INTERACT fellow Shi-Yan Chao discusses upcoming April 25 event “Documenting Queer Histories in China and the U.S.”


Shi-Yan Chao, 2013 – 2014 INTERACT Postdoctoral Fellow at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, discusses the upcoming Friday, April 25, 2014 event “Documenting Queer Histories in China and the U.S.,” which will feature the screenings of Cui Zi’en’s “Queer China, ‘Comrade’ China” and Barbara Hammer’s “Nitrate Kisses”  followed by a discussion with both filmmakers. The event will take place from 1:00 PM to 5:00 PM in Hamilton Hall 602. 

It is a great honor to bring two well-respected queer filmmakers, Cui Zi’en and Barbara Hammer, to Columbia University through the film event, “Documenting Queer Histories in China and the U.S.” This event will showcase two important documentary films, “Queer China, ‘Comrade’ China” (Cui Zi’en, 2008) and “Nitrate Kisses” (Barbara Hammer, 1992), and feature an in-depth discussion with their directors. While “Queer China” presents the oral histories and recent developments concerning the emerging LGBTQ community in modern China, “Nitrate Kisses” retrieves the queer history in the U.S. and Europe, emphasizing the “processes” of history writing. Whereas “Queer China” largely takes a talking-heads approach that, by way of the interviews with numerous queer activists, captures a sense of communal agency and creates a kind of “embodied knowledge” about being queer in contemporary China, “Nitrate Kisses” is characterized by an unorthodox filmmaking method that, through aural and the visual juxtapositions, blurs the boundaries between subjective/objective and past/present, exemplifying the “performative” turn in documentary practice in the U.S. In addition to a conversation about the filmmakers’ differing formal considerations, our post-screening discussion may include questions about the filmmakers’ artistic agendas, their influences from and on experimental film, the challenges to queer filmmaking in the past and present, the significance of queer identity politics, film censorship and the Beijing Queer Film Festival (where Cui has been the chief organizer and Hammer has attended), and the continuing queer movements in both Mainland China and the U.S. Please join us for a wonderful afternoon.

The International Network to Expand Regional and Collaborative Teaching (INTERACT) is a pioneering program at Columbia University that focuses on developing global studies in the undergraduate curriculum through a network of postdoctoral scholars focused on cross-regional, trans-regional and interdisciplinary teaching. Through innovative courses and active involvement in all dimensions of campus intellectual life, the INTERACT scholars seek to improve global literacy among Columbia students and equip them to be leaders in a globalizing world. 

INTERACT fellow Saskia Schaefer discusses upcoming April 18 event on Islamic Urbanism in Jakarta and Istanbul


Saskia Schaefer, 2013 – 2014 INTERACT Postdoctoral Fellow in Modern Southeast Asian Studies at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and part-time lecturer in Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, compares the dynamics between Islam and urbanism in Jakarta and Istanbul. On Friday, April 18, 2014, the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life will present a full-day event, organized by Shaefer, that is dedicated to the topic “Islamic Urbanism?: Space, Consumption, and Development in Istanbul and Jakarta.” It will take place from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM in Knox Hall 509. 

 When the Gezi Park protests broke out last summer, I was teaching a class on Islam and Democracy at Humboldt Universität in Berlin. My students discussed the media coverage of the events. The Economist dedicated an issue on the protests, carrying the title: “Democrat or Sultan?,” and observers stressed the cliché schism between Islam and democracy. The more interesting question remains what the protests mean for a politically divided society. As a Southeast Asianist, I was also intrigued by something else: Why is there protest in Istanbul, but not in Jakarta? Public space is shrinking in most cities of the world; formerly public and often neglected areas are turned into shiny private houses, hotels, or business complexes. Whether I am in Istanbul, in Kuala Lumpur, or in Jakarta, schools seem to be moving out of the city centres, and parks seem to be turned into shopping malls. Ironically, the word ‘mall’ was once used for broad, tree-lined promenades. In Jakarta, a concrete jungle of more than 10 Million people, publicly accessible parks are rare. Rather than on tree-lined promenades, wealthy Jakartians take their weekend strolls along the air-conditioned tunnels that link the city’s network of glitzy shopping malls. They browse through silken headscarves and handbags that cost as much as whole houses in the outer islands. They often pay with supposedly Sharia-compliant credit cards. The poorer population feels lucky if they get to work as security personnel or cleaners in these places with their filtered air-systems. When the malls close at night, you’ll see that parts of the city’s pavements are home to those who are even poorer. They are shut out from the consumerist tunnels, and shut out from the gated communities that are mushrooming everywhere. Why then, I wondered, are there no protests in Jakarta?

