by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Mil.ru/CC BY 4.0
THE RECENT ONLINE webinar organized by Friends of Socialist China, “China encirclement and the imperialist build-up in the Pacific” proved another occasion for tankies to speak in hyperbolic terms about the possibility of US-China conflict over Taiwan. As usual, there was scarcely any concern about what Taiwanese think about their own future, or even what their assessment of any geopolitical threats they face from China is–and whether they think a conflict is imminent. On the other hand, speakers generally seemed to care more about ancient Chinese history than they did about the perspectives of contemporary Taiwanese. And, for the most part, there was actually very little discussion of Taiwan during the event.
Apparently unaware that there was pushback from within Taiwan against the framing of the aftermath of the recent Pelosi visit as a Fourth Taiwan Straits Crisis–seeing as life in Taiwan went on as normal even while much of the world panicked about the possibility of an imminent war–moderator Radhika Desai began the event by framing the Biden administration as ramping up tensions with China through its actions. Desai drew much of her hyperbolic framing from the Quincy Institute, illustrating the strange overlap between a think tank improbably funded by both the Koch brothers and George Soros and the worldview of tankies.
Ken Hammond’s comments
The first speaker was Ken Hammond, an organizer of Pivot to Peace. Hammond talked relatively little about the past one hundred years altogether, instead framing US-China tensions with regard to western imperialism and unequal treaties signed with China in the 19th century. Contemporary US actions directed at Taiwan are for him a product of both long-term fears of China but also an interest in Chinese markets.
However, one notes that for Hammond, apart from there having been rather monolithic, unchanging policy from the US directed at China for the past century, neither has China changed at all. The Deng period is framed as continuous with the prior Mao period, rather than a break from it in the turn towards a free market, as merely biding strength to eventually challenge the West–though this differs from what Chinese leftist nationalists who are far less positive on Deng themselves think. This is a broader tendency among western tankies, whose views of China are quite remote from what Chinese left nationalists themselves think, and who act as though China never embraced the free market under Deng.
Ju-Hyun Park’s comments
The next speaker, Ju-Hyun Park of Nodutdol, primarily spoke about Korea. Park discussed South Korea’s role in US efforts to contain China, with US troops continuing to be in South Korea, and having wartime command over the South Korean military. North Korea is, as with Nodutdol more generally, framed as a reasonable party in seeking to maintain its political autonomy through its nuclear arms program–viewed as only defensive in nature. Russia was seen as aligning with North Korea in resisting the financial domination of the US, with many speakers taking a positive appraisal of Russia during the event.
Lillian Sing’s comments
The third speaker was Lillian Sing, the first Asian American female judge in North California and founder of the Comfort Women Justice Coalition. Sing’s comments criticized anti-Asian racism, as directed against Chinese, including racist conspiracy theories about COVID-19’s origins in China, or racial profiling of scientists of Chinese descent as potential spies. Sing’s comments proved at odds with the other speakers on the panels particularly seeing as the event was organized by Friends of Socialist China, at one point stating “We Chinese are very practical. It is all about doing business for mutual benefit,” and at another point referring to Pelosi as a friend that she had known for decades.
Still, Sing is one of the only speakers to ever bring up Taiwanese perspectives at all on the webinar–claiming that most Taiwanese she knows personally support the status quo. Of course, while poll after poll shows that to be correct, status quo means avoiding a declaration of independence that results in Chinese military reprisals, while also maintaining Taiwan’s de facto independence from China–something that tankies and their ilk do not seem to understand. Otherwise, as with other speakers on the webinar, Sing made a number of factual mistakes in claiming that the Taiwan Policy Act, which recently cleared the Senate Foreign Affairs committee, will enact the formal US recognition of Taiwan as part of its provisions.
Sara Flounders’s comments
The fourth speaker was Sara Flounders, co-director of the Workers’ World Newspaper. Flounders’s comments were primarily a litany of what were framed as US military threats against China, while never mentioning Chinese live-fire drills around Taiwan conducted in response to the Pelosi visit, including firing a missile that passed over Taiwan for the first time–nor did any other speaker on the webinar.
During her comments, Flounders brought up North Korea recently firing missiles as a show of force against South Korea and other regional powers–again, taking the view that North Korea was only seeking a path to peace, but rather strangely not actually China firing missiles over Taiwan. Otherwise, Flounders, too, positively viewed Russia, North Korea, China, and other powers are economically aligning against US economic hegemony worldwide.
Li Peng’s comments
The fifth speaker was Li Peng, the dean of the Graduate Institute for Taiwan Studies at Xiamen University. The only non-diaspora Chinese speaker of the event, Li’s comments were mostly boilerplate official comments claiming that the US and other external forces, working together with the DPP, were seeking to foment Taiwanese independence, pushing China to reluctantly take countermeasures.
Charles Xu’s comments
The sixth speaker of the event, then, was Charles Xu of the Qiao Collective. Xu’s comments leaped back 3,000 years altogether, starting with the claim that Taiwan’s Austronesian Indigenous residents–the first inhabitants of Taiwan before Han colonization–actually came from China, eventually traveling across the Asia Pacific. Xu then transitioned awkwardly to Zheng He’s 15th-century voyages and claims continuity between the two, that this was the precedent of the contemporary maritime Silk Road.
