Sunday, 12 July 2009

Taiwan Expats and the Saigon Syndrome

[Cross-posted from Accumulating Peripherals]

It doesn't necessarily involve helicopters flying off the roof or embassies under siege, but the Saigon Syndrome is a real phenomenon: it strikes when people become so invested in a person or faction that seemingly was on the rise but which subsequently failed, and they simply cannot admit that their initial decision to back them was wrong. Instead of backing out like they should, they throw bad money after good, adopt the most ridiculous positions, endorse the most reprehensible characters, and generally make damned fools of themselves. In the end the tangible outcome is the same but the loss of face far greater then necessary - and made worse much worse by the refusal to admit it.

Two big examples of this syndrome have recently come into view. The first are the backers of a certain ex-mayor and now ex-governor. Sarah Palin may have come within touching distance of the White House last year, but if she hasn't imploded in the meantime, she has now. Any further boosting of such an unpopular and incoherent woman is bound to wasted effort, but this doesn't stop people trying. So here we have British-born American commentator Tony Blankley trying to boost a clearly lost cause:

"last weekend, the professionals were sneering confidently that Palin had made a fatal mistake by giving up the governorship of Alaska because everyone knows that an aspiring candidate for higher office clings to his or her current office while running for the next one.

Well, I'm not so sure that being an incumbent is an advantage if the world seems to be going to hell and government is seen to be at least part of the cause for that journey. And though many conventional politicians might be seen as quitters if they resigned their offices, I have a very strong hunch that Sarah Palin is constitutionally incapable of being seen as a quitter. Because she is not. She constantly is taking on the biggest challenge on her horizon."

That's right, Sarah Palin is just 'misunderstood', and someone who quit the position they were elected to is not a quitter because, hell's bells son, they ain't no quitter. This joke is going to roll on right up to the point when Palin loses the Republican nomination to someone who actually knows what they are talking about, and it's going to be fun to watch.

It seems that this syndrome has also struck the English-language Taiwan blogs of late (see, that was a great segue there) where people who really ought to know better have been forced into the most ridiculous of positions by their support for a lost cause. Having been swept from power by a landslide election result, Taiwan's vaguely pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party looks set for more electoral woe. As if this weren't enough former DPP president Chen Shui-Bian is currently in rotting in jail due to his alleged involvement in a money laundering scam for which his daughter, son, and son in law have already pleaded guilty as accessories. You would think that all of this would be enough to give the usually maniacally pro-pan-green (i.e., independence-centric parties) Taiwan bloggerati pause for thought. I mean, why exactly is it that people who are most probably more sympathetic to assertively Taiwanese politicians are abandoning the DPP for the pro-reunification KMT? However, you'd be wrong.

No, instead the last year has seen the most amazingly paranoid declarations from otherwise sane individuals. In this piece, for example, Taiwan blogger A-Gu all-but called for a revolt against Taiwan's elected government, and compared the current situation to that in Iran. When not trying to make excuses for racial discrimination, Taiwan blogger Michael Turton has been making comparisons between the current KMT government and Stalin. Even Taipei Times columnist J. Michael Cole has declared Taiwan a "Democracy in peril", apparently as a result of its elections.

Particular odium has centred around the KMT-backed Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement with the PRC. Despite the lack of any evidence of the agreement extending beyond the economic sphere, it has been labelled an attempt at 'anschluss'. An often-referenced narrative is of a secret agreement between the KMT and the Chinese communists to annex Taiwan to the mainland, needless to say that there is no actual evidence of any such agreement. The truth is, I'm afraid, much more banal. Whilst the KMT certainly favours re-unification, it stands as little chance of achieving it as the the DPP did of successfully achieving independence. Essentially the requirement under the constitution for a 50% quorate referendum before any significant constitutional change can be carried out renders any such move incredibly vulnerable to a boycott of the referendum by one side. Moreover Ma has repeatedly forsworn any such move whilst the Chinese mainland remains undemocratic. Paranoia is not the way to appeal to the Taiwanese people, and the DPP will remain in the political wilderness until this is realised.


阿牛 said...

I think you make a very unfair reading of the post from my blog you link to, since the point of the article was that we are in an era where armed revolt against regimes is doomed to failure without either police or army support. The situation in Iran was simply a catalyst that got me thinking about "what if" such a scenario broke out in Taiwan in the future, and now the result would likely be the same.

