International Relations

Linshui Protests: China’s Paradoxical Approach to Protest Coverage

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This piece is written about the protests that are currently unfolding in Linshui, China.


Chinese police clashing with protesters. Source: Weibo

A violent protest erupted in China yesterday following the demonstration of thousands of people at the displeasure of the government’s decision not to build a high speed rail through the city of Linshui that would have been key to its development. Despite the lack of media coverage, I thought I would write my thoughts. The response of the Chinese government warrants special attention as China in the past year has not hesitated to express its own ‘concern’ about the protests that exploded in Baltimore, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Chinese residents were seen hurling rocks at swathes of police, foreign journalists were assaulted and detained, and Chinese SWAT teams were deployed to ‘maintain order’. The pictures and videos show a backdrop of half-completed concrete buildings, and the squads of armoured police evokes a comparison to what is currently happening in disaffected parts of the United States.

The Linshui protest is interesting, because it is a ‘pro-development’ instead of an ‘anti-development’ protest. The largest protests in recent Chinese history have so far been against the fast pace of growth and the associated environmental degradation. However, this time it was sparked by the  decision to build a shorter but cheaper high speed rail around the city instead of through it. This is a superpower which has so far maintained domestic order primarily by trading civil rights for economic development, and the promise of that is being challenged here.

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Reflections on the Umbrella Revolution and (the state of) Hong Kong

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Below is a post from my Facebook on 1 October 2014. This post has also been edited by Ana Lenard and published as an article in Craccum Magazine, the official student magazine at the University of Auckland.

umbrella man

You must all pay attention to Hong Kong.

The first thing to say is that not everyone is born into a democracy. I was lucky enough that a few years after I was born, a technocratic and progressive elite in Taiwan held the first presidential election just before I moved to New Zealand (after lifting what had been “the longest imposition of martial law by a regime anywhere in the world” at the time and ending one party rule). While I have not experienced its oppression (although my parents and grandparents speak of it), I do remember the opposition winning for the first time when I was a child, and also casting a vote in what would have only been its fifth election when I was old enough to vote (20). Taiwan owes its democracy now partially to a student movement that pressured the government to liberalise.

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Reflections on the Occupation of the Taiwanese Parliament (Sunflower Student Movement) over the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement

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Below is a post from my Facebook on 19 March 2014.

taiwan parliament occupied

I don’t usually write long posts on Facebook, but here is a bit of introspection.

I lived in Taiwan during the formative years of my childhood, and with my family still there, naturally I would care about what is happening in my country. I write this with mixed emotions. Even now I feel weird referring to Taiwan as a country. Because many people will no doubt correct me that ‘No, Taiwan is not a country’ – ‘because it is not part of the UN’, ‘did you not know that your government still claims jurisdiction over mainland China?’, ‘It is part of China’ or ‘It is China’. I am not here to debate technicalities; please spare me things which I already ‘know’, and have lived my life trying to understand and reconcile. I merely ask the question: how do I refer to the place I am from, if not a country? I have always ‘felt’ like it was a country, and it has the semblance of one. For the sake of political correctness, should I be calling it Taiwan, China, Republic of China – depending on who I am talking to? Even the above feels like a crude summary. I believe this crisis of identity has been something that has affected my Taiwanese friends as well.

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The Rise of China and Normative Constraints

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The Rise of China and Normative Constraints

Max Lin, 1635489

This piece will focus on the English School and the American ‘pivot towards Asia’ in light of Obama’s recent trips to the region. The piece will begin with an exposition of the theory and evaluate it against other major theories, followed by a explanation on the policy. Finally, the theory will be applied and discussed.

Obama says Asia-Pacific is his top priority. Courtesy of ABC News.

