The Split Between Taiwanese Activists and Taiwanese-American Groups Over the AIIB

by Brian Hioe

English /// 中文
Photo Credit: Alton Thompson/WikiCommons/CC

To AIIB or Not to AIIB, Is That the Question?

IMAGINE IF during the Sunflower Movement, instead of rallying in support of student activists, the reaction of the overseas Taiwanese and Taiwanese-American community had been to remark skeptically as to student activists’ understanding of complicated, economic manners, then to write them off as having been overly hasty in their actions where such matters are best left to the government. Certainly, that was the response of some. But, for the most part, overseas Taiwanese and Taiwanese-American groups, came forward in support of students and sought to call attention to Taiwan’s crisis of democracy during March of last year. Demonstrations in support of Sunflower activists took place across the world then.

Yet it proves noteworthy that the Ma administration’s unilateral decision for Taiwan to apply for membership to China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) provoked a far different responses from some Taiwanese-American organizations. Writing in Ketagalan Media, Victoria Hsin-Hsin Chang would remark skeptically as to the actions of demonstrators who once again erupted onto the streets of Taipei in protest of the AIIB, calling instead for further deliberation before something as the AIIB was deemed to be harmful to Taiwan or infringing upon it’s sovereignty. For her, the understanding of activists and civil society fell into something like a binary. In her words, there were two reflexive positions:

“Pro-AIIB = Pro-China = Pro-colonization = Not ‘loving Taiwan’ enough = Greedy Chinese”

“Anti-AIIB = Pro-Independence = Anti-trade = Isolationism = Backwards Taiwanese”

Chang would go onto to suggest that underlying the reflexive nature of responses by civil society was Taiwanese identity politics and anti-Chinese sentiment at work and instead call for “go[ing] beyond the lens of ethnic and identity politics, and see that the AIIB question, like many that will surely follow, needs to be considered from historical and comparative angles too.” While calling attention to that the issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty can occlude consideration of other social issues in Taiwan, Chang also would downplay the impact of the AIIB as a “paradigm-shifting challenge to the current world order”, suggesting that the AIIB could not, in fact be compared to the American-dominated International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. Though not venturing to any definite conclusions about the AIIB’s benefit or harm to Taiwan, Chang would call for greater criticality and deeper deliberation before civil society reflexively reacts against trade deals.

What proves ironic in this case is the degree to which the Ma administration’s decision for Taiwan to apply to the AIIB reenacts the circumstances of the Sunflower Movement of one year ago. Once again, the KMT administration had decided on its own to pass policies intended to develop more closely integrated economic ties between Taiwan and China despite that such trade deals might pose a threat to Taiwan’s sovereignty in allowing for the extension of Chinese economic influence over Taiwan-and having resorted to undemocratic means to do so. But is it that for some, one Sunflower Movement was enough? If the Sunflower Movement happened again, would voices from abroad in fact, criticize rash Taiwanese student activists for being overly hasty in their judgments? In this case, such sentiments are not unique to Chang, but more broadly express the sentiment of a number of Taiwanese-American groups to the AIIB—this despite that last year, on the contrary, they rallied on behalf of the Sunflower Movement. We might more broadly take Chang’s article as symptomatic of a larger political tendency amongst Taiwanese-American groups.

Are Taiwanese-American Groups Uncritically Pro-Business?

ONE CAN ALSO suggest that belying Chang’s call for criticality in this case disguises an underlying pro-business sentiment. This is hardly exclusive to Chang, but more broadly points to that overseas Taiwanese communities and Taiwanese-Americans, in America often tend towards a more unabashedly pro-business political viewpoint than their counterparts in Taiwan. One can and should, in fact, point to a disconnect that exists between overseas Taiwanese and Taiwanese-American groups and organizations and those living in Taiwan.

For many, after all, it strikes as that Taiwan needs a place in the increasingly competitive global market, after all, when it is already marginalized because of its lack of international acknowledgement. Would reflexively reacting against any trade deal signed against China whatsoever be, in fact, damaging to Taiwan’s economy in the long run? That is the question Chang wants to ask and to that extent Chang calls for greater deliberation. If only civil society could think through these issues slowly and deliberatively and weigh things out in terms of benefits or harm to Taiwan’s economy, rather than rush onto the streets without thinking!

Yet even if one suspects that most Sunflower Movement activists last year were following an instinctual sense of right and wrong last year, rather than, say, a detailed, line-by-line knowledge of the pro and cons of the CSSTA trade bill, perhaps those following their instincts sometimes prove wiser than those who call for careful deliberation. If last year, we had all stopped to fully deliberate out the positives and negatives of the CSSTA before acting, where would be now? 

Spontaneity versus Legal Order

WITHOUT THE spontaneous actions of student demonstrators caught up in the moment, we would not have seen the largest civic uprising in Taiwan since the end of the authoritarian period, never mind that the surge of civic consciousness in the wake of the Sunflower Movement would later lead to the defeat of the KMT in nine-in-one elections in November 2014.   

