Friday, June 21, 2013

When a Pawn Acts Like a Pawn**--A View From Taipei

I came to Taiwan to study Mandarin Chinese by way of a pretty significant scholarship from the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at the George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs. After receiving this scholarship, I dug a little deeper and it became apparent that the Taiwanese government has been paying for endless cheap vegetarian buffets and the cheap, hot, “complimentary” Chardonnay I struggled to drink on a particular Japanese airline company’s flight to Taipei. I can either dance around the simple fact that the Taiwanese government is giving me this money for a reason or I can confront it head on. The implications for this confrontation lie before me like that vegetarian buffet, but I cannot afford to spend as much time as I would like sampling every issue.
The kinds of motivations I’m seeing here from Taiwan are geopolitical and cultural. I see myself as just one pawn in a much larger geopolitical chess board. Taiwan’s government hopes I can come here and convince the rest of you that Taiwan really has something precious worth preserving. When push comes to shove in a geopolitical contest between the US and China, Taiwan’s government wants Americans to be aware of the distinctions between Taiwan and China, the similarities between Taiwan and the US, and the need to preserve these common values which the US and Taiwanese share and seem to value. I am getting all of this money to convince some of you of this through my pictures, word of mouth, or in a blog. Let’s call a spade a spade.

I’m increasingly a willing accomplice in this act. My situation and how I serve Taiwan’s goals seem like an all-too-easy trap for an American to fall into though. Take any American who has heard about China’s censorship of speech and religion and authoritarian government and throw him or her in a place that is culturally Chinese, at least most of the time, but reflects many of the same political values Americans have either through experience or education come to value and you have easy-to-absorb Taiwanese soft power diplomacy—or propaganda to put it more bluntly. Sermons at public churches don’t have to receive the party in power’s OK in Taiwan, church memberships aren’t capped on the island either, and Taipei has seasonal elections that Freedom House says are free—what’s not for an American to love? Also, it’s quite easy to notice how Taiwan’s relatively low amount of censorship gives the island’s residents greater access to cosmopolitan outlets of culture. A freer marketplace of ideas—or mindless, irresistible fluff, as Taiwan’s fondness for the American TV show Nashville shows—comes across as something to strive for and preserve.

I felt this way before I came to Taiwan, but I feel it ever more strongly now: The US needs to play a role in ensuring that the Taiwanese people retain all of their political and religious freedoms when the island officially becomes subject to at least some of the People Republic of China’s control—and this shift will happen, it isn’t a question of whether or not it could happen, I believe at least. My reasoning stems from this fact that Taiwan’s economy is completely dependent on that of the PRC’s and interconnections between the two increase daily. Moreover, many Taiwanese would favor such a retrocession if certain freedoms were preserved. 

Taiwan’s government has the right idea: More people need to come to this island and see that these freedoms are worth preserving, even if this preservation requires the use of American diplomacy and a show of its strength. Few students at the Sigur Center even applied to study Chinese in Taiwan this summer, perhaps because too fewer students were interested in such a relatively less significant island the size of a combined Delaware and Maryland or perhaps because students are afraid of having to learn traditional characters—I am continuing to learn simplified characters while enrolled at National Taiwan University’s ICLP program, so this shouldn’t be an issue.

It’s important for students to keep in mind that going abroad is an inherently alienating process and that going to study abroad in a repressed political and social culture is even more alienating.  Your internet connection in China moves at a speed similar to that which you had when Facebook first became available and you can’t easily visit a legal church in Shanghai, for example, because the number of congregants is capped so you’re forced to go to an underground church and risk your own visa status, so you can’t worship easily—these are things which make living abroad more difficult. It makes you want to write a scathing blog post, but that’s not advisable or polite. If China is a somewhat discomforting, very basic metaphorical sedan for the information hungry or religious foreigner—the kind that doesn’t have power windows, then Taiwan is a car with seat warmers and seats so comfortable they’re almost soporific. 

**A Fiona Apple reference

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