The English School

The English School shares similarities to both realism and idealism. Having said this, within the English School there are also major disagreements. The strands of English School theorists can be divided into three waves, starting with the Classic English theorists such as Martin Wight and Charles Manning. The second wave includes James Mayall, and recently the English School has undergone a renaissance with contemporaries such as Barry Buzan. As a crude summary, the classical theorists see less potential for international progress and places high priority on ‘plurality’ and order, while the latter theorists are somewhat more optimistic on the normative possibilities of change and new norms in an international society.

Nonetheless, there are five uniting features for all English School theories. Firstly, that the [stable] organisation of states in the international sphere is one which necessarily emerges from a mere ‘international system’ to an ‘international society’ governed by ‘norms, rules and institutions’. English School theorists place primacy on these normative rules [at least in competition with other factors such as the balance of powers in realism and liberal institutions in liberalism]. Thirdly, the English School believes order is the norm, which is where the English School most drastically diverges from classical realism. However, the English School does not share the Kantian notion of the potential or inevitability of radical change (some possibilities exist where critical theory overlaps). The final arm of the English School is that it examines ‘facts’ in the context of history, and behaviour in the context of meaning and motive. In summary, they are ‘anti-rationalist’, sharing this with constructivism.

Courtesy of Global Security
Courtesy of Global Security

To what extent is The Pivot consistent with the English School?

The key issues in the region include nuclear proliferation of North Korea, trade navigation in the South China Sea and reassuring American allies with the rise of China. Other concerns purported by the United States administration include engaging with regional institutions, expanding trade and advancing democracy and human rights.

Courtesy of BBC
Courtesy of BBC

At face value, the pivot towards Asia seems unreservedly realist. With China’s growing economic and military influence, the United States is merely shifting its resources to ensure there is a balance of power [for the US] in the region. On the other hand, the Transpacific Partnership Agreement, and multilateral security treaties and assurances appear to align with liberal notions.

It is my contention, that the purpose and value of international theories is to best model and predict international behaviour. Therefore, there is some tension with the normative element of the English School. The attractiveness of the English School, however, is that it is not mutually exclusive with the realist and liberal notions above. The English School delivers by first acknowledging that the balance of power is one norm in the international society, but also applies other structures or ‘rules’,  such as diplomacy, international law and the mutual recognition of sovereignty.

Despite claims by countries and observers such as ex-Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd praising the policy in light of China having a ‘hard-line, realist view of international relations’, China is not as a pariah outside the international society. China subscribes to the same institutions of trade (joining the World Trade Organisation) and diplomacy (having a permanent seat on the Security Council) and therefore has a corresponding interest in preserving these rule-based norms. For example, China’s own Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership can be seen as utilising these diplomatic and institutional norms to benefit her and simultaneously preserve order. China’s support for North Korea is waning due to international norms of her alleged support of human rights abuses (third wave interpretation, more radical). Moreover, it would be to the detriment of China if it flouted its obligations as an international ‘citizen’, as it would be not be able to appeal to the same rules say if the United States decided to punish China’s undervaluation of her currency especially when the undervaluation is considered legal under the World Trade Organisation.

Courtesy of ASEAN
Courtesy of ASEAN

One last observation to make is that with increased cooperation in the region, and further recognition of these norms, order would be preserved. Ironically, with China’s growing clout in a stable environment, it could play a greater role in counter-terrrorism operations and international peacekeeping. This is an unsustainable burden currently shouldered by the US which has been in part the US rationale behind the Pivot. When order is preserved by pluralism, new norms can emerge for solidarism. This is when progress develops and where order intersects with justice.

Courtesy of the US-China Institute
Courtesy of the US-China Institute


The advantage of the English School is that it is seen as the via media between realism and idealism, and incorporates anti-rationalist approaches of constructivism. The short-falls include the difficulty to test the theory as these norms are not fixed. Ultimately, I want to flag two more issues worthy of contemplation. Firstly, how norms can be tiered in an international society; for example, when the US and its allies export a set of norms such as liberal democracy versus China’s state capitalism, both can subscribe to a higher ‘norm’, and (2) how the English School provides a convincing account of how these norms can create divisions, resist establishments, assimilate each other, and/or co-exist.