Secondly, your analogy to Palin really demonstrates the core difference in Taiwan's English blogosphere vs. GOP talking heads: we see Chen Shui-bian as a liability have labeled DPP efforts to defend him as stupid. The procedural side of Chen's case has turned his trial into a mockery of justice and a circus, but Chen is political poison and is as responsible for the party's demise as he was for its rise.

And third, while I can't speak for others, I think it's obvious the 'greener' side of the blogosphere stands for pro-Taiwan principles, namely Taiwan's right to self-determination and a transparent, just government. I don't know anybody who's a yes man for the DPP or Chen Shui-bian or anyone else -- certainly not among the bloggers you quote.

I also sort of wonder what "lost cause" you imagine we are embracing. Taiwanese Independence? DPP electoral video? The Return of Chen?

Your final point about constitutional requirements for change to the status quo is an important one, and I have also speculated that such a reading of the constitution could make a good basis for internal consensus on the future of cross-strait relations. But with Ma on the policy merry-go-round, and the DPP on a "take no prisoners" rampage, I don't see that happening.

Anonymous said...

Great post.

Gilman Grundy said...

@A Gu - It may have been a mis-reading on my part, but my impression was that you were writing about something which might be necessary if the KMT won the next election, not an imaginary scenario at some unspecified point in the future.

I recognise your willingness to see what a good number of people still refuse to accept, that Chen Shui Bian should stand trial. It was for this reason that I was going to leave you off, until I read that bizarre piece at Taiwan Matters. Chen Shui Bian is a lost cause, even if many still do not accept this, but the profusion of conspiracy theories ('anschluss', back-door reunification, secret KMT-CCP deals etc. etc. etc.) regarding Ma and the KMT are also a lost cause, they are merely a way to avoid taking a good look at the last 8 years.

The pan-green may represent Taiwanese values, but this is not what you see coming from them at the moment. No, instead of asking the simple question "why is it that when the Taiwanese people are more sympathetic to Taiwan independence than they are to reunification, people still prefer to vote KMT?" you see the most ridiculous demonisations of Ma and the KMT. As if by hammering on the Taiwanese independence issues they can hide their total lack of ideas.

阿牛 said...

I appreciate your honest response and will let the misreading of my original post slide, since perhaps I was less effective at conveying my thoughts than I thought.

I think there is a backlash against examining the DPP's track record from within the party, but much less so from those blogging on the subject.

I most agree with the last paragraph of your response, as it really puts the meat of the problem on the table. We all know the public is sympathetic, if not in lockstep, to the DPP position on sovereignty. So how can they lose so badly? And the answer is obviously that people care about other issues too. And the DPP seems to think the answer is they weren't screaming loudly enough about that one issue. And that's why they're fucked as of now.

Gilman Grundy said...

@A-Gu I guess I should add that, having been accused of being a "CCP troll" and a pro-reunification stooge merely for saying things very similar to what you've just said, I am a lot less inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to Taiwan bloggers (is there a pro-KMT expat blog?) than I might otherwise be. In reality my sympathies are very much with anyone who supports the Taiwanese people deciding their future for themselves.

Anonymous said...

I love the way Roland Soong of ESWN has so predictably linked to this post!

He links to anything and everything critical of the DPP and Taiwanese independence. Meanwhile, he studiously ignores any analysis of how the KMT is eroding democracy in Taiwan.

Roland Soong displays his ugly anti-Taiwan bias.

Mr. Stone said...

I found your reading of A Gu quite fair.

I find his blog tendentiously pro-American, and extremely shallow vis a vis international affairs.

I was very happy to see someone so articulate at last take an honest attempt at describing the complexity that characterizes the Taiwanese situation. Kudos to you, and shame on A Gu.

Anonymous said...

I think you underestimate the attraction to many expatriates of the underdog; after losing to the KMT not only most of the Legislature as well as the presidency, the DPP are more the underdog and downtrodden than ever. Many expats can sympathize with that and indeed latch onto this "cause" as a way to not only stake out an identity for themselves other than "some English teacher", it gives them a feeling of participating in this society that they otherwise wouldn't have. Many of them, mostly heterosexual, often white males, may feel emasculated by the reliance on their local girlfriends due to language and cultural barriers, unable to assume the proper instinctual role of the Strong Protector; intense, unwavering support for the DPP and Taiwan independence fulfills that psychological need for them.

