Given how much commentary finds refuge in the media ether, you might think that Taiwan's already a smoking wasteland, but it's only the analysts and columnists that are wreaking carnage so far.
Art: Mark Corry
We’ve been swamped with reports and analysis on the imminent “war” – so much so as to suggest it’s inevitable (it really needn’t be) while prompting anyone and everyone to an opinion on “the situation.”
It’s very seldom that The Sages of the Strait – to coin a yet unwritten book title – have experience of Taiwan, or even China, but that doesn’t stop the steady rollout of bold geopolitical solutions to an issue with vastly significant ramifications.
Like, would we ever get another iPhone?
Meanwhile, Taiwan’s patience is running short. It will do what has to be done with China if and when the time comes, but right now the real enemy is the people writing about the war – the war that hasn’t happened yet.
We’ll start with something published in The Conversation that has come to be known among Taiwan’s chattering classes as “that article.” It’s titled, “When people say the West should support Taiwan, what exactly do they mean?”
It’s not a bad debate subject, and the first paragraph is reasonable enough. But by the second, one starts to sense that the argument is going to devolve into spluttering woolliness as it works itself into an op-ed lather.
There is a growing antagonism towards China in Western commentary, provoked by its treatment of the Uighurs, Hong Kong and Taiwan, its activities in the South China Sea and its role in Sri Lanka’s debt crisis.
Some of this commentary is undoubtedly justified. But is the West sleepwalking to war with China – and would it be a just war, or a foolhardy act of declining powers?
That last sentence is rhetorical, because the author clearly thinks, Yes, we’re sleepwalking into a foolhardy war. He writes:
The problem … is that Taiwan is not independent, has not claimed independence, and indeed still claims to be the government of all of China.
That isn’t a typo either. Taiwan claims to govern all of China.
Well, you could say that, except it’s not by choice. As James Lin (@jamestwotree) sums up in a tweet thread:
The basis for this claim is the ROC's 1947 constitution, when the ROC was actually the legitimate government of all of China, in Nanjing. Let's put aside that this is a 75 year old document and understand that historically, when it was written, the ROC did govern all of China.
In other words, Taiwan is in a Catch-22 where it has no interests in China, but declaring this obvious fact publicly through constitutional reform would entail crossing a red line and trigger likely catastrophic military consequences.
It doesn’t matter that Taiwan did what we wanted China to do and democratized and voted out the authoritarian government that tethered them to China 75 years ago with a constitution written in then Nanking, capital of Nationalist China.
No, Taiwan, you brought this all upon yourselves by laying claim to the entire fucking Middle Kingdom – and you think we should have your backs if this all turns uncivil.
Taiwan may one day suffer the blows of Chinese irredentism, but in the meantime it’s the victim of ill-informed cliches that finger it as the cause of all the problems – because we could only accuse the would-be invader at the risk of hurting its people’s feelings.
The News Lens, a Taiwanese website, lists some of the other problems, like, say, use of the world “flashpoint.”
There’s no doubt commentators described the Taiwan Strait as a flashpoint during the Cold War. The terminology survived into the Internet era; on January 1, 1997, Taiwan’s government published a commentary describing China and Taiwan’s different interpretations over the One China Principle as making the Taiwan Strait a potential military flashpoint.
An old BBC website that describes Taiwan’s history and politics is titled “Taiwan Flashpoint.” More recently, media outlets published reports with titles like “Taiwan could be the next 'flashpoint'” and “Taiwan is again becoming a flashpoint between China and America.” A former U.S. diplomat turned scholar also said that Taiwan is the most likely flashpoint in U.S.-China relations.
And, then, there’s the august Economist which trumped everyone with a cover story that labeled Taiwan as The Most Dangerous Place in the World.
It may well be the most dangerous place to be if China invades it, but none of us knows when or if that might happen.
And for the moment Taiwan is The Most Misunderstood Place in the World.
Blame It on the Banks
Henan Provincials in the cross-hairs of depositor fury. Photo: Wiki Commons.
Those banks in Henan Province: it’s tempting to launch into a long mansplainer about what’s gone wrong there – and why Henan is not a unique case – except that we’re not very good at mansplaining banking at ChinaDiction.
But we do notice when the South China Morning Post reports:
The banking scandal in China’s central Henan province could be merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of systemic risks, and its impact threatens to snowball if regulators fail to bring it under control while the nation is struggling to boost its economy, according to analysts.
Meanwhile, a central bank official vowed on Wednesday to beef up efforts in cracking down on illegal financial activities while also protecting consumer interests.
For months, rural savers have taken to the streets in Zhengzhou, Henan province, to demand their money after finding that their deposits had been frozen since April 18 at four banks – Yuzhou Xinminsheng Village Bank, Shangcai Huimin County Bank, Zhecheng Huanghuai Community Bank and New Oriental Country Bank of Kaifeng.
