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'Chinese Proxy' Bills Indicate Intensifying Political Persecution in Taiwan

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is pursuing a suite of measures designed to protect national security in the run-up to the 2020 elections. Although the DPP is ostensibly seeking to preserve freedom and democracy through the Foreign Influence Transparency Act (境外勢力影響透明化法) and Anti-Infiltration Law (反滲透法草案), there is reason to believe that these policies will be used to repress political dissent and undermine movements towards peace and justice.

DPP leadership has made it clear that the intent of the proposed legislation is to target Beijing. This paranoid focus on China risks fanning the flames of ethno-nationalism. The danger is captured by an encounter recounted by Legislator Karen Yu, a rising figure in the party. “I know for one that taxi drivers are usually supporters of the pan-Green coalition. They typically play pan-Green radio stations and talk about the February 28thincident. But this one was different. He was trying to chat with me about Chinese and Confucian culture.” According to Yu, the taxi driver’s lack of support for the pan-Green coalition and interest in Chinese and Confucian culture is evidence of nefarious foreign influence calling for state surveillance.

Karen Yu speaking at a conference on blockchain technology

This form of virulent ethno-nationalism draws boundaries separating those who rightfully belong to the nation from those who are outsiders contaminating the values and purity of the nation. It is telling that Yu denies her taxi driver political subjectivity based on their appreciation for Chinese cultural identity. Underlying this perspective is a condescending attitude that considers the electorate as being easily manipulated into holding beliefs emerging from outside of one’s own mental, emotional, and spiritual universe.

Yu’s appeal to ethno-nationalism demonstrates that, although anti-Chinese sentiment declined in the aftermath of the Sunflower Movement, it is on the rise once again. A number of Chinese students, for example, were deported recently for tearing down messages from “Lennon Walls” supportive of protests in Hong Kong. The deportations are troubling for the speed and sanctimonious moralizing with which individuals were expelled. It is highly doubtful whether citizens of Western countries would be subject to such punitive measures for vandalism. Legal discrimination extends to access to social benefits as well, with unequal treatment in health insurance for students and residency rights for foreign spouses from China.

Mainland spouses demanding greater employment and citizenship rights,23,45,10&post=15426

What is particularly worrisome is the ways in which anti-Chinese sentiment is directly tied to increasing militarization. The DPP’s “Chinese proxy” bills would reintroduce the authoritarian-era practice of arrest or detention of individuals without explanation, and impose stiff penalties – prison sentences of at least seven years and fines between NT$50 million and NT$100 million (US$1.64 million to US$3.28 million) – for engaging in political activities.

The DPP justifies these policing measures in the interests of protecting Taiwan’s freedom. In doing so, the DPP clings to a crude notion of freedom described by Rabindranath Tagore. In a letter penned to his countrymen while traveling in America, Tagore wrote that, "When freedom is not an inner idea which imparts strength to our activities and breadth to our creations, when it is merely a thing of external circumstance, it is like an open space to one who is blindfolded."Freedom, in this sense, is not something to “have” or “protect” from “external forces,” but something to nourish and enlarge.

The ambiguities deriving from this crude notion of freedom affirm Benjamin Franklin’s axiom that, “Those who would give up essential Liberty to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” It is unclear, for example, how security forces could reasonably draw a line distinguishing united front tactics from cross-Strait social activity. This is especially troubling because action guided by this unenlightened sense of freedom, according to Tagore, leads to inhumanity and injustice borne from mutual distrust and fear. It breeds a psychology of terror. He warned that, “No cruelty can be uglier in its ferocity than the cruelty of the coward.” This is not to deny that Beijing engages in criminal activity as part of its program of peaceful unification, but to suggest that treating all forms of cross-Strait political activity as a threat to national security flings open the door to political persecution.