United against North Korea: Is it the really the ‘West’ against the ‘Rest’?

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United against North Korea: Is it the really the ‘West’ against the ‘Rest’?

Max Lin, 1635489, Blog 2, Politics 318


The United Nations recently published its reports on the human rights abuses of North Korea. The report was led by an international panel of judges, and compared the atrocities committed by North Korea as having ‘striking similarities’ to the holocaust. Moreover, there is also the possibility of indicting Kim Jong-Un through the International Criminal Court according to Human Rights Watch. The hermit kingdom has retaliated by telling the United Nations to ‘mind its own business’ and threatened more nuclear tests.

Prima facie, North Korea is becoming increasingly isolated. Traditional allies such as China and Russia cooperated by passing a round of sanctions through the Security Council last year. The only allies of Pyongyang appeared to be rogue states such as Iran, Zimbabwe, and the fledgling opposition groups across the world. Even China in a leaked diplomatic cable conceded that it would in fact support unification under South Korea with certain conditions attached.

Video Courtesy of the Korean Society: Amnesty International’s Frank Jannuzi discusses the release of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) report of North Korean human rights violations. The report follows an extensive year-long review, including testimony by victims of the regime. 


To this end, it appears that North Korea is a basket case of classical realism, frozen in time, as the world becomes more civilised in an imperfect but ever evolving liberal order. In order to examine how true this is, we will evaluate democratic peace theory and liberal institutionalism in relation to North Korea’s recent developments. Knowledge of these theories will be assumed.

This piece wants to present and evaluate  two “paradoxes” in international relations theory, especially in relation to liberalism. They will be explained throughout the blog:

  1.       How international relations theories appear to only work in a vacuum, and require a ‘self-containing loop.’
  2.       What is the relationship and value between realism and liberalism when both are applicable?

Image Courtesy of Business Korea: Park meets Merkel last week. Park is to present on her vision and plan for Korean Unification in Dresden in what was East Germany.

Are the fundamental assumptions of liberalism true when it comes to North Korea?

The basic assumptions of liberalism are a positive view of human nature, rationality and cooperation. This purportedly leads to respect for individual rights, constitutionalism, and free-market economics. Arguably, the primary purpose of international relations theory is to model and predict behaviour of various actors in the international arena. However, this is not merely a scientific empirical enquiry, but nor is it just an a priori enquiry either. What do we mean by this? They are coloured by the choices and intents of actors at any given time.

Consider the following, let us posit that the world is liberal, and North Korea is realist. The liberal world order does not necessarily require the whole world to be liberal, but merely that liberal states (at least of the sort in accordance with Kant) would cooperate with each other and towards perpetual peace. By inference, an apologist for (neo) liberalism would argue that despite a world of anarchy, human nature or the incentives are for states to cooperate or they would not be able to share in the progress and/or wealth of the world. However, even if we accept the first premise, what if the latter is not true? What if neoliberal institutions in fact alienate certain states? The UN enquiry, WTO, and ICC merely seek to reaffirm the world view of North Korea, that it is a victim that must help herself; enshrined in its juche ideology.

Image Courtesy of the BBC: Evolution of the North Korean missile capability, the latest is capable of striking Japan

Thus, this highlights the ‘self-containing loop’ hypothesised earlier. Liberalism and realism appear simultaneously true, or at least contingent on each other. International theories do not only rely on their purported assumptions to inform our reasons for actions, those actions will re-inform those assumptions. The function: A leads to B is only accurate and useful in this case if B is then also a subset of A. The premise that nation states are and ought to cooperative is only true, if the outcome is that North Korea also cooperates. The same logic also applies to realism, North Korea’s provocations may not necessarily result in Statism and self-help, instead it has led to the opposite – more multilateral cooperation and multi-national security arrangements.

Has the world’s approach to North Korea truly been liberal? How do we reconcile this with the perception that it has been? Is it justified?