Last fall, I had the chance to discuss this question with Karen Barkey, the Director of the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life here at Columbia. We were intrigued by the disparity of protests and by the phenomena of Islamically-themed public spaces, such as in the form of Muslim gated communities. To learn more about the dynamics between Urbanism, Islam, and newly emerging middle classes, we invited a group of experts on the two cities to hold a panel discussion together. We want to look at the following questions:

Who are the main actors and engineers of current urban developments in major Indonesian and Turkish cities such as Istanbul and Jakarta? What visions of the cities’ futures drive them? Who are the protesters contesting these visions? How are Islam and consumption interconnected with regard to urban space? Who benefits and who suffers from the recent economic growth; what new elites are arising? What are the religious, ethnic and gender dynamics of the new middle classes?

In the full-day event with anthropologists, geographers, historians, and sociologists from Canada, France, Germany, Malaysia, Turkey, and the US, we will address these issues in two panels, one on Urban Planning, and one on Muslim Urban Lifestyles. Throughout the day, there will be ample opportunity to ask questions and to participate in the discussions.

The International Network to Expand Regional and Collaborative Teaching (INTERACT) is a pioneering program at Columbia University that focuses on developing global studies in the undergraduate curriculum through a network of postdoctoral scholars focused on cross-regional, trans-regional and interdisciplinary teaching. Through innovative courses and active involvement in all dimensions of campus intellectual life, the INTERACT scholars seek to improve global literacy among Columbia students and equip them to be leaders in a globalizing world. 

China and the Environment Panel Discussion



A Report on the March 31, 2014 China and the Environment panel discussion featuring Chinadialogue editor Isabel Hilton, Georgetown University professor Micah Muscolino, Yale University professor Peter Perdue, and moderator Eugenia Lean. 

Audio for the event is available on iTunes here:

In an in-depth conversation, three of the leading experts in the field discussed the importance of looking to China’s past in order to address the country’s present environmental situation. The conversation, moderated by Columbia’s Eugenia Lean, featured Yale history professor Peter Perdue, Georgetown history professor Micah Muscolino, and Chinadialogue editor Isabel Hilton. The event was co-sponsored by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, the Center on Japanese Economy and Business, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Study Center.

Peter Perdue spoke first about China’s long environmental history. He began by placing the history in its global context, where nature and humans across time have been united in a “global contribution for better or worse” to the climate. In his remarks, he focused on the need to present a “longer term view” of China and the world’s environmental challenges. In an illustration of this point, he spoke about the rise of CO2 emissions three or four thousand years ago as a result of deforestation in China and East Asia. Deforestation also occurred as a result of war and even of Buddhism, in which monastic centers of production were also forces of deforestation. Efforts on behalf of the state to industrialize during the Self-Strengthening Movement of the late nineteenth century led China on a search for coal. The state focused its efforts on the coast, neglecting the central and Northern provinces, which contributed to the Great North China Famine of the 1870s. Perdue argued that the Great Leap Forward famine was also the result of both ecological phenomena and state policies. He concluded that the environmental crises are deep seeded and very hard to reverse. The good news, he said, is that there is information in the past that may help us learn how to address present and future challenges.

Micah Muscolino encouraged people to incorporate many disciplines and all regions of the world into the discussion of environmental history. In his own research, he has looked at the legacies of how people in China have perceived and responded to environmental change. He asserted these perceptions and responses will “shape the options available to China as well as the rest of the world, as we grapple with environmental change on a global scale.” Muscolino’s most recent book on the ecology of war in China centers on Hunan during World War II and the subsequent civil war, during which the Nationalist Army breached the dikes of the Yellow River in a the  attempt to block a Japanese military advance.  He characterized this event as “possibly the most environmentally damaging act of war in world history.” The diversion led to mass flooding and precipitated a famine. These events tied together war, flood, and famine. They were strategic decisions made by the state and its military leaders, which had a massive impact on environmental change.  Muscolino said that “literally everything in China’s history has environmental components,” emphasizing the need to make the environment a central focus of the discipline and of the discussion of China’s present challenges. “China’s past may be the world’s future,” he concluded.

