The False Idolatry of Taiwanese Independence
Reactionary responses to the social unrest in Hong Kong and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) policies in Xinjiang by self-identified leftists have been disheartening to see. The problem with most of these interpretations comes from falsely equating imperialism with having an army and engaging in trade. According to this flawed narrative, China is “engaging in imperialism” by increasing its military budget and acting as a creditor to nations in the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia for infrastructure development. What these interpretations fail to understand is that imperialism is irreducible to an activity. It is instead a particular historical form of global relations of domination.
Focusing on the hegemonic position of corporate monopolies and finance, Lenin referred to this form as “the highest stage of capitalism.” The role of domination is decisive. As Carlos Martinez writes, “there is no imperialism without empire.” Although some point to mounting debt owed by countries in the Global South to China as an indication of domination – “debt traps” – the fact of debt relations per se is not enough to establish relations of domination. Indeed, taking on debt is a prerequisite of large-scale infrastructure projects. Such projects were indispensable to China's ability to lift 800 million people out of extreme poverty. What is crucial is the nature of development and the relations between creditor and debtor. It is telling that the much of the criticism of Chinese domination through predatory lending has flowed from the halls of Western powers.
It is an exceptional form of cognitive dissonance for progressives to recognize that Western corporate media blatantly lies about domestic issues, and then regurgitate information from those same sources on China, Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea. Some might say that these things don’t matter, that having a clear historical understanding of what bell hooks terms “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” is irrelevant to, or a distraction from, organizing around issues-based campaigns. The appeal to ignore these historical relations, however, is indefensible.
On the one hand, the task of leftists is revolution. Nothing less than revolutionary social, political, economic, spiritual, and moral transformation will be capable of addressing the most pressing issues of our time – poverty, militarism, racism, sexism, and ecological collapse. On the other hand, we can ill afford to dispense with Truth in the interest of expediency. Organizing is fundamentally about movement, about moving together towards alternative futures. Without a clear vision of the ways in which imperialism shapes our moral and spiritual universes, we are left rudderless in the cacophony of calls for democracy, human rights, freedom, and justice coming from reactionary forces. We will, in other words, inevitably fail to move towards peace and human dignity without understanding the psychological effects of global systems of domination and oppression.
The nihilism of pro-regime change elements of the Hong Kong protests is telling in this regard. As Dan Cohen has pointed out, the aesthetics and discourse of extremists within the movement resemble the “psychosis of a death cult.” Although the dominant narrative characterizes the unrest in Hong Kong as a leaderless movement for democracy and self-determination, the influence of the US in encouraging militancy and the reactionary demands of the movement are undeniable. The irreconcilable contradictions between the discourse of freedom and democracy and the xenophobia and self-loathing of the movement in Hong Kong go a long way towards explaining the tragic phenomena of protest suicides that have occurred throughout the six months of social unrest.
Taiwanese independence ideology is similarly marked by deep-seated contradictions. In the first instance, pro-independence supporters subscribe to a parochial vision of freedom and democracy inseparable from fundamental support for US imperialism. Although pro-independence supporters might make mealy-mouthed criticisms of the US military-industrial complex, when push comes to shove they will always and everywhere support perpetuating relations of exploitation, violence, and oppression against the masses of humanity in the name of protecting and strengthening national sovereignty. It should be remembered, in this context, that Taiwan is a product of settler colonialism. Pro-independence supporters are unsurprisingly deeply influenced by discriminatory and misogynist ideologies characteristic of high nationalism.
The intensifying criminalization of “runaway” migrant workers under the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is indicative. Significantly, the nexus of securitization and discrimination is not about absolute exclusion, but about separating those who “deserve” to be included in the Taiwanese nation-state as reward for accepting its dominance from those who are vilified for resisting exploitation and abuse facilitated through Taiwan’s guest worker program. As Nick Aspinwall succinctly put it, “Taiwan’s human rights miracle does not extend to its Southeast Asian foreign workers.” And particularly not to those who dare to resist being treated as bonded labor. The savage consequences are seen in the murder of Nguyen Quoc Phi, a Vietnamese migrant worker shot nine times by police,the delay of medical treatment to Sri Kodriawati, who subsequently died at the hospital, in order to check her migration status, the increasing terrorization of undocumented migrant workers through unprecedented raids, and the violent methods deployed by police against “runaway” migrant workers whose undocumented status is seen as a criminal, rather than administrative, violation.
Chinese citizens have also increasingly been denied basic rights and freedoms supposedly enshrined in Taiwan. A number of Chinese citizens have been deported recently, for example, 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 Chinese citizens have been expelled. It is highly doubtful whether citizens of Western countries would be subject to such punitive measures for vandalism. Legal discrimination against Chinese citizens extends to social benefits as well, with unequal treatment in access to health insurance for students and residency rights for foreign spouses.
The justification of such discrimination on the basis of national sovereignty exposes the conservative ideologies underpinning much of what passes for the progressive left in Taiwan. It is crucial to note that discriminatory measures are justified through statist appeals to Taiwanese self-determination, a contradiction in terms in the context of a multi-ethnic society. Although the path of least resistance encourages going along with dominant voices in supporting Taiwanese freedom and democracy against authoritarian China, we must stand firm against what is easy and comfortable and insist instead on taking the path that is hard but necessary.