Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Are Chinese Exchange Students the Key to Reform in China?

Tens of thousands of young Chinese study abroad every year, including here in Taiwan. But doubts remain as to the impact that their exposure to Western liberal ideas can have on the future of China 

No matter what we think about President Ma Ying-jeou’s opening up of Taiwan to visitors from China, one indisputable outcome of that policy is that it has created opportunities for Chinese to learn about Taiwan. For the first time, Chinese tourists, students, and businesspeople can experience Taiwan for what it is without the filters — in the education system, the media, and the political discourse — that warp Chinese perceptions on life on the other side of the ideological divide. Since the policy was implemented, millions of Chinese have visited Taiwan, thousands of them students. While this gives us reason for hope, we much nevertheless ask whether the majority of the Chinese who cross the Taiwan Strait are here to learn. In some cases, they evidently aren’t. 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by the author.)

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Embracing Amnesia

A review of Louisa Lim’s ‘The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited’ 

It is often said that ignorance is bliss. But what are the consequences when ignorance, encouraged, imposed and enforced by an overly paranoid state apparatus, mixes with the volatile juices of xenophobia and nationalism? According to an engaging and all-too-human new book by journalist Louisa Lim, the results are a widening moral vacuum and loss of humanity — and very likely, a threat of unprecedented proportions to global peace. 

Using the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989, as her centerpiece, Lim’s The People’s Republic of Amnesia uses eight interlocking themes to demonstrate that while the policy of amnesia imposed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) following the bloodshed in Beijing has bought it time, such measures can only mean that the vicious circle of repression and corruption that has haunted China since time immemorial will never be broken. 

My book review, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here.

Is Xi Losing Control of China's ‘Peripheries’?

Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Taiwan — they’re all connected. And President Xi seems to be panicking. A look at the quick unraveling of Beijing’s previously calibrated approach to Taiwan 

As tens of thousands of activists continue to defy the authorities in Hong Kong by occupying entire city blocs in the heart of the city, and with weekly reports of escalating violence in restive Xinjiang, the central government in Beijing seems to be losing its grip on what the Chinese regard as the “peripheries.” Recent comments by President Xi Jinping about yet another piece in China’s puzzle of instability—Taiwan—suggest that the leadership may be panicking. 

Before we proceed, it’s important to point out that the two territories and Taiwan are different issues altogether: The first two are politically part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) while Taiwan is a self-ruled entity operating under its own set of rules and constitution, that of the Republic of China (ROC). Furthermore, Taiwan is democratic and was never part of the PRC, whereas Hong Kong was “returned” to the PRC in 1997 and can only aspire to a democratic system, a situation that is at the heart of the current impasse in the former British colony, while Xinjiang is ruled with a mix of intermarriage, displacement, and repressive policies under a veneer of economic development and “ethnic harmony.” 

Still, fundamental differences notwithstanding, Beijing has proposed—imposed, rather—a one-size-fits-all solution for Hong Kong and Taiwan, known as the “one country, two systems,” or 1C2S, model. Despite the model showing cracks in the one territory where it has been applied, as evidence by Hong Kong’s angry response to China’s White Paper on 1C2S in June, Beijing is adamant that it is equally viable as an instrument by which to bring about the “re-unification of China,” or, to put in terms that better reflect reality, the annexation of Taiwan. 

My article, publishes today in The Diplomat, continues here.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Where have the Sunflowers gone?

The Sunflower Movement scored a major success by putting Taiwan back on the map. But it has since split and new forces are seeking to prevent its re-emergence 

The question has been nagging at the edges of my mind ever since it was first thrown at me after I gave a presentation on social movements at a forum organized by SOAS in June: How do we define success in the context of civic activism? Furthermore, how do we evaluate success when the battle over an idea, a policy, continues to rage and has not come to a proper resolution? Having now been asked to share a few thoughts about the Sunflower Movement on the six-month anniversary of the occupation of the Legislative Yuan in Taipei, I would posit that while the dispute over the agreement which prompted the activists to do what they did remains unfinished business, the unprecedented occupation itself and the publicity it engendered were, in and of themselves, a great success. In fact, I would argue that the Sunflower Movement was the best thing that happened in and for Taiwan in the past decade. 

