Everything under the Heavens-book review

In recent times, China has risen to become arguably the world’s second power and potential global bad guy. China is now an economic, industrial, military and geopolitical power, but not content with this, it is challenging the US for regional supremacy in Asia. China’s huge ambition is driven not just by the urge for power or economic wealth, but also its perceived historical status as the center of its world. As such, China saw itself as the supreme civilization around which smaller and lesser nations and peoples submitted or paid tribute to. Everything under the Heavens- How the past helps shape China’s push for global power explains how this superiority complex came about by looking into China’s past.

The author Howard French, who has extensive experience reporting and writing about Africa and China, delves into China’s relations with different neighbors like Vietnam, South Korea and Japan. Delving into history, French shows how China developed tributary relationships with these smaller states on its periphery, as well as its ties to them.

For example, China had control over Vietnam for 1000 years up until the 11th century, after the Vietnamese managed to drive the Chinese out and maintain an independent status (minus a few decades when the Chinese Ming Dynasty invaded and gained control before being driven back out, as well as colonization under the French in the 19th and 20th centuries).

French also goes into China’s trade relationships with the maritime kingdoms in what is now Malaysia and Indonesia, such as Malacca, from which the Straits of Malacca is named. China’s claim and militarization of much of the South China Sea, which lies much closer to Southeast Asia than China, is derived from historical times when supposedly Chinese traders and fishermen sailed most of the sea. While this does not exactly confer ownership to China, somehow its Communist rulers have twisted logic to claim that it does.

It’s easy to see how China came to see itself as the center of the region which it firmly dominated both in scale and power. From the 19th century, the rise of Japan caused a rude shock when it managed to challenge and actually defeat China in a war (which is how Taiwan became a Japanese colony from 1895-1945). However, before that, China’s defeats to the UK and France in the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century caused great shame, from which the current Communist regime has milked a “Century of Humiliation” narrative to the present day which fuels both a vindictive desire and victim mentality against the West. For the Communist regime, a return to the days of lore before the 19th century when China was the unquestioned and dominant power in the region is their goal, but the US and other nations must prevent this blast to the past.

French concludes the book with an excellent assessment of the strengths of China and the US, that also goes hand in hand with a good summary of China’s precarious future with declining economic growth and a rapidly aging population. French advocates that the US must try to cooperate with China but be firm when it needs to be. This is exactly the scenario that is playing out now, though cooperation is probably the last thing on both countries’ mind.

My mistaken China illusion

I wasn’t always such a strong supporter of Taiwan and its status as a country. There was a time when I had this idealistic, naive and silly illusion of a Great China entity, comprising China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. As a student up until living in Beijing, I harbored this fantasy. It was only a few years ago, while living in Beijing, that I came to my senses. I realized it was unrealistic and foolish to think China could or should rule Taiwan, especially as China’s Communist regime isn’t even good for its own people. I recently wrote about my change of heart in an article for Taiwan’s Ketagalan Online. However, I’ll also go over this briefly here.

Taiwan is a controversial and sensitive issue in the world because its status and freedom is bitterly contested by China, which claims Taiwan belongs to it. That’s why Taiwan is not part of the UN and is only officially recognized as a country by less than 20 countries (China forces countries it has diplomatic relations with to stop recognizing Taiwan as a country). Just in the past 2.5 years, China has stolen 5 of Taiwan’s allies.

Anyways, it’s common knowledge that Taiwan is its own state with its own government, judiciary, laws, schools, and military. Taiwan is a de facto independent nation. Even when I was pro-China, I was aware of this. However, what I was ignorant about was thinking Taiwan should be part of China because it didn’t have its own history or culture. I was very much mistaken. Taiwan also has its own history (which has at times been intertwined with China) and culture (much of which originated from China but which has evolved over time) and traditions. While most Taiwanese have Chinese ancestry, some don’t – the aboriginal people in Taiwan have been here for thousands of years.

As I’ve learned more about Taiwan and traveled to different parts such as the south, it’s apparent that Taiwan has its own history, culture and traditions fostered from almost 400 years of formal settlement. Of course, there is a strong Chinese element from most Taiwanese people’s ancestral origin, but given both Taiwan’s existence as an island and the development of democracy, Taiwan’s people have developed their own identity and the right to be seen as themselves and not little China with democracy and genuine traditions (which some people mistakenly believe).

