On Pelosi’s would-be visit to Taiwan
Plus, links to relief for Kentucky floods and the Taiwanese Innocence Project
Many of you, prompted by this alarming front-page New York Times article, wrote to ask our thoughts on Pelosi’s proposed Taiwan visit.
A recap: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was supposed to visit Taiwan earlier this year, but canceled her trip after getting COVID. Recently, though, rumors leaked that she’s planning to go in the next couple of weeks. Talk of this possible trip angered China, a notoriously thin-skinned bully that never misses an opportunity to thwart Taiwan’s attempts to gain international standing. So Beijing has threatened “firm and resolute measures” in response to a potential Pelosi visit; the Biden administration isn’t happy either, as President Biden has a upcoming meeting planned with China’s President Xi Jinping. Ironically, both the Biden and Xi administrations have converged on the possibility of military escalation to defer Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Pelosi herself has remained fairly silent, and has yet to confirm or deny the rumors.
In short, a lot of hurt feelings over a trip that remains unconfirmed. Lev Nachman has perhaps the most sensible take:
But let’s be clear: if Pelosi did visit Taiwan, it would be a huge symbolic deal. She’d be the highest-ranking member of the U.S. government to go since 1997, making for what could be the strongest statement of an increasingly bipartisan consensus within the American political establishment in support of Taiwan internationally. Republicans, traditionally more hawkish on China, immediately voiced public support for the trip, in no small part to embarrass the Biden administration over its inconsistent messaging on Taiwan.
More importantly, this visit would just be the latest in a string of high-profile Western politicians making official contact with Taiwan, including U.S. cabinet members and EU parliamentary delegations.
Of course, it’s precisely this growing global anti-China consensus that China wants to curtail. Since COVID, China’s global image has taken a major hit, largely due to the secretive and repressive ways it’s managed its way out of crises, but also thanks to a real rise in Sinophobia throughout the rest of the world. Recent months have shown further cracks in the Xi regime, amid a major real-estate crisis and economic growth constrained by Xi’s strict adherence to a zero-COVID policy. At the end of the year the Chinese Communist Party will hold its 20th National Congress, where Xi will vie for a norm-breaking third term; he can’t look weak. All signs point to a continuing escalation of Sino-American tensions, and a Pelosi visit would only fuel that fire.
Meanwhile, in Taiwan itself, the news has been greeted with a resounding meh. Perhaps that’s more our own mental state—we’ve been stuck at home with a COVID-infected baby for close to two weeks and have resorted to watching Cocomelon on endless loop (thank God for childcare and childcare workers!)—but we don’t think it’s just us. As Erin Hale notes:
And our friend John Liu agrees:
So far, the Taiwanese government has maintained a low-key stance as well, although the maelstrom just happened to break out as it was holding its annual wargames, a demonstration of the country’s combat readiness in the event of a military conflict. (For the first time since she took office, President Tsai boarded a warship to take part in the exercises.) As journalist Brian Hioe has noted, her administration doesn’t want to offend Pelosi or Biden, so it’s chosen to stay fairly tight-lipped.
Why such a discrepancy between the media furor abroad and the dispassionate response in Taiwan? Our friend Huang Cheng-yi sums it up well:
For a long time, there has been a big gap between how the outside world thinks about Taiwan and how people think in Taiwan. Some foreign Twitter friends write about Taiwan as a war zone, but that’s not the case at all. Americans look at the world in a self-centered way (but who doesn’t?), and they rarely care what the locals think. We Taiwanese are tired of this kind of intimidation. Even if a real fight broke out, I think the general feeling would be, “Oh, okay, let’s fight!” What other options do we have?
Cheng-yi’s lines resonate with what we wrote last year:
The response of most Taiwanese people to Chinese aggression has been a shrug and a sigh. For them, the world is waking up to a reality that Taiwan has lived in for decades. Albert grew up with air strikes drills at his elementary school, and saw many of his childhood friends leave because of Chinese missile threats. When we asked our friend Andrew Ryan, a journalist who’s lived in Taiwan for 25 years, if he feels more concerned this time, he also shook his head. “It’s like moving to a place with earthquakes,” he said. “Once you sign on, you move on.” People here are famously blithe.
You could read this blitheness as a form of fatalism. Certainly, some people here hold the attitude that there isn’t much we can do. Geopolitics is a game of Great Powers. In the words of *ahem* Westworld, “The maze isn’t meant for you.” They argue that there’s nothing to do but take the role of passive victim and wait for the game to play out. We winced when a pan-Blue relative told us that when the missiles come she hopes they’ll hit President Tsai’s house first; she’d welcome the Chinese invaders with open arms. We’ve also heard deep Green friends argue that the only thing we can do is wait for the U.S. and Japan to intervene in the event that China strikes.
For our part, we think the relative silence about Pelosi’s visit is an expression of contempt, a condemnation of the silly game these Great Powers are playing. China’s thin skin at the prospect of anyone of international repute visiting Taiwan, or of the Taiwanese making something of themselves on the global stage, is laughable. But equally ridiculous is Pelosi’s and Biden’s song and dance. What does Pelosi intend to achieve with this trip, anyway? She’ll come and give a couple of speeches, wine and dine some fancy people, visit a few high-tech factories, and that’s supposed to … do what besides annoy China?
