by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Reuters
VIOLENCE IN AMERICA by white supremacists increasingly encouraged by Donald Trump’s presidency to organize openly should have important lessons for Taiwan. This follows an incident last Saturday in which a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia was counter-demonstrated against by politically left anti-racist and anti-fascist demonstrators, and a car deliberately ran into the anti-racist counter-demonstration, killing one and injuring nineteen. The issue at hand was Confederate statues which anti-racist demonstrators called for the removal of, as a shameful legacy of America’s history of slavery and institutional racism, and which white supremacist demonstrators called for the preservation of.
Seeing as white supremacists of the “Alt-Right” putting a youthful face on neo-Nazism have long been a crucial support base that Donald Trump has pandered to and high-profile white supremacists as Steve Bannon are significant figures in his political administration, particularly in a time of rapidly declining approval ratings in which white supremacists remain his most ardent supporters, Trump has generally sought to avoid overt condemnations of white supremacists. This was no different following the incident in Charlottesville, in which Trump was forced to criticize “hatred, bigotry, and violence”, but claimed that “both sides” were at fault, despite the obvious fact that deadly and fatal violence only took place at the hands of the white supremacists, and called for the retaining of Confederate statues. Unsurprisingly, white supremacists and nationalists in America have celebrated Trump’s comments, interpreting them correctly as a defense of their actions, seeing as this constitutes a form of victim-blaming. Trump later on affirmed his stance by again claiming that both sides were at fault, and alleging that the “Alt-Left” has also been “very, very violent.” Encouraged by public attention, white supremacists, then, are now planning rallies across the United States.
White supremacist demonstrators before the Charlottesville march. Notably, many of the individuals in this photo are college students. Photo credit: Getty Images
Namely, apart from that Taiwan should think deeply about the moral implications of seeking alliance with the Trump administration as a bulwark against Chinese threats to Taiwanese democracy, we can draw parallels to Taiwan’s deep Blue camp insofar as right-wing nationalists everywhere tend undertake similar actions. For one, the issue of calls for the removal of Confederate statues reminds one of calls in Taiwan for the removal of Chiang Kai-Shek statues as a lingering legacy of the White Terror period. White supremacists’ defense of Confederate statues has cited that Confederate leaders are an important part of history which should be preserved, as important “founding father” figures of southern history, not unlike how some have attempted to defend Chiang Kai-Shek statues on the basis of the historical significance of Chiang Kai-Shek. As some have raised, given their history of construction during the Jim Crow period, Confederate statues in southern America may actually less be about commemorating the history of the Confederacy so much as intimidating black people, to let them “know their place,” so to speak, and they serve as a means for white supremacists to draw strength from this history of racism in America. Much the same can also be said of Chiang Kai-Shek statues in Taiwan, seeing as the presence of Chiang Kai-Shek statues across Taiwan reinforced the sense that Chiang’s authority was omnipresent and even now continues to serve as a means for the pan-Blue camp to draw strength from their past history, knowing that they once ruled Taiwan, and serving as a motivator for them to try and politically reclaim Taiwan.
Furthermore, the murder of 32-year-old leftist activist Heather Heyer after a car deliberately drove into a crowd reminds one of events which took place in Taiwan during and shortly after the Sunflower Movement, in which motorcycle gangs opposed to the movement deliberately drove at full speed into the crowded Legislative Yuan encampment as a means of frightening demonstrators. Shortly after the end of the movement, in a bizarre incident, when anti-nuclear demonstrators attempted to prevent the car of then-KMT legislator Alex Tsai from leaving the Legislative Yuan, Tsai drove for several kilometers with a protestor trapped on the hood of his car without stopping, never mind the possibility of injury or death, ramming into another car in the process of this. Indeed, though perhaps now long forgotten, in examination of Taiwan’s past several years of protests leading up the victory of the DPP in 2016 legislative and presidential elections, one is vaguely surprised that nobody actually died, not just in regards to high-profile incidents of police violence such as the 324 attempted occupation of the Executive Yuan, but a number of lesser known incidents which have been mostly forgotten by the general public.
Likewise, the means by which right-wing nationalists defend themselves tend to be similar. Claims are made that both sides are at fault and that mistakes were made on both sides, even when acts of violence were unambiguously only committed by one side, or that their actions, too are a form of freedom of political expression which must be defended. We see this with Donald Trump’s defense of the violent and deadly actions of white supremacists through relativizing acts of violence between the political Left and Right, as well as the fact that the “Alt-Right” and other white supremacist forces in the United States frequently claim to be acting in defense of free speech against the mandates of “political correctness” enforced by the political Left, never mind that they prove to undermine free speech altogether in being willing to use violence and threats to silence their critics. For example, even following the death of Heather Heyer at Charlottesville, the Alt-Right claims that police actions against them at Charlottesville were an act of restriction of freedom of speech, as prompted by left-wing forces seeking to undermine them. In Taiwan, this was particularly visible from the KMT when Ma Ying-Jeou was president of Taiwan, as observed with the Taipei police under then-mayor Hau Lung-Bin taking a lax approach to the actions of former “White Wolf” Chang An-Lo, a killer of political dissidents for the KMT during the martial law era, during the Sunflower Movement. Despite gangsters accompanying Chang beating up protesters who ventured too close when Chang and company “passed through” the Legislative Yuan occupation encampment on April 1st, 2014, Chang was more or less allowed to justify his actions as a form of “peaceful” freedom of expression and to be only “passing through” the Legislative Yuan encampment.
