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.

Rallying for Taiwan

On the weekend, a massive anti-annexation rally was held in Taipei. Many tens of thousands (organizers claimed over 100,000) of people showed up, even coming from southern Taiwan, to listen to speakers and performers. Their message was to demand a referendum on changing Taiwan’s official name, because Taiwan is an independent country, is not part of China, and deserves to be a recognized member of the international community. That’s what the anti-annexation means, to resist China’s claims to Taiwan and threats of force to annex Taiwan.

The organizers, the newly-formed Formosa Alliance, want the government to approve a public referendum to allow Taiwanese to vote on whether Taiwan should change its official name from the Republic of China (ROC)* to Taiwan. The government is reluctant to do so, even though the Democratic Progressive Party, is in power. This is because it is very concerned that China would see this move as an attempt to claim independence, which Taiwan already has de facto, but not de jure. As such, the local authorities refused to allow the rally to be held in front of the Presidential Office and the DPP banned its candidates (for the upcoming November nationwide local elections) from attending.

I attended due to both curiosity and because I genuinely believe Taiwan is a country and that it needs to assert this. Even though Taiwan’s government has to be wary about what it says and does due to the threat and pressure from China, Taiwan’s civil society can still speak up for the people. I also feel that there will come a time when push comes to shove, and Taiwan cannot back down and be quiet.

Having arrived midway, I went to the secondary site, bordering the main site, where the speakers were being broadcast on a large screen. Even at this smaller site, there were several thousand people. Many were old people, which was not surprising, but there were some middle-aged and a few young people. The majority of the speakers spoke in Taiwanese Hoklo, which is different from Mandarin and a language I can’t understand, but I was definitely able to sense their passion and underlying sentiment. There were former politicians, a Christian pastor, and a few candidates from smaller opposition parties. Each of them gave fiery and enthusiastic speeches.

I don’t often go to rallies, even though I’ve lived in Taiwan for years, but I don’t think this would be my last.

*The ROC name is a holdover from when the KMT regime ruled China from 1911-1949. Having lost the Chinese Civil War in the 1940s to the Communists, who still rule China, the KMT fled to Taiwan and ruled it as an authoritarian regime. Unlike China, Taiwan became democratic gradually from the 1980s and has become one of the world’s most liberal and open nations. Unfortunately, due to the claim of China that Taiwan belongs to it, less than 20 countries recognize Taiwan as an official country. The UN also does not recognize Taiwan and does not allow it to participate. In the multilateral organizations that Taiwan is able to be a member of such as the Olympics and APEC, Taiwan does so under an artificial name like Chinese Taipei. Taiwan is thus unable to fully be a member of the global community as the ROC or as Taiwan.

Anti-annexation rally, Taiwan

Anti-annexation rally, Taiwan

Anti-annexation rally, Taiwan Taipei, TaiwanAnti-annexation rally, Taiwan
Companion rally at a third site adjacent to the secondary site that was going on at the same time

World’s troublesome and problematic power China

There has been a lot of bad news regarding China, but the last two weeks have been even more disturbing and bizarre than usual. In September, a weird spat with Sweden broke out after a Chinese family had to be carried out of a hostel because they showed up at midnight half a day before their booking and caused a disturbance. Despite the family being recorded rolling around and screaming theatrically whilst bemused policemen stood by, they alleged brutal treatment which the Chinese embassy and state media then criticized Sweden for.

Last Sunday, a Chinese state media “reporter” caused a disturbance by heckling and then slapping somebody at a Conservative Party conference in the UK; then on Tuesday, a Chinese warship almost rammed an American warship in the South China Sea, and on Friday, the Chinese head of Interpol was reported missing by his wife after he went to China and disappeared. On Thursday, Bloomberg reported a sensational but worrying story about China secretly putting tiny microchips onto motherboards for servers used by 30 firms like Apple and Amazon, for the purpose of stealing data.

Even amid all this, in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, hundreds of thousands (possibly a million) of Muslim Uyghurs have been detained by the Chinese authorities in “reeducation” camps with the campaign showing no process of slowing down.

China’s sinister reach also extends to show business as the country’s most well-known actress Fan Bingbing went missing for months before news surfaced this week that she is in custody and is being ordered to pay over US$129 million in taxes.