Isabel Hilton, the founder and editor of Chinadialogue, a website that reports on China’s environmental issues, spoke about the journalism profession, which she characterized as having a “short-term memory.” Hilton questioned the narratives of modern environmental challenges, which often view stories in terms of a start, middle, and end point. She argued that “the difference with climate change is that it is not going to end” and warned that the opportunity to build effective policies to address climate change will diminish as societies are put under increasing stress. According to Hilton, the short-term roots of China’s environmental crisis are the past thirty years of development where the government pursued a policy of “develop first, clean up later.” Now the repercussions of this sort of policy are beginning to appear, yet the state faces the difficult situation of these problems being embedded in the economic model. While there is political will to confront the environmental issues, Hilton explained that the enforcement of top down policies is likely to fail “without the proper horizontal checks and balances.” There must be freedom of the press and social media, she said. There is a spread of civil society, Hilton said, but it is weak because citizens are denied avenues of activism. She explained that the Chinese government now regards environment problems as a “security issue.” With that mindset, Hilton explained, government efforts to fight pollution cannot be effective because they are tied to the larger ambition of maintaining party power.







Meet the WEAI Authors Event: Emily T. Yeh and “Taming Tibet”




A Report on the Meet the WEAI Authors event featuring Emily T. Yeh, author of the Study of the WEAI  Taming Tibet: Landscape Transformation and the Gift of Chinese Development, on March 25, 2014:

Emily T. YehAssociate Professor of Geography at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and moderator Robert Barnettdirector of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University, discussed Yeh’s new book Taming Tibet: Landscape Transformation and the Gift of Chinese Development, a Study of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute published by Cornell University Press.

During her lecture, Emily T. Yeh provided a brief overview of the key findings and arguments in her book, along with a more in-depth discussion of the book’s final chapter on the New Socialist Countryside housing projects. Her book traces the landscape transformation in Lhasa and the Tibetan Autonomous Region from the 1950s to the present. Specifically, the book follows the changes in Tibet’s “material landscape” and, accordingly, organizes its chronology into three types of development: soil, plastic, and concrete. Yeh argued that the changes represented in those three categories reveal tensions in Tibet about how Tibetans should be incorporated into–and how they should appreciate–the Chinese state’s development of their landscape.

In the book, soil refers to the introduction of scientific agriculture. Many soldiers in Tibet in the 1950s were involved in this process. They recruited poor Tibetan men and women. This period saw a shift from an expectation for the Tibetan people to express gratitude towards socialist liberation to gratitude towards Chinese aid in Tibetan development.

For Yeh, plastic represents the covering of the landscape in plastic by Han migrants engaged in vegetable farming. This material shift was marked by Han migration through family ties, many descended from the soldiers previously stationed there. Officials believed the migrants would help transfer skills to local Tibetans by virtue of residing in the same geographic area. However, instead, Tibetan and Han became segregated residentially and economically. Additionally, many migrants became resentful of the vast amount of money the government invested in the Tibetan economy. They viewed Tibetans as ungrateful for this gift.

Finally, concrete represents urban expansion and the development of housing projects. This material shift is embodied by the rapid urbanization of Lhasa and the New Socialist Countryside housing projects, which have been carried out across Tibet and the surrounding area. Yeh argues that housing has been tied to a broader idea of development as a gift, for which the Tibetans should be grateful.  Yet, a gift is never really free. Yeh noted  that the act of giving forces Tibetans to recognize the role of the state as a “giver,” making Tibetans recognize their relationship with the state as “receiver.” Development projects have a genuine goal of wanting to improve society, but these gifts are also linked to notions of indebtedness.

Audio for the event is available on iTunes here:






Professor Lydia H. Liu on Phoenix and the art of Xu Bing


Now is the ideal time for those in New York to experience the work of Xu Bing (1955-), the world-renowned contemporary Chinese artist. Through January 2015, his monumental installation Phoenix, featuring two giant birds fabricated from construction debris, will be displayed inside the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. Book from the Sky, the work that first earned Xu Bing international acclaim, is also on display in the Ink Art exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Lydia H. Liu, the Wun Tsun Tam Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University and faculty member of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, discusses Phoenix and other works by Xu Bing, exploring the questions and sensations that they provoke.  What follows is derived from a March 2014 interview (edited for content) with Professor Liu.

