Wednesday, July 21, 2010

MOVIE REVIEW: Formosa Betrayed, Confused Nationalism

Formosa Betrayed is worth seeing, as it portrays a few issues that you aren't likely to have heard about: The military repression of the Taiwanese/ROC government, the US support of this police state, the internal clash between the Taiwanese and the Guomindang-clique that took over the island after losing China to the CCP.

It is likely convenient to proponents of Taiwanese independence that this movie takes place in 1983, removed in time from the relative clarity available in viewing current political issues, and removed from the contradictions brought out by democratic reforms.

This film is transparent in being a vehicle for a political statement, due to the prime-time-tv-cop story that drives us through the necessary revelations of political injustice.

It starts with the main character, a white guy thrust into the chaotic Orient, pursuing a murder suspect.  Upon entering Taiwan, he is greeted by a militaristic mess, where just about everything in the neighborhood is laid out in a color scheme from dull grey to dull brown, including the uniforms of the ever present military people, who bark incomprehensible orders and mad dog everyone they see.

Throughout the film, Agent Kelly, the blond, healthy and handsome American hero, affirms his FBI-ness with phrases like "I'm about to blow this thing wide open!" and "When I became an FBI agent, I took an oath! [to protect the constitution]"

The movie is full of these old reliable indicators of cop-FBI-counter-terror-legal-military thrillers.  Agent Kelly is told, by his boss back in America, that he is "kicking up a shit storm."  and being a "cowboy."

Agent Kelly had to take the law into his own hands, to get the murderer of Professor Wen, who exposed the gun running, mafia-connected, contra-connected, schemes of the government.  The killer was paid by the Chinese Communist Party, who then betray him.  Agent Kelly is this murderers last hope.  

The cool thing about the movie was that I've never seen portrayals of what life was like before Taiwan enacted democratic reforms.  The development of Taiwan, as contrasted with the Mainland, is fascinating.  It had it's own one party rule, without the stuff about helping the people and doing away with feudalism.

The sad thing about Taiwan's recent history is how some Taiwanese people want to rationalize their fear of imminent 'reunification' with the Mainland.

Formosa Betrayed prominently features two of these rationalizations. One is the mainland needs Taiwan, but Taiwan doesn't need the Mainland, as stated by a kindly General who rescues the white guy hero.  This might be true, if Taiwan could still rely on the indefinite and committed help of the USA, but it cannot.  Nor have Taiwanese showed their lack of need for the mainland by abstaining from going over and taking advantage of the cheap labor and corruption.  This movie is coming out at the same time as all that Foxconn stuff is still in the news.  Is that not a little ironic?  This company, Foxconn, that makes high tech crap for Apple and takes advantage of the dissolution of workers rights in China to set up factories, mistreat their workers, and accrue more profit to Foxconn management, doesn't need China?

Actually, that's kind of true. 

GM and Volkswagen don't need China, nor does Nokia, Samsung, Ubisoft, or any of the other foreign investors in China.  Just as the ruling class in China doesn't need migrant laborers, dispossessed by decollectivization and looked down upon by a couple generations of Chinese people, taught to value wealth above everything. 

These companies and the Taiwanese companies that set up in China don't necessarily need all that cheap labor.

They want it.  They want more money, easier money, and, just to be safe, government officials who care more about money than protecting the rights of the poor. 

This is the logic of the system we live in.  In our country, bribes are masked, generally, as lobbying expenditures and campaign contributions.  In China, you take the guy out to eat, give him some presents, and build an understanding.  Money makes your point understandable. 

The second rationalization in Formosa Betrayed is that Taiwanese independence can be attributed to native Taiwanese resisting Mainland invaders, rather than the success of the Chinese Communist Party.  These Mainland invaders take the form of both the failed ROC government that lost it's struggle to reclaim China, and the current billion or so Chinese people, whose government has retained the One China Policy that the ROC, and the US, used to invalidate the CCP.

The funny thing about this Taiwanese independence is that it has become prevalent after Taiwan lost it's recognition as the real China.  Of course the idea of reclaiming China is stupid if the US no longer supports it.

