Panama switches – What does it mean for Taiwan?

Beijing’s strategy towards a Tsai Ing-wen administration that refuses to accept the “1992 Consensus” (a way for Taiwan to acknowledge “one China” that enabled productive relations and a ‘diplomatic truce’ under Ma Ying-jeou) is to incrementally increase pressure. Since Tsai assumed the ROC presidency in May 2016 Beijing has broken off direct communications, reduced tourist numbers, blocked Taiwan’s WHA observership, arrested a Taiwanese rights activist etc. This is pretty low level pressure and cross-Strait economic interactions and non-governmental & p2p exchanges continue. Given the intense integration of the two economies, punishing Taiwanese businesses in Taiwan would also hurt the Chinese economy, at a time when there are already domestic economic pressures. But going after Taiwan’s allies has very little downside for China. It symbolizes Taiwan’s diplomatic marginalization and in relative terms is good value (and unlike blocking Taiwan in WHA, there’s no blowback). I expect the PRC to continue targeting Taiwan’s allies and to capitalize on any opportunity to encourage a split (the Vatican is the big prize, but also the most complicated due to the Catholic Church in China).

Panama itself is a special case for Taiwan. With the exception of the Vatican, which has extra symbolic value because it is the only European ally left, Panama was Taiwan’s most important ally. Relations were established more than 100 years ago and was Taiwan’s first FTA partner in 2003. It is also an influential country among Taiwan’s allies in Central America and the Caribbean, where half of all their allies are located. The implications are largely symbolic, but this is an arena in which symbolism is very important. The real fear is that Panama’s switch may prompt others to follow. Since half of Taiwan’s allies are in Central America and the Caribbean, this is a real concern and one that underpinned Tsai’s visit to the region almost as soon as she was inaugurated last summer.

The Tsai administration has focused on domestic issues and maintaining as stable cross-Strait relations as Beijing will allow, and although Tsai’s approval ratings have declined substantially, it hasn’t been due to her China or foreign policy. Until now, dissatisfaction with Tsai has mainly been due to her faltering domestic agenda, and the slowdown/shutdown of cross-Strait relations has not harmed her that much. Taiwanese are very conscious of their international marginalisation, and the symbolism of an important ally is a hit to ‘national dignity’ and ‘respect’ that are highly salient in political discourse. There is little sign that this will stop or reverse national identity trends though: the massive increase in Taiwanese-only identifiers has occurred in the same period that Taiwan has lost one third of its diplomatic allies.

If, however, a number of allies were to switch, it may bring pressure to bear on Tsai’s China policy. It remains to be seen how public opinion would react to a (hypothetical) succession of diplomatic switches. Tsai’s main domestic opposition (the KMT, which supports closer and friendlier relations with China) is currently weak and not in position at the moment to bring much pressure to bear on Tsai. Public opinion on Taiwan’s marginalisation is important, but Taiwanese also appear to accept that some things are out of the government’s control. The fact is, the decision to switch is up to the respective allies, who make their own cost-benefit calculations. Taiwan has invested heavily in maintaining and servicing its diplomatic relationships, but sometimes the PRC is a more attractive proposition.

Public opinion in Taiwan is pretty clear: Taiwanese want peaceful and productive economic relations with the PRC but they prefer to maintain their functional autonomy and do not want political unification. On one hand, PRC pressure and military option is necessary to keep “Taiwan independence” off the table as a realistic option. On the other, moves which appear to Taiwanese people to be unfair bullying do not play well. Given the current configuration, if Taiwan were to choose unification it would have to be at the agreement of Taiwanese voters – and moves that hurt Taiwan, diminish its ‘national dignity’ etc, are unlikely to succeed in winning these voters over.

Who can you trust?

By now most readers will have seen the horrible images of a woman hit by a car and left dying in the street ignored by dozens of passersby in Zhumadian, Henan. Most readers will also be reminded of a similar, perhaps even more shocking since it involved a toddler, incident in 2013 in Foshan, Guangdong.

Both cases prompted much soul searching among Chinese people, many of them wondering how their society could have become so heartless and inhumane (無情). Most often offered in explanation, is the fear that helping strangers in need might result in problems for passersby themselves (找自己麻煩), citing instances where good Samaritans had been wrongly accused or forced to take responsibility for treatment.

This line of argument is a sad indictment of what happens when a society loses trust in the justice system and in each other.

I want to emphasise that this is not meant as a criticism of Chinese people or China itself. It is merely a reflection on what two horrible incidents say about the current situation in China. Certainly no one should interpret either incident as reflecting the inhumanity or wickedness of “the Chinese people”. And yes, terrible, wicked things happen all over the world every day.

