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Why has Taiwan not passed marriage equality yet?

Kai Clark

Politics | Asia

 

"In the face of love, everyone is equal. I am Tsai Ing-wen, and I support marriage equality.” In a short 15-second campaign video, Tsai became a symbol of progressive change in a region tainted by repression of queer rights. She and her party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), later won the 2016 elections, taking the presidency and a majority in the legislature. Marriage equality was imminent.
But she failed. Last year, the DPP was unable to pass its marriage equality bill due to the fierce backlash from Taiwan’s Christian minority. The party looks set to repeat its mistakes this year, delaying the bill’s passage until 2018, or as some fear, 2019.
Seven months ago, the Taiwanese constitutional court found Taiwanese marriage law unconstitutional. The court chose not to immediately grant marriage equality, instead ordering the legislature to amend the law within two years. Failure to do so and the court will then finally abolish the law.
Yet, the DPP prioritised other legislation, squandering the “6-month golden window” to amend the law. The government promised to debate the marriage equality proposal during the current legislative period. But they have not announced the details of the bill, with many doubting it will be passed on time, if at all.
Debate over the bill centres on two proposals. Some legislators demand the government amend the civil code to grant all couples the same rights. Other legislators want a special law that allows for marriage equality, but does not grant equal rights.
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Tsai’s administration hinted that it may propose the latter bill. Writing on her Facebook page, Tsai said: “We are obligated to design a legal framework in line with the spirit of the grand justices’ interpretation, but we are also responsible for ensuring unity in society.”
A majority of Taiwanese support marriage equality. Yet, Taiwan’s Christian groups, who make up less than 5% of the island’s population, threatened to oust lawmakers who support the bill. Their bullying tanked the 2013 and 2016 attempts to bring marriage equality to Taiwan. The recent court ruling has not deterred them.
A Taipei lawmaker, Huang Kuo-chang, faces a recall campaign by Sun Chi-cheng, chairman of the Greater Taipei Stability Power Alliance, a group opposed to marriage equality. Sun detests Huang’s support for amending the civil code, stating it will destroy Taiwanese family values.
Such pressure may explain Tsai’s lack of commitment to marriage equality. With local elections scheduled for late 2018, Kuomintang legislator Jason Hsu suggests that if Tsai cannot pass the bill before January, the DDP will shelve it until 2019 to focus on campaigning.
Many believe Tsai will wait until May 2019, when the court’s ruling will strike down the law. While it would save her from Taiwan’s evangelical backlash, it would create logistical problems and further harm to Taiwan’s queer community.
If the law is struck down, many government offices will need to process marriage claims without clear guidelines. Hsu explains that “[t]he municipal registration office will not know what to do with their certificate and their IDs; hospitals will not know how to process them. A lot of contingency plans must be put in place.”
Meanwhile, the government will still deny queer couples marriage equality for the next 17 months. Some cannot afford to wait. The partner of Nelson Hu, a famous queer rights activist, is diagnosed with a rare form of hemangioma and could die. Hu has no legal say over his treatment.
Many in the queer community now feel betrayed by Tsai and the DPP. In an interview with the News Lens, Nelson Hu criticised the DPP for “[backtracking] on their promises”. Another disappointed couple lamented that “the politicians supported gay marriage as a way to win votes, but now it feels like we have been fooled.”
Desperate to avoid evangelical ire, Tsai may risk angering the queer community she sought to support. Hsu and commentators have urged the DPP to pass the bill by this session or to hold a special session in early 2018. The journey for many in the queer community to be treated as equal partners in society would be painfully prolonged otherwise.

3 minute read

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Lessons from Taiwan: The epicentre of East Asian rivalry

Harrison Rule

Politics | Asia

 

Heads of state from across the Asia Pacific congregated in Vietnam this November for the annual APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting. As global political heavyweights gathered around the diplomatic roundtable in Da Nang, however, one placard may have seemed out of place.

Squeezed between household names like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Shinzo Abe sat a Taiwanese politician from a minor opposition party, under the banner of ‘Chinese Taipei’.

‘Chinese Taipei’ is the humiliating label for the largely unrecognized Island nation of Taiwan. This unofficial name printed on placards in front of an unfamiliar flag, flown by an unknown political representative - all echo a history of bloody civil conflict and divisive cold war politics. The fact that Taiwan even has a seat at the table however, tells a far subtler story of East Asian rivalry and grand strategy.

The true epicentre of the region’s seismic strategic relations, Taiwan represents a microcosm of East Asia’s major diplomatic challenges. How the nations of East Asia chose to handle Taiwan and where they are willing to compromise, provide a potential model for future regional relations in an era of impending strategic uncertainty.

The People’s Republic of China and Taiwan

The Cross Strait relationship between Beijing and Taipei is one of jarring hostility and quiet cooperation.

