5. March 11, 2023
Why and How to Care. Compassion and Empathy Now. Minister of Digital Affairs of Taiwan, Audrey Tang, part 2.
We were cowering in bomb shelters hoping enemy soldiers wouldn’t come down and find us. We were hiding out with children in makeshift sleeping arrangements who were asking why the other side had to fight with us so violently when agreeing to peace is so simple. We were with people who have never known what it’s like not to live under constant threat of invasion and for whom the danger of outside oppressors coming in and taking over conversely makes them not want to give up or give in all the more. We cried with people asking how the other side could think they were “liberating” us when all they liberated us from was our families, our friends, our loved ones, our homes, our jobs, our lives. We were with civilians scrambling to learn how to stand up for themselves, how to take care of others, how to fight for their lives or run for the border. We were tip toeing through grey, barren, cold, menacing wastelands, bombed out buildings, shot up walls, scavenging for water, collecting dead bodies, attempting to treat the injured with the sound of gunfire and threat of bombs ever present overhead and the fear that we would be hit next.
This is Evgeny Afineevsky’s film, “Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom.” Evgeny is Russian, but that doesn’t mean he sides with Putin or must side with Putin or lose his source of financing and prestige, or that he feels he must apologize for or justify or diminish the seriousness of Putin’s violent invasion or be told he’s not a good Russian or can’t return to Russia. This may sound so obvious and natural in the context of Russia as to not need stating. But when it comes to China, you would be mistaken if you thought the same logic applies for the people and companies with entrenched interests in China and the dictatorship of Xi Jinping.
“If Russia had succeeded in taking Ukraine as quickly as planned, there would be Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops in Taiwan today,” Paul Massaro, the senior policy advisor for counter-corruption and sanctions told me after Evgeny’s screening on Capitol Hill.
Paul is a longtime friend and colleague of my close friend, Zoe Reiter, from our days in graduate school at Columbia University. Zoe and I both chose not to become academics. Today, she lives in DC and works at POGO, the Project on Government Oversight, and is a co-founder of ACDC, the Anti-Corruption Data Collective. Zoe came with me to Evgeny’s screening along with another close friend from our time working at the Council on Foreign Relations, Susanna Campbell. Susanna did follow through with her PhD and teaches at American University in the School of International Service in DC. She has written a book on “Global Governance and Local Peace, Accountability and Performance in International Peacebuilding.”
When we worked at the Council on Foreign Relations, Susanna was at the Center for Preventive Action (CPA) which aims to help policymakers devise timely and practical strategies to prevent and mitigate armed conflict around the world. I was working with Elizabeth C. Economy and Jerome Alan Cohen in the Asia Program focused on China and Taiwan each of whose rise is defining the twenty-first century with global implications far beyond the region’s borders.
After watching Evgeny’s film about Ukraine, Susanna was speaking to the question of Post Traumatic Stress that people in war zones face and that people making films in war zones face and that people watching films about war zones need to process. The degree of stress on audiences is nothing compared with those living in or documenting war zones. In fact, the opening images I shared were ones I woke up with after seeing Evgeny’s film. I had processed them in my sleep and woken up in my warm bed with food and shelter. I am fine. I am writing you about this now.
Yet many distributors with whom Evgeny has had conversations about the film have argued against buying it by suggesting that it’s too depressing or disturbing for their audiences. This is simply not true and not because in the end the message of the film is that we must care. The violence of so many films including those nominated for Oscars tomorrow matches or far exceeds anything in “Freedom on Fire” about a real war actually taking place right now. On the contrary, not only does this documentary not glorify or sensationalize war as so many war movies do, but it puts you with the civilians, the women and children, the everyday people we can relate to as they experience the war so that we can extend our empathy to them. It speaks volumes about the corruption rampant in today’s film industry that not one distributor has picked up Evgeny’s film when only a decade ago he had Netflix and an Oscar nomination for “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom” about the 2013 to 2014 student demonstrations supporting European integration for Ukraine.
Ukraine is the front line holding down democracy for all of us today and they have been fighting for over one year straight. We have got to care.
That is the big question facing all of us who do not want to live in a world run on violence, terror and war: HOW DO WE GET PEOPLE TO CARE!?
I’m bringing this conversation back to Audrey Tang and Taiwan.
Though it took me by surprise at the time, I have known since the first year I lived and studied abroad in Taiwan, 1995-6, that China has plans to control and own it. When I arrived in Taipei to study and work in 1995, Taiwan was not yet a democracy. By the time I left in 1996, Taiwan had held their first ever direct, democratic, presidential elections. I had asked to borrow a Chinese language teacher’s camera to film during newly elected President Lee Denghui’s inauguration weekend, making my first short film. And I have been enthralled with Taiwan ever since.
But all around Taiwan, the waters were not as peaceful and smooth as Taiwan’s impressive democratic transition out of the dictatorship brought by Chiang Kai-Shek and his Nationalist Party (KMT) from China. There was another Chinese dictatorship, but of the Communist Party, (call it something less centralized than that and you would be ignoring or obfuscating its true nature) across the Taiwan strait, and they began firing missiles at all of us on the island from 1995 through 1996 with the aim of preventing Taiwan from becoming a democracy.