The United Nations Inquiry is a good example of liberalism. Instead of state actors balancing each other through its military for self-interest, multiple nations are cooperating through multilateral institutions and diplomacy to improve human rights in another country. Liberals could also point to the six-party talks, or even the Sunshine Policy, as examples of using diplomacy to engage with North Korea.

Image Courtesy of BBC: Entrance to the Kaesong Region, a joint industrial park between North Korea and South Korea

However, are these approaches truly liberal? The United Nations inquiry is one where it does not have any teeth, unless backed by the force of states. North Korea has responded simply by ignoring the report, and threatening nuclear retaliation. Moreover, the six party talks have achieved little. Alleged concessions by North Korea to shut down its mothballed reactors can be interpreted as realism where North Korea is merely ‘bargaining’ in exchange for much needed aid, international legitimacy, and consolidating its power base within the state. The Sunshine Policy was met with more aggression from North Korea during the same period; and it could be seen as unification in disguise for self-gain. Even the more recent Dresden Unification speech by Park Geun Hye can be construed as serving the interests of the economy of South Korea. On the final point, there is an interesting distinction between the South Korean ‘state’ and South Korean companies. There is considerable overlap, but whether we regard the former or latter as the primary actor or legitimate stakeholder will also yield different perspectives not dependent solely on actions (beyond the scope of this discussion).

A point could also be made that the collective security arrangement (liberalism) is merely a symptom of realism. The US is merely balancing against China in Asia, and South Korea would pursue nuclear weapons if it were not for the US acting as the guarantor of its state’s security. It appears there that there is a duality of space where both theories are ‘true’.

Image Courtesy of BBC: Joint US-South Korea drills in 2014


This piece highlights three key issues: firstly, that the cause and effect (vis-à-vis assumptions and choice) of international relations theories are not linearly causative nor distinct but interdependent; secondly, that realism and liberalism cannot be considered as ‘best fit’ models independently, they can fit depending on the circumstance and state; and finally, that both theories can even simultaneously hold true given the right conditions (or perspectives), they are not mutually exclusive. Given more scope it would have been good to discuss the moral force of rule-based systems in liberalism and collective action problems.

The Real China: Taiwan’s Cross Strait Agreement and Realism

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The Real China: Taiwan’s Cross Strait Agreement and Realism

Max Lin, 1635489, University of Auckland, 24/03/2014

How do we reconcile Taiwan’s recent parliament occupation to protest the Cross Strait Service Agreement with realism?

With international spotlight on Ukraine and Russia, this blog post would like to turn towards what is happening in Asia, particularly Taiwan (Republic of China). On 18 March 2014, a group of students stormed past police and occupied the Taiwanese parliament. This is the first time in Taiwan’s young democracy that its citizens have occupied its parliament, and the event is still unfolding as this blog is written.

Image courtesy of the Diplomat: Inside Parliament.

More than 200 people, mostly students, occupy Taiwan's parliament building in Taipei on Friday, March 21, to protest the ruling party's push for a trade pact with China.

Image courtesy of CNN: Taiwanese protesters occupying parliament.


What was the nature of these protests? How can we make sense of them using international relations theory? These protesters demand that the Taiwanese government reject a trade deal signed previously between Taiwanese and Chinese government (yet to be ratified by parliament) earlier that year, which many deem as unification by stealth. They claim that the deal would benefit large businesses at the expense of Taiwan’s small and medium sized businesses and would allow China leverage over Taiwan, hence undermine Taiwan’s sovereignty. The protest has both substantive and procedural elements to it, claiming the agreement is both damaging and unconstitutional.

The focus of this blog post will be classical and structural realism: knowledge of the three assumptions and six principles will be assumed.

Is Taiwan or should Taiwan be considered a country, and how does it inform our understanding of realism?