My article, published today on the China Policy Institute Blog, University of Nottingham, continues here. (Photo by the author.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Ask the Departed, Ask the Living

Through a process of dehumanization of its people, some experts argue that Taiwan should be ‘given’ to China for the sake of global stability. They are wrong 

With a glint in the eye, the China “expert” has a solution to the many challenges that are associated with China’s growing assertiveness. Not without theatricals of regret, the expert admits being resigned to the idea that we inhabit an “imperfect world.” The world is unfair. But something must be done about China to avoid some cataclysmic conflict, they say, one that would presumably involve the U.S. Concessions must therefore be made to sate the hungry beast, for “peace.” Ask them what they mean by concessions, and nine times out of ten the answer will be, Taiwan. Hand over democratic Taiwan to authoritarian China, their argument goes, and all our troubles associated with the rise of a dangerous hegemon will go away. 

My point here isn’t that concessions — or appeasement, to call such proposals by their proper name — are misguided and would only encourage further Chinese expansionism. Nor shall we dwell on the fact that trading a democracy for the sake of pleasing a repressive regime would be an affront to the values that we in the “free world” purportedly stand for. What needs to be discussed is far more fundamental: Did anyone ask the 23 million Taiwanese? 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by Viola Kam/V’Z TWINKLE Photography)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Chinese Civil War Continues

Beijing’s revisionist interpretation of the roles played by the KMT and CCP during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression compounds the ideological gap that divides the two camps 

Much has been said in recent years about the visits to China by retired Taiwanese generals, and for those who worry about leaks of military secrets and propaganda coups, the commentariat has not looked too kindly upon the golf rounds and fraternization. However, as the old brass from the two sides get closer to each other, cracks are beginning to appear in the relationship. Caused largely by ideology and different interpretations of history, those differences raise one important question: If retired and seemingly like-minded generals can’t see eye to eye on their past, how could Taiwan and China ever succeed in reconciling their fundamental differences and build a unified future together? 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by the author.)

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

China Policy Institute Policy Paper 2014: No 3: Taiwan after the Sunflowers: Continuities and uncertainties

A China Policy Institute policy paper on the potential impact of the U.S., China, and the Sunflower Movement on the 9-in-1 municipal elections and the 2016 presidential elections 

Despite the unprecedented occupation of Parliament in March and April, Taiwanese politics have returned to ‘normal’, with little surprises expected in the year-end nine-in-one municipal elections. However, all the elements that brought about the political crisis in the spring are still in play, and those have the potential to shake up politics as the island heads for presidential and legislative elections in 2016. With President Ma scrambling to accomplish his objectives before he steps down in May that year, and amid signs that the pro-independence DPP could make significant gains in, if not win, the 2016 race, the next 18 months promise to be a period of volatility domestically, which in turn could impact Taiwan’s relations with China on several fronts. 

The full report, published today on the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, web site can be downloaded here. (Photo by the author.)

Friday, September 05, 2014

When Surveys Become Instruments of Pro-Beijing Propaganda

A recent poll shows unusually high self-identification as Chinese among Taiwanese respondents. Here’s why the results should not be taken seriously 

Forget the more-than-a-decade-long trend, supported by various polls, of rising identification among Taiwanese as “ethnically Taiwanese” and the attendant drop in identification as “Chinese.” A new poll released this week clearly demonstrates that those were all lies. Taiwanese and Chinese regard themselves as one big, happy, Chinese family. 

The Taiwan Competitiveness Forum (TCF, 台灣競爭力論壇) poll, whose results the state-run Central News Agency (CNA) reported, both in Chinese and English, shows that 87% of respondents considered themselves “of Chinese ethnicity.” More extraordinarily, the share of respondents who identify as “Chinese,” it said, rose to 53%. Based on those results, the polling firm concluded that the Sunflower Movement had failed and that the government should “seize on the growing amity toward China and continue its push to improve two-way ties” by signing the trade-in-services deal and a subsequent trade-in-goods agreement with China. 

Before supporters of a free, democratic Taiwan throw in the towel, there’s a few things they should know. 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by the author.)

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Inevitability and Possible Futures in the Taiwan Strait

Former premier Hau Pei-tsun argues that the Taiwanese cannot be in charge of their own destiny. He’s wrong 

Imagine a world in which national power and the ability to unleash the furies of brute force were the two single determinants of international order. A world in which a handful of Leviathans elevate the principles of the Realist school to an extreme, making alternative, and oftentimes gentler, forms of geopolitical management a thing of the past, wishful thinking for the naïve. In such a system (call it Hobbes on crack), the weak and the small however defined would forever be threatened by larger forces. Resistance would be futile, and pleas for justice in international forums would fall on ears dulled by defeatism and the inevitability of surrender. Hau Pei-tsun, a former premier and minister of national defense in Taiwan, imagines such a world — and he’s fine with it. 

