Towards A Good Samaritan World

Wednesday, May 25, 2005


Is Nick Kristof drawing the wrong lessons from the interesting anecdote he cites in his excellent op-ed about the threat that blogs pose to Chinese communism? He writes:

I tried my own experiment, posting comments on Internet chat rooms. In a Chinese-language chat room on, I called for multiparty elections and said, "If Chinese on the other side of the Taiwan Strait can choose their leaders, why can't we choose our leaders?" That went on the site automatically, like all other messages. But after 10 minutes, the censor spotted it and removed it.

Then I toned it down: "Under the Communist Party's great leadership, China has changed tremendously. I wonder if in 20 years the party will introduce competing parties, because that could benefit us greatly." That stayed up for all to see, even though any Chinese would read it as an implicit call for a multiparty system.

Kristof figures that the difference between the two statements, the one that the censor removed and the one that he allowed, was that the second "toned it down." But I note another difference: the second statement is heretical about democracy, but the first is heretical about (both democracy and) Taiwan.

Perhaps the censor was less communist than he was nationalist. He's willing to let someone advocate multi-party democracy, even though he may not agree. But he's outraged by a remark that seems to endorse Taiwan's independence.

My personal experience with mainland Chinese is that they're totally irrational on the subject of Taiwan. The idea that, just because the Taiwanese have been separate from China for almost the entire 20th century, have done very well thank you in the meantime, and would prefer for things to stay that way, maybe Taiwan should be independent, seems to them a cross between a joke and an insult. Some defect in their psyches makes them unable to see the overwhelming logic of putting the clarifying label "Taiwanese independence" on a benign status quo.

Which is ominous for the future of Asia, world peace, etc.


  • I suspect that most people suffer from a similar "defect". The English devoted quite a few years and lives to regaining their what they saw as their rightful territory in Brittany. There are also a significant number of Mexicans on both sides of the border who still want to consider several large states as parts of Mexico, stolen over 150 years ago. (I'm not sure to what extent the expressions of this outrage represent honest feelings rather than a simple tool for attracting attention and money to a particular political cause or group. Call me cynical.)

    I'm not sure why Virginians tend not be more concerned by Lincolns grabbing a large part of their territory to form West Virginia without bothering to ask permission. Perhaps it's that state boundaries don't make that much difference; perhaps it's because the residents of that part tended to be mostly Yankee sympathizers, so good riddance.

    By Anonymous Strophyx, at 10:58 PM  

  • Well, yes, but I still find the Chinese exceptional.

    There are other examples: the French wanted Alsace-Lorraine back; the Russians today find the independence of Ukraine anomalous and irritating; Hungary resents the fact that many Hungarians live in Slovakia and Romania in what used to be (Austro-)Hungarian territory. In each case, though, most people accept that boundaries have changed. Also, you generally find some differences of opinion-- the occasional Russian who sympathizes with Yushchenko, for example.

    I was the editor of the student newspaper in grad school. I went to China for a couple of weeks and when I came back I wrote an editorial which was mostly very pro-China. (Bush was about to pay China a visit, and I basically said, don't give the Chinese any advice; their achievements dwarf yours. I'm glad he didn't listen: he gave a message on religious, specifically religious, tolerance, not general freedom of speech, which was brilliant. Brilliant! Freedom of religion is actually a pretty good halfway house in this case, a big step towards freedom of conscience without opening a lot of avenues of attack against the regime. On the contrary, the spread of Christianity, and China is ripe for Christianity. Throughout the 20th century, they've been lacking for something to believe. Marxism is the god that failed; nothing has taken its place. And Christians would make the path towards liberalization smoother, because Christianity instills the kind of moral values that would sustain the country during a transition-- witness the role that Catholicism played in Poland, as contrasted with the failure of the Orthodox Church, long a KGB pawn, to smooth the transition in Russia! That was one of the moments at which I began to admire Bush. How did he figure that out? How did he hit on the one message that would match the mandatory liberal-democratic message that a US president has to preach, without naively ignoring the problems associated with democratization that the Chinese can rightly congratulate themselves on avoiding? No doubt he has lots of smart people whispering in his ear, including the representatives of missionary groups, but that doesn't account for it. Why was he so shrewd as to know whom to listen to? As Machiavelli said, good advice comes from the prince, because only a wise prince can distinguish good advice from bad.)

    Anyway, at the end of the editorial, I threw in some such paragraph as: "But good relations with China should not be purchased at the price of continued hypocrisy over Taiwan. No principle justifies Beijing's pretensions to Taiwan, which has been separate from China for almost the entire 20th century. The future of Taiwan should be the free, uncoerced and unthreatened choice of the Taiwanese people." Or something like that.

    For a week and a half there was no response. Then all of a sudden, one must have read it and showed it to everyone else. I got a big series of angry e-mails. Then they wrote a collective letter to the editor. It wasn't convincing at all. They had some of their facts wrong, and the others were portrayed in the sort of way that might be convincing to someone who hasn't been exposed to free debate, but not to someone habituated to critical thinking and the exchange of opposing arguments. My co-editor said: "They've only made me more convinced to support Taiwan." At the end they put some quotes in that were really scary, about how nothing could ever separate them from their Chinese brothers and whatnot...

    It's a scary situation. If we let China conquer Taiwan, we've completely sold out our principles, and no one has much reason to trust us. But China is psychologically geared to fight for Taiwan. It runs deep.

    By Blogger Lancelot, at 6:53 AM  

  • The desire for territorial integrity can be very strong, especially when it's being fanned by the government.

    However, in all fairness, if some part of the Confederate States of America has managed to stay independent after 1865, I'd have no trouble believing that there'd have been a strong call forcibly reunite it 60 years later, regardless of its inhabitants opinion.

    Also, remember that China has *never* accepted Taiwan's independence. One can think of it as a continuous war for reunification, rather than something being brought up now.

    By Anonymous Tom West, at 4:20 AM  

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