Despite Beijing’s Peaceful Development Doctrine, a 2004 Official Statement from a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson stressed that “If Taiwan leaders move recklessly to provoke incidences of Taiwan independence, the Chinese people will crush their schemes firmly and thoroughly at any cost.”

In the face of this major aversion to displays of Taiwanese Independence however, China has puzzlingly also permitted Taiwan to participate in a number of multilateral organisations such as APEC. While there are a handful of restrictions placed on this participation, Beijing has for the most part respected Taiwan’s role as an autonomously governed economy with significant regional economic interests.

This confusing strategic cognitive dissonance is intimately linked to Xi Jinping’s notion of the China Dream 中国梦. A political concept-cum-nationalist ideology, the China Dream is a push for national “rejuvenation”, attempting to redefine the concepts of ‘Chineseness’ and of Chinese nationhood to consolidate and galvanise Greater China under a single authority.

The Cross Strait relationship is the most transparent testing ground for this new strategy. Whether a peaceful slumber or an offensive nightmare, the pursuit of the China Dream in Taiwan will set the terms of engagement for China’s future relationship with its autonomous regions. The lessons learnt by Taiwan and its significant gains in economic autonomy provide practical utility to keen-eyed observers Hong Kong, Macau, Xinjiang and Tibet.

Japan and Taiwan

The nuance at the heart of Japan–Taiwan relations, as is often the case in Asia, arises from a legacy of colonialism.

Following a humiliating defeat in the Sino-Japanese War, the Qing Dynasty was forced to cede the island of Taiwan to Japanese sovereign control. It was during this period of harsh treatment and widespread discrimination that Taiwanese intellectuals began calling on citizens to challenge the militaristic leadership and to purse modernity alongside mainland China. The very notion of an independent Taiwan only surfaced in opposition to Japanese Occupation.

When one examines the mood in Taiwan today however, this anti-Japanese strand of nationalism is almost non-existent.

Unlike other former Japanese colonial holdings like the Koreas, China, the Philippines and Malaysia, Taiwan seems to greet its colonial past with a degree of nostalgia and amity. While some literature has dismissed this as simply a by-product of elderly Taiwanese citizens sentimentally reflecting on their childhood memories, the trend of Japanese rapprochement is in fact an intergenerational one.

Japan has managed to recontexualise its colonial legacy with Taiwan into a story of shared democratic values, security concerns and opposition to an increasingly assertive Beijing. Japan’s unofficial diplomatic representatives in Taipei have, since the late 1990s, stressed the importance of the triangular security relationship between the United States, Japan, and Taiwan – a move which has time and time again been met with great public enthusiasm in Taiwan.

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Japan has also provided open support for Taiwanese participation as an observer in the World Health Organisation and was a key driving force in the decision to include ‘Chinese Taipei’ at APEC.

In order to continue to challenge the interests of a rising China, Japan will have to win over its former colonial holdings. Taiwan provides a model for reframing colonial contempt into a more positive and enduring relationship. The negative historical burden which still weighs on the Koreas and the Philippines represents a major roadblock to a strong unified region. If a regional-led containment policy to oppose China is a major aspect of Tokyo’s grand strategy, policy makers will be looking to the Taiwan case to inform bilateral relations in the coming decades.

The Republic of Korea and Taiwan

The South Korea – Taiwan relationship is a rarely addressed, but fascinating case study in political parallels. The key security concerns in both Taipei and Seoul are their rogue neighbours which present alternative governments that claim the ancestral homeland as their own.

North Korea is to South Korea, as Taiwan is to China.

This parallel complicates the triangular relationship between South Korea, China and Taiwan – three sizable economic forces which all benefit from economic cooperation.

Despite potential economic benefits, China frequently employs economic sanctions to coerce its neighbours. But no one is more familiar with Chinese sanctions than Taiwan.

In 2000, upon the election of its first pro-independence president, Taiwan incurred significant diplomatic and economic costs from Beijing – as many in the international community expected.

What was more surprising however, was Beijing’s response to the March 2008 election. Following the success of candidate Ying-jeou Ma, Beijing endorsed the new President’s more neutral cross-strait stance, lifting numerous sanctions for the first time in decades. Beijing abandoned its policy of poaching Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, permitted further multilateral autonomy and even looked the other way as Taiwan signed free-trade agreements with Singapore and New Zealand.

This behaviour demonstrated to international observers that China was no longer the spiteful, unwavering Cold War patron it was once considered. Chinese foreign policy had matured as it entered the 21st century – using economic and diplomatic coercion to both punish and reward behaviour in its sphere of influence. It is this maturity that South Korea needs to acknowledge as it shapes its own relationship with Beijing and Taipei.