But if the prevailing explanation for why a woman and toddler were left to die in the street unaided is a lack of trust, then that should prompt consideration of how Chinese society got to this point. This discussion is going on in Chinese cyberspace right now, and there is excellent scholarly work too (e.g. here and here). There is much debate about what effects trust levels in China (from the political system to culture to historical legacies). In sum, we can probably say that it is not mono-causal and therefore any “solution” will also need to be multifaceted.

The lack of trust is pervasive and manifest in a multitude of mundane and potentially grave experiences. Can you trust that crossing the road on your green light a car won’t run you over? Can you trust that the milk powder or soy sauce you buy isn’t poisonous? Can you trust that the risque joke you made on Weibo today won’t come back to haunt you tomorrow? Can you trust that the soil or air in your town isn’t slowly killing you? Can you trust that the people you do business with will honour the contract? And so on.

One could choose any number of alternative examples invoking any number of different issues and sectors. The point is that there is no single solution to a condition that manifests itself in myriad ways in billions of quotidian interactions, from the top of society to the bottom, and which sometimes results in a woman dying under the gaze of passersby.

Trump, Taiwan, and the ‘One China’ Policy

From U.S. President Donald Trump’s initial conversation with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen to his recent reaffirmation of the “one China’”policy with China President Xi Jinping, assess the impact of Trump’s volte face on Taiwan.

“One China” is a useful conceit, a nebulous concept that all sides interpret according to their own needs and giving each side space to operate. Trump’s initial indication that the U.S. might challenge or reject “one China” policy was a major shock, not just to Beijing, but to Taipei as well. At the present time, the “one China” framework is the mechanism that allows Taiwan to maintain its functional autonomy and peaceful productive relations with the PRC. Taiwan does not gain anything from disrupting the status quo. The call was an effective way for Taiwan to put itself back on the agenda in Washington (having lost salience under Obama), and a way for Trump to signal that he is going to do things differently vis-à-vis China. But the most sensible thing that the Trump administration has done to date is to reaffirm its commitment to “one China.” Doing so is welcome in Taipei.

Full interview with me at The Diplomat here.

How the media frames Taiwan

When news broke about US President-elect Donald Trump’s call with Tsai Ing-wen, the subjects that most interested the international media were: first, the United States—in the guise of the news-cycle-dominant Trump—and, second, China, and its likely reaction to Trump’s diplomatic faux pas. Pro-Trump analysts viewed the story through the lens of a newly robust US foreign policy towards China. Anti-Trump analysts fretted about the dire consequences of the neophyte leader’s ignorant approach to US-China relations. Taiwan, its government and its people, were at best a footnote; even when it transpired that the call was initiated by Taiwan, the focus remained on the wisdom of Trump accepting the call, his motivations, and how China would react. This treatment is consistent with long term Western media narratives on Taiwan.

In general terms, Taiwan’s efforts to present its own narrative have come up against entrenched framing strategies that privilege Beijing’s rhetorical position. Within a dominant focus on developments in Taiwan through the lens of cross-Strait relations and the broader regional political environment structured by Sino-US relations, these framings frequently connect Taiwan to “tensions” in the Strait. Despite enjoying functional autonomy, reports about Taiwan invariably position it within an implicit ”One- China” framework, where China’s claims to control Taiwan are juxtaposed with subtly “destabilizing” forces within and emanating out of Taiwanese domestic politics. This is evident in frequent depictions of the pursuit of “independence,” notwithstanding the almost complete marginalisation of this position in Taiwan itself. Full piece here

China and celebrity politics

Writing in the 1970s, the Italian sociologist Fransico Alberoni described celebrities as a “powerless elite”, because they did not possess authoritative or institutional power. Since then, the rise of a celebrity industry associated with expansion of the media, internet and entertainment industries, has changed celebrity culture beyond all recognition. Celebrities are still an elite, but they are no longer powerless.

As the lives and loves of celebrities have become ubiquitous in western popular culture, performers like Angelina Jolie, Bono and Beyoncé have acquired huge stores of cultural, economic and even political capital. Donald Trump, a celebrity businessman with no political experience, has shown it is even possible to ride the affordances of fame to within reach of the White House.

The American presidential election is a combination of soap opera and reality TV, covered by media enthralled by dramatic storylines, drawing on metaphors from sports and war, playing to a global audience on television and social media. As each day brings further revelations, insults and gaffes, pored over by a proliferating pundit class, the political process in the US looks increasingly like a made-for-TV production.

When the sixth plenary session of the 18th Communist Party of China Central Committee opens in Beijing this month, the contrast could not starker. While elite politics receive abundant coverage in China’s media, we can be fairly sure there will be no intemperate tweets, personal attacks or unsavoury stories emanating from the meeting.

