Qwertyman for Monday, April 17, 2023
AS I SHOULD have expected, last week’s Qwertyman piece on a recent visit I made to Taiwan as an ordinary tourist provoked a small firestorm from readers who berated me for my “ignorance” of the “one-China policy,” because I had described Taiwan as a “country” in my column.
I replied politely to these objections, explaining that (1) while I was aware that our government, among most others in the world, subscribed to the one-China policy, I wasn’t the government, and (2) that “country” to this writer was more of a state of mind, if not of fact (and if we have to be persnickety about fact, then consider that Wales and Scotland are accepted as countries within the United Kingdom).
One of my reactors was gracious enough to yield the point and leave me be, but another insisted that I had China all wrong—that it had no unfriendly intentions toward the Philippines, and that its occupation of what we hold to be our islands in the South China Sea was a mere enforcement of its historic rights to those territories. “Absolutely no intentions of invading the Philippines?” Hasn’t that already begun?
My column also prompted some reflections from an old friend and comrade in the fight against the martial-law dictatorship. Commenting on China’s threats to bring Taiwan under its heel, by force if necessary, my friend remarked: “It’s hard to comprehend how the leaders of big, powerful China could feel justified in unleashing death and destruction against the people of small but proud Taiwan, a country that poses no threat, and against fellow Chinese of near identical racial and cultural origin. After all, isn’t this the China that I, and many of us, not too long ago, emulated as the model for ‘liberating’ our own country, and whose proletarian ideology we embraced as the formula for ushering a new and better age for humanity? How is this a manifestation of Mao’s ringing slogan to ‘Serve the People?’
“But then we’re seeing the same perversion of once lofty ideals in the current behavior of Russia, the progenitor of ‘egalitarian socialism,’ now immersed in a barbaric project to decimate the people of Ukraine, members of their own Slavic family. Yes, Putin doesn’t call himself socialist but it was this system that trained and tutored him, and whose humiliation he’s trying to undo…. However, in light of the current behaviors of Russia and China, the two foremost homes of the Marxist experiment, and in light of the incontrovertible failure of Joma Sison’s project in our country, we who dabbled in this belief system need to step back and take a good hard look.”
I thanked my friend for his ruminations, which I completely identify with. Indeed, as fervent if naïve activists in the 1970s, we looked up to Mao’s China as a beacon of socialist virtue. Today’s Red-taggers would have fulfilled their month’s quota with the likes of me. I kept Mao’s “Little Red Book” in my shirt pocket, and could spout quotations like “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” and “A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”
On my first visit to China in 1987, our guide was surprised that I could sing “Sailing the Seas Depends Upon the Helmsman” and that I wanted to visit Mao’s tomb. “What do you want to visit him for?” our guide asked in consternation. “He killed my father during the Cultural Revolution!”
In various capacities as a tourist, a journalist, a writer, and academic, I have visited China many times since that first encounter, and have seen how its people—honest, hardworking, hopeful people like us—have managed to survive and prosper under a challenging succession of regimes and global conditions. I observed how the government was intent on modernizing its economic and physical landscape, razing down whole rows of hutongs or old communities in cities to make way for swanky new high-rises. On one visit to Shanghai, I couldn’t resist noting the irony of how the historic site of first National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party—a sacred shrine of that ideology—was located in the heart of what has become one of the city’s glitziest and most upscale districts, Xintiandi, in close proximity to a posh French restaurant.
I don’t think anyone can fault China for its transformation into an economic powerhouse, or even deny that its strong central planning was a key factor in making that happen, especially under Deng Xiaoping. What I’m sad about (and this statement will probably cost me my next Chinese visa, but no matter) is how this China has remained a tyrant to its own people and a bully to its neighbors—something that it doesn’t need to be, except to flex the almighty power of the CCP.
If it wants to, it could yet become an example of a confident and benign socialism—something the CCP will never dare to embrace, for fear of seeming soft, especially in the face of American, Japanese, Korean, and yes, Taiwanese resistance. I can’t help thinking that while there may be “one China” in whatever configuration the politicians propose, there are indeed two Chinas in our hearts—the one we have been historically and culturally enmeshed with and want to love, and the other that won’t rest until we kowtow to its might.
And before the pro-Beijing troll machine springs into action, let me say this again: I separate governments and regimes from the people they theoretically represent and should be serving. (We also have to be reminded that there are significant political factions in both Beijing and Taipei, and that Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang were no angels when they “liberated” Formosa from the Japanese, only to take it over.)
I have written favorably (and critically when I had to) about both China and Taiwan without any sponsorship from either entity’s government. There are powerful lobbies for both sides right here in this country—one even offered to send me on an “observation tour,” which I gently declined, aware of the political subtext; I would go, I said, on my own dime, and I did. (Which is not to say I will refuse “observation tours” of the south of France, Tahiti, the Nordic fjords, the Patagonian forests, and other bucket-list destinations not likely to invade the Philippines.)
To Beijing’s and Taipei’s cheerleaders, chill out and enjoy the scenery; some calming winter-melon soup might help to keep the vitriol down.