Professor Liu on Xu Bing’s Phoenix:

For Xu Bing, the creation of Phoenix was a process of discovery. He was first invited to make a piece for a new space in east Beijing where they were building two high rises that would be linked through a gigantic lobby. An investor from Hong Kong wanted a well-known artist to design something to grace that lobby space. And so Xu Bing was invited to take a look at that space and on his way into the building he saw the construction workers working there also. He saw the places where they lived. And he was struck. The Hong Kong investor who had asked him to do something for that lobby gave him this opportunity to look closely at what was going on around that building.  Eventually, the investor decided—in the aftermath of the financial collapse of 2008–not to continue the commission. But, Xu Bing had already almost finished the work. It had taken him a long time to finish that work. It was a process of discovery and he saw how those construction workers lived. If you were to ask him, he would say Phoenix is a “celebration of labor.” That is what he said to a number of people.


It was very controversial when Phoenix was first exhibited in Beijing. Art critics there thought he simply used a folk icon because the pair of phoenixes “Feng” and “Huang” is an idea that goes way back into Chinese mythology. So people thought “Oh, a contemporary artist somehow is going back to tradition.” A number of critics were disturbed that Xu Bing was going back to tradition and, of course, he would tell you that you draw your ideas and inspiration from tradition. But, he didn’t first come upon the idea of the image of the phoenix when he was asked to think of something to create for that building.  The Hong Kong investor wanted something auspicious–an icon–for his building. So, first the discussion was “which of the auspicious Chinese icons would they pick?” One of them was going to be the image of the crane, which symbolizes longevity and prosperity and all that.  But then Xu Bing changed it to the phoenix. He decided that the crane wouldn’t work. Somehow, it was the phoenix for that space. People tend to get fixated on this idea. The problem with Chinese art critics when they saw just the traditional icon was that they were led by the idea of the phoenix and whatever it symbolizes. That’s too simple. Xu Bing’s work has to be interpreted in terms of how he engages with the material itself. He doesn’t simply take ideas from readymade images.  He gives ideas to material. That’s what’s most interesting about the work. And, also, he discovers things that other people don’t discover. That’s the talent of Xu Bing.


Xu Bing is always working with illusion: what is real, what seems real.  That illusion is also produced sometimes through optical devices, like the L.E.D. lights that people will find on the phoenixes. Those lights look beautiful when you look at that pair of birds from a certain distance. His work always requires this doubleness of looking from afar and coming up close, so you see different things.  Almost all of his works have this magical quality.  First, you’re under the illusion that this is something familiar-an image of a phoenix, a bird, a beautiful installation. When you come closer and you look at the actual pieces that are there, you get a shock. You are hit immediately.  You have to ask questions about these pieces: those spades, the tools–where do they come from? They look used. I think this play between illusion and the material that produces the illusion is unique to Xu Bing.


I think Xu Bing had a whole team that went around Beijing’s construction sites, looking for castaway materials and tools. They also went to garbage dump places in search of possible material for this installation.  Usually, when you walk by any of Beijing’s construction sites, you would see these things, but you don’t notice them. It takes someone like Xu Bing to really see them and notice them and put them together in a way that transforms them too. There is something about his work that’s deeply, deeply satisfying to a viewer.  I have seen viewers circling around his installations many times. I’ve watched them doing that. He can create objects that speak to people in that way.  You always look from a distance at a beautiful object and when you come up close it’s something totally unexpected.  You begin to ask questions.


Phoenix itself–looking at it from a distance–cost a lot simply to be shipped here and constructed. It’s very expensive. That’s why it required a real estate investor to even propose the idea of creating it.Then it would be bought by a millionaire. No one could have constructed it without these peoples’ input. On the other hand, the pieces that go into the making of the art object are touched by those migrant workers. Those workers are the ones who could produce value for the investors who commissioned this work.  So, you see, there’s this logic that’s embodied by Phoenix. It says something about Chinese society as part of this global capitalist world. I think Xu Bing is very good at documenting that moment through very concrete images that are produced by that moment itself. That is what is extraordinary about him.  And, also, he’s capable of reflecting on the logic that mobilizes all of these forces: capital and labor. Even though the artist says that this is a “celebration of labor,” it’s more than that. It takes a lot of money to complete this whole thing.  Someone has to give money. And, ironically, it takes the capitalist to enable the artist to complete the work that would bring migrant workers into our view, making them visible.  So, it is the contradiction of Chinese society that is embodied by his whole process of putting Phoenix together.


