Wang Yiqiao, a PhD candidate in constitutional law at Indiana University, wrote these ten observations on the recent Taiwanese presidential elections. He published this essay under the penname Sanjin (三斤) on the volunteer-run blog WeThinker (微思客).
Ten Notes on Taipei
January 15, the night before voting day. I return from Ms. Tsai‘s campaign rally in front of the Presidential Palace on Ketagalan Boulevard and text my classmate, Lou. “Can I go with you when you vote tomorrow? I want to see what it’s like.”
January 16. First thing in the morning, I take the MRT to meet up with her. Her polling station is an elementary school about a five-minute walk from where she lives. A statue of Sun Yat-sen stands smack in the middle of the school’s courtyard. People are coming and going, following signs to the appropriate classroom to cast their votes. No one is looking at him. Classmate Lou has me take a picture of her holding her polling card. She poses with a shining, confident smile.
“I’ll wait for you here,” I say.
“You can actually come a little closer in if you want to see. Are you sure you don’t want to?”
“I’m good here.” Classmate Lou strolls back out just two minutes later, as nonchalantly as when I wait for her to put down her books and come out of the library to eat lunch back in Bloomington. There isn’t any inkling of the “grandiosity” and “solemnity” I imagined there should be.
This is part of their normal lives. As mundane as can be.
That evening, she posts a joke to Facebook. “Last night I got a text from Sanjin saying he wanted to see what ‘voting’ was all about. Isn’t it as simple as getting your ballot, making your mark, and sneaking a peek at who other people are voting for while putting your ballot in the box?”
I reply, “To me, such an ordinary thing as voting is an enviable right and freedom.”
Why didn’t I get any closer? In reality, I was afraid that jealousy would swell up in my heart and I’d lose control of myself.
January 14, two days before the election.
I have plans to eat dinner with friends. I arrive very early and sit down on the steps of the nearby Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, watching the sky grow dark. The two young people in the photo are sitting off to my side. In their Taiwanese-accented Mandarin, they talk about the coming election and who they are going to vote for.
They don’t mention blue or green, unification or independence, Chinese or Taiwanese. They’re just earnestly discussing social policy, saying they plan to return to their hometowns to vote for the little parties they support.
Behind them, the statue of the man this island calls its “founding father” still stands. But two days before this election, the party he founded has been abandoned by most people. They are already doomed to defeat. Before his memorial hall, no one is listening to his contemporary comrades warning about their “unfinished business.”
I had never in my life heard people talking so earnestly, yet so gently, about politics in public. To the people around me in my life–myself included, most of the time–politics is something you either casually mock or complain about with hopelessness.
We are never gentle.
Two days before the election, I go to visit the Tsai campaign headquarters and browse the attached campaign store.
When I go to pay, a girl across the room wearing a plaid shirt shouts over to me, “Sir, that item is buy-one-get-one-free!” Just as I’m about to turn around to grab another one off the rack, another girl nearby with long hair raises her hand, smiling, and says, “I’ll get it for you.” She then trots all the way over to the rack and back. Victory is so close, a victory that they honestly believe in and support.
Two days before the election. Mr. Huang is stirring up extreme opposition across the two sides of the Strait.
The western side is screaming bloody murder, while the eastern side rallies under their sensitive banner. Many people vote in order to avenge Ms. Chou, to kick the KMT once last time, even though it’s already on the brink.
I’m there that night when Ms. Tsai holds her victory rally. She says she wants to unite Taiwan. “I will work hard so that not a single one of my citizens will have to apologize for his or her own identity,” she announces.
The crowd cheers. I just stand there, silent.
“Freedom from fear” is what that is called. It’s something I’ve never had.
When talking with teachers and friends in Taiwan, politics is an unavoidable topic. They each have their own opinions and viewpoints, yet they are all still fair and reasonable people.
These conversations happen everywhere: in cafeterias, coffee shops, on the side of the road, on the subway.
I inadvertently lower my voice, not wanting those around me to hear “my” thoughts. But my Taiwanese friends maintain their volume. Some even get louder once in a while, in order to get their point across. They totally don’t care if other people can hear their opinions. And I’ve never seen anyone bat an eye our way after hearing what we have to say, even though I’m sure that sometimes our opinions go against popular sentiment. But it never causes a problem.
This is also part of “freedom from fear” and the “tolerance” that a civilized society should have.
Back to that night at Ms. Tsai’s victory rally.
The reporter asks even-keeled questions. Nothing provocative, just doing her duty as a reporter. But the crowd thinks she had something up her sleeve. Their jeers get louder, more abusive. Some young people behind me even yell, “Go back to China!”
This woman is obviously one of their own. Where would they have her go?
Things like this would only be said at a time and place like this, right? These “like-minded” individuals here, feeling the strength of their momentum, the joy of victory pumping hormones through their veins, spiking their adrenaline.
Maybe they will return to being their polite selves once they return to their everyday lives, or at least they wouldn’t audibly “squawk” right at someone. At most they’ll just give dirty looks.
Or maybe there will be the Internet.
