4. March 9, 2023
“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” Audre Lorde
I spent this International Women’s Day with my mother visiting me in Washington, DC. I came to support Evgeny Afineevsky’s screening of his new documentary feature about Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, “Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom.” I woke up to the truth from Jill Filipovic’s excellent substack that it will take women “300 years to gain equality because conservatives in the U.S., Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere don’t want equality at all.” War and violence against women because of women’s lack of equality are deeply interconnected.
My mom and I were hosted by Taiwan’s defacto Ambassador to the U.S. Bikhim Hsiao’s team for a lunch and tour of the Twin Oaks estate which has seen more than eight decades of the Republic of China (ROC) Taiwan’s diplomatic history and US-Taiwan relations. Later, we met with an author, Robert Kim, writing about my paternal grandfather Winston Frederick Churchill Guest’s WW2 experience in China (which I just learned about!) as aide-de-camp to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, and liaison to Chairman Mao Zedong while in the the Air Ground Aid Section (AGAS), part of the dawn of U.S. intelligence and special operations—more on that recently declassified story soon.
We discussed Taiwan so much today and the ugly reality of the world it faces that we were in danger of losing hope. But then my mother started sharing facts about Taiwan as inspiration that had to mean it would be protected. “Taiwan has the best and least expensive health care in the world! The world should learn from Taiwan’s democracy. We can’t let it be invaded!” And it is on that note that I want to offer a piece of one of my more interesting interviews for the film on Taiwan and the only interview in which I’ve ever cried—because I was thinking about WW2 and the truly terrible state of women in the world today.
Audrey Tang is the inaugural Minister of Digital Affairs of Taiwan, and a free software programmer who started her own technology company at age 15. She is the first openly transgender minister anywhere in the world. I interviewed her on July 22nd, 2022. Here is an excerpt:
China's cyber warfare against Taiwan. What are you learning about that? And what is their strategy or their goal? Maybe undermining credibility on the world stage?
Yeah, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) does the information manipulation in Taiwan, not to support any party or affiliation against any party. What they're trying to do is to lower people's trust in the democratic process, because they also have an agenda. They want to push this idea that only authoritarian societies have achieved efficiency, achieved economic growth, and things like that. So they have something to prove. They want to amplify the narrative that says democracy leads to chaos, democracy leads to polarization, democracy leads to people hating each other. And only authoritarian societies are free from these chaotic externalities, and those authoritarian societies are the most harmonious. That is the main narrative.
Now we counter these narratives, not through taking anything down, because if our administration started taking things down, we become authoritarian. So during this whole “info-demic,” this disinformation crisis we never take anything down. Instead, what we do is called “humor over rumor.” We make sure that we work closely with comedians, and also with civic technologists that can surface what is the trending information manipulation, and just targeting those. For example, there was so much disinformation leading to our 2020 presidential election. There was a disinformation that says, “the Hong Kong protesters, the young people, (it was a very scary looking like photo of young protesters), they were being paid $2 million to murder police.” Of course, that is not true. But it's very scary. But instead of taking anything down, we work with international fact checkers, who pinpointed that picture to Reuters. So the photo is true. But the caption initially from Reuters was just “There are young protesters in Hong Kong.” So where does the new caption (about being paid to murder police) come from? It came from the Weibo account of the Central Political and Legal Unit from the Chinese Communist Party.
And so we basically just put out a public notice, so that when you're trying to share this on social media and things like that, there's this mandatory label that says this message caption is proudly sponsored by the Weibo accounts of the Chinese Communist Party. So taking things down, actually fuels conspiracy theories. But when you put it on public notice, anyone who shares it understands where the caption came from. It certainly did not come from the Reuters.
Now, what we're also looking at is to push our counter narratives to “out meme” things, right. So for example, during the pandemic, there was a panic run for a couple of days for toilet paper. And why? Because there was a disinformation campaign that says, “The Taiwan state is nationalizing mass production, and toilet paper materials are going to be confiscated to make medical masks. And so it's going to run out soon and rush out and buy.” And of course, people believed it and they rushed out and bought it. And then there were some photos of people, you know, panicking. And then the disinformation campaign says, “democracy only leads to chaos. It's not orderly, it's not harmonious, and so on.”
