The aggressors and the blinded
While there are wars exploding across the world, China is at it again in the West Philippine Sea: threatening Filipino fishermen who are already suffering from paltry catches, ramming wooden boats with their metal ones, and accusing Filipinos of provocation.
The occupation and harassment have been going on for years. No matter how many times we use diplomatic channels, and even with our victory at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, we always end up on the losing end in the face of a power that likes to flex its military muscle.
This was the frustration that I carried months ago when I attended the conference of the International Association for Critical Realism. I already wrote about the conference in a previous column; allow me to talk about something that happened in one of the smaller sessions, which promised a look at political affairs through an examination of its underlying structures.
One researcher talked about his work on how China framed its issues with Taiwan, referencing China’s aggression both in the press and on the seas.
Then came the time for questions. I was about to stand up and ask the researcher if he had considered looking at how China framed the Philippines—when another researcher rushed to the microphone.
She was from mainland China, she said, but she already lived in the United Kingdom. Did the researcher ever consider whether China was simply speaking up against the ideology of the West?
I felt my body grow cold at the question, and colder still because two other researchers — both of them from Malaysia—began to nod and raise their voices.
What came next was an academic version of a playground slugfest with a reverse pissing contest.
The speaker countered that the West was also speaking up against China’s ideological posturing, which made the Malaysians protest that China was merely asserting its rights to do something, which then made the woman ask the researcher why he believed in listening to the world’s stance rather than China’s. And then the researcher talked about China’s human rights record, which made the three questioners—objections now overlapping—claim that the human rights record of the West was even worse.
I can no longer recall the exact sequence of exchanges, only that it was densely populated with the three questioners defending what they believed was China’s isolated voice against Western imperialism. I don’t remember how it ended, but I finally stood up, went to the microphone, and spoke for the Philippines.
“I came into this session angry,” I remember saying, “My country is struggling politically. Our poorest people are China’s victims when it encroaches on our waters and calls it Chinese territory. I know that everyone else’s argument is about a long history of ideological battles, but I would really like to know,” and here, I turned to the speaker, completely forgetting my original question, “What was the framing like for other territories in China, like Macau or Hong Kong?”
The speaker answered my question along the lines of a need to do more research, as these, too, were interesting contexts. I thought everything was over until the younger of the Malaysian researchers came to the microphone once again.
“Sure, there’s a long history of ideological battles,” he said, “But what we’re talking about is the here and now, and we should look at today’s China …”
I lost whatever it was he wanted to say. Not only had I failed to ask my original question, but here was a so-called colleague, passive-aggressive, responding to me by directing his comment to everyone else. This younger Malaysian and I had been friends on the first day of the conference. After that parallel session, he was cold to me and even mocked me during lunch when I accidentally burned my finger on the edge of a hot plate. On the academic level, I was incensed: a general rule, at least for smart academics, is that all differences are business, but we are cordial to each other outside the debates.
I realize, now, that my anger was less about a naïve researcher’s attitude. It had more to do with the fact that there are people who will see aggression as a virtue, side with those who target the weak and ignore or dismiss the innocent lives that are lost in the process. There’s the fundamentalist who praises Israel’s heavy-handed response to Hamas, even when thousands of children have already paid with their lives. There’s the so-called enlightened person who claims that Russia should indeed take back Ukraine but turns away at the news of mass graves and Russia slaughtering civilians. There’s the academic who summons arguments on ideology and history, even while China is so obviously oppressing poor fishermen and soldiers.
No country is virtuous when it justifies the death of innocents — and no person is virtuous, let alone enlightened when they support countries that use abstract notions of defense, culture, and entitlement to blind the world to the real damage they are doing.