When I went to work at the National Committee on US-China Relations from 1996 -7, and then the Council on Foreign Relations from 1997 to 1999, the word about Taiwan was to keep it mum, bite your tongue. Yes, Taiwan was a potential flashpoint for WW3 everyone knew it and that was precisely why we should not talk about it for fear of provoking the ire of the men in charge in Beijing. The goals of the United States’ engagement policy with China were more complicated than simply to make such good friends with the people and government of China that they would become less of a threat to Taiwan and the world, but that was the overarching idea we were sold and buying into for decades.
That the US government was selling the Chinese government and Taiwan’s government weapons. That the US was simultaneously focused on our own military primacy and enriching elites. That we were largely quiet and not speaking up about the values and concerns that show we care about human beings and human life, human rights and democracy in China, Taiwan or the US when it mattered most (certain crucial turning points that I will return to), this did not seem to worry too many in the elite business and foreign policy circles or those with entrenched interests in China’s market everywhere all around me. On the contrary, people who did try to speak up about the truth were sidelined, silenced and marginalized.
These lines from Allan G. Johnson’s excellent book “The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy,” (which has been translated into Chinese and is available in Taiwan) always come back to me when I think back on my time believing in “The China Fantasy” as James Mann brilliantly captured it in his book about “How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression”:
“We are like a family colluding in silence over dark secrets of damage and abuse or like good Germans during the Holocaust who never knew anything terrible was being done. We cling to the illusion that everything is alright that bad things do not happen to good people that good people can not participate in the production of injustice and cruelty and that if we only leave things alone they’ll stay pretty much as they are. And we often like to think, always have been. Many women of course and a few men do dare to see and speak the truth, but they are always in danger of being attacked and discredited in order to maintain the silence.”
The frame for understanding China and Taiwan should not be that democracy and human rights activists are dissidents or rioters, as actor Donnie Yen, who has been invited to present at this year’s Oscars would put it about those in Hong Kong who struggled to maintain their freedom and democracy from the grip of the Chinese Communist Party he consults for as Jackie Chan once did. It is that dictators are cruel, violent, warmongering sadists who take pleasure in humiliating people because that’s the warped world of patriarchy that they have internalized and operate in.
“Seeing through the lens of entrenched interests has warped our world and is why we have war,” Paul Massaro shared with me in that room on Capitol Hill after Evgeny’s screening.
Seeing from the ground up in Taiwan and seeing what they’re up against whether on the diplomatic or military front is the only way to prevent this war with China that China openly threatens. Listen to Xi Jinping’s speeches since 2019 and you will hear his intentions loud and clear.
We must shift the frame to Taiwan’s perspective before it is too late. But how do we get people to CARE. That question comes back.
How do we get people to care about a country under imminent threat of invasion? It sounds absurd, but as a filmmaker, I have to constantly ask, is it through character and verité, not history and fact? Through both? Is it always the same answer? Is it not equally about the entrenched interests we are up against?
If I am moved by the character of President Tsai Ing-wen who I’ve had access to, but she is not a type like Alexei Navalny who is highly open, inviting the camera into all scenarios, a dissident and charismatic white man who wants to be the center of attention, but instead a quiet, thoughtful and careful Asian woman who wants to be woven into the fabric of a story about her country rather than having the spotlight on herself, will people not care about Taiwan watching what she and her country are going through?
I don’t know how to make people care about Taiwan if they won’t care about Ukraine, won’t care about Hong Kong, won’t care about Tibet, won’t care about Xinjiang, won’t care about gun violence in the US, won’t care about Tiananmen, won’t care about women’s equality globally, won’t care about how COVID hit us, won’t care about racism, won’t care about Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, won’t care about Watergate, won’t care about Dachau and concentration camps under Hitler, won’t care about the Nanjing massacre, won’t care about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It’s all connected.
We should care about Taiwan simply because there are 24 million people living there who are about to lose their homes, their loved ones, their work, their families, their cities, their country, and their lives! Period. End of sentence. End of argument. But that’s not enough!
“We should’ve woken up to the direction China was heading in 15 years ago at least,” Paul Massaro said to me. Yes, I made a film at exactly that cutting edge moment with President Obama’s US Ambassador to China John Huntsman beginning in 2009 right after the 2008 financial crisis. I captured the shift. This was the second financial crisis that hit Asia hard after the 1997-1998 one that went down with the Thai baht and was incorrectly analyzed when I was working at the Council on Foreign Relations. The two financial crises changed everything in the power dynamic between the US and China in Asia. The film was treated as ahead of its time.
When my friend, Janet Yang, who is now President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who has been a big part of my life and the journey on that US-China relations film and others, said to me that the Committee of 100 would not support the film because Chen Guangcheng was in it, I was crushed. I knew it would hurt the film and its chances of broadening the conversation about China to bring it into the present at that time in 2015. But that was then and I’ll return to that later.
I’ve been trying to make people care about the truth for decades, even on this one film about Taiwan.
