“We Will Save It Ourselves”: Pariah State Faces the World
We think about Taiwan's dignity in the face of possible war; author Shawna Yang Ryan responds to our piece about informers & transitional justice; plus book club updates
For the past year, the first thing people have asked us upon hearing that we were moving to Taiwan was: Aren’t you worried?
Over dinner, a beloved teacher gifted us 2034, a thriller written by two former American military officers. Spoiler: Taiwan sparks World War III, and multiple cities in the U.S. and China are nuked. Another friend, knowing Michelle’s tendencies, wished her luck with her inevitable hunger strikes. Even our most even-keeled friend sat us down and said, “I know I’ve been supportive of your decision to move, but I’m a bit worried. You guys are the type of people who’d probably get in trouble if the shit really hit the fan.”
It was a summer of troubled looks and furrowed brows, and it’s not hard to understand why. Over the past six months, Taiwan has gained an international visibility unprecedented in our lifetimes, with reports and op-eds on its impending war with China cropping up in most major news outlets. This past week, even John Oliver featured Taiwan in a long segment.
The latest spate of coverage was sparked by Chinese aggression over Taiwanese airspace: for just over a year, China has been sending reconnaissance planes into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). Two weeks ago, it flew fifty-six aircraft there in a single day. But the frequency is less troubling than the violation of tacit border agreements: since 1955, China and Taiwan have observed a “median” in the Taiwan Strait that both sides agreed not to cross. In September 2020, though, China flew offensive sorties across the line for the first time, publicly denying any such maneuvers.
How has Taiwan responded? Military protocols here dictate that any Chinese incursion into Taiwanese airspace require a response, but so far Taiwan has practiced a policy of restrained engagement, deploying aircraft to monitor the situation, issuing radio warnings, and activating its air defense missile systems. If China is hoping to probe Taiwanese weaknesses, the ministry of defense here has openly shown itself ready to meet a challenge.
In the meantime, the Taiwanese ministry of national security has turned to Twitter, reporting on the incursions daily in the blandest, most academic language possible. (On October 29, for instance the Ministry tweeted: 3 PLA aircraft (J-11*2 and Y-8 RECCE) entered #Taiwan’s southwest ADIZ on October 29, 2021. Please check our official website for more information.) The messages are calm but unambiguous: We face a military threat from an increasingly belligerent country. We will continue to marshal evidence and apprise our citizens.
The Taiwanese are famously blithe about the possibility of Chinese takeover, in part because it’s old news: the papers and cable networks are merely catching up to the reality in which people here have lived for decades. China has long worked to restrict Taiwan’s freedom by turning it into a “ghost island” with no friends; since 2001, it has wooed or threatened away eighteen of Taiwan’s former allies. (It was a particular blow when Costa Rica cut ties.)
In 2008, the Taiwanese political scientist Rwei-ren Wu published a now-famous “Pariah Manifesto” that considers the options available to a country that “cannot even afford to ally and bargain with empires” and is exiled from the international sphere. “Weak and defenseless, as if waiting to be devoured,” Wu wrote, “they are nothing but pieces of the imperial game of struggle for supremacy.”
The notion of “pieces of the imperial game” rings even truer today than it did seven years ago. Amid hostile Sino-American relations and an increasingly powerful China, Taiwan continues to lose allies. The WHO continues to bar Taiwan from contributing findings from its exemplary handling of the COVID-19 crisis; to this day, a Taiwanese person cannot enter the United Nations when the Security Council is meeting.
Still, Taiwan has been aggressive on the diplomatic front, trying to insert itself into the new trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. It has also filed a separate application to join the new Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a trade agreement among eleven Asian-Pacific countries. Bi-Khim Hsiao, Taiwan’s envoy to the U.S., has injected fresh energy into American relations, courting members of Congress, securing vaccine donations, and frequently appealing to “shared values” of freedom and democracy on social media.
What is the course of action for a pariah state? Trapped and humiliated, Wu concludes, it has only one option: the moral one. It is “forced to be good.” And indeed, Taiwan has been more than good: it has zero COVID cases today, free and fair elections, a full panoply of rights for LGBTQ people, equitable representation for women in politics, and flourishing freedom of expression. “We have to make a just polis in this unjust world,” Wu continues. Will the great powers deem it worth their time to save that polis? “No one knows the answer. But what we do know is this: a just polis is a torch that highlights the moral ruins and hypocrisy of empires.”
If the Americans and Chinese are headed towards war, is there anything in history that can teach us how to prevent it? One of our favorite pieces on World War I is historian Paul Schroeder’s 1972 article “World War I as Galloping Gertie.” Schroeder asks the generations-old question of who was to blame for the war, replying to another historian, Joachim Remak, who argued that no one came out with their hands clean—neither the hotheaded Serbian nationalist who killed the heir to the Habsburg Empire nor the German Kaiser intent on playing power politics. On a deeper reading, though, it’s evident that Remak mostly blames the Serbians for upending the world with their nationalism.
