China’s New Silk Road

The effects of the Belt and Road Initiative on my family. Illustrated by Ahmara Smith.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a development strategy proposed by the Chinese government to promote economic co-operation between People’s Republic of China (PRC) and countries in Central Asia, West Asia, the Middle East, and Europe—essentially, countries situated on the original silk road. When Xi Jinping proposed the initiative in 2013, he envisioned the integration of the region into a cohesive economic area through investing in local infrastructure, enhancing cultural exchange, and broadening trade.

Does all of this sound too abstract for you? Let me put it in a context that you can relate to.

In 2016, my husband Derek and I went to Sri Lanka for a vacation with my parents and younger brother, Davis. While planning the trip, I asked Mama for her and Baba’s passport details so I could apply for their tourist visas. She sent me scans of their Taiwanese passports.

I called her up. “Why are you using your Taiwanese passports?”

“Oh, our Canadian passports have expired,” She said nonchalantly.

“Whaaaaaaa!” I yelled, “How did you allow that to happen?”

“Calm down. The Taiwanese passports are handy now. We can go to the U.S. without a visa, and we even went to the Czech Republic for your cousin Yoshi’s wedding…”

Since there was no time to renew their passports before our trip, I stopped fussing and used their Taiwanese passports to apply for their visas.

My parents had a rude awakening when we landed in Colombo in November of 2016. Derek used his American passport and Davis and I used our Canadian passports—we entered the country without a hitch. We stood around talking while waiting for our parents, who were right behind us. Ten minutes went by, they still hadn’t joined us. They weren’t even in the queue to see a customs agent.

We waited for another 15 minutes or so. Finally, Davis and I decided to look for them while Derek fetched our luggage. I spoke to an airport staff who told us to trace our steps back to the immigration area and see if we can find our parents there. (I find this bizarre—most countries would never allow this to happen.)

Through the window of an office in the immigration area, we saw our parents.  Facing away from us, Baba was filling out a form while Mama looked on. Twenty minutes later, they came out looking visibly impatient and annoyed.

“We had to apply for a visa,” Baba said, “we had to fill out a long form and pay.”

I am not sure why the visa I applied for them wasn’t good enough. However, this minor ordeal was completely forgotten once we left the airport.  We toured around Sri Lanka, a country steeped in history, culture, and beauty. We visited the mountains, the historical sites, a baby elephant orphanage and the beach. For the last day of our trip, we returned to Colombo for a city tour.

We visited with baby elephants in Sri Lanka!

During the tour, we saw many construction projects for new skyscrapers. We also noticed simplified Chinese characters on the hoardings and around the construction sites— these projects belong to Chinese corporations.

And this, my friends, is why my parents had such an ordeal at the customs. Sri Lanka didn’t officially join the Belt and Road Initiative until December 2017, but Chinese investments obviously affected their visa requirements. To appease China, they had unofficially kowtowed to the One China Policy—this is why their visa process was so fuzzy and confusing when we were there. By now, it’s pretty clear that Taiwanese citizens need a visa prior to landing in Sri Lanka.

The Belt and Road Initiative is China’s new Silk Road. It more than an economic initiative; it is changing diplomatic relationships and more. It has already affected my family.

In some ways, the Belt and Road Initiative can be seen as Chinese colonialism. Stay tuned.

Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

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Is Taiwan Part of China?

A crash course on modern Taiwanese history. Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

In my last post, I pondered whether Taiwanese people are ethnically Chinese. The answer to that is complicated and requires a crash course on Taiwanese history.

Taiwan is an island off the east coast of mainland China. Historically, it was part of the Middle Kingdom territory up until the Qing dynasty. My ancestors and many other people immigrated to Taiwan in the 1700’s, mostly from the provinces of Fujian and Guangdong.  Most likely, they intermarried with the aboriginal peoples of Taiwan, who are a part of the Austronesian ethnic family, which are related to the peoples of the Philippines, Malaysia, and other South East Asian countries.

In 1895, the Middle Kingdom lost the First Sino-Japanese War. The Japanese Empire demanded control of Taiwan as a part of the peace negotiation. As a result, the Japanese occupied Taiwan for the next 50 years, under the Treaty of Shimonoseki.

The Japanese made huge impacts on the Taiwanese psyche during their occupation. They modernized Taiwan by developing its infrastructure,  building roads, government buildings, hospitals, and schools. Furthermore, their language and culture also permeated Taiwanese culture–many Japanese words were absorbed into Hokkien, which was one of the main languages of Taiwan.

Meanwhile, in China, Sun Yat-Sen overthrew the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and established the Republic of China (ROC). His political party, Kuomintang (KMT) became the official ruler of the new Republic.