It is clear that China is becoming more erratic and confrontational abroad, whilst undertaking disturbing actions at home. The trade war with the US is still going on, taking a toll on China’s economy but instead of trying to deescalate tensions or change tact, Xi Jinping appears to be doubling down on his repressive and strongman policies. His Belt and Road initiative (BRI), which is a quixotic attempt to develop Asia and parts of Europe and Africa, is starting to be seen for the hollow economic plan and subtle imperialism it is, forcing smaller and poorer countries into debt-traps that make them either pay off staggering amounts of debt or give up territory and assets to China.

Whereas the US and Japan have usually been critical of China, now the criticism and skepticism is coming from different countries like Malaysia, Australia and even longtime China “ally” Pakistan.

It’s easy to feel a little satisfied these days if you’re a China critic because it seems the country is finally starting to pay the price in 2018 for all its belligerent actions over the last few years. Whether intimidating Taiwan, furthering its grip on Hong Kong, expanding its militarization in the South China Sea, or imprisoning mass numbers of its Uyghur people, China has been flexing its muscles with little fear in recent times.

But the truth is that even as staunch a critic of China, its CCP regime, and Xi as I am, I also feel some disappointment. I wasn’t always a critic of China, since from my secondary school days to university up until the middle of my two years in Beijing, I actually had high hopes for the country. That was until I realized that all the economic growth and geopolitical power wasn’t doing anything good for China, that it wasn’t going to liberalize or expand media and civil freedoms, or start being friendlier to Taiwan and other neighbors. And with an increasingly repressive government and a strongman dictator like Xi, China wasn’t going to become a peaceful power but a global bully that wasn’t afraid of exploiting countries, bending international laws, and terrorising its own people.

These are worrying times for China and for the region, and for everyone’s sake, let’s hope the CCP does not prevail.

Links to recent notable news concerning China:

How China used a tiny chip to infiltrate dozens of America’s top companies

China’s internment camps for Uyghurs now out in the open

Interpol head reported missing in China

Chinese state TV reporter assaults UK Conservative party member at event about Hong Kong

Chinese warship in unsafe encounter with American destroyer in South China Sea

Fan Bingbing hit with US$129 million tax bill after being held for months incommunicado

China’s Xinjiang Muslims live in fear of disappearing into concentration camps

Islamic world starting to protest China over Xinjiang camps

Double Cup Love- book review

Taiwanese-American foodie Eddie Huang is back at it again with Double Cup Love- On the Trail of Family, Food, and Broken Hearts in China. His first book Fresh Off the Boat was about growing up and starting up his New York eatery Baohaus. Double Cup Love sees him, a little jaded after Baohaus’ success, and his youngest brother Evan go to Chengdu, China to test himself in the ultimate way – by cooking for the locals.

As with his previous book, Huang doesn’t hold back in talking about his fights with his brothers, or bursting in on his girlfriend when she’s using the toilet. In fact, his girlfriend is at the heart of the book since Huang has decided he is in love and ready to commit. As such, he decides to bring her to Chengdu after a few months and propose to her.

First, Eddie and Evan go to Chengdu where they find out their hotel is one of those hourly ones where people rent rooms for amorous activities. After some conflict with each other, which their other brother Emery gets involved in, they manage to bond with some locals and impress them with their food. Eddie’s girlfriend comes to Chengdu, where Eddie pulls off his proposal successfully. The main story ends there, but there is a sad epilogue where Eddie confesses that they broke up 18 months afterwards. Eddie still sounds like he hasn’t gotten completely over her.

The book is quite entertaining, but it contains too much details at times. Eddie’s recollection of details and conversations is impressive but readers probably don’t need pages of every argument or thought that comes to Eddie’s mind. What is impressive is when Eddie starts talking about cooking. At one point, he cooks beef noodles, augmenting it with a little local flavour, and Evan’s judgement of the dish is striking. Who knew so much flavour and feeling could be derived from a mere taste of noodles?

At the beginning of Double Cup Love, Eddie provides a raw and very politically-incorrect take on Asians that is one of the best insights I’ve read in popular media. Basically he riffs on how Asians aren’t actually quiet or lack opinions, but that Asians are a very passive-aggressive, tribal people. A little later on, Eddie says Asians are very keen at making judgments and calculations using “advanced research skills” despite never really touching, feeling or seeing the things they judge. It’s something that as someone living in Taiwan, and before this, Hong Kong, I think is very right on the money. Disappointingly, there is nothing like this in the rest of the book which I suppose is due to Eddie being new to China and not wanting to be too harsh.