Speaking at a seminar held to coincide with Armed Forces Day on September 3, the 95-year-old Hau told his audience that the future of Taiwan wasn’t for its 23 million people to decide, but rather to be determined by “the Chinese,” about 1.4 billion of them. Although conceding that in a fair world Taiwanese alone should determine their fate (this is the official position of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP), Hau maintained that Taiwanese were not given a choice when, 69 years ago, their land was handed over to the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and, by default, to the Republic of China (ROC). It didn’t matter that the undemocratic arrangement, as David Finkelstein makes amply clear in his book Taiwan’s Dilemma, was initially a bloody fiasco, prompting U.S. officials to debate various scenarios, including a U.N. intervention, a coup against Chiang Kai-shek, or the complete abandonment of the island to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). 

My article, published today in The Diplomat, continues here. (Photo by the author.)

In Praise of Old Times Not So Long Ago

Electronic media and an obsession with instant gratification are denying us many of the pleasures that come with acquiring and experiencing creative arts

Call me a purist, an antiquity—I don’t care. I still buy real books made of paper, ink, and glue, and I continue to acquire CDs. Undoubtedly, the electronic age, what with its iPads, iPods, tablets, smartphones, Kindle, e-books and other devices, has brought wonders in terms of miniaturization, compression, and speed of delivery. But for all its benefits, I cannot help but miss the old days, the pre-1990s, when people still had to go to a store to buy their books and music.

The reason is rather simple. We have sacrificed our senses on the altar of instant gratification. In this day and age, everything must be immediately available. As long as one has access to an Internet connection, books, music, movies and other creative art is downloadable. Wait a few minutes for all those 0s and 1s to flow through the ether and voila! You are now the proud owner of 65 minutes of music, a full novel, or a feature-length movie.

What you’re not getting in the process is the experience of acquisition. For me, nothing beats the excitement of going to a bookstore and seeing what’s new on the shelves. Sometimes I already know what I want, but cannot be sure that the store has it in stock. Ironically, the small sense of frustration that comes when a store doesn’t have what I want reinforces the pleasure on those occasions when it does. Another inimitable experience for me is to come upon a book I wasn’t aware of. It’s a bit like meeting a stranger for the first time. An unexpected, but ultimately rewarding, encounter. None of this occurs when you log on to Amazon.com or other sites to download a book. Any book.

And of course, besides the small excitement of meeting a book in person (not to mention other real people) are all the pleasures that come with holding, weighing, and smelling a book. Moreover, I love the smell of bookstores. Visit, say, the Paragraphe bookstore near the McGill University campus in Montreal (where as an undergrad I spent countless hours and about as much money) or the London Review of Books bookstore in London, which I visited recently, and you’ll know what I mean about the smell. No computer will ever beat that.

Then there is music. Your scribe likes all kinds of music, from classical, jazz, electronic, to soundtracks, progressive rock, and metal (the Swedish death metal band Opeth accompanied me all afternoon as I drafted my latest article for The Diplomat). The same joy of discovery, of expectations, accompanies a trip to the store (I almost jumped when I saw Anathema’s latest offering on the shelves at the HMV store in London, an album that has yet to arrive in Taiwan). The smell mightn’t be there, but chances are that some music will be playing in the background, or someone who works at the store will help you discover something new (one vendor at the music store in the B2 basement of the Eslite bookstore on Dunhua Rd. knows of my interest in Japanese rock music—ACIDMAN among them—and has led me in interesting directions. The same vendor I met, as a drag queen, during the LGBT Pride parade last year. Again, try beating that experience if all you do is download from the iTunes store!). I’m one of those who still enjoys unwrapping a CD and going through the case and the booklets. Some labels still go out of their way to provide engrossing visuals (if you’re into metal, Nuclear Blast still does that, as does the British progressive rock label Kscope). And those, too, have a distinct smell, one that I truly enjoy and that sometimes (given the proximity of the olfactory and memory parts of the human brain) transports me back in time (for example, some booklet have the smell of Ozzy Osbourne’s No More Tears, which I acquired in 1991 when it came out).