More infuriating is the type of regressive politics these politicians are intent on playing. When Mike Pompeo visited Taiwan earlier this year—another case of much ado about nothing—he gave a speech entirely wrapped around a regressive agenda. He and his ilk want to push international relations back to the Cold War era, replacing the evil Soviets with evil Communist China and casting Taiwan as the plucky symbol of freedom, liberty, and peace. His first proposal for a path forward was—wait for it—more U.S. gun sales to Taiwan, yet another attempt to cultivate a client state. We can’t see Pelosi offering much more. In short, we’ve seen this script before, and we’re sick of it.
You know what would really excite people here? Politicians who can envision a radical restructuring of global geopolitics and commit to Taiwan’s place therein. Of course, we understand that increasing Chinese belligerence is the major factor driving tensions here, but this doesn’t preclude the possibility of more creative thinking among the American foreign policy establishment. Imagine if an American politician of consequence came to Taiwan and spoke openly about restructuring the UN to give more power to smaller nations by eliminating the veto power on the Security Council—which would constrain, as Sam Moyn argues, all of the Great Powers from acting recklessly on the world stage. This would give more power to assembly members and put a greater burden on Taiwan to find allies among member states.
Or imagine a politician who, instead of beating the Sinophobia drum, proposed creative solutions to establish regular diplomatic communication channels among the three sides instead of the mutual pact of non-conversation we have now. Or imagine a politician who spoke of Taiwan not just as a victim of Chinese aggression but as an active player that has made a great deal of money off of China’s rise, and whose fate is entangled and deeply enmeshed with that of its neighbor. In short, imagine a politician that talked of Taiwan as a true actor in the region—which it always has been—rather than as just some sort of pawn in Great Power conflicts.
But we yearn for American politicians who at the very least want more than to just turn the clock back forty years and perpetuate the us-vs.-them rhetoric they know too well. Well, we can dream. Until that dream comes true, we’ll stay silent, recognizing the poison pill being offered by withholding our consent.
#TaiwanTwitter was on fire in response to the Pelosi visit. Here are some of our favorite tweets:
Also check out this thread by Jorge Guajardo, former Mexican Ambassador to China, writing about how thin-skinned the Chinese diplomatic corps can be:
There’s been a flurry of online commentary on the situation—some good, some bad. As always, we agree with Brian Hioe’s take: you can hear him on Democracy Now and read him in New Bloom. Brian makes the sensible argument that Pelosi’s decision is driven by a desire on Democrats’ part to appear tougher on China.
An Appeal to Help the Kentucky Flooding
We’ve been devastated by the news of flash-flooding in Kentucky. A dear student of ours, Jasmine, has been teaching in Eastern Kentucky for the past year, and she writes in with this message:
I can't believe how the flooding has devastated the area. Our school isn't under water, but there are a lot of people who are still unaccounted for and the service keeps going in and out. We had one family at Emmalena who lost all four of their kids in the flood. They were saying that you could hear the children screaming for help but the current took them away and nobody could get to them in time. So so heartbreaking.
If you want to help, Jasmine recommends these two funds, the Appalachian Crisis Fund and the Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief Fund.
Freeing the Wrongly Convicted: the Taiwan Innocence Project
We’ve been inspired by the work of the Taiwan Innocence Project (TIP), which frees wrongly convicted people. On Thursday Michelle went to Kaohsiung to attend the retrial hearing of Chin-Gui Lin, who served 10 years for murder before being freed from prison by TIP. He was granted a retrial and is now being retried.
The community created by the project is particularly moving. It draws together volunteers, attorneys, family members of the defendant, and formerly incarcerated people whom TIP has exonerated. Volunteers regularly visit incarcerated people, providing support to them as well as their families. Whenever there is a court hearing, this group shows up, fills the courtroom, and shares a meal after. It’s a way to tell the prosecutor and judge that they’re being held accountable, as well as to tell the defendant that he is not alone.
Book Club: Lisa Hsiao Chen’s Activities of Daily Living and Siobhan Phillips’s Benefit
We had such a stimulating discussion of Siobhan Phillips’s Benefit and covered so much territory: heroic action and paralysis, elite circles and institutions, academia and integrity. Thanks to everyone who came!
We’re looking forward to our book club about Lisa Hsiao Chen’s wonderful book Activities of Daily Living on Friday, August 26th, 4 PM PDT/7 PM EST. Can’t wait! Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org (or reply to this email) if you want to join.
Very nice passage, Michelle and Albert!
Whatever one's feelings on Speaker Pelosi's Taiwan visit, I don't think it's fair to say her delegation went there just to look tough (at home) vs. the PRC. She's been a Taiwan supporter for over 30 years and Republican Texas Congressman Michael McCaul says she invited him to join the trip but that he couldn't make it.