Realism is based on three key premises: statism, survival and self-help. This is not a piece advocating or opposing Taiwan’s moral status as a country, but rather what this ambiguity means for political theory. Statism argues that states are the primary actor, and all other actors and concerns are subsidiary. This question therefore is an a priori enquiry, before any further questions on the applicability of realism can be considered, and thus carries normative weight, and not just the descriptive value of theoretical modelling. For example, when we say ‘Russia is merely reasserting its sovereignty over Crimea’ versus ‘Crimea seceded from Ukraine and ceded sovereignty to Russia in accordance with the will of the people’, we are making different value judgments despite the “act” being the same. The key here is to highlight the nexus and the tension between the purported neutrality and amorality of realism vis-a-vis its prescriptive implications.

Therefore, applying realism and assuming the condition of anarchy, and that power is sought to preserve the state, communists and nationalists who wish for unification, would see Taiwan as a renegade province. Therefore in this case China would merely be reasserting its sovereignty over or exercising jurisdiction and leverage over its own territory (not unlike a fiscal union or federalism over an highly autonomous region, or China’s one country two systems with Hong Kong) – realism would appear to be a non-starter, or at least one where it is only one state consolidating power internally . On the other hand, if Taiwan is deemed a state, it would be a bilateral agreement for mutual gain. The takeaway from this is that, before we can ask why a definitional assumption is or should be applied, we must ask how to apply it.

Taiwan Parliament Occupied by protesters 1st time in History

Image courtesy of CNN: Chinese business cards photographed by protesters after occupying one of the Taiwanese minister’s office.

How does economic cooperation fit into the framework of realism, and how do variables such as sovereignty, treaties and international institutions affect this?

International relations theory often focuses on military conflicts, but how does trade fit into the framework of realism? If we accept the three premises of Statism, survival and self-help and the assumption of anarchy, is trade prima facie an objection against realism and an affirmation of the cooperation and institutions central to liberalism?

Not necessarily. This critique is often made because realism is often associated with mercantilism or economic nationalism. However, that politico-economic relationship need not exist. Consistent with realism, Taiwan could be acting to ‘help’ itself in an ever competitive global market. Moreover, if we take anarchy, self-help and survival to its logical extremism, states would regress into autarkies. This would of course be a misrepresentation. The more nuanced approach would be to consider Taiwan’s trade deal with China as one that is necessary under structural realism, one that might be regrettable, but the trade-off of any sovereignty is required because of the incentives that exist in a world which needs to trade with China. We can see this by other counter-balancing moves by the Taiwanese government, for example recent free trade agreements with New Zealand and Singapore, and efforts to join the TPPA, as well as the fishing agreement reached with Japan in the Senkaku, in an attempt to balance against China’s growing leverage and clout.

Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou speaks during a news conference about protesters' occupation of Taiwan's legislature, at the Presidential Office in Taipei March 23, 2014. REUTERS/Minshen Lin

Image courtesy of Reuters: Ma-Ying-Jeou addresses press on the importance of the Cross Strait Service Trade Agreement.

Of course we could argue that there are other historical and ideological reasons for this trade agreement, for example unification. However that is beyond the scope of this discussion.

Non-state actors, such as corporations and protesters, appear to be influencing state decision-making, how can this be reconciled within our understanding of realism?

To briefly cover this, even if corporations were lobbying the Taiwanese government to sign the trade agreement, the chief beneficiary would still be the Taiwanese state which relies on the activity and scope of these companies to compete with conglomerates such as South Korea’s own chaebol. Accordingly, it is still in the state’s best interest.

Image courtesy of BBC: Citizens barricading themselves against state police.

President Ma-Ying Jeou also spoke publicly about the protest, saying the agreement is too important for Taiwan, thus the actions of protesters appear to be minimised.


This blog explores three theoretical underpinnings of realism in relation to one of Taiwan’s contemporary events: firstly, how do we define the boundaries of realist enquiry, for example what a state is; secondly, what is the relationship between trade and realism; finally, how non-state actors such as corporations and protest movements operate within a realist framework.