But wait a minute, says Schroeder: that’s not how international relations work. Not every country is equally powerful, so not every country can be judged the same way. Small countries like Serbia have a very limited range of feasible military, diplomatic, and social responses to the global situation; big countries have far greater freedom to act.
Schroeder ultimately blames not Germany or Austria or Serbia, but the British Empire. Had the British been less ambiguous—had it backed up the tottering Habsburg Empire immediately after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand—it could have kept the other Great Powers in check and maintained peace. Instead, it equivocated, refusing to make its intentions clear. In cleaving to strategic ambiguity and preserving its freedom of action, the British waited too long. Other actors filled the gap with their aggression. As the global hegemon, Britain had a “greater ability to change the outcome,” Schroeder charges, but it abdicated this responsibility. The Habsburg Empire was on the verge of collapse and the British Empire “assisted in her destruction.” We all know what happened in the ensuing years: the “system was bent and twisted until it broke; its burdens were distributed not according to ability to bear them, but inability to resist.”
At its heart, Schroeder’s article, written at a time when progressives were working through the promises and perils of American imperial power, is a meditation on hegemony. What is a hegemon’s responsibility to constrain the world and make it safer?
This line of questioning resonates anew today: so far the U.S. has signaled its willingness to back up Taiwan in the case of a Chinese invasion. Notwithstanding the official policy of “strategic ambiguity,” the Americans have been quite explicit in comparison to British hesitation in 1914. A new bipartisan consensus has emerged over Taiwan, with both leading Democrats and Republicans recently expressing their support.
Yet an even bigger uncertainty hanging over the powder keg in this region is that of American imperial power itself: whether, after two decades of disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. can maintain its hegemony. The Taiwanese media is mulling this over for the first time. Has the American empire been a positive force in the world? In the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, we keep hearing the refrain, “Today Afghanistan, tomorrow Taiwan?” Such a question would have been unimaginable here a decade ago under the country’s bipartisan pro-American consensus. But with Sino-American tensions heightening, the people of Taiwan have felt increasingly obliged to choose a side, a hegemon to prefer: China or the U.S.
Regardless of the way the global power balance will shift, Schroeder would likely argue, the onus is on both of those countries to act responsibly, rather than as aggressive geopolitical bullies.
The media here remains at a fever pitch, showing images of warplanes and Chinese military exercises, but the mood on the street is calm. Visiting a Japanese department store with a friend, we marveled at its lively bustle. “I keep thinking of The Makioka Sisters,” our friend said, referring to Tanizaki’s classic novel, which captures the relative peace and calm of a Japan on the cusp of war, its quiet ways of life soon to be obliterated.
Some people here are calm; others are downright cheerful. The other day, we talked about the Chinese warplanes with a sixty-five-year-old cab driver from Taoyuan, many generations Taiwanese.
“Should I be learning kung fu and guerrilla warfare?” Michelle asked.
He laughed, waving his hand dismissively. “The warplanes aren’t for us but others to see” (給別人看), he said. Nonetheless, he continued, “if it really came to that, we don’t have enough military power. We’d have to wait for Japan or the U.S. to save us.” After a pause, he concluded: “Use love, not fighting.”
What, we wondered, did he mean by love? We had to wait only a few moments for the answer: love of Taiwan. When we asked him what his favorite part of the country was, he replied, “Everywhere in Taiwan is beautiful!” And we’ve found that his attitude really does reflect the pulse of the country. This is true even as citizens engage in furious and divisive political debates. The care with which Taiwanese merchants tend to their small businesses—the artisanal coffee shop owner with his hourglass pour-over, the manga bookseller who feeds her multiple cats—reflects an unwillingness to be cowed, a commitment to never leaving.
This stoicism, this cheerfulness—these aren’t symptoms of denial or delusion. They’re a moral response to a system in which you know you have little power, concealing a steely skepticism of power politics and an awareness of the hypocrisy of democratic states. Nobody is to be trusted: not only that big neighbor across the strait, but also the other powerful countries, from Europe to North America, that sold Taiwan out for decades to profit from China’s rise.
A common feeling is that allies come and allies go: when they’re tired and bored, we’ll still be here. With each generation, the determination to preserve a democratic way of life deepens. As a friend in her twenties observed, her parents’ generation would have surrendered to a Chinese invasion; hers, in contrast, wants to fight.