What is not as stupid, but still silly, is the idea that the Taiwanese language is what separates it's speakers from the "Chinese" who came over after the Communists defeated the Nationalists.

What they call Chinese (Mandarin/Guoyu/Putonghua) is a national language developed to be used as a common language Chinese people, who speak thousands of mutually unintelligible languages, referred to as dialects.

The language referred to in Formosa Betrayed, as "Taiwanese" belongs to the group of Min 'dialects' (the term 'dialect' is questionable and mostly political.)

The Min dialects, as with all dialects, are distinct from Mandarin, which is called "Chinese" in this film.  Mandarin was developed to be the common language of China.  The two most common Chinese terms for this are guoyu (National Language) and putongha (Common Language.)  China has always had common languages, such as baihua and guanhua.  The "Chinese" language referred to in Formosa Betrayed is not native to anyplace, and it is a language of news announcers, actors, teachers, and the current young educated class in China.  People who have not bothered to pay any attention to the dialect(s) spoken in Beijing, will sometimes assert that Standard Mandarin is beijinghua.  But, a trip to Bejing, or just doing a video search for beijinghua will give you examples of the the difference between the Beijing dialect and Standard Mandarin.   

Every single place you go to in China, people will distinguish between the common language (what we call Mandarin) and the local language, called a 'dialect.'  In Shanghai, I would often see government banners saying "Promote Mandarin."  In visiting my wife's hometown, family and friends would often apologetically admit that they're Mandarin wasn't any good. Everywhere else I went, my hosts would have to remind everyone to speak putonghua, because that's all I could speak. 

So, Taiwanese is a Chinese language.  The insistence on the uniqueness of one's home province, or local culture, is also quite Chinese.  When the Taiwanese activists in the movie refer to the ruling class as Chinese, it is similar to the way that Chinese people in every place in China are quick to explain to you that whatever Chinese city you've just come from, it is quite different, in attitude, speech, and food from this place.

As my friend Rishi pointed out, the tendency to look down on the Mainland, that I've noticed in some Taiwanese professors and acquaintances, is also very Chinese.  In Beijing, you will find plenty of Beijingnese who will tell you how people from outside Beijing are low class, have bad habits, etc.  Shanghainese, Xi'annese, and Sichuannese will do the same.

How is Taiwan so different from the Mainland?  There are some points that I think bear out the differences.  Taiwanese have zhuyin, based on Japanese Kana, whereas other Chinese people have pinyin, based on the Latin alphabet.  Taiwanese can vote more than other Chinese.  Taiwan is supported and used by the United States government, whereas it is primarily American corporations that support and use the rest of China.  In Taiwan, feudal practices, religious, familial and otherwise may persist more than in the rest of China.

One thing they do have in common, though, is that they have both recently abandoned old political paradigms for new forms of Nationalism.  China has abandoned quasi Stalinist State Capitalism for something closer to regular Capitalism, (though I don't know to what extent the rich in China have organized, by industry, to lobby the Peoples Congress or other national bodies.)  Taiwan has abandoned a Nationalist Military Dictatorship (They had no Nation, but plenty of Military) in favor a Nationalist Democracy, where the Nation part is still an article of faith.

I think its just as hard for Taiwanese people to say "We are pretty much like other Chinese people."  as it is hard for other Chinese people to say "It's up to them if they don't want to be ruled by the same government as us."

On the one hand, most Taiwanese people I've met don't quite have a feel for the Mainland, and on the other hand, most Mainland people aren't very well versed in the fundamental importance of democratic governance. 

Both sides, however, seem to agree on Nationalism.  And that, at least, is a good start.

In Formosa Betrayed, the main argument, though not so much argued as asserted, is that Taiwan should be recognized as an independent nation.  What sort of absurd metaphysics equates recognition of a nation as verification that the entity in question is, in fact, a nation?  The only recognition that's really going to matter is going to be that of the CCP, and this recognition is not likely to take the form of allowing Taiwan to break off from the rest of China, particularly when it is not fond of democracy or US military allies.