Professor Liu on Xu Bing’s Reflections While Reading, which is permanently displayed inside Columbia University’s C.V. Starr East Asian Library, and its relation to Book from the Sky:

Reflections While Reading is a fascinating piece that is related to another invention Xu Bing made which is called the “New English Calligraphy.” Essentially he has invented a way of writing English letters–26 letters–by using the stroke system from Chinese calligraphy. You turn each English word into a square character. But, when you look closely, these strokes are made up of A, B, C, D… You can actually spell them. He’s done this in numerous exhibitions. He’s set up classrooms that children would enter and where they use brushes to write English worlds in Chinese strokes. This completely changes a person’s view of writing. And, you begin to realize “Oh, I can write English into square characters.” He has written a number of these works and he has also produced computer software that can produce these characters.  He is collaborating with a company to create a fund that would allow computers to produce a text in English but that looks like Chinese characters. You can find a specimen of this project in Columbia’s C.V. Starr Library.


Reflections While Reading is a work that goes back to the 1990s. In fact, there’s an earlier work that’s back in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  It’s called the Book from the Sky. It’s really the work that established him in the 1980s. He spent many years carving written characters that do not exist and then he printed them and bound them into books that nobody could read.  That’s the Book from the Sky. Some people suggest that it’s a deconstruction of language but it’s actually more interesting than that.  It simply shows that you could make so many more characters by using the existing radicals, the stroke system to make a character. There are also so many possibilities in which you can combine alphabetical letters.  In English, we can make many words that are not English. It’s that idea. What is so interesting is that when Xu Bing first exhibited Book from the Sky in Beijing people were stunned because, all of a sudden, these erudite, educated people became illiterate. They couldn’t read any of his text. It’s quite interesting how his work provokes people and it makes people realize what literacy is and how much people attach to their literacy.  When something comes along that somehow attacks their sense of literacy, they almost collapse.

Book from the Sky is his most extraordinary work.  And, I think Phoenix is probably his next most important work.  In both, Xu Bing plays with the dialectic of the familiar and the foreign, optical illusion, and, then: sudden discovery and revelation.


Lydia H. Liu is Wun Tsun Tam Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. Her publications include The Freudian Robot: Digital Media and the Future of the Unconscious (University of Chicago Press, 2010); The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making (Harvard University Press, 2006); and, as co-editor, The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory (Columbia University Press, 2013).

INTERACT fellow Shi-Yan Chao discusses the Marriage Equality Movement in Taiwan


Shi-Yan Chao, 2013 – 2014 INTERACT Postdoctoral Fellow at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, discusses the recent debates about marriage equality in Taiwan, which could be the first nation in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. Chao, who received his PhD in Cinema Studies from New York University, wrote his dissertation “Processing Tongzhi Imaginaries: Chinese Queer Representation in the Global Mediascape” about the production and consumption of tongzhi/queer images from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China. 

Please note that the views expressed on the WEAI blog represent those of the author and not necessarily those of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute.

In the United States same-sex marriage has been a galvanizing subject for more than a decade, accompanied by various battles in the judicial system and on both the state and federal levels. Though barely covered by the American media, in Taiwan same-sex marriage has recently become an issue of heated debate following the latest push for its legalization, when, on October 25, 2013, the legislature referred a “marriage equality” bill to the Judicial Affairs Committee for review. This “marriage equality” bill proposes terminological changes to designate couples: “husband and wife” is to be replaced by “spouses” or “companions,”“man and woman” by “two parties,” and “father and mother” by “parents.” In so doing, the right to marriage, alongside myriad legal protections and benefits contingent to marriage as well as the right to adoption, would expand to include all citizens of marriageable age regardless of their “gender, sexual orientation, gender identifications, and gender attributes.”

