The War in Gaza and Taiwan’s Statelessness

by Lorand Laskai and Wen Liu

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Photo Credit: Ashraf Amra / APA images

WITH CONFLICT RAGING in Gaza, many of us concerned with Taiwan have grasped around the back of our minds for a connection and possible lesson. For while the situation on the ground share little resemblance, both contexts share one indisputable quality: both the Taiwanese and Palestinians lack an internationally recognized state.

Last week, Thinking Taiwan‘s J. Michael Cole waded out into the open to share what he’s garnered so far. “Taiwan cannot assume, as it often does, that it can piggyback on the U.S. military or Washington’s goodwill. Or that the international community wouldn’t allow Beijing, in turn, to get away with war crimes,” he writes. “It’s too risky a gamble.” The solution, he says: carry a big stick. Taiwan must hone in Taiwan’s comprehensive power through military development. 

Photo credit: Ashraf Amra/APA images

While we applaud Mr. Cole’s courage for raising the issue of statelessness and agree with the connection between the contexts, we see this assessment faulty and prescription misguided. Taiwan’s statelessness manifests in different ways, and requires different prescriptions. The urgent issue for Taiwan, we think, is to build the foundations of Taiwanese democracy–to take the state back to the people’s hands, as the Sunflower Movement has embarked on in various grassroots campaigns.

Since this is a discussion worth having, we’d like to chime in. 

The condition of statelessness was first raised by philosopher Hannah Arendt. Writing in the Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt concluded based on her own experiences as a Jew fleeing Hitler’s Germany in addition to those of so many other displaced people during WWII, that no matter how pervasive the language of international human rights, being in a state of stateless was the equivalent of being without rights—that is, of being a non-person, a non-human. Only the self-made community of a nation-state could confer rights upon its citizens. As we watch the conflict in Gaza, and the helpless plight of the Palestinian people, we would do well to remember Arendt’s words.

However, Arendt also was aware of the dangerous paradox of nationalism, and the double-edged sword that is the nation-state. The same form of social organizing that made rights possible was also best at taking them away from other people, including those people immanent to the state who did not fit into the idea of the ‘nation.’ Israel, it is worth remembering, as a project in nation building, received its prime impetus from the Jewish people’s condition of statelessness.

The Taiwanese people, for all intents and purposes, have a functioning state—although one that’s not allowed to act on the volition of its own international will, and one whose function as a defender of the people is constantly being weakened and undermined by mainland Chinese power. Surely, Arendt’s words on the condition of statelessness have some relevance?

At the risk of leaving Arendt’s paradox unaddressed, we would also add one nuance to the Gaza-Taiwan parallel. Statelessness in Gaza is accompanied by constant racial discrimination and dehumanization, the relentless “otherizing” of the Palestinian population which enables such disproportionate violence and callous disposition.  How else could a military official justify the mass bombing of Gaza to “ensure summer vacation, a normal summer for our kids”? 

Therefore, the “Gaza conflict” is not simply armed warfare, but decades of racial colonialism against the Palestinians across the bounds of economic, social, and cultural life. While Israel’s bombings in Gaza violate every human right possible for Palestinians in occupied territory, we should also understand that the problem at hand is beyond a military conflict. Ever since the establishment of the Israeli state on Palestine in 1948, the Israeli government has confiscated lands, cut off basic services supplies including water, electricity, sanitation, and roads. At the same time, Palestinians residing inside the state of Israel are second-class citizens who are not entitled the same privileges as Jewish Israeli citizens. 

Israel wishes to banish the Palestinian people—to “push them into the sea,” as declared by the Israeli Prime Minister Ben Gurion in 1961—and short of that fantastical goal, to make them permanent second-class citizens in their own land. 

The Israeli colonial violence against the Palestinians does not only stop at seizing their land, but aims to destroy Palestinians’ existence as a people. The colonial logic of governance depends on the “othering” of the colonized, but at the same time violently coerces the colonized people to become the mirror image of their own imperialist fantasy. 