Beijing’s decision to sanction Seoul earlier this year is less to do with broader relations and more so a response to specific policy issues. Beijing has signalled repetitively that it disapproves of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system installed in South Korea early last year. Heeding the lessons from the history of cross-strait sanctions, Seoul must think carefully about the risks of compromising Beijing’s strategic deterrent capabilities.

China’s sanctions must be understood as a redeemable act of economic coercion. Policy change has proven in the Taiwan case to motivate a rapid retraction of economic punishment.

 

Why bother with Taiwan?

When faced with the question – “why bother studying Taiwan?” -  it is hard not to formulate an answer that comes across as patronising. Ultimately Taiwan is the junction of its region. It is has been occupied, bombed, sanctioned, unrecognised – but has always remained central. To understand East Asia’s major challenges, it always prudent to glance first at Taiwan and consider its potential as lens for viewing the region. After all, should push come to shove, and the superpowers of the regions begin to tussle – Taiwan will likely immerge as the seismic epicentre.

 

8 minute read

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Elderly Life in the Hidden World of Karaoke Kissas and Classrooms

Kai Clark
Benny Tong

Politics | East Asia

 

Benny Tong is a PhD candidate at the ANU studying the lives of elderly Japanese people in karaoke bars and how they seek fulfilment and purpose in the later stages of their lives. Born and raised in Singapore, he earned his Bachelors and Masters in Japanese Studies at the National University of Singapore before coming to the ANU. As a teenager, he fell in love with J-Pop which ignited his passion for Japanese culture.
“Karaoke is a huge industry worth billions of dollars,” Benny explained, describing how the many sorts of karaoke chains in Japan accommodate everyone from millennials to older wealthy businessmen. Benny’s research, however, focuses on two types of karaoke venues: karaoke kissas which are small open-mic bars that are open during the day; and karaoke classrooms, where people learn how to sing karaoke from a trained instructor. These venues, Benny says, “lean towards a mature working-class demographic that are very much over sixty.”
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Benny explains how karaoke kissas provide a strong sense of community for many of these elderly people who don’t have a family to rely on. “The foundational concept of the karaoke kissa makes it a very inclusive place — as long as you pay the cover charge. There are a lot of regulars who all become friends, forming a tightly knit community.” Many of these regulars lament the demise of Japan’s traditional family structure, which has separated many elderly Japanese from their families.
During the interview, Benny showed me some karaoke magazines containing song scores used for study in karaoke classrooms. These classrooms provide many elderly people with a continued purpose in their life. At the end of the school year, the school organises recitals for the students, “where they can present what they’ve learned in front of an audience of peers, friends, and family. It’s a very important place for them to vindicate their continued participation in karaoke — as something to learn rather than passively enjoy.”

Many of these kissas and classrooms are located in working-class suburbs, far off the beaten track. These places usually lack windows and have two thick layers of doors, making it both inconspicuous and intimidating to enter.
Benny described to me, how lucky he was to find his first kissa. “The karaoke operator, or as they call them, ‘masters’, actually noticed me pacing back and forth outside, and beckoned me to come inside.” Once inside he was warmly welcomed into the community that was “happy to have a younger person among their midst to learn about their lifestyle”, he said.
“One important skill for fieldwork is getting on socially with other people. For me, coming in with a very open attitude towards learning what these people are doing and not making judgements, especially since you know so little, is important.”
"There’s a lot of them who very much desire to tell people about their life stories,” he said, “so they can pass on certain values or certain ideas that they’ve gained through their experience in life.”

Through studying these karaoke kissas and classrooms, Benny has found a widely-neglected space where many elderly Japanese sing with each other and laugh over drinks. Some have even rekindled their passion for love, despite losing their first partners to death and divorce. For many of these elderly people, singing Shōwa classics, like enka and kayōkyoku, helps reshape their identities in the face of old age, and provides a new direction in their lives. This contrasts very much to modern representations of elderly people as a drain on state healthcare, living their last days alone or in geriatric care.
Criticising the post-war experience of modernity, Benny argues that, “Japanese policy-makers, academics, and public discourse tend to think of elderly life as a period of life where bodily functions deteriorate to the point where you need institutionalised care. I find that actually, especially with these people that I’m working with, that’s simply not the case. They are growing old quite healthy. A lot of them take pride in the fact that they still maintain a very good standard of physical health. They tell me that they are very happy that they rarely go to the hospital. And it’s the singing that allows them to have them this kind of constant exercise and socialisation that keeps them both physically and mentally healthy.”
“So that's why I think studying Japan now is going to be a very valuable lesson for the rest of the world for learning how to cope with an ageing population in a manner that will treat old people with respect and honour. Growing old is not a problem. It is not a crisis. It is essential and unremovable part of what it means to live.”

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