Besides the olfactory and visual gratification of CDs or vinyls, which admittedly I do not collect, is the sound itself. I was raised by a father who took music very, very seriously. An engineer, my father designed, among other things, recording studios. I remember as a child spending hours sitting on the floor in an audio store, or at home, trying to hear the subtle changes in sound as my father calibrated amps and speakers. It’s a science and an art, and my father often taught vendors a few tricks in the process. Among them is the fact that the best way to prove the worth of an amplifier and a pair of speakers (or now five or even seven speaker, as we’re in the surround age) isn’t to blast the music, but rather to play it at low volume (and if your speakers are not properly aligned, they will cancel each other out and give you the odd feeling that the pressure has shifted inside your head).

But who does that nowadays, when almost everybody uses a computer, a smartphone, or an iPod to listen to music? The thing is, you’re losing a whole lot when you limit yourself to those devices. For one thing, .mp4 compression is awful (something’s got to give, and low and high frequencies are trimmed to make the files smaller). You probably won’t hear the difference if you limit yourself to the earphones that come with your cellphone. But compare playback on a proper sound system, and you’ll realize that you’d been looking at a world (if you’re not stuck zombie-like on the screen of your smartphone like most people nowadays) in which all the colors and contrasts are dimmed. Put that baby in the CD player and, if you’re lucky enough and, say, Steve Wilson (of Porcupine Tree fame) mixed the whole thing in 5.1 surround sound, an entire new universe will open up for you. You will never get the visceral experience of hearing the last note of Arvo Part’s In Principio (ECM) reverberating through the room and your innards if you’re listening to it on your iPod—this I can guarantee you. Music is physical, and depending on the room in which you listen to it, the experience will be a different one (sound bounces off walls).

You will therefore understand my sadness when, after completing my article this afternoon, I went for a walk and visited one of my favorite local music stores, Jason’s Records, which specializes in metal of all types, and received a so-so response when I asked him how he was doing. I’ve been going there for years. The owner knows me, and he also knows the kind of music that I like—so much so that he’ll often play something for me without saying anything until I go to the counter and, liking what I’ve been hearing, I ask him what’s playing. Thanks to him, I’ve made many a wonderful discovery over the years (Swedish doom/prog metal band Katatonia among them).  

“How’s business?” I asked him.

“Meh,” he answered, giving me back my change for Nightwish’s latest studio album (NT$370). “Everybody buys music online nowadays.”

Business hasn’t been very good. We really don’t want those small stores to close. Nor do we want to forget what it’s like to truly experience, to experience in the full, a book or an album. Some of you might be of a generation that never bought CDs, or never had a proper sound system at home. Give it a try. Life is much more generous than you’d think. (Photo by the author.)

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Synchronizing the Narratives: Chinese Political Warfare, Taiwan, and the South China Sea

Growing interaction between Chinese and Taiwanese academics risks sending the wrong signal to Washington 

Timing might not be everything, but it’s at least half of it. At a time when one hopes that tempers would cool down in the disputed South China Sea, a new exhibit, organized by the National Archives Administration in Taipei seeks to bolster the Republic of China’s territorial claims in the volatile region. Although the claims are longstanding, the timing of the「中華民國南疆史料特展」exhibit, coinciding as it did with a cross-strait conference in which academics from Taiwan and China discussed the need to join hands to “defend” the South China Sea from external enemies, sends the wrong signal to other claimants in the region, not to mention the U.S., Taiwan’s principal ally and guarantor of security. 

The exhibit itself, which runs through Oct. 31 at Academia Historica (a second one will open in Kaohsiung Oct. 9 and Taichung Nov. 17), is relatively insignificant. That isn’t to say that one should not be interested in the artifacts for their historical value. It is, rather, insignificant because other claimants also have the ability summon a wealth of documents, maps, photos, and notebooks to support their own claims to the disputed islets, features, and waters within the SCS. And it is insignificant because territorial expansionism and nationalism, not international law, and certainly not dusty documents, are what has been driving the dispute, which periodically threatens to plunge the region into terrible spasms of hostility. 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Chinese Surveillance Aircraft Enter Taiwan's ADIZ

On August 25, two separate Chinese surveillance aircraft passed through Taiwan’s ADIZ on their way to the South China Sea 

The Taiwanese Air Force scrambled combat aircraft to pursue Chinese surveillance aircraft that made four separate intrusions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) within less than 12 hours, a senior Taiwanese military official confirmed on August 26, one day after the standoff. 

According to information provided by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense, the first intrusion occurred at 8:33 a.m., when a single Y-8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft that had taken off from Chenghai, Guangdong Province, passed through the southwestern margin of Taiwan’s ADIZ. The aircraft cruised through the zone for approximately 10 minutes at an altitude of about 22,000 feet before exiting the zone and heading for the Philippines, one of China’s principal adversaries in escalating territorial disputes over areas of the South China Sea (Taiwan is also a claimant). The Y-8 passed through the same area at 10:56 am on its return journey to China, again spending about 10 minutes in the zone. 