The world turned up-side-down for many nations in East Asia in 1945. The Japanese Empire fell when they lost World War II. They lost all their colonies and returned the control of Taiwan to the Republic of China. At the time, Chiang Kai-Shek was in charge of the KMT in mainland China. He set up a provisional government in Taipei, in order to gain control of the island and its populace.

The KMT eventually set up the official government of the ROC in 1949, when they were defeated by the People’s Communist Party (CPC), led by Mao Zedong. The Taiwanese suffered greatly during the transitional period between the end of Japanese occupation in 1945 and when the KMT officially took control of the island.

The transition between Japanese colonialism and KMT rule was bloody. The KMT government enforced martial law in 1947 after Taiwanese people rebelled against inflation. This is the start of what is known as the White Terror– the KMT government arrested, imprisoned and executed dissents who opposed them.

Many Taiwanese people who opposed the KMT government were arrested. This image is from Hou Hsiao-hsien’s film A City of Sadness, in which Tony Leung’s character was imprisoned due to his friends’ political activities. .

The martial law was finally lifted in 1987. A couple of years later, my parents moved back to Taiwan from Japan. I was six, and my brother Davis was four.

My family history is intertwined with Taiwan’s.  My ancestors moved from Fujian Province in the 1700’s. Also, we are a product of Japanese colonialism: Both sets of my grandparents spoke Japanese fluently; my parents and many of their siblings were educated in Japan; I was born in Japan.

Taiwan’s history is complicated and this is why there are so many debates about whether Taiwan is part of the PRC. Depending on who you ask, you will get a different answer.

To answer my own question, I suppose I am mostly ethnically Chinese (my ancestors may have intermarried with the aboriginal people of Taiwan), but I am Taiwanese through and through.

However, the more interesting question is whether or not the Chinese ethnicity is one ethnicity. That’s one more complicated question for another time.

Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

 

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Why now? Why me?

On March 20th, Xi Jinping made a speech at the closing of the 2018 National People’s Congress. It was a nationalistic speech in which “he warned against challenges to China over Taiwan, Hong Kong or other regions where Beijing’s claims to sovereignty are contested”.

Xi Jinping

“All maneuvers and tricks to split the motherland are sure to fail,” Mr. Xi said. “Not one inch of the territory of the great motherland can be carved off from China.”

Some might say this is nothing new. China has always been sensitive about Taiwan and considers it one of its wayward provinces. Taiwan’s reunification with its “motherland” is integral to the “One China” policy. However, many people in Taiwan, my family included, have been in Taiwan for many generations and consider ourselves Taiwanese. This is a problem for China.

The dear leader claims that we are all Chinese.  Well sure, there are overlaps between Taiwanese and Chinese cultures; my ancestors came from a town near Xiamen, Fujian province in the 1700’s. Having said that, Taiwan had since been colonized by Japan and it’s populace absorbed some aspects of its language and customs into their culture. Also, our resentment towards “the motherland”, also make us uniquely Taiwanese. My point is, many people in Taiwan don’t consider themselves Chinese.  But… do we consider ourselves ethnically Chinese? That’s the tricky part. I don’t know what to think about that.

Mr. Xi’s speech spurred some anxiety with me, not only because I am Taiwanese, but also because I live in Hong Kong. In the same speech, Mr. Xi  “vowed to strengthen the national identity and patriotism of the people of Hong Kong and Macau.”

Map of South China, including Taiwan, Xiamen, and Hong Kong. Courtesy of http://www.johomaps.com/as/china/chinasouth.html

Hong Kong had been a British colony until 1997. Upon its return to China, Beijing guaranteed that the city, as a special administrative region, will have a high degree of autonomy, and China’s socialist systems will not be implemented until 2047. However, incidents such as the disappearances of Hong Kong booksellers, and the imprisonment Joshua Wong, a young activist who was one of the leaders of the umbrella revolution in 2014, are indications that civil liberties are going away fast in Hong Kong.

So yeah. Mr. Xi’s speech posed a double whammy for me. He made me uncomfortable about who I and where I am.

 

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About “In the Shadow of the Middle Kingdom”

In the recent years, China has become more economically and politically powerful. Taiwan and Hong Kong are both feeling the pressure as China, also known as the Middle Kingdom, forces the world to kowtow to the One China Policy. My blog, In the Shadow of the Middle Kingdom, explores Chinese culture in this volatile climate—there is a real possibility that Taiwan and Hong Kong as we know may not exist in the next decade, if not sooner. This uncertainty has prompted me to explore my heritage. As a third culture kid—individuals raised in cultures that are different than their parents’—I grew up in Canada and returned to Asia as an adult. Through this blog, I will share my experiences in “re-learning” Taiwanese customs and rituals in the context of current events and my personal experience as a Taiwanese Canadian living in Hong Kong.

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