This week marks the beginning of the Lunar New Year and is a weeklong holiday in Taiwan. So as the Year of the Pig kicks off, here’s to better days and progress for Taiwan, and the world.

Taipei, Taiwan
Taipei’s Dihua Street annual Lunar New Year outdoor market

 

Taiwan kicks off 2019 by refuting China’s “unification” threat

First, Happy New Year everyone! I hope this year turns out great for everyone.

That said, it’s a new year but not new rhetoric from China’s Xi Jinping. Thanks to him though, my first blog post of 2019 is about Taiwan and China. In a speech on January 2, Xi chose to make a grand demand that Taiwan “must and will” agree to “unification” with China. He also said reunification would be peaceful, yet warned about using military force (the irony). Xi also said that “Chinese don’t fight each other” which is actually wrong because Chinese have always fought each other. Just in the last century alone, there was the Civil War which saw the Communists come to power, the Cultural Revolution, which saw millions of Chinese die at the hands of other Chinese, and the Warlord Period of the 1920s, when China was carved up by Chinese warlords. Not to mention the infamous Tiananmen tragedy in 1989.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen responded afterwards on the same day by refuting this demand, and rightfully so. Tsai was adamant that Taiwanese did not want unification, especially not under the “one country, two systems” concept, which has already been applied in Hong Kong and which has not had a positive effect. Tsai further added that talks could be possible between Taiwan and China, but only if both meet as equals as sovereign states.

China has claimed Taiwan for a very long time and has made demands for Taiwan to “unify” in the past. This year though, Xi’s speech focused heavily on “unification,” which raises concerns that he might turn to military means to force the issue. After all, starting a war against a foreign foe to divert attention from domestic troubles and boost nationalism is something that dictators have done before.

China is going through a lot of domestic problems now, especially serious economic issues and an ongoing trade war with the US (though further tariffs have been suspended for 90 days). The Chinese authorities have intensified crackdowns on major churches and even student Marxist organizations, while continuing to detain at least a million Uyghurs in Xinjiang. So it would be plausible to think that Xi is desperate and deluded enough to want to attempt an armed invasion of Taiwan. I personally don’t think there is a big chance of success for several reasons though (as do some experts), but Xi has shown he thinks highly of himself, given he made himself leader for life last year by abolishing presidential term limits.

But whether Xi’s tough talk on Taiwan might be just talk or a prelude to something much more serious, the reality is that Taiwan is a country. Only its people, the Taiwanese, can determine Taiwan’s future.

2018 roundup

Taipei, Taiwan
As we come closer to the end of the year, I’ve got several things on my mind. First is that 2018 turned out to be a rough year for the world. While 2017 wasn’t so great, it seems like 2018 saw the world become more troubled. Donald Trump continues to baffle ad mismanage his own country, the UK can’t figure out Brexit, while civil wars in Yemen and Syria continue.

Taiwan had a decent year, though there was a shocking train crash in October that took 18 lives and injured almost 200 (train accidents are rare in Taiwan). However, the November local elections and referendum stunned and disappointed a lot of people. The ruling DPP party suffered huge defeats and lost many of Taiwan’s counties and cities, while the referendums showed Taiwan isn’t as progressive as many people had thought.

The bigger concern for me is the DPP lost big to the KMT, which is pro-China and openly intends to expand ties with China. As you know, China still claims Taiwan belongs to it, and continually launches provocative military flights, bars Taiwan from participating in international multilateral organizations (hence Taiwan is not a member of the UN), and even threatens invasion. It does not make sense to me for Taiwan to become more economically dependent on China and look to it as some kind of savior.

I still feel that Taiwan has several things that are going well such as increased investment from major international tech firms, a growing reputation for civic and political freedoms, and a president who is not afraid to stand firm against China. That said, President Tsai Ing-wen took a lot of blame after November’s election results, and was forced to step down as chairman of her party. Hopefully this will help her focus more on her presidency as she is freed from having to oversee the DPP.