J. Michael Cole 寇謐將 said...

Whether I agree or disagree with FOARP’s analysis of “pro-Taiwan independence bloggers” is irrelevant; the piece is important in that it forces us to think about our assumptions and “groupthink,” which FOARP refers to as “Saigon Syndrome.” It’s a bit unfair to write that we — the collective “pro-independence” we — are irremediably pro-DPP and therefore uncritical of it or of Chen Shui-bian. In fact, our detractors often commit the same crime they (unjustly) accuse us of doing, that is, of adopting a monolithic view of the “other side” — in this case the KMT and CCP. A close reading of any of the blogs mentioned in FOARP’s piece, or of my published op-eds and editorials in the Taipei Times, shows that we have been quite critical of the DPP and Chen when criticism was due. Among other things, I’ve accused the DPP of not looking professional in public (and lauded the KMT for its performance in that regard); accused, more than once, the DPP of brushing elbows with Neocons in the US (as a Canadian I’m certainly not “pro-US,” which one commenter accuses A Gu of being); accused the DPP of playing guerrilla politics; criticized Chen for deflating people’s hopes, saying that if he indeed committed the crimes he is accused of, he should face the full brunt of the law, and so on. In short, I think our position on the DPP (and Chen) is a little more nuanced than the piece would lead readers to believe.

On China, I’ve written book reviews that commend its achievements in lifting millions of people out of poverty and for being, in general, a good neighbor. But there is no question that its record on human rights and position vis-à-vis Taiwan threatens peace, and this has been the focus of my writing. To claim that there is no “proof” that the economic framework cooperation agreement (ECFA) threatens Taiwanese sovereignty is to ignore statements made — on the record — by both Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao to the effect that an ECFA was taking us closer to unification. If this isn’t proof of ulterior motives, then I don’t know what is. If there is an area where our comments are more susceptible to “groupthink” it would be in our writing on the erosion of democracy in Taiwan, mostly because drift and process are not things one can actually put his finger on. Still, there is no doubt that the Chen trial has been turned into a circus and that some in the KMT are reveling in his physical suffering. When people are denied the right to display the Tibetan or ROC flag because a Chinese negotiator is in town (I was there, I witnessed it and a good friend of mine was arrested and her finger nearly broken as a result), it’s hard not to think in terms of democracy being under assault. The same comes to mind when agreements reached between the KMT and the CPP that affect the future of Taiwanese are not submitted to the (KMT-dominated) legislature for approval, but merely “shared out of courtesy.” In democracies, legislatures serve a bigger role than just being recipients of FYIs, and when its speaker, Wang Jin-pyng, said a few months ago that he didn’t have a clue what was going on in the cross-strait talks and that he “hoped” the KMT would share details of the talks with him afterwards, I wondered about the health of Taiwan’s democracy. When laws are mulled that would disallow a large number of teachers and academics from talking about politics or taking part in political events, I worry. When the Ma Ying-jeou administration tells us “trust us” but fails to be transparent, when the Chairman of the National Security Council, Su Chi, is known to have visited China on a number of times, to be buddies with CCP officials there — with Western intelligence to support the accusations — and when you look at the conflicts of interest involving a number of top negotiators on the KMT side, and when you look at the CCP’s past history regarding pacts with “areas” it claims as its own, yes, I think we’re entitled to wonder about democracy.

J. Michael Cole 寇謐將 said...


Lastly, as I’ve rambled for way too long, the eighth comment by “anonymous” is risible for its simplicity. Increasingly, expatriates in Taiwan are not “some English teachers” but rather professionals: authors, vendors of high-tech equipment who cross the Taiwan Strait on a daily basis, financial analysts, reporters, etc. I’ve been in Taiwan for almost four years. I haven’t been an English teacher for a second and never wanted to be one. I did not attach myself to the DPP’s cause to compensate for anything. When I was an intelligence officer, I saw the damage that institutions could do to the targeted people as well as to those who were part of the machinery of the state, and soon after I moved to Taiwan, I realized that similar dynamics were at play here. It’s only become more obvious since the KMT returned to power (yes, by democratic means, which is fine, except that since then it has failed to deliver on the promises that helped it regain power). I did not join a cause per se; rather, I fight, with my pen, for people’s right everywhere to determine their own future without the threat of force. That’s why I have also done quite a bit of writing — and still do — about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the injustices of the “war” on terror and so on. If my efforts are construed as my having joined the “cause” of the underdogs, well, what can I say, maybe the underdogs need help, a voice. I have tried, as much as I can, to put Taiwan’s situation in an international context based on my past experiences as an intelligence officer and a graduate student in conflict studies, and this I’ve done as part of a conscious effort to take a step back and thereby avoid groupthink and cognitive feedback loops and self-reinforcing mindsets.

