Every so often, some areas of my academic research agenda become of interest to Americans. Over the weekend, the media tale of the United States’s President-elect Donald Trump’s phone call with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen was one such moment. Even a close friend of mine who had previously discouraged me from what he called ‘chasing ambulances’ in my scholarship told me that I had better blog about it.
In light of this, I think I had also start to make good on a longstanding promise I haven’t kept: to revisit the Vatican-China deal I promised I was researching. Because this is also about Trump and I have written about the need for what Paulo Freire calls conscientization in light of the global rise of far-right nationalisms, I want to do this by self-consciously thinking through how I have been approaching the Taiwan question. I realize that this will make for very painful reading for those who simply want my expert opinion about the Trumping of Taiwan, but with so many news pieces out there about this that all contradict each other, I think that if you want an expert opinion, there is a marketplace of ideas out there for you already. In a world plagued with misinformation, fake news, and ‘facts’ that are not really facts, I am reluctant to engage what the Bishop of Rome has recently called the ‘coprophragy’ – literally, the desire to eat feces – for authoritative reporting, opining, and punditry and would rather think through how to think through the very confusing world of the Chinas and the Catholicisms and the Americas and all the things. It is also how my spiritual father would tell me to approach the topic – authentically, prayerfully, with discernment – so I’ll proceed accordingly, which is why this may have more to do with Eastern Catholic spirituality than I might have expected when I first started writing.
Here goes my attempt to ‘log on the web’ some of my provisional thoughts:
I approach writing about anything to do with China, Chinas, Chineseness, China studies, Sinosphere, Chinese religions, Hong Kong, Taiwan, localism, indigenism, and whatever other ideological term is thrown my way in these subfields of Asian studies, East Asian studies, Asia-Pacific studies, Pacific Rim studies, and however else you want to study these regions with a fair amount of fear and trepidation. Part of this is because I am myself Chinese, but I learned to be ‘Chinese’ in evangelical churches that were mostly populated by Taiwanese and Hong Kong migrants, which I am sure gives me ideological tinges of which I am unaware. Certainly, I’ve been around the block in my academic research on ‘Chineseness’ and have basically come up with the possibly harebrained idea that ‘Chineseness’ is usually an empty ideological shell that can carry the contents of whatever you want, which means that I completely understand those in Taiwan and Hong Kong who want nothing to do with the nationalistic implications of using the term ‘Chineseness’ and prefer much more to talk about the local, autonomous, democratic politics of the places where they lived. But I am always especially suspicious of my own talk about Chineseness because I myself am built as a certain kind of Chinese American by certain people who have had very specific views about what ‘Chineseness’ is. It is because of this that it wasn’t until late 2014 that I finally admitted on a blog I had then that I was actually somewhat interested in ‘China studies,’ however broadly defined and contested that might be.
But in the spirit of having become Eastern Catholic and being given a place on Patheos to blog as ‘Eastern Catholic Person,’ I feel emboldened by my critics who say that I know nothing about Eastern Catholicism except for what I have experienced. Come to think of it, I am therefore as self-conscious about my writing about ‘Eastern Catholicism’ as about ‘Chineseness,’ and the internal dialectics of that severe self-criticism probably accounts for why I only ever write about Chineseness, evangelicalism, and Eastern Catholicism – it is perhaps the doubt that provokes the productivity in bursts punctuated by paralysis.
In fact, perhaps the reason why I am so reluctant to lay down an expert opinion on the Trumping of Taiwan is because I do not really understand why the great pundits of the media marketplace do not seem to doubt their punditry on the topic. The American media (especially Vox and The Atlantic) seemed to go into a tizzy about how a phone call and the acknowledgement of Tsai Ing-Wen as Taiwan’s president would provoke the great sleeping giant of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) before any word from the PRC was even issued. Their expertise on diplomatic etiquette on the Taiwan question seemed to have very little to do with anything to do with Taiwan’s history and the complicated layering of colonizations, ‘Chineseness,’ indigenous sovereignty claims, and the localist politics of ‘Taiwanization’ in Taiwan, not to mention the politics of gender and sexuality as Taiwanese civil society wrestles over same-sex marriage. Instead, they kept going back to what is called the One China Policy, a geopolitical fiction created to resolve the tension over which ‘China’ between the PRC and the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan is the real China. In the One China Policy, the United States is supposed to formally acknowledge that the PRC is the only China that exists while informally acknowledging the existence of the ROC by continuing trade and soft political support for them, while denying Taiwan’s ‘aspirations’ for ‘independence’ (in scare quotes because some in Taiwan would claim that they already have autonomy and therefore do not need to aspire to have it – incidentally similar to how some Eastern Catholics might assert that nobody needs to give us the right to exist, despite how some churches keep calling us the unia and the ‘bleeding wound of the Body of Christ’).