Rather than supporting Taiwan Nationalism, why not support the free development and cooperation of all peoples, and work with their fellow Chinese to achieve a better China?  Why not carry a message of democracy and comradeship to their fellow Chinese?    

The answer you will most likely get is that this is not possible, because the evil Communist Party represses everyone and brainwashes those billion or so people.

What you might hear later, is underlying current of anti-Communism, which the Taiwanese capitalists share with their Mainland counterparts.  I've heard Taiwanese people tell me that Mainland people are lazy because they've been brainwashed and guaranteed a living from their Iron Rice Bowls.

But what about the rampant exploitation and oppression of the poor in China?  Because the evil Communists don't give them the right to vote.

And if, in the past, there were millions and millions of peasants who believed in the communist revolution, and in Mao, than this was not democracy, this was just brainwashing of ignorant peasants, whose parents or grandparents hadn't been smart enough or rich enough to leave China once the GMD fell. 

The consistent them is: Commnists are the problem.  They ruined China, wiped out thousands of years of beautiful culture, and are just straight up bullies.  Now they are trying to wipe out brave little Taiwan, which stands straight up, thrusting the flag of liberty up into the air, in defiance of the evil Communists.

But I suspect another reason that Taiwanese are eager to carry a message of peace, democracy and friendship, is that Taiwan is ruled by capitalists, who feel threatened by the poor and by other capitalists.  Nationalism is a way to unify people in opposition to other people, as is the Republican Party's use of the term "Patriotism."  And the Nationalism of Taiwan has not been overtaken by democratic egalitarianism, particularly when so many Taiwanese are getting rich off China's poor.  Taiwan's Nationalism continues to be anti-Communist.  

This anti-Communism plays a large factor in the Mainland's own version of Nationalism.  Do you know why we still revere Chairman Mao on National Day in China?  Because he won independence for the Chinese Nation, defeating the Imperialist backed GMD and the Imperialist Japanese.  Do people get up and say of Chairman Mao: "He taught us to fight capitalism and continue the revolution!" ? Not that I've heard, but I can only take so much of those holiday variety shows that last for hours and hours.  

Mao is no longer a communist hero, he is a Nationalist Patriarch.  Leifeng, whether or not he ever existed, is no longer an example of the model revolutionary, but of the model citizen, giving his life for his country and, probably, volunteering for community service. 

Formosa Betrayed?  By whom?  We all know that you can't really betray an island; you can't really betray igneous rock, sedimentary rock, sea life, volcanoes, etc.

People get betrayed.  So then we can say the "Taiwanese People" have been betrayed  and then you have to ask: Who decides who is Taiwanese and who isn't Taiwanese.

Those who control Taiwan decide.  One of the functions of Nationalism is to hide and deny the fact that the Nation tends to be defined and determined by the ruling class, regardless of how many concessions they give out.

Practically speaking, Taiwan has been functioning as an independent government for a while now. If the level of thinking on the issue of Taiwanese independence is only concerned with fatuous and arbitrary line-drawing that attempts to cut off the people of Taiwan from those on the Mainland, than this suggests that the people arguing this issue are ignorant both of what the Mainland is, and what the meaning of independence is.  It means, in this case, that the Taiwanese government doesn't have to obey the government in Beijing.  That's it.  The Communists won independence over five decades ago, with the support of the Soviets.  I can't imagine who will support Taiwan (probably not Obama, but maybe if Palin wins next time....) 

I predict that this issue will continue to be obfuscated until reunification surprises Taiwan.  And let us hope that it is a peaceful reunification.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


I had always heard about how China wanted to control Taiwan.

It's the kind of thing that we know dictatorships do. At least four generations of Americans have spent their lives knowing China to be a gigantic mob of evil bent on storming our shores and extinguishing our leading light of liberty.

The American media generally focuses on China's claims towards Taiwan. But they don't portray this policy as what it actually is, a continuation and imitation of Taiwan's policy toward the Mainland back when it was The China.

Before Nixon and Carter shifted recognition towards the Peoples of Republic of China, and the ruling Communist Party, most western countries regarded The Republic of China as the legitimate government of China. This map shows the territory that the ROC (Taiwan) claimed control over.

