Sun, Jun 08, 2008 - Page 14 News List

[BOOK REVIEW] Why can’t we all just get along?

Abraham Young’s lightly dramatized dialogue defends Taiwan’s democracy and challenges China to rethink its stance toward the country

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

By Abraham Young
130 pages

The theme of this short book, little more than an illustrated pamphlet, is clearly stated in its subtitle: “On why the world should now end China’s military and political aggression, understand Taiwan’s democracy, and defend 23 million citizens’ right to self-determination.”

Occasionally it happens that an individual who’s been concerned with a particular issue for some time suddenly sees how the subject can most effectively be tackled. Abraham Young, still in his twenties, is an American citizen of Taiwanese descent who has been involved in lobbying the US Congress on the issue of Taiwan. But in this short essay, easily readable at a sitting, he describes a discussion with two coworkers that manages to put the essence of his case in a nutshell, making it simultaneously cogent, comprehensible and an attractive, easy read.

The author and two friends were packing up books in the basement of a New York bookstore on February 15 of this year, he writes. There was Wang, who was raised in China till he was 9, but then moved to Japan, and subsequently to the US. There was Chris, a former pilot with the US military (on a few occasions carrying nuclear weaponry), who had visited Beijing a couple of years previously but otherwise had no personal knowledge of China or Taiwan. And there was the author, educated in Taiwan from the age of 6 to 9, but the rest of his life a resident in the US. His grandparents had come to Taiwan with the KMT half a century ago, he later reveals.

A discussion ensues which culminates in an impassioned defense of Taiwan’s democratic freedoms by the author. Wang serves as a kind of devil’s advocate, claiming that Taiwan over-reacts and provokes China, that its press largely serves up propaganda, and that its elections are corrupted by vote buying. Chris, on the other hand, is the “typical” American who follows the line the US media often peddles, innocently believing that China has always had a hand in running Taiwan, that it is in truth a renegade province, and that the situation is roughly comparable to Hawaii sitting up and telling Washington it wants to be self-governing.

The author out-classes both of these dummy opponents with ease, needless to say. But this is by no means a facile polemic, or even something comparable to one of Plato’s dialogues in which Socrates’ friends are made to trip themselves up in their answers to his seemingly innocent questions.

Instead, Humanity at Stake is a curiously sympathetic work. On the one hand it contains a just and concise summary of Taiwan’s history, warts and all, but on the other it’s also a personal and even introspective account of two of the three individuals and their respective viewpoints.

Wang, in particular, is far from being presented as an unwavering advocate of Beijing’s position on Taiwan, or indeed on anything else. He’s written a journalism class paper, for example, on the loss of individual freedom in the US following the Sept. 11 attacks and the greatly increased surveillance, supposedly in the interests of national security, which followed. The author describes him as a natural lover of freedom and democracy, “more measured than I … less emotional, a Chinese patriotic nationalist indeed, but [also] … a thinker.”

In addition, the author questions his own fantasies (though in such a way as to make his own conclusions, when he gets round to them, even more convincing). “Don’t the old calcified authoritarianisms eventually die away one by one,” he muses, “as new people replace them, whoever they may be? Isn’t that the key component in how Taiwan eventually became a free democracy, and couldn’t this same fact of death and life facilitate China’s ability to change its aggression towards Taiwan?”

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