Meanwhile, the legislation perpetuates dominant perceptions of Washington as benevolent and therefore beyond reproach. A more balanced narrative would give some attention to how the narrative of "shared values" provides cover for US imperial interests in Taiwan. Instead, many on the left refuse to challenge American imperialism due to an unwarranted belief that the US acts in the best interests of Taiwan. Such a perspective allows sordid relations with the US military-industrial complex to pass unquestioned. It is inconceivable, for instance, that the DPP’s raft of national security legislation would be used to target the activities of CIA-backed organizations in Taiwan, despite fitting within its proposed scope.

American Institute in Taiwan announces March 2019 as "Shared Values Month"

A pressing question is how to weigh relations between the American and Chinese governments, respectively, and the Taiwanese state, capital, and society. Given the historical position of the US, it is no coincidence that the effect of appeals to nurture “shared values” is to legitimize increasing securitization, militarization, and centralization of power. This is fundamentally at odds with a vision of emancipation that centers self-determination and autonomy. A partial list of organizations with ties to the US promoting militarism in the name of safeguarding freedom and democracy includes the U.S.-Taiwan Consultations on Democratic Governance in the Indo-Pacific Region,International Religious Freedom Alliance, Global Taiwan Institute,Center for Strategic and International Studies, and C4ADS.

What all of these entities share in common is a commitment to funding joint military and intelligence operations under the pretense of containing China. Indeed, such measures are always portrayed as defensive reactions to Chinese aggression. In view of historical and ongoing relations, however, those on the left who champion the US by fear-mongering against so-called Chinese imperialism fall for the greatest deception of power – that it is hidden in plain sight.

The point is not to advance a leftist pro-unification position, but to draw attention to the short sightedness of perspectives that would whitewash the brutality of US imperialism in the name of protecting Taiwanese national security from Chinese political designs. This is particularly important at a historical moment in which the forces of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy are threatening to plunge humanity into the depths of barbarism in response to multiple interrelated crises – political, social, financial, ecological, spiritual, and moral.

American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) Director W. Brent Christensen’s recent remarks at the inaugural 2019 Cyber Offensive and Defensive Exercises in Taipei are illuminating.

“Freedom internationally and openness at home are actually two sides of the same coin, and one cannot exist without the other. Those who promote openness at home, seek freedom in the world; those who seek to control at home, bully their neighbors in the world. This observation is not surprising. A society that is repressive at home is structurally incapable of genuinely promoting freedom abroad.”

AIT Director Brent Christensen

At the time of Christensen’s speech, 2.3 million people, one-quarter of the world’s prison population, were languishing in cages in America. When including individuals on probation or parole, the US criminal injustice system ensnares almost 7 million people. The flip side of domestic repression, as Christensen observes, is savagery abroad. The late William Blum noted that,

“US policies are ‘worse than (most people) imagine’ or understand. They include virtually every form of lawlessness in pursuit of its geopolitical aims – notably aggression, economic terrorism, pressure, bullying, intimidation, and manipulating foreign elections.”

The 800 overseas military bases operated by the American government are an imperfect but staggering reminder of the ongoing atrocities committed in the name of defense. Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela combined, meanwhile, operate 18 overseas military bases. New government data shows that the US is currently holding 69,550 migrant children in detention - "more children detained away from their parents than any other country."

According to Christensen’s own logic, then, looking to Washington for material support and spiritual guidance in reaching towards freedom is a cursed path. As Jeremiah Kim recently put it, “It may be comforting to say, ‘China is just as bad as the West!’ but we have to have the courage to actually look at ourselves and the world and recognize that the mainstream of humanity sees through the hypocrisy and untruth we have blindly subscribed to.”

The DPP’s rationalization of the proposed national security policies clearly shows how border policies are not simply about keeping people out, but about policing and controlling those designated as “foreign” within. Although the line separating “foreign” from “domestic” is an illusory one,[1] it is no less real in its social effects. The strong undercurrents of ethno-nationalism undergirding justifications for the DPP’s national security bills expose the conservative ideologies underpinning much of what passes for the progressive left in Taiwan. Movements for peace should unequivocally reject political programs in this vein that threaten to silence political dissent while acting in concert with US imperialism.

[1] It is telling that President Tsai has not been shy about seeking to exert political influence in Hong Kong, for example.

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