Unlike in the US, where electoral competition demands politicians embrace the media and entertainment industries, celebrity and elite politics have not, as yet, converged in China. It is unimaginable that any Chinese leader would play the sax on a late night chat show like Bill Clinton did, or dance with Ellen DeGeneres like Barack Obama, or hang out with the Spice Girls like Tony Blair (let alone be a frequent guest on shock jock Howard Stern’s radio show like Donald Trump).

Chinese officials prefer to follow a script that promotes the decorum and gravitas of office. They don’t do sit-down personal interviews or fraternize with performers trailing paparazzi photographers. And for all the Chinese government’s massive online presence, no one in the Politburo has a social media account.

Yet, while Chinese politics does not embrace the celebrity mechanism, China is far from immune to the seductions of fame. In a country that has long emphasized public restraint and traditional values, celebrity is big business and subtly pervasive.

Chinese and western celebrities are prominent in China, on billboards, magazines and social media. Chinese movie and pop stars are as glamourous, worshiped and wealthy as their western counterparts. But the Chinese celebrity industry’s balancing of serving popular tastes with political correctness, has resulted in a celebrity culture that is distinct from the west.

Chinese celebrities are expected to uphold certain standards of behaviour and act as positive role models for society. The triviality and excess surrounding celebrity lifestyles in the west are generally replaced with narratives of persistence, cultivation of talent and high standards of morality.

Celebrities may be akin to carnival performers, but in an orderly society the carnival is also ordered, with performers and audiences assigned distinct roles. Celebrity is conferred on people who generally conform to dominant social norms. China’s own celebrity CEO, Jack Ma, became rich and famous through hard work and perseverance, and his success acts as an example for others to emulate.

But, the commodification of individuals with talent and looks is not alien in China. From luxury cars, clothes and watches, Chinese celebrities endorse some of the world’s most glamourous brands. And many ordinary Chinese appear increasingly susceptible to the attractions of “DIY celebrity”.

Writing in their excellent 2011 book Online Society in China, scholars David Herold and Pete Marolt argued that Chinese internet users preferred anonymity, eschewing “performance” in favour of simply “living online”. Borrowing the words of Chinese media scholar, Hu Yong, the majority of people were “onlookers”, happy with their role as observers.

However, there are signs of a changing emphasis, from merely worshipping the stars to wanting to become one—or at least the truncated version of fame available to DIY celebrities.

It is a truism that anyone can become famous via the internet. Admittedly there are more examples of becoming infamous, symbolised in China by the cases of Furong Jiejie, Muzi Mei and Guo Meimei.

But nowadays there are examples of Chinese using the internet to seek fame and perhaps wealth: from the profusion of live-streaming apps like Ingkee and the crass stunts featured on video site Kuaishou, to more mundane expressions of “me-casting” manifest in public declarations of love, body challenges and China’s ongoing selfie craze.

While these trends can appear vulgar, they are mainly harmless modes of entertainment and self-expression. Banal as they are, they portend changes in the social mores of mainly younger people, challenging traditional values such as protecting face and public reticence.

The rise of individualism among the younger generation in China is well known. Among the expansion of subcultures and behaviours considered unbecoming by their parents, are changing expectations and attitudes. This includes feelings about public performance, mediatisation and celebrity.

There is little research on the social and political implications of these changes, but there are signs that the Chinese government is aware of the need to connect with younger people, including the vast expansion of e-government services and the professionalization of political communications.

Elite leaders have even taken tentative steps towards experimenting with the informalities common to politicians in the west; President Xi Jinping’s visit to a Beijing restaurant and sending a message on weibo among them. Yet, despite the fact that First Lady Peng Liyuan is a famous singer and fashion icon, it is fanciful to talk of the celebritization of Chinese politics.

As Chinese celebrity culture continues to mature and expand its reach, and positive attitudes toward fame become normalized among the young, it will become something that future governments may find it easier to adapt to rather than merely seeking to control. For now though, a Chinese version of The Donald remains agreeably far off.

China Daily piece here.

China deals with sporting failure

Legendary Italian coach Marcello Lippi was today announced as the new manager of the Chinese (men’s) national team. The second coming of now-twice former coach Gao Hongbo lasted less than a year, after a series of disappointing results in World Cup qualifying. The men’s team has not qualified for a World Cup since 2002 (its only appearance), when the squad was coached by the nomadic Serb Bora Milutinović, a specialist in wringing the most out of underperforming teams. Lippi is best known in Europe as the former Juventus and World Cup winning Italian national team coach. But in his later career, Lippi has steered Guangzhou Evergrande to three Chinese domestic titles and established the club as a major powerhouse in Asian competition (before handing over the reins to Felipe Scolari in 2014).

