fox, "TWICE Halt Promotional Activities In China Due To Political Controversy Surrounding Tzuyu," K-Pop Starz (14 Jan 2016);  ; Adrienne Stanley, "2PM's Chinese Activities May Be Canceled Due To Tzuyu's Scandal: Is This The Reality Of K-Pop In China?," K-Pop Starz (15 January 2016); Jeremyn Chow, "K-Pop Winner Apologizes in Video For Holding Taiwanese Flag," Straight Times (16 January 2016).

[2] If you wish to see how this plays out in popular entertainment, I would direct you to the 2014 film Women Who Flirt (撒娇女人最好命), whose Taiwanese antagonist manages to combine all three traits.

13 January, 2016

America Will Always Fail At Regional Expertise

I have argued before that any potential American foreign policy or 'grand strategy' that requires  statesmen with a nuanced understanding of a foreign region's cultures, politics, and languages to implement it is doomed to fail. Regional acumen is a rare trait, and one I greatly admire. But it is rare for a reason. Regional acumen just does not scale--or at least, Americans do not know how to scale it.

I have said this before. But it was reinforced tonight when I stumbled--quite by accident--across this old New York Times Magazine personal by Lydia Kiesling. In it she describes her experience learning Uzbek with a FLAS grant from the Department of Education. I encourage you to read the entire thing, but here are few key excerpts:
Four years ago, the federal government paid me a large sum — a year of graduate-school tuition, plus a stipend — to study Uzbek at the University of Chicago. Uzbek is among the least commonly taught of the so-called Less Commonly Taught Languages, or L.C.T.L.s. So uncommonly is it taught, in fact, that without federal largess it would hardly be taught at all. Because I happened to speak decent Turkish, a cousin of Uzbek, and because I spent a week in Uzbekistan when I was 22, and because life is nothing if not a sequence of odd choices vaguely considered, for two years I sat in a room with two other students and produced some extremely literal translations. 
Uzbek is a member of the sprawling Turkic-language family, which comprises­ around three dozen members in six major branches. As in any human family, there are varying degrees of affinity: If Uzbek and Turkish are cousins, Uzbek and Uyghur, which is spoken in western China, are fraternal twins. But Turkic grammars and numbers are surprisingly uniform, and it is theoretically possible for someone to buy milk in Sevastopol (Crimean Tatar) or Ashgabat (Turkmen) or Bishkek (Kyrgyz) using more or less the same words.... 
Years before I studied Uzbek, it seemed like a cosmopolitan miracle, with my bumbling Turkish, to be able to read an exit sign or negotiate a cab fare in Tashkent. If you sit around long enough in Uzbekistan — on a bus or a park bench — eventually someone will invite you to her home. I would prattle at my hosts until we found common ground. ‘‘Elma,’’ I said, gesturing to the very small, very sweet apples we ate in one woman’s courtyard. ‘‘Olma,’’ she gently corrected. 
That was nine years ago, and since then, I have spoken Uzbek outside the classroom on exactly two occasions, once in a pan-Turkic Creole with a Chicago cabdriver named Tilek who was actually from Kyrgyzstan, and once with an Afghan Uzbek in Izmir, Turkey, who looked at me in bafflement and answered in Turkish
Uzbek exists in my life now as an Eastern echo in the Turkish I have more opportunities to use. When I’m feeling beery, I look for Uzbek songs on YouTube with titles like ‘‘That’s Not Life’’ or ‘‘Life Is Passing.’’ I pick out lines like ‘‘My beautiful one, this is your wedding night.’’ This is perhaps not an ideal use of a highly specific skill acquired at the expense of the American taxpayer. (My halfhearted assay into the security sector fizzled because of unspecified ‘‘information in my background.’’) 
I’m settled now, no longer nomadic. But Uzbek is my little insurance policy, a crumpled bill rolled into a stocking, against some unforeseen contingency." [2] (emphasis added)

This article gets to the heart of why America will always lack the kind of language and area expertise needed to succeed in the kinds of things the American people (or American leaders) often demand the United States government do. Uzbek is an obscure language. But it is an obscure language at the center of the national security concerns that have bedeviled the United States over the last decade and a half. To give a brief picture:

  • There are about three million Uzbeks who live in Afghanistan. Uzbeks were an essential part of the Northern Alliance's resistance against the Taliban, and Uzbek leaders became an important part of the government established by NATO forces once the Taliban was driven from power. This is still true. Afghanistan's current vice-president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, is an Uzbek. 
  • Uzbekistan is the central hub of central Asia. One of the greatest defeats of our Afghan campaign happened not on the battlefield, but at the diplomats' table. Uzbekistan's decision to withdraw American basing and supply rights was nothing short of a disaster, forcing the United States to be even more dependent on Pakistan (our true enemy in the region) for logistic support. 

This is a language that matters. What happens to the woman who spent a year of her life studying it? She was rejected from the CIA (or wherever) on background technicalities, and has not used her language since. Or to be more precise, she has used it twice. Twice in four years. Twice.  

This gets to the heart of America's problem with regional acumen. Area expertise simply doesn't pay. You may count the number of private sector jobs currently on the market that demand Uzbek fluency on two hands. And even if there were a multitude of jobs that required proficiency in Uzbek and English, there are undoubtedly several hundred--perhaps several thousand--Uzbekistanis who speak English better than Ms. Kiesling speaks Uzbek, and who will work for less pay to boot.

 As for government postings--getting hired is tricky. To pass the proper security clearances the ideal candidate is not married to or romantically involved with a foreigner (or a foreign born citizen with family members still living abroad), does not have financial interests in any foreign countries, has not been employed by or has not had extensive relations with foreign governments, is not living with foreign room-mates, and only has 'casual and infrequent' contact with foreign friends and acquaintances--in essence, this candidate will do none of the things that give one language fluency, 'regional acumen,' and 'cultural understanding,' in the first place! Add to this the usual requirements regarding drug use, financial stability, and personal conduct (none of which, in my experience, correlate closely with the character of those wanderers crazy enough to throw themselves into rare, off-the-beaten-path locales where languages like Uzbek are spoken) and the chances of landing a well paid government job on the strength of your language skills narrows further.   

And this is all with a language widely recognized as a critical one. Conflict hot-spots cannot be predicted decades ahead of time, but it can take a decade to master a foreign language and culture. Thus Kielsling's story is repeated with one language after another.  The same tale can be told for those learning any other language in Central Asia (including Farsi), the majority in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, and just about all of them in India and Africa. Years are spent studying a language students will not use.  In that case, why bother studying them at all?

This is why America will always fail at regional expertise. 


[1] T. Greer, "Wanted: A StupidProof Strategy," The Scholar's Stage (30 October 2015). 

[2] Lydia Kielsing, "A Letter of Recommendation: Uzbek," New York Times Magazine (15 August 2015).