My article, published today in The Diplomat, continues here.

Embedded With the Sunflowers

Hsiengo Huang’s ‘The 318 Mob Exhibit’ is an up-close and personal journey into the drama, the humor, and the artistry of an unprecedented event in Taiwan’s history 

I first met Hsiengo Huang (黃謙賢) on the streets of Taipei, during a protest outside the Legislative Yuan organized by the Alliance Against Media Monster, a movement that opposed the acquisition of Next Media’s Taiwan operations by a Beijing-friendly media mogul. This was sometime in the fall of 2012. Over time, we came to recognize each other; between shots of protesters, we’d say hello, shake hands briefly, and promise each other that we’d eventually grab a coffee. Hsiengo, who years earlier had studied in Toronto, Canada, was never without his “newsboy hat” — besides his great photography, that was his signature. 

The following year, what with the series of protests, large and small, that hit the capital, gave us plenty of opportunities to get to know one another. From an after-midnight protest in front of the Presidential Office, where activists were dragged away and shoved onto police buses, to a farewell ceremony for the now-demolished Huaguang Community, we constantly ran into each other. For Hsiengo, who ran a small photo studio, this was a side activity. He, like many others, was documenting the events out of a sense of duty. 

My book review, published Aug. 26 on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by the author; Huang is on the left.)

Friday, August 22, 2014

War in the Taiwan Strait: Would China (Still Try to) Invade Taiwan?

Carrier-killer missiles, anti-ship weapons, amphibious assaults. Asia's greatest fear—and the possibility of a great power war over Taiwan's future—is all still very possible

Beyond doubt, relations across the Taiwan Strait have improved substantially since 2008—so much so that some analysts have concluded that the course of the Taiwan “issue” will continue unimpeded and inexorably towards even greater stability, if not “reunification.” But this is all wishful thinking. 

Rapprochement has probably gone as far as it can, and whatever comes next will likely be hounded by complications, slow progress and growing opposition in Taiwan. Unable or unwilling to make any proposal for unification that has any chance of appealing to democratic Taiwan’s 23 million people, wrong footed by the rise of Taiwan’s combative civil society, and haunted by recent developments in Hong Kong, where “one country, two systems” is all but dead, China will have two options: give up on Taiwan, or use force to complete the job. Under the decisive President Xi Jinping, in the context of rising ultranationalism across China, and given the cost of “losing” Taiwan to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) credibility (at least according to Beijing’s rhetoric), it is difficult to imagine that Beijing would choose the former option. Use of force, therefore, would be the likely response, and hubristic China might well be tempted to try its luck.

The widening power imbalance in the Taiwan Strait, added to (mistaken) perceptions that Taiwanese have no will to fight, has led some Chinese officials and many members of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to conclude that the military option, which Beijing never abandoned even as relations improved, is not only a viable one, but one that could quickly resolve the issue. Granted, the ratio of annual defense expenditures reached about 12:1 in China’s favor this year (and that is only using China’s declared budget).

My article, published today in The National Interest, continues here.

In Iraq, ISIS is Not the United States’ Only Enemy

The U.S. intervention in Iraq is justified, but U.S. policy elsewhere in the region makes matters difficult  

“[T]he removal of Saddam Hussein was the beginning, not the culmination, of a long a very uncertain process of reform,” academic Toby Dodge wrote in his 2003 book Inventing Iraq: The Failure of Nation Building and a History Denied. Presciently, Dodge continued: “It was also the continuation of a failed effort to create a modern liberal state on the part of the world’s leading hegemon as part of a new world order.” 11 years on, that effort has again failed. 

For a while it looked like the second “mission accomplished” — this one not Bush’s but Obama’s — had a certain ring of truth to it. Delivering on his promise to pull U.S. soldiers from Iraq and facing an American public that was exhausted after a decade of two foreign wars, President Obama and his White House declared victory in Iraq, having installed an essentially functional government and trained Iraqi police and soldiers, at the cost of more than $15 billion, to ensure future stability. 

