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The shadow over Taiwan

So maybe you’re an American leftist who’s enraged with our recent slide towards klepto-theocracy, and you’ve given serious thought to the idea of leaving the country. Canada’s probably high on your list, but if you want to put a few more kilometres behind you, you might also be considering France, since a Gallic expatriation has the added bonus of pissing off all those conservative Francophobes. But keep in mind that any country is bound to have at least a few sores on its body politic. Take, for example, last week’s news that French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, while visiting China, stated that France has no issue with China’s recent law warning Taiwan not to declare independence. So, Monsieur Raffarin, if China invades Taiwan and imposes a brutal imperial regime, which is that? Liberté, Egalité, or Fraternité?

The Prime Minister didn’t fly all the way to China just to greenlight a pre-emptive declaration of war; he’s also pushing the international community to lift the Chinese arms embargo. This is most likely part of a plan to get French companies more access to the booming Chinese consumer market, and France certainly isn’t the only one currying favor with the Chinese Communist Party for this reason. Still, I can’t help but think that France is crossing a dangerous line, not to mention making China policy the only area in which Rupert Murdoch acts with a higher moral accountability than the Prime Minister of France. Sure, Murdoch’s media empire downplays China’s human rights abuses so he can sell cable subscriptions to the sino-bourgeoisie, but as appalling as that is, it’s only words. Murdoch isn’t the one trying to sell weapons to the Chinese—the very weapons that they could plausibly use, in a few months or years, to massacre the Taiwanese.

Last December, I had the good fortune to travel to Taiwan to speak at their Regeneration of Digital Art symposium. I spent six days there, eating copious amounts of Chinese food, being shuttled around by attentive grad students, and getting into great (English) conversations with many different people. You can’t learn much about a culture in six days, of course. But one thing I did notice is that the threat of invasion by mainland China is a shadow that looms over any discussion of Taiwanese politics and society. One of the Taiwanese newspapers was avidly following the progress of the U.S. missile defense program: When you’re 90 miles away from a nuclear power that considers you a renegade province, missile defense is more than a pointless boondoggle. And more than once, a conversation veered from the topic of Taiwanese democratic culture to the possibility of invasion by the People’s Republic of China. The line of thinking is, roughly, that the young people of Taiwan should be more politically involved, but the danger is that with their idealism they’ll demand independence, at which point the PRC will invade and kill everybody. Try building a functioning democracy and not obsessing about that. It’s like not thinking of an elephant.

Perhaps I’m being melodramatic in describing the threat, but let’s not forget that mainland China has quite a bit of savagery in its recent past. Many leftist are hesitant to criticize China, either for fear of coming close to racist demagoguery, or out of a deference to the Marxist heritage that some of the left presumably shares with the CCP. But “savagery”, I’m afraid, is a fair word to describe a government that imprisons and tortures its own people for belonging to Falun Gong. Or a government that executed organizers of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and then billed their families for the cost of the bullet. Or a government that, as I reported last year from hacker conference HOPE, has such a tight control over the flow of information that you can be arrested for being emailed a Falun Gong pamphlet.

The pro-trade argument here is that even if the Chinese leadership doesn’t personally care about human rights, a policy of engagement serves to reign them in for their own self-interest. China wants in to the global economy, so the argument goes, and won’t try any sudden moves against Taiwan for fear of international outcry and subsequent changes in trade policy. However, this engagement might work both ways, as the economic self-interest of outside countries and companies prevents them from openly criticizing the Chinese government. After all, if Rupert Murdoch and the Prime Minister of France can agree that trade access is more important than getting some pesky dissidents out of jail, who’s left to disagree with them?

Most people can’t be convinced to have an opinion at all: Look at how quickly most Americans are losing interest in the salient details of our Iraqi occupation. Our Senators impatiently wave off accusations of systemic abuse and confirm an Attorney General who refused to disavow the use of torture, and, oh, by the way, did you hear the one about the Iraqi National Assembly unanimously demanding a U.S. apology for the assault of one of its representatives by a U.S. soldier? Most people didn’t. Our own soldiers are assaulting the legislators of another country, but, hey, looks like Brad and Angelina really are an item after all!

Americans are a phenomenally self-absorbed people, and just because our directors are ripping off old Kung Fu films doesn’t mean that we necessarily know anything about real live Asian people. One of the most appalling aspects of the Wen Ho Lee debacle a few years ago is that so few journalists pointed out that this ethnically Chinese nuclear scientist hailed from Taiwan—so the idea of him spying for mainland China was about as likely as a Kurd spying for Saddam Hussein. But hey, I suppose that if you’re a federal agent, after a while we all start to look alike.

Still, the optimist in me says that there are always opportunities to raise the issue, which might pressure the U.S. government to take a stronger stand on human rights and embarrass China in the global community. One test will be the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which the PRC wants to use to showcase the modern, sanitized China to the world. The government has a record of restricting the access of foreign journalists; whether they can do so in the face of a huge event like the Olympics remain to be seen. And whether any of those journalists will choose to actually do some journalism work instead of regurgitating sports press releases is another question entirely …

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Tagged: human_rights, world

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