The temptation, though fundamentally altruistic, to try to help others by adopting their “cause” can have the unintended consequence of inspiring resentment among those who are being “helped.” Part of that outcome derives from the condescension or “I know best” attitude often inadvertently taken by individuals who are, and always will be, external to the conflict in question.
It may come as a shock to the interventionists among us, but as David Reynolds points out in his biography of the anti-slavery activist John Brown, many African-Americans came to resent the condescension and paternalism of (white) anti-slavery organizations that hijacked the cause in abolitionist US.
The same, in my view, applies to a more contemporary cause celebre, that of Taiwan’s independence. How often have expatriates, bloggers and academics abroad made policy prescriptions for Taiwan, as if they knew more than the Taiwanese themselves, only to disconsolately shake their heads when those ideas are not lovingly embraced, or when Taiwanese appear unmoved by the repeated insults from Beijing? I myself have often been guilty of that practice, inspired no doubt by a romantic, if not Hemmingway-esque, desire to make that fight my own.
Provided with the assured safety net of having one’s home country to return to should the situation in the Taiwan Strait take a turn for the worse, it is easy for expatriates to advance policies for Taiwanese that are far more intransigent and confrontational than those supported by their Taiwanese friends. I think one of the shortcomings faced by non-Taiwanese who nevertheless choose to “adopt” the fight is that ultimately, the consequences of that fight remain abstractions to them.
Take, for example, one of the most extreme proposals made by certain expatriates recently, that Taiwan should adopt a strategy of guerrilla warfare if faced with an invasion by China’s People’s Liberation Army. While I intend to revisit that subject in a future article, suffice it to say here that this mortally flawed proposal could only be supported by someone incapable of connecting emotionally with the carnage that such a policy would inevitably result in.
What the expatriate community and the well-intentioned supporters of Taiwan abroad fail to understand is that the battle for Taiwan’s future belongs to one people and one people alone: the Taiwanese. We foreigners may express outrage when Taiwanese vote into office an administration that seems bent, by design or ignorance, on facilitating annexation by China, convinced that we have more clarity of vision than Taiwanese. But that is not our call to make. It is their country and rightly or wrongly, they get to decide where it’s headed, based on social, historical, political and economic considerations that in all likelihood elude our comprehension.
I remember being somewhat shocked when my friend and Defense News Asia bureau chief Wendell Minnick said something similar during a conference where we were both panelists. I now see the wisdom in what he said.
This is not to say that expatriates and foreign academics should not seek to extend a helping hand when it is sought, but I have come to realize that humility should replace condescension whenever one decides to participate in someone else’s fight. I often get the sense that behind the veneer of respect and awe that accompanies visits by foreign academics to Taiwan lurks a certain resentment, and that a direct line can be drawn between that emotion and the hubris that animates the celebrated (and inevitably occidental) academic or official, who more often than not spends very little time in Taiwan to impart his or her “wisdom.”
How else can one account for the undercurrents of anti-Americanism that so often come to the surface, even among strong advocates of Taiwanese independence?
The same principle applies to the failed “mission civilisatrice” in places like Afghanistan and Iraq recently, or Vietnam — and even occupied Japan after World War II, as historian and Japan expert John Dower convincingly puts it in his book Cultures of War. How seriously did the Spanish take Hemingway after he injected himself into their fight, joining the Loyalists against Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s forces? Would history have been any different had he not gotten involved? Would the Spanish have known any less which side to fight on absent his reportage?
On my way home this afternoon I saw a car speed by on Minquan E Road atop which a large People’s Republic of China flag was flying, to the accompaniment of communist propaganda on a loudspeaker. My initial reaction was one of anger, and I could feel the expletives well up inside my throat, but it isn’t my fight. Only Taiwanese have the right to decide whether this is acceptable in their country. Who am I, as a Canadian, a journalist, to get angry at such acts, and to presume to have the authority to tell Taiwanese that such displays are unacceptable and that something should be done about them?
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.
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