My article, published today in The Diplomat, continues here.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Time to Bring the Orphan In From the Cold

The US should acknowledge Taiwan’s right to say no to China when saying no is in its national interest. Boxing it in is a recipe for disaster 

“We hope the Americans will continue supporting us, not just selling us … defense articles.” Thus spoke Shen Lyu-shun, Taiwan’s top envoy to the U.S., during a recent interview with the Washington Times. After nearly six years or relative calm in the Taiwan Strait, and with the specter of more contentious relations between Taipei and Beijing looming large, unflinching U.S. support for the democratic nation will be needed more than ever. But the conditions that Washington is imposing for that support are not only unfair to the island’s 23 million people—they risk causing serious trouble down the road. 

Shen’s candidness was refreshing, and there was little in what he said that the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to disagree with. Rhetoric notwithstanding, in recent years the Ma Ying-jeou administration has tended to treat the U.S. as a partner of secondary importance as Taipei endeavored to ameliorate relations with Beijing. Since 2008, more than twenty agreements have been signed between Taiwan and China. Progress has been steady, which shouldn’t be surprising, as the majority of the issues that were resolved during that period touched on relatively “easy” matters such as trade, tourism, and joint crime fighting. 

Now, as Shen rightly points out, with all that “easy” stuff behind them, future negotiations with Beijing will likely address much more controversial issues: politics, and the future of Taiwan. As this new phase in cross-strait relations approaches, U.S. backing for Taiwan will be crucial to ensure that it can continue to engage China with confidence. But as it does so—and there is no reason to believe that it won’t—Washington officials will have to avoid the temptation to force Taiwan to make choices that go against its core interests. 

My article, published today on the CPI Blog at the University of Nottingham, continues here.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Who’s Waving Those CCP Flags (and Beating People Up) at Taipei 101?

They’re a pain in the rear end and Communist stooges. But police and city authorities won’t touch them

In a post published elsewhere earlier this year, I discussed the small group of pro-unification activists that materializes, on an almost daily basis, in front of the Xinyi entrance of the Taipei 101 skyscraper. Rain or shine, come 2pm the handful of people, armed with large Chinese Communist Party (CCP) flags, speakers, and pamphlets, impose their agitprop on whomever happens to be walking by, which includes the large number of Chinese tourists who are more than happy to participate in the whole affair and to have their picture taken with the flag. Needless to say, those activities, which began sometime in late 2013, have been much of an annoyance to the residents and workers in the area.

Nearly half a year later, the troublemakers are still there, mixing with tourists and vying for space with Falun Gong practitioners who have been just as persistent in occupying the square in front of the tower. It doesn’t take a nuclear physicist to realize that this is a potentially explosive mix, and in fact several incidents have occurred. One Falun Gong member was repeatedly punched by a female member of the pro-unification group, and the (much) older gentlemen who wave the flags have occasionally used their flagpoles and placards to hit people who disagree with their ideology. There have also been skirmishes, especially when pro-Taiwan independence activists have turned up at the site, as they did earlier today. 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by the author)

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Don’t Let Taiwan Fall Behind, But at What Cost?

A recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal gets it wrong, but provides much-needed help for President Ma 

The unsigned editorial in the Wall Street Journal, titled “Taiwan Leaves Itself Behind,” could have been written by an official in the Ma Ying-jeou administration. That it wasn’t does not matter: Since its publication on Aug. 5, the Ma government—and the president himself—have repeatedly pointed to its content as “evidence,” wisdom from high up, that Taiwan must hurriedly sign trade agreements with China lest it be “left behind.” 

There is little that is striking, or even fresh, to the Journal’s position. It regurgitates the same old “doom and gloom” that supposedly awaits Taiwan should it fail to enact the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA), signed in June last year, and a subsequent trade-in-goods agreement with Beijing: South Korea and China “plan to finalize a free-trade agreement that will give most South Korean products zero-tariff entry into the mainland.” As a result, Taiwan, we are told, will be elbowed out: “roughly 2% to 5% of all of Taiwan’s exports to China could be replaced by South Korean products,” the article says, citing the hardly disinterested Ministry of Economic Affairs. 

My article, published today in The Diplomat, continues here. (Photo by the author)

Monday, August 11, 2014

Even in Misery, This House is Divided

As long as officials and lawmakers see catastrophes as an opportunity to score points against their opponents, they will fail to earn our trust, and preventable accidents will continue to occur 

The series of gas explosions in Kaohsiung on July 31, which killed 30 people and injured ten times as many, turned parts of the nation’s second-largest city into scenes that would be all too common in, say, Gaza following the latest incursion by the Israeli military. Sadness abounded. Heroes disappeared. The economy, which is hugely reliant on the petrochemical industry, could be seriously undermined. As is almost always the case when disaster strikes, Taiwanese across the nation and overseas donated generously to help the victims rebuild their lives. 