But within just a couple of hours, our premier head of our cabinet, pushed out this meme (advertisement) of himself wiggling his bottom and saying in very large font, “咱只有一粒卡臣” (“We have only one bottom,” referring to the slogan “We have only one Earth” from the environmental movement). Basically saying he doesn't pay to stockpile because we cannot use that much toilet paper anyway. And with an infographic that says the masks are plastic materials domestically sourced, but the toilet paper is from South America, and that’s paper. They’re very different materials. So it reached the entire population in just a couple of days. It's like a viral vaccine. People who saw it and laughed about it became immune to the disinformation attack. So just a couple of days after, nobody went to panic buy and people understood.
Brilliant. And that (idea of humor over rumor) is so strangely in sync with what we were looking at today, when I mentioned we were looking at my grandmother's movie. It’s called “The Man I Married” (1940). And the story is that she's a magazine executive in New York City. She's married to a German man. They have a son. This husband of hers needs to go back to Germany during the rise of Hitler. There are questions about what that means exactly. Although someone comes into her office and basically says to my grandmother's character, "I have a relative in Dachau. Can you help get them out?” So that's sort of horrifying! Still, she travels with her husband who’s supposed to be checking on his father and their factories in Germany. The father wants to close the factories and just have the money for his retirement. But when they arrive, there is a woman who kind of seduces my grandmother's husband into basically becoming a Nazi. And the film used real recordings of Goebbels and used real documentary footage of Hitler's rise. And it's totally upsetting to talk to you about that. (This is when I started softly crying). There’s an American journalist who my grandmother kind of seeks refuge with in the film and he basically tells her humor. Hitler has no sense of humor. No government can last that doesn't have a sense of humor about itself. So like the Winnie the Pooh stuff with with Xi Jinping doesn't work. (He’s not some sweet and innocent teddy bear). What do you think?
Yeah, I think humor really is a tireless antidote to this entire disinformation crisis. Do you like some tissue paper? There’s tissue paper, which is totally not plastic.
(Ha! I think I smiled. I took the tissues, but the tears kept coming). In the United States, the Republican Party has become very authoritarian and terrible towards women. And it's terrible that they repealed Roe v. Wade. It has huge implications. And actually, I didn't put this in the questions in advance. But there's a saying that… it's not a saying that, it's a fact that it's actually violence against women that is the single biggest indicator of whether a country will be violent on the world stage. It's not about economics or level of democracy, or anything else. It’s violence against women. And we know the United States is incredibly warmongering, and militaristic and terrible toward women. It's not surprising there are mass shootings every day. And in China, it's also bad towards women. Maybe you could talk about how people are good towards women here?
(This question came out of nowhere. I was really looking for inspiration and Audrey Tang was kind and generous with her answer which was a sweet pick me up).
Yeah, our parliament is more than 40% women and our president 100% woman. I think in Taiwan, really, when I was a child, there was a veritable glass ceiling. My dad and my mom worked as journalists in the same newspaper. And at that time, in the 80s, my mom was still told that she cannot earn a higher salary than her husband. So we've been there. But I think things really changed in Taiwan, mostly because I think this mainstreaming of gender awareness comes from the public sector. The public sector has started doing gender impact assessment, every single policy, every single budgetary item. So after more than a decade of doing this, our entire career public service now internalizes these values, that you simply cannot have a committee with any gender represented less than 1/3. And this is just like internalized for everyone. And then I believe that paved the way for Taiwan to be friendly to 20 national languages now, including the sign language. It paved the way to the LGBTQIA plus communities, the marriage equality. And I'm proud to say that in 2016, onwards to now, I've never been discriminated against just because I'm queer. I'm post gender or transgender. So I think it takes decade of action by the public sector which needs to start and to trust its citizens to civil society organizations to follow through.
My next question is how do we protect Taiwan because authoritarianism is on the rise around the world. Putin has invaded Ukraine. Xi Jinping has declared a “No Limits” friendship with him. Xi's also said that the Taiwan Strait is no longer international waters. There are all these kinds of ways to read indications that he's planning a potential invasion of Taiwan. We're trying to figure out how to get the story out. How to prevent an invasion from China. I'd love to know your thoughts…
(To be continued)
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