What was amazing to me was that these mostly white, mostly American, and mostly authoritative pundits approached the Trumping of Taiwan without talking much to anyone in Taiwan until recently. Sure, they had a statement from Tsai’s office about how the call was congratulatory and revolved around policy issues, but this later got spun by Trump on Twitter to say that Tsai had called him; as we learned later from the PRC’s wrist-slapping of Taiwan for calling Trump as ‘provocative,’ Trump’s Twitter handle is now in turn the source of all truth in international geopolitics. The screaming of the media is now accompanied by new op-eds, mostly from neoconservative Americans serving as surrogates for John Bolton’s militaristic approach to all things China and the world, saying that Trump’s move was brilliant, further confusing everyone who wants an authoritative word. Now most recently, the New York Times is reporting a cautious Taiwanese embrace of Trump’s phone call, and nobody is saying anything about recent Taiwanese political happenings about the 2014 Sunflower Movement’s protest occupations of the Legislative and Executive Yuans protesting the economic integration of China and Taiwan (which I blogged about as it happened), the rise of ‘Taiwanization’ where the language and culture of Taiwanese people is being promoted over against Chineseness (especially as people are revisiting the 228 incident in 1947 in which Taiwanese elites and intellectuals were brutally slaughtered by Nationalist Chinese occupiers led by General Chiang Kai-shek), and the democratic election of Tsai Ing-wen as a success for the Taiwanese autonomy movement in which it is emphasized that Taiwan Is Not China, and by that, some of them (but not all of them) mean neither of the Chinas, neither the PRC nor the ROC, as Taiwan belongs to the Taiwanese people.
One of the points of agreement between myself and the Catholic sociologist Richard Madsen is that all things in the general region of China seem to serve as a mirror onto which Americans project their dreams and aspirations for the world. In fact, Madsen argues that Beijing’s crackdown on the Tiananmen Beijing Spring protesters on June 4, 1989 (really, the crackdown started on June 3, but details, details…) was psychologically shattering for the Americans who were watching it because it did not fit their straight-forward narrative of liberal democratization – the people should always win, but they did not. The authoritative punditry seems to be more about how Americans wished the world worked, not what is actually going on, which probably explains the tremendous lack of interest in Taiwanese politics in the punditry and probably also accounts for why my research on Hong Kong goes in and out and back into and back out of fashion with the consistency of a young adolescent wild on raging hormones. With uncanny similarity to Hillary Clinton’s wildly unlikely defeat at the hands of Donald Trump’s barely competent campaign, perhaps the quick turn from the media slamming Trump on the One China Policy to printing neoconservative op-eds is just a pattern that will be part and parcel of our ‘hot take’ political discourse until we slow down and allow ourselves to have some doubt about our punditry.
Perhaps most of all, Catholics of both Latin and the various Eastern stripes may well need to cultivate such doubt, precisely by thinking through the Taiwan question. Like Americans swimming through the treacherous waters of China policy and the question of Taiwan, the Vatican has also articulated what might be called its Great China Dream, wishing to come to terms with the PRC government to allow the Catholic Church to operate unhindered in its territory, including with the Bishop of Rome appointing Catholic bishops. In the on-again, off-again Great China Deal that seems to always be in the works but never seems to come to fruition between Pope Francis’s curia and Xi Jinping’s government, the rosy picture presented especially by the Catholic bishop of Hong Kong, John Cardinal Tong, is that an agreement between the PRC and the Vatican can be made on the appointment of bishops in order to resolve the irregularities between the official state-registered Catholic Church (the Chinese Patriotic Association) and the underground church. I have written previously about why Tong’s predecessor Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun keeps protesting such a deal, but there is also another reason why such an agreement might be thorny: Taiwan.
It turns out that the Vatican has diplomatic relations with Taiwan, which means that it does not have diplomatic relations with the PRC. What this means is that a deal to regularize relations with the PRC would be to throw Taiwan under the bus. What it would also mean is to eliminate the ‘bridge’ in what Pope St John Paul II called the ‘bridge church’ of Taiwan, bridging relations between the Vatican and Catholics in PRC territory; instead of a bridge, there would be direct relations, but what it would probably also mean is the burning of the bridge.
In this, I hope the Latin Church has a measure of self-doubt about what it wants to do on the Taiwan question. Certainly, it was likely for lack of doubt that the Latin Church went ahead with the Havana Declaration between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow without so much as consulting the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church’s Patriarch Sviatoslav, who happens to be on the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. As I have suggested before, this simplification likely has noble intentions: most of Pope Francis’s understanding of Vatican foreign policy seems to be filtered through the lens of trying to bring what he calls the ‘piecemeal Third World War’ to an end.
But does simplification bring about world peace? Does projecting all of one’s desires for freedom and democratization onto one region actually bring about freedom and democratization? Does authoritative punditry actually have any authority?
As those in the West have entered the season of Advent and we in the East have been in St Philip’s Fast for quite some time, perhaps we might come to realize that in these dangerous times, we cannot afford to separate our spirituality from our politics, our theological reflection from the actual praxis of agonistic debate at a global scale. The question of Taiwan is thus a spiritual question for all of us – not in the sense of spiritualizing the Taiwan debate, but in terms of reflecting on how our very confused discourse about Taiwan both in the United States and within Catholicism shows that at least most of us are prone to think about the world by projecting our desires onto it and how a lack of self-criticism that must accompany any form of conscientization in fact exacerbates the piecemeal third world war. It is this projection, I claim, that most dangerously throws the people of Taiwan with all of their ideological diversity under the bus, denying them the agency to act in history for themselves and cementing our place in history as their oppressors. In these dangerous times, then, let me a sinner become even more doubtful of myself – especially when writing on a region that on which I am supposed to have some academic expertise and personal experience – that as I beg for G-d’s mercy, perhaps even I a sinner may cooperate with the Holy Spirit in bringing the peace which passes all understanding to a world governed by misinformation and become a truly human person who is set free from oppressing people I do not know that I am oppressing.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of G-d, have mercy on me, a sinner. And Lord Jesus, if I may be so bold, let not those who will call me a Social Justice Warrior because I wrote this post perish because of me, a sinner.