But while ordinary Taiwanese came together, politicians and pundits once again failed to behave like they are members of the same community and instead exploited the crisis to score political points. The battle lines were the same: north versus south; central versus local government; and Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) versus Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Taiwan’s Aboriginal Culture Threatened by China

Rising number of Chinese tourists and ensuing pressure from local governments puts heavy pressure on Taiwan’s Aborigines 

For a relatively small country, Taiwan is blessed with no less than 14 recognized Aboriginal tribes, whose existence greatly enriches the ethnic and cultural fabric of its society. According to recent scientific research, it is now believed that Taiwan was the birthplace of all Polynesian Aborigines, thus placing its indigenous population at the center of peoples who have spread out to every corner of Asia. Though by no means perfect, the Taiwan model nevertheless provides the world with several lessons on how to make the center and the peripheries, where most of its Aborigines live, work. 

Now that precarious balance is under threat, and the growing influence of China within Taiwan is to blame. More and more, as Chinese tourists, investors, and officials penetrate Taiwanese society following the thawing of ties across the Taiwan Strait initiated in 2008, the island’s most vulnerable societies have had to adjust to an influx of people, money, and influence, a challenge of “modernity” the likes of which they had not encountered since the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) fled to Taiwan in 1949, or perhaps even since the arrival of the Japanese toward the end of the 19th century. 

My article, published today in The Diplomat, continues here.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Rationality Hasn’t Stopped; It’s Alive and Well

Several misconceptions surround Taiwan and cloud the judgment of experts on the complex subject of the island’s future. A recent article contains almost all of them

Every once in a while an article is written about Taiwan that manages to be so wrong about so many things that one might feel disinclined to grace it with a rebuttal, lest doing so give the offensive piece more attention than it deserves. One such article, written by a Taiwan “expert,” appeared recently in the pages of the Taipei Times. Despite the counsel of wise individuals not to bother countering with a piece of my own, the compulsion to respond was too strong. Perhaps this stemmed from my fear that some elements of this compendium of falsities might find a second life elsewhere, or because a few months ago the same author succeeded in being equally off the mark — this time in an op-ed about the motivations of the Sunflower Movement, a subject about which I care very much (the author proposed four theories, all of which were wrong).

Before we proceed, let’s get something out of the way: Ideology and facts are not one and the same. The good professor whose articles now impel me to respond has every right to his own ideology, as do I. However, facts, or their more elusive form, the “truth,” should not be molded to fit one’s ideology, something that academics, above all, should know.

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by the author)

Monday, July 28, 2014

‘You’re Not Taiwanese … You Cannot Possibly Understand Us’

On the preposterous claim that cultural knowledge and true comprehension cannot be acquired by the ‘other’ 

Lang Lang’s fingers came to a rest as the last notes of Mozart’s C minor No. 24, K491 bounced off the walls of the sumptuous concert hall. For a brief instant there was only silence, followed by loud applause as the concertgoers emerged to their feet. Lang’s performance was stunning technically; the agility of his seemingly bewitched fingers was truly something to behold.

As the enchanted crowd dissipated, I used my journalist credentials to access the backstage. I walked past the violinists, cellists, flutists and the rest of the ensemble as they loosened strings, scrubbed their exhausted brass instruments to a shine, and packed their various sundries for the night. I reached a door at the back and rapped it musically with my knuckles. “Come in,” a slightly accented voice answered. 

There I was, alone at last with the great Lang Lang. He was beaming. The performance, as the next day’s newspapers would attest, had been out of this world, one of his greatest. After brief exchanges of pleasantries and business cards (yes, the great pianist has one), I went straight down to business. 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by the author)

Friday, July 25, 2014

Global Indifference and Why Taiwan Needs a Strong Deterrent

The best insurance against Taipei turning into the next Gaza is for Taiwan to invest in proper military deterrence, and not to count on international goodwill 

As I write this, as many as 775 Palestinians, most of them civilians and many of them children, have been slain by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the 17-day campaign in Gaza. The war, which has sparked international condemnation, has also resulted in the death of two Israeli civilians and 32 soldiers. As a fellow journalist and occasional contributor to Thinking Taiwan who is now covering the latest conflagration in the Middle East wrote a few days ago, the place is “hopeless.” Both sides, embittered by decades of pain, broken promises and hatred, seem condemned to eternal cycles of violence. Both sides have legitimate claims, and both are equally wrong. Both peoples, their welfare held hostage by politicians and the seemingly invincible forces of “history,” have a right to security, dignity, and to a state. 