China is going down a dark road, exemplified by its recent seizure of 3 Canadians on nebulous or made-up charges as revenge for the arrest of the Huawei CFO and founder’s daughter. China has also imprisoned over a million Uyghurs in Xinjiang in concentration camps or “reeducation centers,” for no reason other than to “re-educate” them. This was shocking when it was first reported, and China kept denying it. However, as more news and evidence came out about these mass detentions, China was forced to admit it though they still claimed that there was no sinister reason. China has also continued to threaten Taiwan with military planes flying close to and around Taiwan.

For me personally, the year was a bit mixed. I worked at a Taiwan company in a field that was new to me and things didn’t work out for various reasons. What was good is that I got to do more writing and was published in several major outlets. I wrote about China’s “victimhood” status which it exploits in international disputes such as against Canada over the Meng arrest, Hong Kong and the “Greater Bay Area“, about China’s state media’s global push, and the “disappearance” of yet another Chinese due to Chinese authorities. I also wrote about museums and arts attractions in Southern Taiwan, which I visited for the first time in many years. I also reviewed several books including a novel about Taiwan when its southern part was ruled by the Dutch and a travel book/memoir about a couple traveling around Taiwan.

I also did a little traveling. I hiked a mountain and visited ancient city ruins in Thailand, and I wandered through two superb Malaysian cities filled with historic buildings and street art. I also went to Kaohsiung and Tainan (first time in many years for both cities) in southern Taiwan, and I visited Hong Kong as well.

I do hope that 2019 will be better, but I feel it might be even more turbulent than 2018.

Ayutthaya, Thailand
One of the major temple ruins in Ayutthaya, the capital of Thailand before Bangkok
Penang, Malaysia
Penang’s oldest Chinese temple
Hiking in Hong Kong
Hiking in east Hong Kong, near Tseung Kwan O
Tainan, Taiwan
Tainan’s restored Hayashi Department Store, just as classy as it was 80 years ago
Ipoh, Malaysia
Mural of tin miners on the wall of the Hakka Miners’ Club museum, Ipoh
Lanyang Museum, Yilan, Taiwan
Lanyang Museum, Yilan, Taiwan’s northeast coast
Krabi, Thailand
View from Khao Ngon Nak, Krabi, Thailand

China “can’t fail,” but it’s certainly not winning

Another week, another set of negative incidents involving China.

First, I need to mention a recent New York Times feature article about China titled “The Land That Failed to Fail.” It’s an extraordinary headline as the article charts China’s economic and geopolitical rise during the last 30+ years as an amazing story. The article makes some valid points, such as that China managed to keep on developing whilst maintaining an authoritarian regime, albeit one that made constant adjustments. It is also true that China’s Communist regime has stayed in power while defying expectations that it would flounder. But the Times has put out this article (the first in a series of five) at a very strange time because the thing is that when one looks at recent news involving China, whether geopolitical or economics or even cultural, China looks like anything but a winner.

On the weekend in Taiwan, the Golden Horse awards, often considered the Oscars of the Chinese-speaking world, were held. This innocuous event saw a major controversy when Taiwanese director Fu Yue, winner of the best documentary award, spoke out about her hope that Taiwan can be recognized as an independent country (which it actually is) instead of being ignored on the world stage (which often happens). This led to a Chinese actor who, while about to present an award, said he was happy to be in “Taiwan, China,” thus implying Taiwan was part of China.

Afterwards, Chinese directors and actors at the awards refused to turn up for the post-awards banquet. The awards show was also cut off in China after Fu Yue’s speech, while a Hong Kong news media outlet reported that China has banned all Chinese films from being entered for consideration for next year’s Golden Horse awards show. Chinese commenters, not surprisingly, attacked Fu online on Chinese social media service Weibo, with many sharing a map of China that includes Taiwan and a phrase saying that not even one bit can go missing from China. Even Fan Bingbing, who has still not been seen in public after having been secretly detained by Chinese authorities after June, shared this post. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen weighed in on the controversy by highlighting Taiwan’s freedoms of expression while insisting (rightfully) that Taiwan is Taiwan, and not part of China.

Also on the weekend, Papua-New Guinea (PNG) hosted the APEC summit, which saw leaders from 20 Asia-Pacific countries meet. Even amid the tense atmosphere which centered around the ongoing US-China dispute, China still did some really paranoid and weird acts as reported by Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin. That Chinese officials tried to storm the PNG Foreign Minister’s office to demand a meeting with him after being turned away is bad enough. But they also, according to Rogin, tried to crash in on private conversations involving officials of other countries and yelled about countries “scheming” against China. The Chinese officials also filibustered to prevent a joint statement from being decided on due to a clause about fighting protectionism, then “broke out in applause” when time ran out. The summit thus ended without a joint statement for the first time. As it is, China basically opposed something which all other 20 countries had agreed on because it was scared of being held accountable for conditions mentioned in the statement.