The day after Ms. Tsai is elected, someone puts up an old video by an artist surnamed Luo. He calls himself “Chinese.”
Mr. Luo is then “board-wiped” online with a flood of comments. Cursing and worse are all over the place.
“I will work hard so that not a single one of my citizens will have to apologize for his or her own identity.” The echo of her words has just receded.
This time, Ms. Tsai doesn’t say anything. It leaves you feeling like only the “correct” identity is “correct.”
I know what she’ll say if asked: We respect a diversity of voices and identities.
Yesterday, a bunch of “netizens” from the west broke through the Great Firewall en masse to go on a Facebook “expedition.” I just saw the headlines. I didn’t click to see any details. And I certainly didn’t run onto Facebook to see what all the fuss was about. I know what they would be saying. It wasn’t worth a look or a comment.
Just like the netizens to the east, they’re nothing but nationalist keyboard warriors. Take away the Internet, and they’re nothing at all.
The “my country, my people” wall jumpers probably suffer some kind of Stockholm syndrome. They are restricted, they lack freedom from fear, and yet they unthinkingly attack a perceived “enemy.” They don’t even have the same freedom as the “enemies” who I equally despise, to yell at their own compatriots to “go back to China,” to proclaim their identities in front of the masses.
Later on, a Taiwanese friend sends me a message saying that a mainland classmate back in Bloomington erupted on Facebook. She deleted her Taiwanese friends and screamed that she was willing to fight, and better that her own home be the battlefield. I just sighed.
We are never gentle. With this “you and me,” or “me and the enemy,” we think we’re being rational, we think we understand how the world works, we remain self-righteous, sticking to the “laws of social development.”
You are too.
His words run through my mind the whole time: “We mustn’t let our ends sanctify brutal means. And there is no better excuse for brutal means than revolution.”
It pours outside on the day I stroll through the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.
This is a temple to the “Public Enemy of the People.” To me, the man in the temple was a killer.
Not far away, some older women are speaking in northern Chinese accents. They joke loudly, “Before, we all said the people of Taiwan were living between a rock and a hard place. I don’t see any of that around! Look at how good they have it. Look how comfortable they are.”
What derision of history and reality. In their simple minds, national interest, or some perceived sense of community, or democracy and freedom–none of those things are as important as living the good life.
On the afternoon of election day, I go to the Dunnan Eslite. A middle-aged couple sits on the ground in the corner. As they embrace each other, the man gently and quietly reads a story to his love. It’s “The Little Prince.”
In four months, the “right to rule” this island will be handed over to a different group of people. There will be no river of blood, no winner takes all. It is these seemingly unambitious people, sitting here on the floor reading fairy tales, who will make the decision.
They don’t feel like it’s some amazing thing. Cast your vote, go to the bookstore, have dinner, drink tea, go about your day. The only thing is, if the person they choose to rule doesn’t do a good job, in four years, they’ll be replaced by somebody else.
You can say that they have no future, but their future is truly in their own hands, for better or for worse.
I’m jealous. I don’t want to interrupt them. I don’t know what to think.
A Few More Words
With regards to the [KMT] being “wiped out” after the election, mainlanders have all sorts of things to say. Some sort of understand Taiwan; some sort of don’t. Some sort of understand democracy, and some sort of don’t. Friends ask me why I just post photos without any commentary. I reply by saying that it’s easy for you on the outside to make comments, but as for me here on the inside, among all the images you will see on your screens big and small, I want to allow these things to settle in. Perhaps these few days of observations will be all that I write, so that I don’t repeat what others have already said.
I wanted to write down these ten stories–what I came across, heard, and saw in Taipei–in a gentle way. If you read them, you should be able to feel what I feel in my heart. We need to respect the lives of others. And, of course, others need to respect your own identity. Please do not force, do not threaten, do not curse, do not think that only you know the truth. Be like this to everyone, whether you’re from Taiwan or the mainland.
What I mean by being gentle is not a lifestyle. Nor is it a happy demeanor. It is civility. It is respect.
You need to know what other people’s lives are like, what they care about. Only then can you discuss the future.
I’m not saying anything about legal legitimacy, so don’t tell me about how you’ve got a Ph.D. in constitutional law. I’m not saying anything about international politics, power dynamics, nation building, or national identity, so don’t tell me that you’re minoring in political science. I’m not saying anything about economic ties and interests or the economic reality. My second major was in finance.
What you understand, I understand it all, too. What you don’t understand, I perhaps do.
I’m not here to flaunt anything or to stifle anyone’s speech. I just think that what you may consider your “rational” analysis very well may be a “utilitarian” “rationality,” a callous “rationality,” which doesn’t consider others’ well-being, which is fickle and flawed.
We must respect the other side. I’m asking those who have “Chinese pig” on the tip of their tongues to respect the other side. And I’m asking those whose brains are filled with nothing but threats and catastrophe to respect the other side. First respect reality, then discuss the future.
There is nothing more difficult to win over and easier to lose than a person’s heart. Like love, there is a time for coming together, and a time for parting. Only by coming together and parting on good terms can this story have a happy ending. [Chinese]
Translation by Little Bluegill.