Written by Andreas Sierek.
Image credit: immigrant workers by masha krasnova-shabaeva/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
A migrant construction worker was enjoying himself at a river. We might have disapproved of him being drunk, drugged and naked. We even might have been incensed by his rampageous behaviour. But shooting him dead? Like a stray dog infected with rabies? Not with one bullet but with nine? Insisting that the man – while lying on the dirt, in a pool of blood, dying – must be handcuffed before medics can approach him?
A police officer did just that to Nguyen Quoc Phi in Hsinchu County on August 31, 2017 (BBC, Radio Taiwan International, Taiwan News, Asia Times, Taiwan Times, South China Morning Post). Isn’t this outrageous? Yes, it is. Is basking in one’s own righteous indignation a useful reaction? No, it isn’t. Does it suffice to condemn the individuals involved and to lament rampant racism? No, it doesn’t.
Insights are needed to advance change—insights into what is going on in people’s minds and in society. Here, I offer insights based on a theoretical framework that rests on a few premises derived from prior knowledge and everyday experience.
Let us start from the premises that (a) human beings tend to be suspicious of strangers, even hostile in some circumstances, (b) social norms and customs facilitate getting along with strangers amicably, (c) those norms and customs vary from culture to culture, sometimes widely.
Since foreigners are strangers from a different culture in most cases, we deduce from the previous premises that foreigners and locals often do not get along well. Friction is common in many interactions. Mutual animosity and resentment are the consequence, fuelling suspicion and hostility. When the numbers are large enough, a vicious circle gets going, and discomfort gets growing, thus causing ever more hostility.
Two options for breaking that vicious circle come to mind. The inclusive option is to facilitate the convergence of differing social norms and customs pertaining to social interactions, thus making them effective across cultural boundaries, and to facilitate diverse cultural expression, thus fostering mutual tolerance across cultural boundaries. The exclusionary option is to exclude undesired foreigners, thus reducing the quantity of problematic interactions with foreigners.
Inclusion is a Slow Process
If foreigners are allowed to settle permanently and are protected by laws and institutions no less than locals, social norms and customs for social interactions naturally converge over time. Taiwan’s history supports this assertion. Under Qing rule, violent conflicts between Hoklo, Hakka and lowland indigenes ceased eventually when the Qing strengthened administrative institutions. However, conflicts with mountain indigenes continued outside the areas controlled by the Qing. This did not change when the Japanese extended their rule over all mountain areas because mountain indigenes were discriminated against even more than all other Taiwanese. When the Republic of China took over from Japan, the initial euphoria about getting rid of the colonial oppressors quickly turned into violent resentment towards the newly immigrated mainlanders who discriminated against the locals blatantly. Violence only ceased after democratisation brought legal and institutional equality to all Taiwanese, and a common Taiwanese culture could evolve.
If foreign cultures are allowed to flourish, exposure to each other’s cultural expressions naturally fosters mutual acceptance over time. This assertion is supported by the experience of Chinese who emigrated to Thailand in the 20th century. Their public performances of Chinese opera and theatre during festivals were attended and appreciated by large crowds of locals. Today Chinese immigrants and their descendants are well integrated into Thai society. In contrast to those inclusive approaches, several exclusionary approaches in differing grades of radicality are common.
Exclusion Leads to a Dead-End
The least radical approach is to prevent migrant workers from settling permanently by treating them as temporary guests with curtailed rights and limited protections, thus keeping them on the fringes of society. Taiwan and other East Asian countries have chosen this policy. Unfortunately, it does not work very well because it exposes migrant workers to exploitation and abuse, and thus induces some to ‘run away’ from their contracts into illegality. Veiled, and sometimes not so veiled, racism takes hold in the host population, a potent breeding ground for heartless neglect and brutality as exemplified in the police shooting mentioned at the beginning of this article.
A more radical approach is to keep undesired migrants and refugees out. The US and the EU favour this policy recently. Unfortunately, it does not work well either because they still come, albeit in smaller numbers, and many die on the trek or live miserably in dismal camps. Polarisation inside the local societies is the consequence. Some vigorously attack this policy for being cynically unethical while others defend it vehemently as necessary.
The most radical approach is to exterminate cultural aliens that are present already. Germany implemented this policy some 80 years ago, thus causing the Holocaust. More recently, variants of this policy were applied in Cambodia, in Rwanda and in Yugoslavia. In all cases, perpetrators were tried for their crimes in national and international courts eventually.
Exclusionary approaches have in common that they corrupt a society’s moral fabric and undermine its international standing. It is no coincidence that all mentioned genocidal societies got defeated in war shortly after their murderous excesses.
Fear and Hate: The Enemies of Inclusion
However, our framework does not explain yet why exclusion is widespread despite its adverse consequences. For that, we need to add more premises. First, it is easier for political leaders to appease a resentful population than to tackle resentment head-on. Second, when a society gets strained by inequality, it is easier to safeguard the elite’s privileges when the lower strata of society can unload their frustrations upon even more disadvantaged people. Curtailing the rights and limiting the protections of migrant workers by discriminatory laws and regulations satisfies both of those premises because it creates a class of exploited outsiders at the low end of society without hurting the electorate.
More premises are needed for our framework to explain more radical approaches to exclusion. Third, an external threat effectively unites the majority behind a given political leader. If a viable threat does not exist, ambitious demagogues may paint a suitable group as malicious outcasts and then style them as a threat. This kind of political leaders exaggerates migrants,’ refugees’ or cultural aliens’ drain on society’s well-being, public services and cultural coherence. They may even depict the outsiders as a threat to the very existence of local society. Thus, they stoke fear and hate.
Forth, denying human beings dignified treatment and equal rights makes them appear less human in the eyes of others, and thus makes it appear less objectionable to deny them care and to treat them inhumanly. Denying outsiders fundamental human rights, letting them drown in the sea, pushing them back into lawless zones, confining them to overcrowded camps that lack basic amenities, and tearing apart families achieves just that. Thus, political leaders deliberately lower the threshold for extreme casual violence that widens the chasm between those inside and the ‘despicable scum’ outside.
Fear and hate, exploitation and violence reinforce each other and thus provide political leaders with an excellent opportunity to advance and satisfy their ambitions. A well-known ‘Führer’ and his henchmen in Germany exploited this opportunity most radically, thus becoming the most murderous regime in history. The outgoing president of the US, the prime minister of India, and the very young federal chancellor (prime minister) of Austria, though all still less extreme, are contemporary practitioners of stoking fear, hate and violence.
There is Hope
Taiwan is a country that historically gained from inclusion and currently grapples with the consequences of exclusion. However, changes are happening, albeit slowly. While inclusion is not perfect even among Taiwanese yet, it got quite well developed over time. So, why would it be impossible to include migrant workers, too?
The forthcoming documentary “Nine Shots” by Tsai Tsung-lung about the incident mentioned at the beginning of this article is a step in that direction because it transforms a supposedly fearsome migrant worker into the thoughtful person he was before his untimely death. The viewer experiences Nguyen Quoc Phi as a human being and gets acquainted with his family and with the place he came from, thus learning about his cultural background. This is an important contribution to bridging the chasm between locals and migrants.
I am looking forward to Taiwan, the outcast on the international stage, becoming a role model for the rest of the world once more, creating and maintaining a coherent society that offers inclusion to migrant workers, and thus continues to thrive as a vital and resilient society.
Andreas Sierek is a Taiwan observer based in Vienna and a member of European Association of Taiwan Studies.
This article is part of special issue on migrant workers.