As Darryl Li indicates, “Since 2005, Israel has developed an unusual, and perhaps unprecedented, experiment in colonial management in the Gaza Strip: it has sought to isolate Palestinians there from the outside world, render them utterly dependent on external benevolence, and absolve Israel of responsibility toward them, all at the same time. “ This colonial experiment is the reason behind the differential governance of Israeli state power in the West Bank and in the Gaza strips–while the Israel state allows the ambiguous sovereignty status of a “Palestinian state” under Israeli occupation in the West Bank, it depicts the Gaza Strip as the uncontrollable, troublesome Palestinian site under Hamas’ control that justifies its escalated military warfare. 

The situation in Taiwan is different. China seeks to make Taiwan one with, not distinct from, itself.  It seeks to subsume the island and pave over the distinctions in culture and society that make an independent Taiwanese identity possible. In other words, it seeks to turn Taiwanese into Chinese.

Without making light of the situation, the difference between Taiwan and Gaza, therefore, is the difference between your violently racist uncle and your overbearing father: one detests your existence; the other sees your existence as no different than his own. How each one deals with each is different. Rather than through the raining of bombs, Taiwan’s statelessness is most visible in the forces chipping away at an independent Taiwan. And, indeed, in Taiwan’s case the necessary form of resistance entails reinforcing this vibrant independent identity—not building military deterrents, which is useful only as long as it outpaces Beijing’s military development, and the officials holding the guns find Taiwan worth defend. 

In recent years, Taiwanese statelessness has reached a critical point, with Chinese infiltrations of Taiwanese media and “discourse-making” infrastructure growing rapidly, the Ma Ying-jeou administration’s efforts to pave the way for unification by promoting non-indigenous cultural traits, and the increasing economic monopolization of Taiwanese industry by the Chinese capital along with other multinational corporations. The protest against the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement was a prime expression of this crisis of statelessness. It was also a response. People realized that while a full blown military warfare may not be likely immediately, but China’s motivation to invade Taiwan’s political sovereignty through economic and social means is a real threat.  

To counter Chinese imperialist adventurism on the Taiwanese Strait, we argue, is neither to pour more tax dollars into strengthening the Taiwanese military, given the Ma’s administration’s own compromising attitude toward Beijing, nor to rely on another imperialist intervention of the US. Such tactics will not solve the core issue of Taiwan’s statelessness, but will only reinforce the role of Taiwan as the experimental battlefield of the world’s two largest imperialist power–the US and China.

If there is anything that Taiwan can learn from the situation in Israel-Palestine, it is the rapidly growing transnational solidarity movement from below, particularly the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement against the Israeli state that was originally inspired by the global anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. The BDS movement aims to isolate the Zionist Israeli influences internationally across the dimensions of economy, politics, culture, and education. Similar to the situation in Taiwan, choosing a side between the US or Chinese imperialist power should not be our priority, but to form a different kind of transnational solidarity from below to boycott, divest, and sanction Chinese imperialist adventurism not only in Taiwan, but also in Tibet, Xinjiang, Vietnam, the Philippines, and so on. 

Towards the end of her life, Hannah Arendt identified a polity—or a political community based on citizenship and collective decision-making—as the ideal form of social organizing. Today Taiwan inches closer and closer to the Arendtian ideal type, especially in the aftermath of the Sunflower movement, when students and citizens, energized by the Sunflower movement, fanned out across the country to education and raise awareness on civic matters, including the flaws in Taiwan’s current constitutions.  The type of impromptu political gatherings and lectures that formed on college campuses, city squares and street corner, and collective civic spirit these gatherings foster offered a glimpse at the real tonic for Taiwan’s condition of statelessness.

It is only through recapturing this mood, through the people’s continual struggle for democracy, that Taiwan can confront this perpetual crisis in statelessness and shield itself from imperialist power politics, thus reaching a true state of sovereignty and a new form of transnational alliance.  

Lorand Laskai (雷洛然)is a writer living in Beijing and recent graduate of Swarthmore College. He previously lived in Tainan, Taiwan.

Wen Liu (劉文) is a doctoral candidate in social psychology at the City University of New York and a freelance writer on issues of sexuality and politics. She is currently based in New York City.