Sat, May 17, 2014 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: Stickers will not put out the flames

Taiwanese in Vietnam found themselves caught up in nationalistic anger this week, lumped together with People’s Republic of China nationals as “Chinese” and targeted because of Beijing’s bullying of its smaller neighbors. The governments of the three nations — Vietnam, Taiwan and China — have been left scrambling to contain the damage and each, in turn, has been left looking awkward and inept as the violence has claimed more than a score of lives.

The catalyst was China’s decision to erect an oil rig on May 2 close to the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島) in the South China Sea. The rig was accompanied by a large flotilla of navy vessels and Beijing said that no foreign ships would be allowed within a 4.8km radius of the rig. It was one of the most provocative moves yet by Beijing in its escalation of confrontations over conflicting territorial claims.

Hanoi demanded China withdraw the rig and the following days saw a collision between Chinese and Vietnamese ships and the Chinese use water cannons against Vietnamese vessels. This fueled anti-Chinese protests in the provinces surrounding Ho Chi Minh City, the location of many foreign-owned factories.

The violence and xenophobic reactions in Vietnam echo the anti-Japanese protests that erupted in China in 2012 after Tokyo nationalized three of the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台). Just as those anti-Japanese protests could not have occurred without the tacit complicity of Beijing, the anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam could not have occurred without Hanoi staying on the sidelines, at least initially.

Both Beijing and Hanoi, to varying degrees, have often tolerated nationalist protests to reinforce the ruling parties’ standing and deflect public unhappiness with government policies onto a “safer” target.

Now that Beijing is a target, it is pushing its usual disclaimers of responsibility and avowals to defend territorial integrity, while remaining unapologetic about its role as instigator. It is hard to have much sympathy.

The real problem is that it is not really the Chinese being hurt. The brunt of the anti-Chinese violence in Vietnam has fallen on Taiwanese-owned factories and plants, including a fire at a steel plant that Formosa Plastics Group is building in Ha Tinh Province, and ordinary Taiwanese businesspeople and their families.

While government officials in Taipei talk about demanding reparations from Vietnam for the protests, there is little talk about the need to differentiate Taiwan from China, because that flies in the face of the idea that both sides of the Taiwan Strait are “one family” and one country, a stance embraced by both President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) government and Beijing.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs decided that providing Vietnamese and English-language stickers to Taiwanese to identify them as being from Taiwan in case they found themselves under attack by anti-Chinese protesters would be helpful. Minister of Foreign Affairs David Lin (林永樂) said the stickers would make it easy for Vietnamese to distinguish Taiwanese and their firms from their Chinese counterparts.

Given that many people, even in non-mob situations, have trouble distinguishing Taiwan from China, it is ludicrous to think that riled-up protesters are going to pause to read a sticker before breaking a window or assaulting a person. If a sticker is the best idea the foreign ministry can come up with, then it should forget the outline of Taiwan and go for the Republic of China flag, with the words “I am not Chinese” written in Vietnamese emblazoned on top of it. A flag speaks louder than words.

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