But as tying into their pro-business viewpoint and a greater faith in the established order of things, among pro-Taiwanese groups and organizations operating outside of Taiwan, it is often the case that it is thought that calm and rationale deliberation of policy must take place through due processes of law. In this view, civil society can be unnecessarily disruptive where spontaneous outbursts of civil society are uncontrolled, undirected, and sometimes not clearly thought out. So, then, is heavy importance placed on winning elections in Taiwan and being able to influence foreign politicians, particularly American ones, through lobbying.

PhotoCredit臺左維新Demonstrators outside the Presidential Residence, in a spontaneous protest against the AIIB which broke out on March 31st. Photo credit: 臺左維新

Would rational legal deliberation through the due processes of law be possible in Taiwan to begin with? Where the Ma administration has tried twice now to push through unpopular policies concerning cross-strait relations which meet with public disapproval, in flagrant contravention of that the voice of the people has spoken, the due processes of law which would allow for the calm and rationale deliberation of policy do not exist in Taiwan to begin with. It has been such that civil society has been forced to take to do battle with the government.

And the truth is, Taiwanese activists do in fact have a more thought out worldview than Chang would give them credit for. To begin with, Sunflower activists last year and current protestors against the AIIB were not acting on sentiments founded upon identity politics to begin with. Sunflower Movement activists were very far from being reflexively “anti-China”. Ethno-nationalist sentiment against “greedy Chinese” during last year’s Sunflower Movement or even this year’s anti-AIIB protests, as Chang would have it, was largely absent. What was spoken at Sunflower rallies last year and anti-AIIB rallies of late was instead “democracy” and the “defense of democracy”, mainland Chinese were featured as guest speakers, and more broadly we can in fact actually suggest that the movement reflects the fading of older ethno-nationalist politics and towards a more inclusive civic framework. 

Anti-China versus Anti-KMT

WHERE THERE WAS a divide last year within the movement between those opposed to the CSSTA trade bill and those only opposed to the undemocratic, “Black Box” means by which it was pushed through legislature, the movement was much less anti-Chinese than more about the undemocratic rule of the KMT government. In this case, Chang would actually seem to be following news reports by foreign, particularly English-language, media for whom anything in defense of Taiwan’s continued freedom from China is reported as “anti-China”—whether in regards to the AIIB this year or the Sunflower Movement last year. 

Chang would also not seem to be aware of the fact that where civil society has taken on a general mandate of tackling social issues in Taiwan, it is precisely the same demonstrators demonstrating against the AIIB or CSSTA that concern themselves with all the other social issues she claims that concern with China is occluding. This may more broadly reflect disconnects between what happens in Taiwan and the perception of those us who are abroad, whose information is necessarily secondhand. Even Taiwanese abroad can come to perceive Sunflower Movement protests as somehow “anti-China” where their perceptions become shaped by foreign media.

PhotoCredit黑色島國青年陣線Police massed on the night of March 31st. Photo credit: 黑色島國青年陣線

Particularly, those of Taiwanese descent who have not grown up in or spent significant time in Taiwan also are often are not aware of the stranglehold of the KMT places upon democratic politics in Taiwan. For them, Taiwan’s greatest threat is from China, and internal questions of democracy are perceived as largely settled. It is such that the slogan “Taiwanese independence” is much less often advanced by Taiwanese-Americans and others, but instead slogans of “Keeping Taiwan Free” are advanced, where Taiwan is perceived as already “free”, requiring a defensive posture in regards to China. But “Taiwanese independence” always was aware of Taiwan’s state of de facto independence from China, the point was to establish firm foundations for its continued independence by achieving the freedom of Taiwan from the KMT. And, regardless, can Taiwan remain free if it does not eliminate the KMT, once and for all?

Trades Are Never Only Economical: The Specter of Regional Geopolitics Behind AIIB

BUT WHERE IT may be true that the average protestor may be more motivated by feelings and intuition rather than reason, if one looks at the statements put out by leaders and frontline organizers of anti-AIIB protests as of late, one does find a level of sophistication and awareness of the economic and geopolitical factors at play here. With groups as the Black Island Youth Front and Restoration of Taiwan Social Justice calling attention towards the dangers of free trade policies, the damage that free trade poses to domestic labor, sometimes using Marxist or Leftist rhetoric concerning capitalist incursion into Taiwan from abroad, if sometimes a bit naive, they may have taken something into account that Taiwanese-American groups and organizations sometimes have not.

Namely, lurking behind the AIIB is the specter of Chinese regional geopolitics. It would be unnecessarily reductive to claim the AIIB is, say, merely an economic ploy of China whose true, sinister intent is to facilitate the expression of Chinese geopolitical ambitions. However, the AIIB is coextensive with China’s overall foreign policy aims and cannot be viewed as separate from Chinese expansionism. 

Likely the direct aim of the AIIB is to establish regional economic integration in the Asia-Pacific, to create an economic order in the Asia-Pacific amenable to the growth of the Chinese economy, comparable to the aims of American Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). But where the AIIB is superior in some sense to the TPP, it is through its more expansive aims, in the sense that the TPP actually sets a more modest target in seeking the economic integration of the Asia-Pacific only. With the inclusion of non-Asian countries in the AIIB, China has its sights set on global economic integration; moreover, with the inclusion of other shareholders where China could have set up the AIIB on its own, China seeks to increase the pace of integration. 