And as should be obvious, when in political power, right-wing nationalists enjoy the close ties with the state, as observed in Chang An-Lo’s close ties to Ma Yi-Nan, the sister of Ma Ying-Jeou or in America with Alt-Right political actors as Steve Bannon serving as key members of the Trump administration or ties as Fred Trump, Donald Trump’s father, having been arrested in 1927 for attendance at a KKK rally in which KKK members attacked New York City police. As such, this extends to policing. Reminiscent of the lax approach police took to threats of physical violence to Sunflower Movement occupiers from Chang and others under Hau Lung-Bin’s Taipei mayorship and Ma Ying-Jeou’s presidency, including Chang’s visit to the Legislative Yuan, in Charlottesville, police were reportedly unclear about their intent, and allowed white suprematist demonstrators and counter-protesters to dangerously mix, which was what contributed to the death of Heather Heyer. Police also refused to assign protection for a synagogue near the demonstration which feared targeting by anti-Semitic white supremacists.
However, in spite of enjoying state support, we can also observe the conspiratorial mindset that right-wing nationalists take with regards counter-demonstrators against them. We see this in America with white supremacists fulminating about a Jewish and New World Order conspiracy against them, as well as Jewish control of the media. We can observe similarly about conspiratorial claims from the KMT during the Ma administration’s tenure which continue to this day that the DPP covertly engineered the Sunflower Movement through brainwashing Taiwanese youth, or that the youth leaders of the Sunflower Movement were DPP-trained political operatives.
We see ideological parallels, too, between American right-wing white supremacists and KMT nationalists. Both share an invented vision of their homeland. American white nationalists claim that they wish to reclaim their American white homeland, never mind that this is an imagined homeland object of their imagination, seeing all Americans outside of those of indigenous descent being descendents of immigrants from elsewhere in the past several hundred years. While the KMT claims that its homeland is in China and not Taiwan, and that Taiwan is unequivocally a part of China yet this, too, is wholly imagined, given that Taiwan and China were only controlled by the same political entity during the Qing dynasty in China’s so-called 5,000 years of history and the Qing only controlled part of Taiwan’s territory, nor did they accord any real importance to it. The last time Taiwan and China were controlled by the same political entity was in 1895, in the 19th century, and well over one hundred years ago. Likewise, though not often spoken of as “racism” because of “benshengren” and “waishengren” both being Han sub-ethnic groups, the KMT disdain for benshengren as uneducated, backwards yokels and the privileging of waishengren as a privileged social and economic class during KMT martial law evidences ethnic discriminatory views in similar mold.
Nevertheless, where comparisons end between Taiwan and America, as prompted by recent events in America, this is with regards to severity. Obviously, Taiwan has experienced periods of political violence, too, having gone through an authoritarian period under permanent martial law, in which Taiwan was ruled by dictators. America has never gone through a directly authoritarian phase in the way Taiwan has, with regard to lifetime dictators as the Chiang father and son. But we can see how police violence is systematic in the 2014 Ferguson unrest and the killings of black people by police which led to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in a similar manner as to under martial law. In general, levels of police violence are much higher in America; something like 324 would, in fact, be a fairly normal level of violence in America for police putting down large-scale protests, such as occurred during Occupy Wall Street or other demonstrations in recent years. Moreover, the right-wing nationalism of contemporary white supremacist groups in America is a rising force, whereas the KMT is on the retreat in Taiwan and in the midst of a self-inflicted political crisis, and Taiwan does not seem to have experienced an incident similar to the murder of Heather Heyer in recent years, despite that the chances of this happening were, in fact, quite high in past years. Although Taiwanese often do not realize this themselves, it may largely be coincidence that no similar event took place in recent years, and one can only imagine how the political events of the past few years would have been very different had such a similar incident taken place in Taiwan.
This may be all the more reason for Taiwanese to pay attention to current political developments in America, then. Again, apart from the security ties which Taiwan shares with America, seeing as America is Taiwan’s crucial security guarantor against loss of democratic freedoms to Chinese annexation, albeit a highly unreliable one and one whose aims regarding Taiwan are probably for the sake of self-interest rather than anything else, America and Taiwan share significant cultural ties. Many young Taiwanese, for example, choose to study abroad in America and going back to the days in which American army bases existed in Taiwan, America has had a large cultural influence on Taiwan, in terms of the introduction of forms of music, fashion, film, and culinary styles. However, in spite of high-profile incidents in America pointing to the continued existence of racial inequalities and prejudices in America, such as the 2014 Ferguson unrest and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, many Taiwanese continue to idealize America as a democratic and free country when racism has always been a dark underbelly of American going back to its founding and this has never changed. Taiwan, then, should perhaps be more attentive to current political developments in America, not only because of parallels to Taiwan, but because of what this says about America, which claims to act as a defender of democracy and freedom internationally, but does not always practice what it preaches.