Chinese President Xi Jinping's Jan. 2 speech addressing "reunification" with Taiwan has done what no political leader on the island nation has managed recently: set off a wave of unity among the Taiwanese people.
Xi had apparently seen an opportunity to exploit November's huge setbacks for the pro-independence governing party in Taiwan's local elections. The Chinese president used last week's speech marking the 40th anniversary of Beijing's call to end military confrontation across the Taiwan Strait, to tell his "Taiwanese compatriots' that the two sides should "search for common ground, while recognizing differences, and strive for reunification." Repeating the assertion that Taiwan independence is a dead end and that China would use force should Taiwan try to separate formally from China, Xi further proposed to the island nation the so-called "one country, two systems" formula, similar to the system in Hong Kong since its takeover by China in 1997.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen responded to the speech with unprecedented firmness: "Taiwan absolutely will not accept "one country, two systems'. The vast majority of Taiwanese resolutely oppose "one country, two systems', and this is the Taiwan consensus."
The use of the word "consensus' was significant, in that Xi had reiterated his belief in the so-called "One China" consensus. This refers to a meeting which took place in 1992 between semi-official representatives from China and Taiwan, with a "One China principle" as its core element. Whether such a consensus actually exists has always been a dispute between the pro-independence party, the DPP, and the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) which was ruling Taiwan in 1992.
President Tsai has refused to recognize that there was such a consensus. Even more important, as she told Xi, the real Taiwan consensus is that it won't accept the one country, two systems formula, reflecting 80% of Taiwan's public opinion, and this in spite of internal political differences.
The one-on-one confrontation of the two presidents has created a furor, not only on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, but also among the ethnic Chinese diaspora around the world.
She'd been criticized for lacking courage when faced with the continual bullying from China.
The New Power Party (NPP), a young third-way party, which also proclaims Taiwan independence, issued a statement rejecting President Xi's speech: "We are two different states. The premise of exchange is equality."
But the main spotlight was reserved for Tsai. Having been criticized for lacking leadership and courage when faced with the continual bullying from China ever since taking office in May 2016, President Tsai's assertive stance has been widely applauded by Taiwanese public opinion.
In the 24 hours that followed her remarks, the president's rarely followed Facebook page was suddenly swamped with hundreds of thousands of "likes."
By trying to avoid being labeled a troublemaker by Washington, as her predecessor DPP president Chen Shui-bian was, Tsai adopted a particularly low profile towards China over the past two and half years. This did not stop China from sending aircraft and naval vessels across Taiwanese territory. China has also forced certain notable Taiwanese with business on the mainland to publicly admit they are Chinese and supporters of reunification. China has also encroached on Taiwan's few remaining diplomatic ties, and also strong-armed foreign airlines to locate Taiwan as a province of China.
For once, Tsai's core supporters — the so-called "deep green" voters who aspire to a normalization of Taiwan as a sovereign country — affirmed her positive attitude after two years of frustration.
A recent Hong Kong university report pointed out that 45% of Hong Kong residents believed in one country, two systems at the time of reunification, but that level of support has fallen to near zero in the 20 years since.
On Jan. 5, members from the League of Social Democrats, a pro-democratic party in Hong Kong, took to the streets to protest against China. "Stop using force to intimidate Taiwan. One country, two systems are lies," read their banners. While burning copies of Xi Jinping's address to the Taiwanese people, the League also stuck an open letter to the door of the Chinese State Council's Liaison Office in Hong Kong.
Even on the mainland, a few voices of dissent could be heard. Liang Yunxiang, an outspoken professor at Peking University's School of International Studies said to Hong Kong's i-CABLE News Channel, "China's hard power is not comparable to that of the United States, while its soft power lags behind that of Taiwan." Thus, in his view, "currently China is not attractive even to its own people, let alone attracting the Taiwanese to reunite."
Wang Dang, the famous U.S.-based dissident and one of the leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen Square movement, believes that in a probably unintentional way, Xi's speech "has advanced the election prospects of Madam Tsai in Taiwan's next presidential election," slated for 2020.
Still, despite the sudden calls for unity, Taiwan's challenge for the future will remain internal dissent as much as any strong-arming from Beijing.
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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