Sunday, October 25, 2009

Expat Politics

A few weeks ago I saw a DPP/Green protest march down Roosevelt Avenue. It was a scene that would be pretty familiar to anyone who lived in NY or SF during the Bush years: protesters dressed in elaborate, sometimes theatrically overwrought costumes (this one featured lots of folks dressed as "death," people with "blood" poured over their faces, etc. - again, reminiscent of US antiwar marches), lots of banners with provocative slogans unlikely to change any minds ("Stop the [President] Ma [Ying-Jeou] Death Toll"), annoyed locals upset to have their daily routine interrupted by all the traffic, and even a Code Pink-esque group of matronly older Taiwanese ladies leading a pretty raucous chant. I thought it was a pretty inspiring spectacle to see a 5' Asian grandmother stamp and shout with the energy of a college liberal, no matter what your politics are.

I'm not sure if these similarities are simply another example of how the left here often takes inspiration from the rhetoric of western democracy, evidence of a vast lefty communist conspiracy that pulls all the strings and organizes these protests - though why would a communist conspiracy be opposed to closer relations to China? - or perhaps most likely, simply the product of convergent evolution.

One thing that was different from your typical US protest march, of course, was all the Asian faces. In the States, Asian-Americans are usually too sensible to get involved in these kind of political frivolities. It's part of an Asian-American under-engagement with politics in general - lower even than the anemic American average - that Asian leaders sometimes decry, pointing out that politicians don't court an Asian voting bloc like the Hispanic or Black vote, because the Asian vote by and large doesn't exist.

That's the kind of political participation I'm used to, as an Asian-American, a generally lefty-liberaltarian thinker sympathetic with the ideology of US protesters but still annoyed at having to deal with them, and a Poli Sci major that's never personally voted. What? The math says that the odds my participation will affect the outcome of the election are nil. You can thank Poli 33, Voting Systems, for that stunning insight.

I also saw a bunch of foreigners in the protest march, which brings me to the putative point of this post: I'd say that expats, to the extent that they care about Taiwanese politics, skew very green here. I'm making this statistically unfounded estimation just based on expats I've talked to, blogs I've read, and political intuition. For one thing, there's the selection bias on who comes here in the first place. It's a very lefty, one-world impulse to go live and work in another country. Also, Westerners, especially Americans, both left and right are generally inclined to support small democracies their struggle for self-determination and human rights against totalitarian neighbors. The left likes the self-determination and human rights part, the right likes the stand up to China part. And perhaps most importantly, it's easier to make a stand on principle when you don't have to live with the consequences.

The messy truth is that Taiwan is one of those fascinating cases where ideology and political principle collides with the 400-lb gorilla that is reality. There are committed ideologues on both sides and the polling is very confused, but the vast majority of Taiwanese can generally be expected to support something along the lines of "No reunification, no independence, no war" as Ma Ying-Jeou put it in a brilliant bit of election sloganeering. Never mind that the empty phrase is a contradiction in terms and logically incoherent. If you aren't part of China, and you aren't independent, then what are you? Something much like Taiwan today, I guess, a fragile quasi-state perpetually teetering on the fulcrum between independence and annihilation.

In a concession to the reality that (1) China has a whole bunch of missiles pointed at Taiwan, (2) China and Taiwan have a trade relationship that is enormously mutually profitable, and (3) At this point no one honestly believes the ROC is, or really ever was past 1949, the legitimate government of all China, the Taiwanese people have concluded that the calculated ambiguity of the status quo is the best they can hope to live with. If you were to phrase a poll question to ask "If China would not object, would you support Taiwanese independence?" you'd have substantial agreement - which drops precipitously once that qualifier is removed from the question. So clearly sovereignty is an idea that has great support in the abstract, it's just not something that's perceived as achievable. Principle takes a backseat to pragmatism here, because pragmatism lets you keep making money and not be bombed.

Expats don't have to live with it, though, so it's easier to make a stand on principle. It's easier to support the righteous struggle for justice and liberty when you have a passport and can leave the country when the bombs start falling.

It'd be very interesting to me, purely academically, to learn how support for independence among overseas Taiwanese compares to the level of support within the country. On the one hand, you kind of have the reverse urban-rural divide here, with the rich urban north trending conservative, blue, and China-accommodating, and the poor rural south trending liberal, green, and nationalistic. (Yes, the "liberals" are nationalists here, while the "nationalist party" aren't... it's all very confusing.) Since it's generally the urban rich that have the opportunity to emigrate abroad, you'd expect selection bias to lean the (Taiwanese) expat community to the right. But based on the don't-have-to-deal-with-the-consequences theory of sovereignty support, you'd also expect it to be a little easier for Taiwanese emigres to advocate independence from the safe removes of California, Maryland, and Texas. My hypothesis is that once you control for income, there'd be a statistically significant increase in support for outright, no-qualifications independence among Taiwanese expats.

Sounds like a thesis. Who wants to go write it?

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