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 cross-country photo roundup

Taoyuan Airport, Taiwan
I’ve spent over six years living in Taiwan and have called this island nation home during most of my time in Asia, but I haven’t traveled to that many places here. However, I have visited all the big cities, all the counties in the north, and most of the counties in Taiwan. Here’s a photo tour of Taiwan, featuring the cities and counties I have visited.

The capital Taipei is in the north, surrounded by New Taipei City, which formerly used to be Taipei County and is still more of a collection of large towns and villages than an actual city. On the northern coast is Keelung, a port city which has a distinct status as a provincial city.

Taipei skyline
Sanxia, New Taipei City, Taiwan
Sanxia, one of New Taipei City’s many districts
Keelung, Taiwan
Keelung harbourfront

The other big cities include Taichung, in the central, Kaohsiung, in the south, and Tainan, Taiwan’s oldest city (and perhaps most interesting), and also in the south. All three of these cities, like Taipei, are located along the west coast. Continue reading “Taiwan cross-country photo roundup”

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

Random Taipei photo roundup


I was just doing a quick search through my posts and I realized I don’t often post about Taipei. This is even though it’s been my Asian home for a decade now and is one of my favorite cities in not just Asia, but the world. As most people already know, Taipei is the capital of Taiwan, and is Taiwan’s political, commercial and cultural center.

It is also one of East Asia’s major metropolises, though perhaps more laidback, less crowded, and smaller than Tokyo, Shanghai, Seoul etc. For me, Taipei is ultra-convenient and safe, and most importantly, has the right balance of being modern and relatively cosmopolitan while not being too crowded (like Hong Kong), hectic (Tokyo) and overpriced (again, HK). There are always many events going on, but it is also easy to relax. There is a distinct local character that is both busy and pleasant. Besides all that, what I really like is that Taipei is surrounded by hills and mountain ranges, which means hikes are always nearby and easy to get to.



This bird, which I have no idea what type it is, puffed up its throat and didn’t care that it was in my way.

Beitou Library is a fantastic sleek, wooden building that is also “green.” It is powered by solar panels, uses rainwater for its toilets and taps, and is designed to maximize natural lighting and reduce heat.

Taipei Free Art show, which as its name says was a free showcase of local (and one Japanese) artists


Taiwan historical activist, (above) who had pamphlets and photos of Sun Yat-sen, and a map of China with Taiwanese names imposed on it, reversing the idea of Taiwan being China (below)

Continue reading “Random Taipei photo roundup”

Green Island- book review

I find it a very ironic time to have read Green Island, a novel about the life of a Taiwanese man imprisoned after the 228 Tragedy in 1948 and his family as they endure Taiwan’s decades of repressive martial law before it became a democracy in the late 1980s. I say this because of recent developments in China, where the president has become an “emperor,” (he even threatened Taiwan today in a speech at a national congress) and worsening political repression and government announcements seem to be harkening back to the sixties and seventies. Single-party authoritarian rule and political repression are what Taiwan, a proud democracy since the late 80s, suffered for decades, during which the events in Green Island take place against.

There are not many novels about Taiwan, so Green Island is rather unique. And by focusing on Taiwan’s turbulent period of martial law, also known as the White Terror, starting with the brutal massacre of the 228 Tragedy, the book is even more special.

The 228 Tragedy was a mass killing of Taiwanese by Republic of China troops after mass riots erupted in 1948 sparked by the beating of a cigarette vendor. Having been a Japanese colony, Taiwan was granted to the ROC in 1945, who behaved like oppressive occupiers, fuelling serious tensions with the locals. The death toll has never been verified but was at least several hundred, though some believe the number was in the thousands. The narrator’s father, a doctor who speaks up for during a public hearing a few days after the tragedy, is arrested in the ensuing crackdown. His family never gets any news of his arrest or whether he is in prison or dead. The narrator was born on the day the tragedy began – February 28 (a public holiday now in Taiwan in commemoration of the victims) and grows up as the youngest child and daughter without knowing her father until he suddenly appears 11 years later.