Lippi inherits a national team that is in the doldrums, having lost four of its last five games (three of them qualifiers). As national manager Lippi will not be able to call on the expensive foreign talent that has enlivened the Chinese Super League season just completed. As a Hall of Fame coach, and with Xi Jinping having declared his ambitions for the rejuvenation of Chinese soccer, Lippi will be expected to achieve significant improvements. The public mood after the humbling loss to Syria, a nation in the midst of terrible turmoil with a team ranked 114 at the time of the match, was one of derision and anger, which spilled onto the streets and was primarily directed at Cai Zhenhua, Head of the Chinese FA. Gao was sacrificed and Lippi ushered in.

The question of patriotic Chinese sports fans’ reaction to disappointment was raised in a different context earlier this year, when, by the standards of recent Games, the Chinese national team underwhelmed at the Rio Olympics. Team China brought home a “mere” 26 gold medals, the fewest gold medals since Atlanta in 1996 less than half the golds it secured in Beijing in 2008, despite taking its largest ever contingent of 411 competitors to Brazil. There were some inspiring performances by Chinese athletes, notably the underdog women’s volleyball team, which overcame early defeats to win the gold medal. This was an unfancied team relying on hard work and determination, led by “prodigal daughter” Coach Lang Ping, who had coached the US team to victory in Beijing in 2008, having starred as a player for the Chinese team three decades earlier. But other individual athletes and fancied teams in gymnastics and badminton under-performed. Such is the nature of elite sport, where the smallest dip in form or change in conditions or luck can make the difference between winning and losing.

Unlike the chronically feeble men’s soccer team, Chinese fans invariably have high expectations of their Olympic athletes. International sport has long been used as a vehicle for demonstrating national capabilities and spirit, and a means to generating national pride. During the Cold War, competing blocs used all means foul and fair to demonstrate the superiority of their political and economic systems. In those days a lacklustre medal tally was a matter of national shame. Instrumentally face-saving or not, the narrative that surrounded China’s Rio performance made much of the argument that nations that are confident in their sense of self do not need gold medals to externalise their worth. China’s re-emergence as an economic and world power, and global recognition of its remarkable development story, should rightly be a source of confidence vastly more important than Olympic medals.

If we take this narrative at face value, it would represent a healthy turning point in China’s relationship with sport. In grappling with the failure to meet expectations, the nation began to debate what sporting success actually means in more holistic terms, including sports as a vehicle for pushing individual boundaries, enjoying the thrill of participation and nurturing healthy lifestyles. Such an attitude would be a positive development, reducing the pressure on athletes in the academy system and at the elite level (athletes like Liu Xiang shouldn’t be expected to carry the weight of national pride in addition to the pressures of competition), boosting the attractiveness of participation and healthy lifestyles, which are crucial in a country facing increasing levels of obesity and other public health issues, and putting the focus back on the individual enjoyment of sport.

This message was powerfully delivered by swimmer Fu Yuanhui, in many ways the star of the Rio Olympics not named Phelps, Biles or Bolt. Interviewed on CCTV after a qualifying heat, Fu expressed delight and satisfaction at beating her own personal best. After all the hard training Fu expressed her pleasure at giving it her all and not worrying about her medal chances. Fu’s ebullient interview quickly went viral, with people around the world enjoying her refreshing humility, enthusiasm and pleasure in her sport. Her unfiltered demeanour stood in contrast to both tight-lipped, media-trained professional athletes and the constrained, some say robotic, image of other Chinese athletes. In terms of winning hearts and minds, Fu demonstrated how the power of attraction works best when it is organic and unplanned.

For all this, the Rio Games were not without reminders of the “thin skin” that blogger Han Han described ahead of the Beijing Games in 2008. Coverage of the opening ceremony parade was marred by CCTV cutting away from the Philippine contingent, an immature and undignified gesture prompted by a dispute that a few months later appears to have been resolved. The media and online reaction to swimmer Sun Yang’s spat with the Australian Mack Horton was similarly unedifying.

China will once again welcome the world in 2022, when Beijing and sites in neighbouring Hubei host the Winter Games. China is not a traditional Winter Olympics power (with the honourable exception of speed and figure skating) and medal winning will not be the focus. Instead, I hope it will be an opportunity to demonstrate the confidence of a great nation, manifest in Beijing’s historical gems and the scale and facilities of a 21st Century metropolis, as well as the warmth of the locals and the taste of northern cuisine. Communicating China’s openness and positivity is more important than winning medals. I reserve judgement on whether China’s attitude to its sports teams has really changed or is a reflection of greater confidence, but as Coach Lippi said, “I am optimistic, because I have to be”. Lippi’s first game in charge is a winnable home Qualifier next month against Qatar.