The protests subsequently escalated to a violent clash on Sunday. Protesters were surrounded by local police and were recorded being beaten by unidentified men in white shirts.
Caixin Global quoted a Liaoning-based auditor (on condition of anonymity), saying: "'If the risks cannot be contained, what happened in Henan will also likely happen in Liaoning.”
Michael Pettis, Peking University finance professor and Carnegie Endowment senior fellow, replies on Twitter (very sensibly):
Not just in Liaoning. There is likely to be pressure in a number of other provinces … In fact in every province in which the property bubble is starting to deflate, we will ‘discover’ that expectations of ever-rising real-estate prices had underpinned an enormous amount of very risky borrowing. This has happened in every real-estate bubble in history.
Consider the Reuters reports that homeowners countrywide are refusing to pay mortgages on unbuilt apartments.
That has to be a big deal.
It is spreading like wildfire. Homebuyers in China are refusing to pay the mortgage on properties they’ve bought but that their financially strapped developers can’t finish. Some say that they will only resume payments when construction restarts.
The protest involved more than 100 delayed projects as of July 13, up from 58 projects just one day earlier. The frustrated buyers accuse the developers of misusing sales proceeds and the banks of failing to safeguard their loans.
Back to Pettis again:
Local governments … are caught in an impossible situation. Beijing insists on both unrealistically high growth targets and debt moderation. Because they can't achieve both, local governments will be forced to drop one or the other of these two objectives.
What's most likely is that they will drop the latter, getting around debt constraints in any way they can in order to meet the unrealistic growth targets. In that case "unconventional" borrowing through risky debt products is inevitable.
There is nothing new about this. For years a few of us have been discussing the failed attempts by very worried Chinese regulators to control the spread of moral hazard, but every time, when faced with the disruptive impacts on financial markets, they always pulled back.
The latest round of insolvencies probably began with Baoshang Bank in May 2019, but in fact this has been going on for nearly a decade. Every time the regulators tried to clamp down, the panicked reaction of the markets caused them quickly to retreat.
The result was that moral hazard was not gently squeezed out of the system, as they had hoped, but in fact became even more entrenched.
Writes the Financial Times:
The central government needs to worry more now about the property sector issue spilling over into the regional banks. Regional banks have a lot more exposure to property than they would like to admit.
The payment refusals, reports Bloomberg, underscore how China’s property sector tsunami is now tugging at the knees of the country’s middle class. That, theoretically, would be bad for social stability precisely as the banking system is already overextended on property developers rank-and-file Chinese no longer want to pay.
There may even be some other things Chinese citizens are not completely happy about. It’s not something we can comment on, but fiscally the place is looking dodgy and ChinaDiction doesn’t recommend throwing your life savings at it.
In fact – and we’re not supposed to say this (it may also not be true) – the entire Chinese economy is probably a rickety stack of cards – and without that wobbly stack of cards we’d all be picking up cards for a living.
The Everything App Does Everything – Keeps Xi Awake at Night, Even
Ping me! Pay me! Photo: Wiki Commons.
Bloomberg has birthed a long-form think piece on WeChat’s ubiquity and why it hangs over General Secretary Xi Jinping like the Sword of Damocles.
WeChat appears to be a source of alternating comfort and concern for Xi. Its ubiquity makes it a powerful tool of surveillance and control. It has also been misused by a member of his own political party to spy on colleagues, people familiar with the incident say, and has offered a venue for citizens to express collective outrage, as they did this spring when the country’s Covid-19 response faltered. [Pony] Ma [马化腾; Mǎ Huàténg] faced a choice: remodel his business, and himself, in the image of Xi’s new China or risk losing everything.
The story is laden with some great WeChat lore:
WeChat was a dud at first. Smartphone developers hadn’t yet figured out a good way to present a Chinese keyboard on a small screen, so many people simply weren’t texting. For inspiration, Ma and Zhang studied a competitor called TalkBox that was quickly gaining traction. Instead of typing, TalkBox users recorded short audio messages. “Inputting Chinese was much harder than English,” says Heatherm Huang, who helped build TalkBox shortly after graduating college when he was 21. “That’s why the push-to-talk function was so popular in Asia.” He was surprised to notice Ma and Zhang among the early users of the app, but it all made sense a few months later when WeChat came out with a replica of TalkBox’s audio messaging feature. From there, TalkBox’s growth stalled, and WeChat’s took off.
So what could possibly disturb Xi’s sleep; what’s this blade tickling at his rear hairline?
