When Taipei Times deputy news editor J. Michael Cole published an op-ed in the Aug. 30, 2011 edition of the Wall Street Journal (“Taiwan Is Losing the Spying Game”) stating that Taiwan’s military has been infiltrated by Chinese spies, legislators went ballistic.
Herman Shuai (帥化民) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) denounced Cole, claiming the article was written to influence the 2012 presidential election. KMT caucus whip Chao Li-yun (趙麗雲) demanded the Council of Labor Affairs scrutinize Cole’s residence certificate and have it revoked and boot him out of the country if he didn’t offer evidence or an apology. I recall at the time how the majority of my professional Taiwanese friends and acquaintances were astounded at the presumption that a foreign journalist working for a Taiwan-based news organization would comment — and, god forbid, negatively at that — on Taiwan’s military policy. Not a single one addressed the content of what was written.
Understandably shaken, Cole wrote in what some interpreted as a thinly disguised mea culpa (“More expatriate humility, please,” published in the Sept. 29, 2011 edition of the Taipei Times) that foreigners should show “humility” and not “condescension” when writing about their hosts. He signed off: “Only Taiwanese have the right to decide whether this is acceptable in their country.” So why analyze and write about it?
Regardless of how one feels about the issue, it raises an interesting, and for those making a life in Taiwan, important question that seemed to be raised at this year’s Venice Biennial, where two of the three artists chosen to represent the Taiwan Pavilion were non-Taiwanese: do foreigners have the right to represent the nation, comment on and even criticize their host country?
The reality is, of course, that many expats use social media, magazines and newspapers to do just that. But if it’s only for domestic consumption, our “hosts” don’t seem to particularly mind.
“I’d published similar stories [about the military] in [the Taipei Times] without any reaction whatsoever,” Cole tells me.
Great. As the article in front of you is published in the same paper, I feel free to pretty much write whatever the hell I want without fear of receiving the same kind of treatment as Cole did. And nobody particularly cares about cultural policy anyway — at least not along the lines of education, say, or defense.
Curiously, and somewhat tediously, the media and art circles gave the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, the pavilion’s organizer, and this year’s curator Esther Lu (呂岱如), considerable flack for choosing foreign artists to represent the nation. But this is simply a logical extension of the way in which the international community has recently operated biennials at the global level? For example, Ai Weiwei’s (艾未未) Bang, a conglomeration of tangled wooden stools, is prominently displayed at the German Pavilion — which, incidentally, swapped pavilions with France, a sign of solidarity between two countries with considerable historical animosity.
It’s also the way it works in Taiwan. Anselm Franke, a German national, curated the 2012 Taipei Biennial, and over 30 foreign artists participated. And non-Taiwanese have always been involved in the Taiwan Pavilion since its inception, though relying on non-Taiwanese art experts at the institutional level because they had the expertise and connections in Europe and, more specifically, Venice. The nationalities of the 1995 selection committee included professionals from France, Germany and Italy — as well as two from Taiwan. And it’s appropriate that Taiwan entered in 1995 because that year’s curator, Jean Clair, was the first non-Italian to direct it.
Furthermore, a significant number of artists chosen after 2001, when China forced Biennial organizers to boot Taiwan out of the “national pavilion,” live outside of Taiwan. The reality is, this year’s biennial is simply another example of how Taiwan has become adept at adjusting to international standards while remaining engaged. Should non-Taiwanese represent the country? Sure, if they are good artists who can contribute something unique.
There is indeed a tradition of this and as the world becomes more globalized, the likelihood that expats will in some way represent a host nation will only increase. Taiwan, like all countries, might as well embrace it.