Tuesday, March 22, 2005

American Civil War Analogy

I haven't been able to get the Bingfeng Teahouse blog out of my head today; in particular, the post dealing with the current cross-strait situation (it was a few days ago, so you'll have to scroll down a bit). The blogger is a Chinese businessman from Shanghai, who's undertaken the admirable project of blogging in English, despite it not being his first language (I'm told there are blogs by foreigners written in Chinese - better, braver men than I). It is, as I've mentioned, an elegant, tech-savvy, and often quite interesting blog. Another reference to Bingfeng that I came across was from a Shanghai (foreigner) blogger, who remarked that he was looking forward to getting together with Bingfeng at the next Shanghai blogger klatch.

In the post that got my attention, he's favorably quoting a correspondent: "The American Civil War was fought over a bunch of territories trying to secede from the Union. In a more modern context, if California announced it was going Communist and leaving the USA, would the rest of America accept that blindly?"
Bingfeng adds: "Many western readers refuse to see this simple fact that no country would allow a part of it to become an antagonistic force, and in addition to this pure national interest consideration, the equally important fact is - Taiwan is Chinese soil."

The U.S. Civil War analogy is often used by defenders of China's Taiwan policy. Is it valid? For one thing, California is not only contiguous with the continental U.S., it's been continuously a part of the U.S. since its (California's) inception. Taiwan has been politically separate from the mainland for over a century, has never been a part of the PRC, and the transition of the KMT (itself localizing) into the opposition has further attenuated the vestigial links to the mainland. Moreover, it is 2005, not 1860. If Puerto Rico or Alaska or Hawaii wishes to secede, yes, they would be permitted to do so - permitted to debate the issue openly, permitted to hold a referendum, and permitted to leave if the referendum so indicated. Here is a Hawaiian blog that advocates doing precisely that. But would the West let a province go that had been a contiguous part of the nation since its inception? Quebec has had secession referendums in 1980 (rejected by 60% of the voters) and 1995 (lost by a 1% margin). If they win the next referendum, they will secede. There is not the slightest suggestion by any serious commentator in North America that the rest of Canada ought to engage Quebec in a war to prohibit this. Keep in mind that the very idea of a referendum is seen by Beijing as a casus belli (Chen Shui Bian, just this month, bowing to international pressure, pledged to not hold a referendum on independence during this term). The very expression of even a moderate Taiwanese viewpoint on these issues is not permitted - not only not permitted in Beijing, but not in Hong Kong, either. Recently, Taipei Mayor Ma Ying Jeou, who was born in Hong Kong, was denied a visa to travel there and speak at a university because of fears that he would express an unfavorable opinion about the so-called Anti- Secession Law. There is simply no analogy to be made with the way this would be handled in North America, or other Western democracies.

In the interest of brevity, I know that I should stay away from the Civil War, but .... okay, I'm over that. It's often said that Lincoln did not prosecute the war in order to end slavery, but to preserve the Union. It is true that, having been elected, and the war commenced, he did for political reasons play down the slavery issue and stress unification. This was because racism in the North was such that many people simply were not willing to go to war in order to free black slaves. For Lincloln, the slavery issue was the union issue - the two could not be separated. Specifically, the war was about whether slavery would be extended to the western states, but the issue was impossible to geopgraphically compartmentalize that way. The "House divided..." speech is often cited as portraying Lincoln as an absolutist on union, but examining it in context makes it clear that union had everything to do with slave versus free:
"A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure half slave and half free. I do not expect the union to be dissolved. I do not expect the House to fall. But I do expect that it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other."

A troubling thing for me is that the correspondent feels it is necessary to add, "if California announced it was going Communist", and Bingfeng concurs that an independent Taiwan would necessarily become "an antagonistic force." We may be getting close to the nub here. Taiwan does not conceivably present any kind of military threat to China. What is being referred to, obliquely, here, is the fact that Taiwan is democratic. This has the remarkable effect of not only equating Beijing with Lincoln, but equating the moral imperative of fighting against slavery with the moral imperative of fighting against democracy. I'm sorry - Starbuck's, musical blog, western businesspals notwithstanding, there may be a values chasm here that simply can't be bridged.

Speculating about someone's motives involves a kind of mind-reading that I try to stay away from. But I can't help wondering if it bothers Bingfeng at all that, having taken a position consonant with that of his government, if he had drawn a different conclusion, his blog would almost certainly be closed. I think if my government and I agreed on an issue, but the government forbade other Americans to express their contrary opinion, I would most likely simply not speak on the subject, in deference to the dignity of my silenced countrymen. Scrolling down a bit, there is a photo of the vote tabulator on the day of the anti-Succession Law's passage, showing hundreds of votes in favor, three abstaining and none against. His remark (presumably sarcastic) was "I wonder who the three were?" I wish he'd said more. I'd like to hear what he had to say on the issue, but then, as a relatively "liberal" Chinese, that might not be advisable for him. But in a real sense, the "debate" in which he participates on his blog is a bit like the simulacrum of the voting apparatus of democracies represented by that "vote". Bingfeng clearly (unlike this blog) has a following and a blogging community of which he is a respected member. His other posts often have comments attached to them. Yet, on this, the most pressing issue of the day, and his longest post in length that I've read, there was not a single comment. It's a loaded silence.