Now I want to share a video I love called “The Empathic Civilization” by Jeremy Rifkin for the Royal Society of the Arts in London. There’s one fact in it, about human civilization deriving, as the Bible had it, from one Adam and one Eve that David Graeber and David Wengrow’s book “The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity” updates. Still, every other idea in “The Empathic Civilization” is well worth absorbing.
At the 8 minute mark in the video is the description of what happened around the world after the 2010 Haiti earthquake and it reminds me of what Audrey Tang says in answer to my question about how to prevent an invasion of Taiwan and what the hope is for Taiwan’s future. It is international communication and support.
(Please note that Audrey Tang also has the audio recording of this interview and will release it when our film is out. We had our transcripts done by a computer program so sometimes the translation is imperfect, but I’ve done my best to correct mistakes.)
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.
Yeah, I think the Ukrainian experience showed the difference with the situation back in Crimea and the situation with the Kyiv, that the main difference was does the internet enable mass communication? And the same principles actually, in public notice “humor over rumor,” were deployed very successfully in the Kyiv experience. And so usually people who think data, authoritarians are great at (collecting data), funding disinformation campaigns, information manipulation, and so on. But this time was not like that.
The liberal democracies reacted very proactively. Even my grandma, almost 90 years old, when she asked me, was it true that a grandma her age, used a can of cucumbers in Kyiv to smash a drone. And then, according to our fact checkers, the International Network, she actually used a can of tomatoes. But I mean, of course, there's nothing funny about the war, but by making that it's trending on the mimetic front, that Ukrainian -people could reach the world. So it was the international support that mattered. It's not just about standing with Ukraine. But actually, for example, the web three, world three through cryptocurrency. They actually funded a lot of the efforts from Kyiv. The previous civilian e-government app, the DIA app has been transformed overnight, through a network of resilience into ways for people to crowdsource intelligence that has a real effect on the battlefield, and so on and so forth.
So by identifying not with this abstract thing that democracy must fail, but very concrete things like joining in a democratic network that shares the observations about countering disinformation, countering propaganda and things like that, it makes everyone involved. And so making sure that everyone is involved in not Taiwanese democracy, or the Taiwan model, but rather in this networked alliance of democracies, by sharing actively to public vote, by weaving Taiwan into the public infrastructure of the democratic world, as we have signed on the future of the Internet statement, and so on, I believe that takes a proactive stance, not just a defensive reactionary stance.
By contrast, CNN did a “Hard Talk” interview with Audrey Tang last year when they had wanted President Tsai, but couldn’t get her. (Note: it is because the war in Ukraine has raised the stakes so high for Taiwan and China that President Tsai has not been giving on camera interviews to foreign media since the war started.)
I feel Audrey Tang handled the interview beautifully despite how much the interviewer appears to be invested in the Chinese view of Taiwan (as Shawna Yang Ryan experienced and called out so well in her Lithub piece “On Taiwan and Refusing to Stay Silent”).
Audrey Tang’s main points were:
“If the world comes to see Taiwan as an essential partner in providing trustworthy computation (as with Taiwan’s semiconductor chip manufacturing) then the entire democratic camp will see us as a very valuable partner and so will come to our defense.”
“I think all the major parties, including President Tsai’s DPP, the Democratic Progressive Party, in the parliament, reject authoritarian expansionism.”
“When we look at Hong Kong, the so-called “One country, Two systems,” has turned into “Only Patriots can rule Hong Kong.” We all reject that. Our way of life is a free and democratic one.”
“But in the digital realm, when we signed onto the Declaration for the Future of the Internet, which I signed on behalf of Taiwan, we’re one of the 61 partners, full democracies, that signed that declaration together to place our investments jointly to build and shape the internet into something that’s resilient against authoritarianism, to protect human rights. And in the declaration, we’re all referred to as partners, as democracies and so on. So on that front, we’re gaining new ground.”
“I’m nonpartisan, I think it’s far easier if we focus on the parts, for example advancing democracy and human rights. We as the Ministry of Digital Affairs through the department of democracy network, not just through government entities, fellow democracies, but also people who are advocating for democracy, independent journalism and so on —even if and when they live in authoritarian regimes — we must unite.”
“The need is to deter expansionism by authoritarian regimes by making it clear, as I mentioned, that the cost will be insurmountable if they even consider it. It’s not like we in Taiwan are escalating the tension here. That’s the first thing. And the second, is that as I mentioned, there’s a lot of willingness from the US, but also their European counterparts, and other democratic allies, all the 60 signatories of the Declaration for the Future of the Internet to come together for Taiwan. The point I’m making is that for example the UK also realized that a previously considered inexpensive 5G equipment from authoritarian regimes are actually expensive if you think about the risk that it poses to national security. So it’s not like only the US does that assessment. Everybody else is doing the same assessment and concludes that Taiwan is the more trustworthy partner when it comes to powering the secure telecommunication or any scientific computation the military or anyone needs.”
“So this is not a US - PRC thing. This is a free democratic alliance thing.”
Audrey Tang is shifting the frame for Taiwan. We all need to listen to her and shift the frame for Taiwan.
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Interesting that the lines are drawn on Internet freedom boundaries. National sovereignty and personal sovereignty may need to align in the form of private public key encryption for Internet autonomy to actually be a thing.