However, Double Cup Love falls a little flat at times because the rationale seems to be two ABTs/Cs (American-born Taiwanese/Chinese) go to Chengdu, hang out and have fun. Also, the pan-Chinese angle is apparent (Eddie’s parents are from Taiwan, but his grandparents are from China) but it would have been more accurate if he’d gone to Taiwan to find his roots. Unlike Fresh Off the Boat, Double Cup Love lacks the emotional depth and cultural insights to make it more than just a book about a crazy guy going on a half-baked trip to China.


Why traveling solo is great

Ever since I started traveling as an adult, I’ve mostly done it solo. By now, it’s like second nature to go on a trip by myself to foreign countries and explore cities, historical sites, or travel around. I enjoy this a lot and I hardly feel lonely or strange. While solo travel seems to have become more popular worldwide, not many of my Asian friends do it, and I don’t often see other solo travelers on my travels, so I don’t think it’s common in Asia. The solo travelers I often see are from the West while in my many trips in China, I only met two solo Chinese travelers and one from Hong Kong.

Though I’m from Trinidad, as an ethnic Asian, sometimes I get some weird and noticeable reactions in Asia probably because locals don’t think I’m from the West and judge me like a local or an Asian. When I was working Hong Kong, I got stunned reactions when I mentioned to local colleagues (it was so incredibly unusual that some of them gossiped about it) I’d gone on a trip by myself (this was just one of many issues I had with those HK colleagues). I’d say there’s definitely a stigma attached to solo travelers in Asia, moreso if one is Asian and less so if one is say, white. I kind of get it, because of the strong emphasis placed on group interaction and behavior in Asian cultures. Whereas in the West, sometimes you want to be on your own and value some time alone to do things and ponder your own thoughts, in Asia, being by yourself and doing things alone is terrifying.

Despite this, it’s great to travel solo. There are a lot of advantages compared to traveling with other people. You determine everything, you set your own schedule, and you go wherever you want or do whatever you want. To me, it’s the closest you can come to absolute freedom. You are also fully responsible for what you do and can’t blame anyone for any mishaps. Traveling solo also makes you independent and helps you feel more focused on the places you visit and sights you see. When you are walking around and exploring places by yourself, unless you are daydreaming about something, you tend to pay more attention to things going on around you. Being able to set my own schedule is really important since I don’t like waking up early and I often don’t want to spend the whole day outside.

That said, I don’t mind talking to people I meet while traveling, whether on a long-distance bus or a half-day-tour or while hiking on a mountain. There have been times I’ve met good people while traveling, such as on my first trip to Southeast Asia several years ago or even in China last year, and we’ve visited places or hung out together. Ironically these were all mainland Chinese, though they weren’t traveling solo.

One thing that is key to having a good solo trip is to always have an idea of what places to visit and what to do. I never spend an entire day relaxing (not that there’s anything wrong with this, but it’s just not for me) or trying to find out what to do (yeah, I’m not spontaneous). I’ll always prepare a list of places to check out before my trip and then decide on my daily itinerary based on that list the day before. It’s the same with travel arrangements and accommodation – I always try to do it in advance.

There are also a few minor setbacks, of course. For instance, as I mentioned above, you can get strange reactions from some people in Asia (people in Asia can be very judgmental about a ton of issues). In contrast, I hardly got any awkward reactions in Europe (presumably there is more of a culture of solo travelers in Europe as opposed to Asia). It might be a little awkward to eat at fancier restaurants, though as I’m not a foodie and I usually eat at small eateries, this isn’t an issue for me. You have less room to haggle when getting rides that don’t have a fixed price since if you are the only passenger, you need to pay the entire fare. In some hotels, single en-suite rooms (with its own bathroom) are for two persons so you are paying for two even if it’s just yourself. But this also is relatively minor if you budget accordingly.

When I first started traveling, especially when I went to China by myself for the first time or to parts of South Africa by myself, I did feel a little wary about personal safety and being scammed. Since then, I’ve become much more confident. Of course, I still read up on potential problems and take necessary precautions such as being aware of where I am and not being too naive (for eg, if you need to look at a map, don’t do so in the middle of the pavement or an open area; don’t have all your money in one spot; watch out for pickpockets etc). Women might need to be a bit more careful with safety, especially in certain parts of the world like India. Ironically, when it comes to my Asian friends, I know a few girls who have traveled solo (including a Canadian-Chinese who traveled to India by herself more than once) whereas none of my Asian male friends have done that.

If you want to travel by yourself, whatever your age or gender, just do it. Ignore the skeptics and discouragement.