In all, this piece shook the tree a little, which isn’t a bad thing. Some of the accusations are, I think, somewhat invidious, but that’s ok. This is all part of academic discourse. With the exception of the “anonymous” comments, which had certain unfortunate undertones, I appreciate the fact that disagreement with our views was done respectfully. Far too often, people who disagreed with my views (on Taiwan, Israel, Canada) expressed themselves less than eloquently, and rather than engage in debate immediately started shooting from the hip in character assassination. I’ll always welcome a good debate, as long as it is done with respect and intelligently. This FOARP certainly did.

Gilman Grundy said...

@Anonymous - Well, speaking as a white, heterosexual male who arrived in Taiwan back in 2001 as an 21 year-old English teacher knowing only a few words of Chinese, I guess I'm not that inclined to agree with you.

What I will say is this, that the average westerner is far more likely to be sympathetic to the party which grew out of a pro-democracy movement than they are towards the party which grew out of their oppressors. When you add to this the fact that, as opposed to the rest of the Taiwanese media, the English-language media in Taiwan slants pro-pan-green, you have the one-sided nature of the Taiwan expat blogosphere. This is not to say that expat bloggers are uncritical of the DPP, but to read them you would think that the KMT was pure evil, rather than, for better or worse, Taiwan's elected government.

@MikeInTaipei - There is a difference between 'wondering' and accusing a democratically elected government of preparing a dictatorial coup based on flimsy evidence. As I'm sure you're aware, there have been similar confiscations of flags in other countries visited by Chinese officials, the UK included. hilst obviously unjust, it is not direct evidence of anything more than excessively zealous policemen - but then we will see at the next visit, won't we? Likewise, having seen the Taiwanese legal system in action more than once it is no great surprise that the Chen trial has been less than a shining beacon of justice, and of course this is as much Chen & co.'s fault as it is anyone else's. CCP-KMT relations are a point of concern, but to read some of the posts out there you would think that no negotiations, no trade agreements, no peace proposals, no co-operation in the criminal field etc. etc. can take place without Taiwan being sold out.

Anonymous said...

The KMT also draws more on Han nationalism and ethnic pride, and I think that intimidates some westerners. The DPP, on the other hand, looks for international support, allowing people from other countries to play the role of champion for the little guy's cause. Add to this the paranoia about the Chinese commies taking over Taiwan and turning it into a police-state, and maybe kicking out all the white people, and it's no wonder most ex-pats support the DPP. Heck, I'm pretty open minded about the CCP, but as an American who loves Taiwan life,even I would feel trepidation at settling down and starting a family in Taiwan. But in the end, I think guys like Ma Ying-jeou are just a lot more practical than guys like Chen Shui-bian.

Michael Turton said...

ROFL. A typical troll post from FOARP. I compared the KMT's program to Singapore, not Stalin.

The idea that Taiwanese who refuse to serve Chinese who come from a nation that is threatening to kill them with missiles and invasion are engaging in "racism" is hilarious. They are engaging in satirical, practical politics.

But this is a successful post in one way: predictably, you got the popular anti-Taiwan tabloid blogger ESWN to link to you. Congrats!


Gilman Grundy said...

Mike, 'troll' isn't simply a word for anyone who disagrees with you, even if you use it that way. Putting up a sign saying "no (insert country here)" is racist, and would be judged so under the anti-discrimination laws of most countries that have them. Oh, and yes, if I write a piece with the title "Vernichtungslager" I comparing whatever it is I am writing about to an extermination camp, even if I don't mention the nazis anywhere in the article.

Here endeth the English lesson for today.

Anonymous said...

I'd call such a sign discriminatory but not racist. The idea that Taiwanese and Chinese are separate races is weak.

Botso Marinada said...

Mr. Mikhail Turtonowsky is a douche! He's so wrong on so many things, I just wonder how he can live with himself... I'm green, too. But he's a green nazi and I don't like when these whackoes hijack a legitimate political conviction. I hope he has nightmares now, where Ma is chasing him on a bicycle in Miaoli.