Sunday, 19 May 2013

Brief Essay On The Philipine Dispute

The ability to hold conjectures and generalizations in doubt, and to dismiss them for want of plausible reasons or evidence, is one of the distinguishing features of enlightened, rational people. Having read the press coverage concerning the ongoing dispute with the Philipines over the past ten days, it would seem that for some number of Taiwanese people, the ability to doubt has suddenly deserted them. Not only were the claims of Taiwan's government immediately reported as undisputed facts, but the presumption of guilt attached to the Philipines government has been generalized: it seems all Filipino people must likewise be guilty or at least treated as though they are, whether through the denial of visas and expulsion of diplomats at the State level, or with multiple baseball bat blows to the body at the Street level.

Yet there is another generalization to be wary of, and that is the belief that Taiwanese people must be collectively outraged by the shooting of a man they themselves never knew, and exclusively on account of their involuntary identity - that of having been born on the same island as him. However, just because Hung Shih-cheng (洪石成) was Taiwanese, and just because Taiwanese people yearn for their government to receive international "face" from foreign governments, does not mean that he and his crew were entirely innocent or that he is owed the collective outrage and protection of all Taiwanese people.

To begin with, the claim that Hung's vessel - along with the three other Taiwanese vessels - were operating in Taiwan's "exclusive economic zone" seems doubtful for several reasons. First, the location of the shooting (approximately 164 nautical miles south-east of Erluanbi) is not the location where the Taiwanese vessels were initially caught by the Philipine coastguard; they arrived at the location where the shooting occured after having been chased northward for four hours by the Philipine coast guard attempting to make an arrest. If that is true, then it clearly indicates that the Taiwanese vessels were almost certainly guilty of poaching deep within Philipine waters. Second, even if there had been a bilateral agreement between Taiwan and the Philipines concerning fishing rights in the seas between the two countries, the proximity principle would almost certainly apply, which would clearly demarcate both the initial location where the Taiwanese vessels were spotted and hailed, and the later location where one of them was shot as clearly within Philipine territory. Third, the provision for an "exclusive economic zone", though adopted by Taiwan's legislature, is actually given by a UN convention to which Taiwan's government is not a signatory - the Philipines government therefore has no legal reason to respect the claims of Taiwan's government. Finally, Taiwanese fishing vessels have a history of poaching in Philipine waters; since Taiwan's government have obviously failed to dissuade Taiwan's fishermen from poaching, the Philipines' coast guard has resorted to employing force as a deterrant. (I would not be surprised if, in the past, they have used "dirty tricks" to secure bribe money from the Taiwanese fishermen they have caught, but that is another matter.)

Furthermore, the notion that Taiwan's government has a duty to protect its citizens and their rights simply cannot be taken seriously due to the distinct odour of double standards. The plight of Hung, because he was attacked by an agency of a foreign government has received rampant media attention for a well over a full week and everybody I know has been talking about it. Yet the plight of other Taiwanese people, when set upon by the agencies of the Taiwan government might be made salient by the press for a day (or perhaps even two) before everybody loses interest, or invents some utilitarian "public interest" excuse to forgive the government's dereliction of its supposed duty to protect the rights of Taiwanese people. Where, for example, was the collective outrage and State protection for Chu Feng Min, whose property rights were violated by the Miaoli County government in 2010? Was she not Taiwanese also? I remember her story passing through the media at the time with nothing like the impact Hung Shih-cheng's (洪石成) story has had, and where Hung is being avenged with patrols of Taiwan's navy, Chu was left to drink a bottle of insecticide after her land was stolen from her.

The contrast between the two cases demonstrates that those Taiwanese insisting on the government's "duty" to protect Taiwanese people are insincere - they are not, in fact, concerned with the rights of the individual. They are moral collectivists who see each other as walking membership cards, accorded differing levels of permission depending on how important they are as members of the society. Hung's case is more important than Chu's because it is a pretext for an attitude of "national unity" and to reinforce the status of Taiwanese people not as individuals with inalienable rights, but as underviduals - as walking membership cards whose "rights" are nothing more than contingent permissions which may be either protected or revoked for the "public interest".

A predictable objection to this charge must be put down before it is made, and that objection is the inevitable comparison to the U.S., as if the policies of the U.S. government are ipso facto validation of the similar policies of Taiwan's government. The moral crux of the matter is simple: if you want to be thought of as a person, as an individual, and to be treated fairly by others, then you ought not to conceive either yourself or other people as walking membership cards, as underviduals deriving moral properties from an involuntary identity as a cell in a greater human hive. Instead, treat others as individuals if you want to be treated so in return.

I blame the schools.

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