Bloomberg puts it like this:
As the omicron variant was surging in Shanghai, WeChat became a tool to restrict people’s movement—citizens were assigned color codes based on their health risk and travel history and were required to present them when out in public. The government confined millions to their homes and triggered mass-testing on a scale unseen since the initial outbreak of 2020. WeChat also became the platform where the city’s outraged citizens aired their grievances in what became a virtual protest.
To regain control of the narrative, the government ordered internet platforms to wipe posts deemed negative or critical of the policies, sending WeChat censors into overdrive. This further antagonized the people of Shanghai. Their frustrations culminated in an unprecedented wave of public outcry in April.
If the moment had a Tank Man, it would be “Voices of April.” That’s the title of a six-minute video that began circulating on WeChat and other platforms during the omicron lockdown. It mashed up voice recordings of crying babies separated from their quarantined parents, residents demanding food, and the pleas of a son seeking medical help for his critically ill father. The video was quickly designated as banned content and removed, but not before millions of people in Shanghai and across the country viewed versions of it. People found creative ways to circumvent the censors. Some posted the video upside down; others superimposed words or images or embedded additional footage to fool the automated censor systems.
Data collection, surveillance, all great if you’re a totalitarian regime, but can you just keep this between you and me? It’s not like non-Chinese need to know that we were compelled to weld you into your apartment and bludgeon your pets to death as you begged for food deliveries.
Lithuania vs the Leviathan
Lithuania and Taiwan said yes. China says no. Photo: Taipei Times
Forget Ukraine and Russia – just for a moment – and spare a thought for feisty little Lithuania, which in mid-2021, permitted Taiwan to open a local representative with “Taiwan” in the name.
Yes, it was a move guaranteed to hurt feelings in a nation poised to inherit an entire century – the world with it.
Writes the Wall Street Journal:
One might expect that a global heavyweight like China would find it easy to punish a minnow like Lithuania, whose economy in 2021 was about 0.4% the size of China’s. But in fact Beijing’s initial response—an unofficial block on Lithuanian exports to China, which plunged by about 80% between September 2021 and March 2022—was relatively ineffective.
For the moment Lithuania is sticking it out, even though its president said, in early January. that the decision on the representative office name had been a mistake.
It wouldn’t be a mistake if everyone else did it.
What a Scorcher
A historical heatwave, probably before climate change. Picture: Library of Congress.
China has issued temperature alerts for 86 cities, reports The Guardian.
This is particularly bad news for what China calls its “furnace cities.”
In the eastern city of Nanjing, one of China’s three “furnaces” notorious for their searing summers, city officials opened up underground air-raid shelters to local people since Sunday, with its wartime bunkers equipped with wifi, books, water dispensers and even microwave ovens.
In Chongqing, another furnace city, the roof of one of its museums melted, with the tiles of a traditional Chinese roof popping as the heat dissolved the underlying tar. The city raised a red alert on Monday.
High temperatures, humidity and ultraviolet radiation are also forecast to envelop the central city of Wuhan, the third furnace city.
It’s hot – 40 degrees plus in some parts of China – with a high chance of lockdown quarantines and joblessness.
Fortunately, The Guardian reports, Europe and southwest and central US are suffering as well.
No Puns or Homophones, Please
Chatting about ‘river crabs’ might be less than ‘harmonious’ but Weibo plans to put a stop to that.
Weibo, China’s Twitter with no real opinions, has announced a crackdown on homophones and “misspelled” characters to "stop the spread of harmful information,” reports Whatsonweibo. In other words: stricter control on creative language bent on circumventing censorship.
Is there life without homophones?
Chinese have been using them creatively to speak openly on the internet for as long as there’s been internet, as Whatsonweibo argues – and probably before there was internet to simply evade gossips, spies, traitors and their ilk.
This week, for example, some Chinese netizens started using the characters for the word ‘Helan’ (荷兰), meaning The Netherlands, which sounds very similar to the province ‘Henan’ (河南) to discuss the Henan bank protests. As reported … in Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, the replacement of the much-censored ‘Henan’ topic by the term ‘Holland’ sparked some affiliated code language, like Zhengzhou becoming ‘Amsterdam’ and bank deposits becoming ‘tulips.’
As the Chinese say, “If you’re Dutch like me, I hope you didn’t deposit your tulips in a bank in Amsterdam – you do know that Henan agricultural banks offer great fixed-deposit short-term interest on renminbi accounts, right?”
Grandma Wong Jailed
She was a fixture – and in some ways emblematic of the social diversity and determination – of the Hong Kong protests for democracy, but on Wednesday she was jailed for unlawful assembly, “a day after courts imprisoned a terminally ill 75-year-old activist,” reports AFP.
Alexandra Wong, 66, popularly known as “Grandma Wong”, was a regular presence at the protests three years ago, usually waving a British Union Jack flag.
Prosecutors accused her of participating in two unlawful assemblies on August 11, 2019 and shouting “offensive words”, adding that her flag-waving and slogans encouraged an illegal gathering.