Xu claimed these were peaceful expansions and that there was, in fact, a free and open Indo-Pacific before western colonial powers entered the picture–of course, much of Southeast Asia would remember this differently, when Southeast Asian peoples have been contending with the Chinese empire for millennia. To this extent, Xu positioned the US and Japanese empire together, as representing continuity, never mind that the Japanese empire sets the precedent for a non-western empire challenging the US in the Asia Pacific but proving equally brutal. Xu then sought to differentiate China’s maritime presence in the Asia Pacific from the US, although arguably China’s own aim to expand Pacific power is to mimic the precedent of US global power.
Ben Norton’s comments
The seventh speaker was tankie journalist Ben Norton, who was not announced ahead of time on the program. Norton’s comments painted the US as not only seeking to contain China, but to carry out regime change. His comments proved similar to that of the eighth speaker, KJ Noh, in outlining various policy papers or reports by think tanks and claiming that this refers to the US’s plans to conduct regime change or go so far as nuclear war as part of efforts to undermine China.
KJ Noh’s comments
Amusingly, Noh even brought up a map recently scoffed at on Twitter because it shows US military bases in China and Hong Kong, as though this were a credible document. At one point, Norton claimed that Japan’s Nikkei Asia is a publication close to the US military. probably because none of his western readers know anything about non-American publications. Noh’s claims were so bizarre as to claim that the US would enter into a conflict with China by firing nuclear weapons off the bat, rather than that this would take place following significant escalation.
Zhong Xiangyu’s comments
The ninth speaker, Zhong Xiangyu, was the only Taiwanese speaker in any form. In his comments, he tried to put Taiwanese history in a bite-size form for viewers, with a focus on Taiwanese separatism.
As stated, one notes that almost none of the speakers of the event actually spoke about Taiwan. However, Zhong’s comments echoed his pro-unification concerns more than anything else–Zhong spoke rather positively of Chiang Kai-shek as a Chinese patriot, in spite of the White Terror conducted under Chiang, as part of which Chiang imprisoned and executed an entire generation of Taiwanese leftists–both pro-unification and pro-independence. Zhong described the 228 Massacre and White Terror as simply hyped up by the DPP.
Otherwise, Zhong praised Chiang Kai-shek for land reform and the economic successes that resulted from it, while phrasing opposition against the KMT from the DPP as only coming from elites disenfranchised after the KMT came to Taiwan. Of course, it was historically the KMT that put down organized labor and the left in Taiwan, but this is entirely absent from his narrative. While he spent most of his time talking about history from close to seventy years ago, the Sunflower Movement comes up in Zhong’s narrative briefly as a “color revolution”–though ironically, only a few years prior to the Sunflower Movement, the US had actually preferred that the KMT rather than the DPP take power and the US verdict on the DPP only seemed to shift after the movement.
The last speaker was Keith Bennett, co-editor of Friends of Socialist China, whose comments were disrupted near the end by what appeared to be a power outage in his home, resulting in Bennett being disconnected from the event and reconnecting on his cell phone in dark surroundings. Bennett began by discussing Indigenous peoples whose rights have been trampled over by the US and other western empires–clearly ignoring China’s oppression of its so-called “ethnic minorities.”
Keith Bennett’s comments
As with other speakers, an odd tension in Bennett is criticizing the US for imperial and colonial actions, and then praising Nixon’s visit to China–as orchestrated by Henry Kissinger–as the precedent that the US should live up to. Indeed, it proves rather odd for self-proclaimed leftists to praise Nixon and Kissinger, while criticizing US militarism in the Asia Pacific, to then claim that peace would be achieved if only the US adhered to the Three Communiques.
Yet Bennett and other tankies’ understanding of the Three Communiques is incorrect, seeing as the US acknowledges but does not recognize the Chinese position on Taiwan. Bennett repeated the claim that the Taiwan Policy Act means establishing a US military base in Taiwan that was repeated by other speakers.
As with other events of its type, the Friends of Socialist China webinar embodies much authoritarian apologism for China. There proves a general failure to note how tit-for-tat escalation between the US and China threatens to embroil the region in conflict, with blame laid only at the feet of the US for ramping up tensions. There is a failure to note convergent behavior between the US and China, or how China has sought to model the expansion of its power after the US.
Likewise, the event involves a great deal of Indigenous erasure, particularly with regard to Charles Xu’s comments, in favor of justifying Han settler colonialism of Taiwan. Zhong Xiangyu’s comments, bizarrely enough, venture into apologism for Chiang Kai-shek’s dictatorial rule, with the view that at the very least he was not pro-independence. All of the speakers accept uncritically the view that the US and China are on the verge of nuclear war over Taiwan, though we are far from this point–as the muted reactions in Taiwan to the Pelosi visit illustrate.
Still, this should little surprise. Tankies have little interest in Taiwanese perspectives on their future, and instead cheerlead for any power that they view as an alternative to the US–never mind if China simply proves another empire at the end of the day.