This marriage equality bill is but one of the three proposals comprising the so-called “diverse family formation” plan (多元成家方案) promoted by the Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights (TAPCPR, 台灣伴侶權益推動聯盟), a non-profit organization “with the aim of advocating equal rights for all people in Taiwan to found their families.” Their proposed “diverse family formation” plan means to address the rights of people in relationships incongruous with the traditional nuclear family. They have taken into consideration three particular types of relationships: same-sex marriage (included in “marriage equality bill”); civil partnership without restrictions as to the gender or sexual orientation of the partners (i.e., “civil partnership system” [伴侶制度]); and groups of friends who choose to live together and take care of one another as a family (i.e., “multiple person family system” [家屬制度]). While the first proposal, for the most part, simply neutralizes the component of “gender” in the current marriage system to include LGBT couples, the second and third proposals take “a new approach to marriage and the family,” posing a more fundamental challenge to society. Whereas the first proposal has passed the first reading in the Legislative Yuan last October, the second and third proposals are expected to have a much longer way to go.

Upon their introduction to the Legislative Yuan, the three proposals have drawn immense criticism from conservative groups and individuals. For instance, Chang Chuan-fong, the Unification Church Taiwan vice president and spokesperson for the interreligious “Taiwan Family” organization (台灣愛護家庭大聯盟), claimed that legalizing same-sex marriage is “a downward step that will lead to the collapse of civilizations,” and that the proposed bills as a whole would result in “the demolition of family, the abolishment of marriage, and the deluge of promiscuity.” On November 30, a demonstration led by the “Happiness of the Next Generation Alliance” (下一代幸福聯盟) was held in Taipei in support of the traditional family with over 200,000 people present. The protesters, consisting mainly of parents and their children, held signs that read “Made by Daddy + Mommy,” “Defend Marriage,” and “Oppose Amendment to Civil Code Article 972,” the current law which holds that marriage is between a man and woman. This mass demonstration was “a surprisingly large backlash” against the move to legalize marriage equality in Taiwan.

Three points should be made clear, however. First, as has been reiterated by so many gay rights activists in the United States, marriage is a basic human right that should not be subjugated to public opinion or popular vote. Second, even when it comes to public opinion, recent surveys show that a quarter of the population has changed its opinion about the issue over the past decade, and now over half of Taiwanese approve of gay marriage. For instance, a China Times poll conducted in August 2012 indicated that 56 percent supported gay marriage while 31 percent opposed it. According to the survey conducted by TAPCPR last August, 53 percent of the public supports gay marriage, while the opposition accounts for a minority at 37 percent. Third, the large turnout at the rally, as many have pointed out, had everything to do with the conservative Christians, a relatively small but outspoken minority. As journalist J. Michael Cole points out, the hands of Christian organizations were all over the protest, ranging from the hundreds of arranged buses delivering protesters to the site, to the religious songs and prayer performed on the site. Cole even traces the connections between prominent Christian segregations in Taiwan, money flows, and certain local politicians in their joint effort to block gay marriage regulations, potentially through “a loose coalition of evangelical groups with worrying ties to extremist Christian organizations in the U.S.”

In the earlier phase of the gay rights movement in Taiwan (essentially a Confucian influenced society),  the family was considered by many activists to be a fundamental obstacle that was as thorny as Christianity is in the West. The recent anti-gay campaigns nonetheless demonstrate the rising influence of the conservative Church through a trans-regional network (by way of the cases of Uganda and Nigeria). In Taiwan’s case, I want to stress that the influence of the family remains significant. It is evident in the aforementioned China Times survey that, while showing that 56 percent of Taiwanese people support marriage equality in concept, finds that 57 percent of the respondents nonetheless do not accept gay people in their families. In large part, the conservative Christian organizations (again, a relatively small group) effectively utilize this discrepancy to gain a wider base in their anti-gay (marriage) campaigns particularly through the scare tactics that provoke anxiety and fear in the public—the anxiety that their family values are under attack, and the deepest fear that their family lines will not continue if their children are gay or somehow are encouraged to become gay due to the passage of gay marriage. Under the rubric of “protecting family” and “happiness of the next generation,” the conservative Church has found certain common ground with the larger non-Christian demographic through the latter’s deep concern for the traditional (Chinese) family. Despite the Church-mobilized conservative forces actively exercising their political influence, the recent polls have nevertheless shown the contrary: over half of Taiwanese are ready for marriage equality. The bill is now in the hands of the government and the legislature. Will Taiwan become the first state in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage?