But instead of a joyful reunion, the father’s reappearance causes complications with the family with his haunted and stern presence. As the narrator grows up, she is introduced to a son of a family friend studying in the US and marries him. Moving to the US in the early 1980s, they start a family in California where the husband teaches at a local university. He is involved in a Taiwanese dissident movement, and when the couple take in a Taiwanese academic who has fled Taiwan, Taiwanese government agents shadow them. This is a chilling echo of reality in those days when Taiwanese agents and thugs spied on and intimidated activists in the US, even committing murder, something that happens in the novel as well. When the dissident decides to write a book about Taiwan, the narrator helps him translate it into English. But a Taiwanese consulate agent contacts the woman and tries to intimidate and bribe her to spy on the dissident. Things become murky as the narrator struggles to decide whether to accept and fear and paranoia creep into her relations with her husband and the dissident. The situation seems hopeless for the dissident movement as the regime continues to rule by intimidation and terror (a state of affairs that would not seem out of place in Taiwan’s giant neighbour across the Strait right now). The book ends with a return to Taipei in the midst of the SARS virus epidemic in 2003.

While I have a general understanding of Taiwan’s 20th century history such as the 228 Tragedy and the White Terror, which lasted from the late 40s to the 80s, I did not grasp the sheer brutality and climate of fear and repression that occurred during that time. Reading Green Island brought this dark period to life and increased my appreciation of how much Taiwan has progressed to become what it is today. What makes this period even more striking is that the 70s was when Taiwan left the UN after the organization decided to accept China and then saw its chief ally, the US break off official relations with it in favour of China. Taiwan’s ensuing international isolation,  which still exists today with less than 20 countries officially recognizing Taiwan, was a big blow to the ruling KMT regime. I got the sense from reading the book that this loss of international legitimacy weakened the KMT and somehow helped Taiwan’s eventual democratization to occur.

At times while reading the book, I thought how Taiwan back then was so similar to China, both being one-party states ruled by dictators (Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek and then his son Chiang Ching-kuo, China by Mao Tse-tung) and with censorship; mass killings; citizen surveillance, secret detention, torture and killings of dissidents. The big difference is that China now still has some of these things. Taiwan now is a completely different place and sometimes given the country’s openness and easy-going nature, it is easy to forget that decades ago, it was under a terrible dictatorship that committed killings and repressive jailing of its citizens. There are some torture and killing described in the book, all the more chilling because it is not over-the-top gory but realistic and based on reality.

Green Island refers to a small isle off Taiwan’s east coast that was used to imprison dissidents like the father, so the main criticism I have about the book is that the father’s 11 years of imprisonment are not described at all. After he is captured and jailed, time goes by and the family picks up their lives until suddenly one day he reappears. While the father’s Green Island imprisonment is traumatic and affects his personality, the isle itself does not feature so I think  the book being named after it is misleading.

You could say Green Island is both the story of a country and a family, both a political thriller and a family drama. There is an air of sadness and fear throughout the book, but it is lightened by the fact that in real life, we all know which side won in Taiwan between the authoritarian regime and the resistance.

Green Island is one of the most poignant novels I’ve ever read and there were a couple of times when I felt emotional and I rarely do so for books. Green Island is not an uplifting tale of heroism and happiness, but a somber story of survival and family that is also the story of a nation.

Taipei hiking- taking in 101


Taipei’s skyline has long been dominated by one building, Taipei 101, one of the world’s tallest buildings. Nowadays, it still is but it’s got company in the form of the Nan Shan Plaza and at least another skyscraper is under construction in the area. The best way to get an up-close view of Taipei 101 and its surroundings is Xiangshan (Elephant Hill), a small nearby mountain. There is a popular spot consisting of several boulders that is ideal for selfies but there are more than one vantage point. Besides Taipei 101, you can get sweeping views of the city as well as the northern hills.