From the dock, the bespectacled and grey-haired Wong struck a defiant note and criticised Hong Kong’s government as an “authoritarian regime.”
ChinaDiction shouldn’t need to say, but this shouldn’t be happening in Hong Kong.
Did you get that? This shouldn’t be happening in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong Unveils 5,000 Years of History
Yup, that’s an ancient pillow – one of the many reasons Mao Zedong just wanted to start all over again: Photo: Francis Chan Sau Yam, Creative Commons.
Despite controversies and delays, Hong Kong’s very own Palace Museum (HKPM) opened on July 3, just one day late, to approximately coincide with 25th anniversary celebrations of the Hong Kong handover.
While it might share a name with the historic Forbidden City institution, the $450 million Hong Kong museum is far from being a mere satellite branch of the Palace Museum in Beijing, which houses China’s Imperial Collection. Instead, newly created multimedia works by homegrown contemporary artists are shown alongside valuable ancient works of art on loan outside of Beijing for the first time, forging an entirely distinct identity for the new space.
At the opening ceremony, outgoing Chief Executive Carrie Lam said: “Hong Kong Palace Museum provides a platform for the visitors to appreciate China’s 5,000-year history and raise cultural confidence and national pride. The museum must bear the responsibility to facilitate Hong Kong people’s national identity.”
Those citywide street protests over identity seem so recent – and so irrevocably jackbooted into amnesiac obscurity.
Taipei Mayoral Run is On, With a Resignation
Health Minister Chen Shih-chung (陳時中, Chén Shí-zhōng) has announced his resignation in order to focus on his run for Taipei mayor.
The election will be held on November 26.
Local commentators are calling it a “three-way race” between Chen, Legislator Chiang Wan-an (蔣萬安, Jiǎng Wàn-ān) of the KMT and perhaps Deputy Taipei Mayor Huang Shan-shan (黃珊珊, Huáng Shān-shān), who has yet to announce her election bid:
Flag-at-Half-Mast Debate in Taiwan
Taiwan lowered its flag to half-mast in memoriam of the assassination of Abe Shinzo, who was considered a friend of Taiwan. But, asked some, is that enough to lower the flag?
According to a lawyer in conversation with Taiwan’s Chinese-language United Daily News, it’s a presidential decision – not judicial – and President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文, Cài Yīng-wén) called it.
Tibetans to Receive Modern Housing
Photo: Twitter, photographer unknown.
More than 17,000 Tibetans from Tsonyi county, Nagchu prefecture are to leave their homes to settle about 400km away in Lhoka prefecture of what the CCP refer to as “Tibet Autonomous Region”. 4000 farmers and herdsmen were already relocated in 2019.
This is a phase of a major relocation plan to move individuals living in altitudes above 4800 metres. This includes 130,000 Tibetans from the autonomous prefectures of Shigatse, Nagchu and Ngari of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. The relocation is to happen in phases and to be completed by 2025.
ChinaDiction should add that 4,800 meters is really high, and a lower altitude might appear to make managing/sinicizing Tibetans easier, but Beijing will have as much chance moulding its Tibetan “cousins” into Han Chinese as Berlin would rebaking the English as Germans.
Bill Calls for Recognition of Tibet
It’s just a bill for Congress, but any movement on things Tibetan is huge news for Tibetans, and this bill, reports Save Tibet, will take …
… concrete action to resolve China’s decades-long illegal occupation of Tibet by fully recognizing Tibet’s unresolved status and faulting China for violating the Tibetan people’s right to self-determination.
The Promoting a Resolution to the Tibet-China Conflict Act will affirm the US position that Tibet’s legal status remains to be determined under international law, despite more than six decades of China’s illegal occupation and the Chinese government’s disinformation falsely claiming that Tibet has been part of China since ancient times. Reps. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and Michael McCaul, R-Texas, introduced the bill in the House today, July 13, 2022.
The legislation will make it official US policy that Tibetans have the right to self-determination, and that China’s policies are precluding them from exercising that right. Under China’s brutal occupation, Tibet is now the least-free country on Earth alongside South Sudan and Syria—according to the latest rankings from the watchdog group Freedom House—and the Chinese government has refused to negotiate with Tibetan leaders since 2010.
No, we will not be fighting to liberate Tibet, if China invades Taiwan, but a new deal for Tibet is not inconceivable in an alternative reality in which a failed invasion of Taiwan sunders the bedrock of CPC theocracy.
More Money? Why Not?
1935, back when money was worth something. Photo Wiki Commons
China's monetary policy is expected to stay accommodative in the coming months and consolidate the recovery of demand in the real economy, after the country's financing activity staged a strong rebound in June, experts said.
Responds Michael Pettis:
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