Some people might think China can behave so recklessly and arrogantly with impunity because it is a rising superpower. I beg to differ because I think this reeks of desperation and a lack of confidence.

So again, does China look like a country that cannot fail, or is it a case of China finally being found out for what it really is?

Taiwan, China moving in different directions

One week from today, Taiwan will hold nationwide municipal, county and community elections on the 24th, as well as 10 referendums which the Taiwanese public can all vote on. This will be the latest example in recent months of how Taiwanese enjoy strong political and civic freedoms.

Last mont, Taipei held its annual Gay Pride parade on October 27, which saw over 100,000 participants enjoy themselves in East Asia’s largest such parade. The previous Saturday, October 20, Taipei also saw another massive rally, a pro-independence/anti-annexation event that also had many tens of thousands attending. The two events were not linked in any way, but they shared something in common as vivid examples of how completely different Taiwan is from China.

While Taiwan allows its citizens to enjoy a wide range of political and civic freedoms, China is ramping up censorship while further restricting its citizens’ rights. Over the last few years, China has cracked down on journalists, activists, and human rights lawyers and detained them incommunicado. Let us not also forget the country’s most famous actress, and the head of Interpol, who have both gone missing after being kidnapped by Chinese authorities. And most disturbing of all, there is the ongoing crisis in Xinjiang where China has imprisoned over a million of its minority Uyghurs.

The two sides could not be any further in terms of political systems and culture and freedoms enjoyed by their respective citizens. Yet China stubbornly claims Taiwan as an “indispensable part” of China and frequently issues warnings to the US and other countries regarding Taiwan.

What also made the two Taipei mass rallies in November striking is that attendees were not there just for a good time, but to criticize the government, something that is obviously impossible in China. Of course, protests do occur in China but they are met with violent and heavy-handed responses from the authorities and censored reporting.

At the Gay Pride parade, amid a festive atmosphere, participants called on the ruling DPP government to make good on their pre-election promise to allow same-sex marriage. The government has not done so yet, and there is a possibility of this being overturned due to two referendum items put forward by conservative groups in next week’s municipal elections which seek to ban same-sex marriage. There are also two referendum items in support of same-sex marriage in the November election (yes, this means there are competing items on the same referendum list), making for a total of 10 referendum items, something which both demonstrates the quirkiness and the progress of public participation in Taiwanese politics.

The pro-independence rally was organized by the Formosa Alliance, a civil society group whose main aim is to push for Taiwan to be able to change its official name through popular referendum, something which would be interpreted as pushing for de jure independence. While Taiwan citizens can vote for many issues through referendum, such as in the upcoming elections, constitutional issues such as Taiwan’s official name, currently the Republic of China, are off limits. The authorities are reluctant to allow this because if this succeeds, China would very likely use this as an excuse to use military force to attack.

However, the fact that citizens can still vote on 10 referendum items in November is another sign of civic progress in Taiwan. Whereas Taiwanese have been allowed to vote on referendums from 2003, rules were overhauled this January to lower the threshold for proposing and putting referendum on ballots as well as lower the minimum required voting turnout.

Taiwan’s strong media, political and civic freedoms have been acknowledged in other forms. The Oslo Freedom Forum was held just last week in Taipei, the first time it has even been held in Asia. Meanwhile, Reporters without Borders set up its first-ever Asia bureau in Taiwan last year, having reportedly considered Hong Kong, which in the past would have an undisputed choice for international organizations setting up a regional office.

China might still use stupid threats and hollow Cold War-era arguments to try to claim Taiwan belongs to it. But events like the Gay Pride parade and the anti-independence rally and the upcoming referendums demonstrate vividly why these claims of Taiwan being part of China are so foolish.

Taiwan faces many serious problems such as a sluggish economy, stagnant salaries, a decreasing birthrate, and environmental issues, but it is surging ahead with civic and political freedoms. In this, Taiwan is moving in the right direction even while China is going further in the wrong one.