The International Network to Expand Regional and Collaborative Teaching (INTERACT) is a pioneering program at Columbia University that focuses on developing global studies in the undergraduate curriculum through a network of postdoctoral scholars focused on cross-regional, trans-regional and interdisciplinary teaching. Through innovative courses and active involvement in all dimensions of campus intellectual life, the INTERACT scholars seek to improve global literacy among Columbia students and equip them to be leaders in a globalizing world.     

INTERACT fellow Saskia Schaefer discusses her recent Indonesia election research

Saskia Schaefer portrait

Saskia Schaefer, 2013 – 2014 INTERACT Postdoctoral Fellow in Modern Southeast Asian Studies at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and part-time lecturer in Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, discusses her recent visit to Indonesia to study the country’s 2014 elections.

The International Network to Expand Regional and Collaborative Teaching (INTERACT) is a pioneering program at Columbia University that focuses on developing global studies in the undergraduate curriculum through a network of postdoctoral scholars focused on cross-regional, trans-regional and interdisciplinary teaching. Through innovative courses and active involvement in all dimensions of campus intellectual life, the INTERACT scholars seek to improve global literacy among Columbia students and equip them to be leaders in a globalizing world.     

[During my annual visit to Indonesia, in January of the election year 2014, I meet more pessimists than optimists.]

“Expectations? I am not expecting anything. I didn’t vote last time and I am not going to vote this time. During the first elections, in 1999, I wore a T-shirt with a slogan on it and went campaigning. They promised that we would be paid back all the efforts in cash. But that never happened.” Rudi’s eyes flash as he looks at me through the rear mirror. He is from West Java and has been working as a taxi driver in the capital Jakarta for 12 years. He knows about politics, he follows the debates. But he hasn’t voted since 1999. Asked about the upcoming parliamentarian elections in Indonesia, he smiles resignedly: “What for?”

In the late 1990s, when I first visited Indonesia as a student, most people I encountered were in a euphoric mood. Suharto’s crusted regime had just fallen in 1998, the new temporary president Habibie had been educated abroad and seemed willing to hand over power to democratically elected representatives. The media landscape was transformed into one of the freest in Asia; foreign-funded NGOs were blossoming and spreading an air of progress and optimism. From far, I followed Indonesia’s elections: 1999, 2004, 2009 — all classified as free and fair by international observers. Throughout my time as a student of political science and Southeast Asian history, I spent good parts of my holidays at Indonesian universities. Indonesian students love discussions; they meet and sit down to talk for hours while sipping sugary jasmine tea. They invited me to give small talks; I would find myself surrounded by curious students, keen to jump in and challenge and debate every little sentence. There is an indescribable energy in a room full of young eager students of politics, law, and philosophy who sense that they are living in a time and place in which they can newly shape their country. I remember drawing a circle on a blackboard, surrounded by small boxes: the elections, central to democracy, surrounded by political and civil rights and by the separation of powers. The Indonesian students and I looked at each other and knew that it wasn’t complete. We had a nice and neat model of the wisdom of liberal democratic theory here — but it didn’t help us grasp reality. “Should the elections really be in the center?” somebody asked. I shrugged: “I’m not sure. That’s what I’ve been taught. What do you think?” They weren’t so sure either. And this was what they had been taught too. I have since been trying to find out what else could possibly be in the center. Additionally, or instead.

This rainy season, while Jakarta suffers its annual floods, the Indonesian media is celebrating and watching Joko Widodo — known as Jokowi — the current governor of Jakarta. He is a potential candidate for the presidential elections that are scheduled for July. Famous for his spontaneous visits to slums and hospitals, people see Jokowi as “one of them” and admire the strength with which he seems determined to combat inefficiency and corruption. Another main contender is Prabowo Subianto, a businessman, politician and former Special Forces soldier. His background in business and the military, I was told many times, promises political potency. Neither of them has very detailed policy plans, nor do the other potential and confirmed candidates. Indonesian politics — as increasingly elsewhere — are more about personalities than about parties and their plans and programs. “They’re all the same!” sneered Rudi at the end of our ride.