The one China Policy is consistent with the Chinese system as recognized by the US and other western countries, there were not two separate countries until the US was forced to recognize the PRC, which had been ruling China, except Macao, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

The idea now that Taiwan is not part of China is hypocritical and indicative of the sort of mystical thinking reserved for the nobility of Nationhood.

Taiwan's main Languages, both the national language, guoyu, or Mandarin, and Taiwanese, Minnanhua, which has close relatives across the way on the Mainland province Fujian, are undeniably Chinese languages, part of the system that includes all the varieties of Cantonese, the different types of Shanghainese, and the hundreds of other dialect groups.

The ruling class in Taiwan came from all over the Mainland, the food is Chinese, the culture is Chinese, and I can't think of many aspects of Taiwan that are not closely tied to the rest of China.

I know there are differences, linguistically and culturally, but they are not likely to be that much more than those between people from Shanghai and Beijing, from Shandong and Guangxi, from Emigre Chinese communities and the mainland.

The perspective that dominates the most prevalent discussion of China-Taiwan relations is that of possible victim with possible victimizer, the question to be argued for or against being: Is the US government not being hard enough on China for it's aggressive, domineering posture towards Taiwan?

This is not to say that the similarity between Taiwan's and China's rulers are denied or covered up, but the dominant perspective is generally aggressor versus aggressee.

The democratic perspective would see that both Countries, for that is what they have been from the time the Guomindang/KMT fled the mainland, are governed by authoritarian regimes, where Taiwan's One Party Rule has recently given way to a less autocratic state, and both Countries achieved rapid economic growth and industrial modernization under One Party, dictatorial governments.

But the democratic perspective in American popular discourse is used more for criticizing bad guys, usually those who we are supposed to be condemning, or whom our government supports, rather than seeking an accurate objective description of the political affairs of other nations.

The simple, stupid fact is that two places that have different ruling bodies, and correspondingly different legal and economic systems, are, in fact, different countries.

Spain and Portugal are different countries, but Catalan, though linguistically and culturally different from the rest of the country, is part of Spain. Portugal is closer linguistically and culturally than the Basque region, but Portugal is a separate country. Kurdish Iraq is separate linguistically and culturally, but still part of the Country Iraq. What kind of idiots would debate whether or not the Kurdish region 'belongs' to Iraq? What sort of magical possession exceeds both physicality, observability, and delineation?

The idiots who would even debate the question of whether or not Taiwan is a separate country are so incredibly stupid that they would neglect the very definition of 'country.'

Instead they throw around conflations of politics and culture, replacing description; i.e. is Taiwan in fact a separate political entity, with prescriptions, i.e. should Taiwan be independent, or should it 'return' to China, and evaluations of similarity, i.e. are Mainlanders and Taiwanese culturally the same, ethnically the same.

Again, if the ubiquitous outrage at antidemocratic regimes and practices were to actually correspond with actual analysis from a presumption of the validity of democratic government, than we would merely say that Taiwan is a separate country insofar as the people in Taiwan choose so, and then we would face the discomforting prospect of applying that same logic to Texas.

The idea that we can decide if it is part of China, and if China should have it, or, god forbid, whether either country is good or bad, is just another manifestation of the dominant trend in our intellectual realms to conflate description and prescription, our opinions with the will of some other country's citizens, and the context of history.

The pathetic thing about the current Taiwanese independence is that it coincides with the failure of the ROC. When the theologians of The State decided that China was not Taiwan, and the rest of the world forgot that it ever had been, the Taiwanese government set off on a hobble towards independence, with policies like the "Four Wants, One Without," "Special State to State Relation," "Taiwanization," and the "Four Stages of Taiwan" All of these are rationalizations of the failure of Taiwan as a political entity.

Set up by Japan and the US to counter the will of the Chinese people, who wanted a communist revolution, and in order to counter that revolution with militaristic Nationalism, Taiwan now clings to the opposite zeitgeist, the primacy of democratic ideals.