Reflecting her sentiment, many stores display signs that begin with the construction “Our…” (自己的...) and end with “we’ll save it ourselves.” Our health, we’ll save it ourselves. Our economy, we’ll save it ourselves. Our stores, we’ll save them ourselves. (自己的健康自己救，自己的經濟自己救.) These are riffs on a popular slogan that emerged during the 2014 Sunflower movement, when half a million Taiwanese people marched in the streets to protest the process by which a trade pact with China had been rammed through. The slogan of those demonstrations, now a famous song, was 自己的國家自己救: We need to save our own country. It meant: Be resilient. Don’t count on anyone.
Author Shawna Yang Ryan responds, sharing her process in writing her novel Green Island
We reached out to Shawna Yang Ryan, the author of the powerful novel Green Island, to respond to our essay last Sunday about informers, transitional justice, and Huang Guoshu (Chinese version here). The question of whether to inform on a friend plays a major plot point in her novel, and we wanted to know about her research and writing process. You can read an interview with Shawna here, and buy and read Green Island here.
Dear Michelle and Albert,
Thank you so much for your compelling and nuanced piece on Huang Guoshu. It resonated with me, and brought to mind one of the characters I wrote for my novel Green Island, a book set during the White Terror era.
Dr. Tsai, one of the main characters, is a politically active doctor who ends up turning informant under threats to his family. When I was planning my novel, I was initially compelled by the stories of the victims and their survivors. As I went deeper into research, I began to think about the other survivors—the many who had also been witnesses, or maybe even victims too, but who had found ways to exist under Taiwan’s authoritarian regime. The first person I interviewed forbid me from recording their name in my notes because they admitted that despite their Taiwanese background, their family had done well under the KMT and they did not want to offend the party by speaking about 228.
As a fiction writer who seeks to unpack the complications of human psychology, I was intrigued by the moral ambiguity of putting one’s own survival above the greater good. I was particularly intrigued by the figure of the informant. It makes sense to fight for your family, but what if it is at the cost of your neighbor’s freedom, or even their life? At the time that I was researching the book, rumors abounded that former president Ma Ying-Jiou, then mayor of Taipei, had been a “professional student,” i.e. an informant while in college in the United States (he filed a defamation suit contesting this accusation). Through mutual friends, I met a devoutly religious person who worked at one of the Taipei universities who admitted to me, almost matter-of-factly, that he had reported on his fellow students while in school. He’d had no choice, he said. Lastly, I heard a story from an acquaintance about her grandfather who had been lured back to Taiwan out of exile via a friendly letter from a friend who assured him it was safe. The grandfather was immediately arrested. I wondered about the letter writer’s story. What price did he pay? My character writes a similar letter and pays a price in terms of his respect, his reputation, and his values. It is a choice that cannot be undone, though it saves his family.
Robert McKee, in his craft book on creating story, makes a claim that is true for fiction and may be just as true for life: “True character is revealed under pressure.” This is McKee’s main principle for plot—ratchet up the stakes and your characters will emerge. Real life seems not as clear-cut, and as the transitional justice movement grows in Taiwan, I am interested to see what it will reveal about human nature when faced with choices no one should be forced to make.
And finally, it turns out Halloween is a big deal in Taiwan, or at least in Tianmu, where many Americans live. Two awesome new friends invited us to visit their neighborhood to trick-or-treat with them, and we were overwhelmed by the costumes and free candy on the streets. (Squid Game-themed costumes were everywhere...) We really wanted to see a baby Yoda, but we loved these Star Wars guys:
And here is a picture of the “bestest vampires in the universe and the bestest duck in the universe” trick-or-treating together. (That’s how the vampires described themselves—we agree! The duck is our two-year-old.)
Chinese-language pieces are now being released on Thursdays!
We are so excited that our community of readers has expanded to include both English and Chinese-speaking people. If you would like to receive the Chinese language newsletter on Thursdays, go to “My Account” and click on 開闊之路 under “Email notifications.” (Alternatively, if you want our newsletter in one language, you can also choose the English option by clicking “A Broad and Ample Road.”) Here’s what your screen would look like:
This past Thursday, we published our piece about informers and transitional justice in Chinese; if you know Chinese-language readers who would be interested, please do share. Eventually, we hope to publish pieces in Vietnamese and other languages.
Book Club Updates: An Ideal Presence & Girl, Woman, Other
It was a joy to talk to you in such intimate discussions about An Ideal Presence (Fern Books), written by Eduardo Berti & translated by Daniel Levin Becker. We shared stories of hospice and caretaking, asked why it is that mostly women provide relief from pain, and wondered why so many of the stories involved transgressing the “ideal distance” between patient and caregiver. We talked about what an “ideal presence,” in contrast, would look like, and this generated a lot of searching conversations. Thank you, thank you.
Our next book is Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo, and it is scheduled for Friday, November 19th, at 10 AM EST or 8 PM EST. You can join either or both! Please email us at email@example.com for the zoom link.