But where the AIIB is not a policy put forth by China as mere economic policy, as separate from its territorial ambitions, the geopolitical side of the AIIB is that it will allow China to translate its economic power into an ability to influence the policy of other nations through its capacity to inveigh upon other nations through the conditions it can set on them through loans. This can provide for the restructuring of national economies, including domestic industries, and via such means China can also influence the foreign policy of other nations through economic suggestion. It is not at all, as Chang would have it, that the inclusion of western powers in the AIIB makes it as “safe” for Taiwan because with their participation makes the AIIB more than just a Chinese endeavor. On the contrary, this marks the precise danger of the AIIB, and China’s expansive aims in the endeavor. China will certainly be the most dominant power within the AIIB, regardless of the participation of other countries, and this only serves to widen the umbrella of Chinese influence.

This is the other side of “free trade”, where free trade policies are expressive of geopolitical realities of large countries exerting their economic might against smaller countries. To be opposed to “free trade” policies does not necessarily even mean to be “isolationist”, as in Chang’s equation would have it. The pro-business slant of many groups would seem to have led them to conclude that opposition to free trade is the domain of conspiracy-mongering, placard-carrying Leftists shouting anti-imperialist slogans outside of world summit conferences. Hardly so. Pro-business groups have to date failed to account for how economics serves as an extension of geopolitical power and imperial aims, rather than exist in a sphere which can be evaluated separately from international relations.

But anxiety over Taiwan’s floundering economy would seem to have provided for insufficient attention paid to geopolitical realities for some. Free trade might not even bring benefits, but damage to Taiwan’s economy, as the legacy of Taiwan’s past free trade agreements signed with America and the resultant damage dealt to Taiwan’s domestic industries in the 1990s should go to show. Yet even as the call is made for a critical revaluation as to whether joining the Chinese AIIB of all things, the AIIB being an economic endeavor coming from the very nation which poses the most direct existential threat to Taiwan, there exists a similar blindness among pro-business Taiwanese-American groups about the American TPP. 

Where now may not be the place to discuss at length that Taiwan entangling itself in the intersection of American geopolitics and American economic power would also serve to entrench Taiwan in America’s aims of countering growing Chinese power, as in the “Asia Pivot.” Here may not be the place to discuss at length, overseas Taiwanese and Taiwanese-American groups are also often blindly pro-American, in assuming that securing American support for Taiwan would inherently beneficial for Taiwan, without taking into account how America brings its own set of geopolitical dangers for Taiwan and ignoring the history by which America abetted the totalitarian regime of the Chiang government in order to prop Taiwan up against China during the Cold War. But that support for Taiwan joining the AIIB or TPP can uneasily coexist in some cases belies the muddled nature of groups for whom the most important condition of maintaining a “free Taiwan” is a successful Taiwanese economy, to the exclusion of everything else.


WHERE THE ISSUE about the AIIB would seem to have been made moot for the time being, with Taiwan being denied entrance to the AIIB by China over the issue of under what name Taiwan should enter the AIIB, Taiwan’s denial should only serve to reconfirm that behind the AIIB is, again, the reality of Chinese geopolitical power. To be sure, it may not be the case that Taiwan was denied entrance to the AIIB over the sovereignty issue. On the contrary, it may be that the Taiwan issue is not what China wishes to entangle itself in currently, with its large-scale effort setting up the AIIB. In other words, the Taiwan issue is perhaps too complicated for China to want to settle at the same time as setting up the AIIB; China simply has too much on its plate at the moment. But why should anyone be surprised at the outcome of Taiwan’s rejection? Behind the AIIB remains Chinese dominance and China’s rejection of Taiwan by fiat would merely indicate what power dynamics within the AIIB would be if Taiwan had, in fact, been able to join.

Yet more broadly, if we are point to reactions from Taiwanese-American groups about the AIIB as in Chang’s response or others, we might point to the means by which an overly pro-business sentiment occludes other considerations, particularly those of regional politics. And pro-business sentiment often belies a skepticism of the capacity of civil society and a faith which, in the end, is still placed in state government—never mind that recent history should go to show the gross deficiencies of the Taiwanese government which has created a need for civil society to take matters into its own hands. 

This is not to say that civil society is always right or that civil society is not sometimes in need of being criticized. Nevertheless, civil society remains the best hope for Taiwan to carve out a place of genuine independence for itself in the world in which Taiwan can be free of both the geopolitical stratagems and economic dominance of larger nations which very often goes hand in hand. If they truly hope to keep Taiwan free, Taiwanese-American groups ought to pay attention to the interrelation of economic and political dynamics. 

We will see as to whether the KMT makes future attempts to include Taiwan within the AIIB. It seems probable, given the apparent inability of the KMT to draw lessons from the past year of protest. But if this sets the stage for the next round of protests in Taiwan, when the lines of political division are drawn in the sand, we shall see on which side Taiwanese-American groups stand.

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