News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Blending in with authoritarianism

Biff: I've long tossed around the idea of writing a novel set in the midst of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Coming across the following section in Jan Tomasz Gross's War Through Children's Eyes reminded me of a circumstance I would need to represent cleverly, evocatively, and in considerable detail: the comprehensive change in the local zeitgeist once the invaders settled in and the caste system (stalwart patriots vs. suspect locals) took hold. I was thinking of the change in terms of television, traffic, utilities, and so forth. Of course there would also be politically motivated disappearances, the overt rounding up of political prisoners, the general cowing of the public through posters, abusive public officials, bruited warnings on TV, but I didn't think ahead far enough to recognize the pervasive changes in behavioral norms which would occur in the public sphere and at home, even within the security of the private.

After 50 years of Japanese occupation, the Taiwanese had become highly civilized and modern. You can see this in the period architecture, and I'm not referring just to structures erected by banks and so forth, but also walls and farm houses. During the Japanese era, quality counted. After the KMT arrived, quality became either unbecoming or, more probably, dangerous and was thus replaced by the rag bag, the jerryrigged, and the slapdash. Crap was less likely to attract predatory officials or the newly imported species of burglar.

Clearly, there was a drastic decline in professional standards, and I remember wondering ages ago if this reflected a decline in personal standards too. When I arrived here 20 odd years ago, people swarmed buses, lied like rugs to the inquisitive unfamiliar, were remarkably callous to strangers involved in accidents, and otherwise acted in a brutish manner in urban public places. Public passivity was a facade hiding intense suspicion. Questions prompted wild answers, people would say anything, however irresponsible, to help. To help get rid of you. Nobody knew anything and two blocks away from everyone's home began a forbidden zone, beyond the pale and not to be risked.

And so stores selling the same things concentrated in queer zones, ghettos as it were, because vendors couldn't attract enough customers out in suburbia. Nobody knew what existed around the corner from where they lived. Too risky. So no bright shopping centers, only endless dim warrens. People warned me not to look out car windows in Taoyuan. Those locals were dangerous.

Naturally things have improved vastly the past couple of decades, though the urban peasant complex survives in many respects, in the fashions of the aged for example.

Edward Said, in Orientialism, quotes an Englishman in Egypt decrying various low practices of the locals: laziness, mendacity, unreliability and so forth. And yet I recognized practically every pejorative description from my own experience while Taiwan was still under martial law. Rather than lazily accuse foreigners of being Eurocentric, these negative traits could be better explained by trying to imagine life under martial law, i.e. without the rule of law, without the immunity a foreigner such as myself had by virtue of his passport. Connections were everything at that time, and bribes were de rigeur for everything from processing a government license to making sure one's doctor didn't saw off the wrong limb in the hospital. Sticking out in any manner was likely to attract the troublesome attention of everyone from jealous cops to observant pick pockets. Telling the truth to strangers was asking for trouble for sooner or later for one was bound to say something offensive to someone with power or connections to power.

Just as the Polish learned to dumb down everything from their apparel to their behavior in public in order not to attract unwanted attention from their Russian overlords, so the Taiwanese made a point of not attracting unwanted attention from the KMT and its local lieutenants.

Here's what happened in Poland in 1939 when the USSR occupied the eastern half, with many of the parallels with the Taiwan of yesteryear rather striking (the very public filth, the overpowering (presumably new) odors, for example):

The threat of arrest and deportation or the necessity to hide one's political past, or the necessity to hide one's political past complicated many people's lives. Both the immediate and all pervasive realization that a new society had already been installed came from the new look of houses and streets and the people in them; from the new songs, music, and propaganda broadcast full blast over speakers mounted in the streets; from unfamiliar odors, like that of the tar with which the footwear of Soviet soldiers was impregnated.

The visual change was the most striking. "Within a week our town was completely changed: dirty all-around, no one caring to keep it clean, heaps of refuse thrown away by the Army disintegrating in the streets. Sidewalks, trees, lawns all destroyed by trucks and tractors." (HI, PGC, Wlodzimierz Wolynski; 39; see also Doc. no. 77) There had been no war in the area, but the brief military operations caused relatively little disruption to life and property. The new look was more a result of the occupation of the war itself, and promptly passed, as if by contagion, from things to people. The population suddenly became acutely aware that external appearance was indicative of social origin. Dressing in certain ways or carrying certain objects increased the probability of being stopped in the street by militiamen and invited snide comments from supporters of the new order, as well as curiosity from Soviet soldiers. It took only a few days for the population in the streets to change its look and undergo a rapid process of upward, external proletarianization. Soon everyone looked more or less like a worker going to or from work. No one wore extravagant colors or fancy clothes; ties rapidly disappeared from men's wardrobes; and scarves replaced hats on women's heads. People instinctively started to care less about external appearance. They went out, indistinguishable in the large crowd of similar men and women, unkempt, hurried, and colorless. On this subdued proletarianized backdrop, a new reality was systematically imposed. Very symbols of Polish state of cultural tradition were slowly eliminated -- memorial plaques, monuments, Polish Eagles. "Lwow jest juz bez lwow" (Lwow is now with lions) wrote a high school friend to Danuta Polniaszek; the occupiers had removed the stone lions in front of the town hall. Street signs were rapidly changed, the Polish names in Latin characters replaced by Ukrainian inscriptions in Cyrillic. Towns and villages were decorated with portraits of Soviet leaders, which appeared everywhere in all sizes, the biggest ones perhaps 6 x 8 m, on office buildings occupied by the new administration. Banners with inscriptions in posters were hung in public places, some ridiculing the former Polish government, some showing despicable silhouettes of Polish officers or, for contrast, advertising the beauty and happiness of the lives of Soviet citizens... On Hetman's Embankments in Lwow enormous red billboards with excerpts from the Soviet constitution written in gold were erected... Red stars popped up here and there, replacing old crosses, Eagles, and sometimes, the traditional rooster shaped windvanes. The physiognomies of Soviet leaders invaded the interiors of buildings as well; in view of the familiar faces of Polish politicians, holy pictures, or small wooden crosses, the appeared on the walls of restaurants, offices, and classrooms...

People in the streets changed not only their appearance, but also their behavior. For one thing, the pace of street life changed. Rather than strolling leisurely or aimlessly, people pretended to walk quickly toward a specific destination. They avoided meeting each other in the street and engaging in conversation. "On October 21, I was walking down Zyblikiewicz Street with Mrs. Wanda S. we were talking about some family matters. Suddenly two men separated us brutally and proceeded to question us about the subject of our conversation. Since our answers were identical, we were released. But I know of people who were arrested in this matter." ...It was safest to walk alone, briskly.

There was also less courtesy, chivalry, and politeness in crowded tramways or public places, and women received less of the recognition and respect traditionally granted them. This was partly due to the overcrowding and shortages and fatigue and irritation typical of situations of prolonged stress. But to a large extent it was another consequence of the law of mimicry, for the occupiers were, most conspicuously, lacking in social graces: "Their conduct was one of the main reasons why we looked upon them as if they were of a different mentality, as if they belonged to a different spiritual formation." To understand the experience of the Bolshevik occupation, one would have to know "how they moved, how they walked, how they sat, how they waved their hands."