Yet, as with many wars waged by the IDF since 1948, the death ratio has been largely in Israel’s favor. In the Six Day War of June 1967, the casualty ratio was 25 to 1; about 800 Israelis died, against approximately 15,000 Egyptians, 700 Jordanians, and 450 Syrians. One thing that has gradually changed since that war, during which Israel often found itself at loggerheads with the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, is the number of civilian casualties. More and more, Palestinian (and Lebanese) civilians are killed in IDF operations against Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other radical organizations, not to mention the demolition of entire neighborhoods, which has created new generations of displaced individuals and refugees, and thus new cycles of hatred and violence. 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

To Freeze or Not to Freeze: The DPP’s ‘Independence Clause’

The Democratic Progressive Party’s independence clause is a non-issue and should be treated as such 

Judging from the attention it has received in recent weeks, one would think that the matter was a major policy issue, a pivotal moment in the history of Taiwan’s main opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The object in question was the “independence clause” in the party’s charter and whether, as some have argued, it should be “frozen.” And yet, during the national party congress on July 20, chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (full disclosure: I'm a Senior Member at the Thinking Taiwan Foundation, a think tank founded by Tsai in 2012) dodged the controversial bullet — and rightly so, as it is, for all intents and purposes, a non-issue. 

The clause, inserted into the charter in 1991, five years after the party’s creation in 1986, as Taiwan was emerging from decades of authoritarian rule, sets a de jure independent country, ideally known as the Republic of Taiwan, as a core objective for the party. For reasons that have very much to do with pressure from the U.S. and the military threat from China, which in 2005 “legalized” the use of force by passing the Anti-Secession Law, the clause has remained unrealized. In its place, despite growing public self-recognition as ethnically Taiwanese and rising support for independence, Taiwan — officially known as the Republic of China (ROC) — has settled for a relatively comfortable and uncontroversial “status quo,” which supports neither unification with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) nor formal independence, but allows for the functioning of the state as an independent country. 

My article, published today in The Diplomat, continues here. (Photo by the author)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Will They Ever Learn to Trust Taiwan’s Youth?

Unless youth are given the space and responsibilities they are entitled to, Taiwan’s political parties will die of old age, and soon after them, so will the country 

Judging from the growing number of unrelentingly cheerful young people who surround party officials at press conferences or who appear in political adverts nowadays, it would be tempting to conclude that the nation’s politicians, shaken from their longstanding slumber by the Sunflower Movement’s eruption earlier this year, have finally realized that youth have a role — an important role — to play in politics. Sadly, there is less to this phenomenon than meets the eye, and the dinosaurs are to blame. 

There is no doubt that the youth-led Sunflower Movement, which occupied the Legislative Yuan for 21 days in March and April, led to an acknowledgement by both the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) that the parties had failed to propose a viable future for the nation’s young people. With policies that seemed entirely disconnected from the dreams and fears of the current generation of young people, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) KMT succeeded in politicizing a sizeable segment of society that otherwise didn’t seem to have the least interest in public affairs. For its part, the DPP, which should have been the natural go-to party for the disenfranchised youth, appeared unwilling to engage and work with civil society to counter the authorities. 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by the author)

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Announcement: Officially Unofficial book launch in Taipei

Mark your calendars! Officially Unofficial: Confessions of a journalist in Taiwan, will be officially launched during a signing event at Café Philo in Taipei on July 31, from 7pm until 9pm. The author will give a short presentation on his journey as a journalist and the motivations for writing the book before signing copies. Coffee and tea will be served; alcoholic beverages will also be available for purchase.

This will be a great occasion to mingle with academics, journalists, activists, students, as well as members of the diplomatic community.

For more information about the event, including location, see the Facebook event page here, where you can also reserve a copy of the book if you are interested. Copies of Officially Unofficial will be on sale at the discounted price of NT$400 (retail price is US$16.95, or NT$510).

For people who are not in Taiwan, hard copies and the Kindle version are available on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and other global Amazon sites.

Where? Café Philo, 台北市紹興北街三號一樓
When? July 31 (Thursday), 19:00-21:00.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Why Defending Taiwan is Not Illegal

A response to Julian Ku’s interpretation of international law and history 

Whenever I come across facile — or worse, self-serving — justifications as to why the international community should just give up Taiwan and cede it to the authoritarian People’s Republic of China (PRC), I’m always tempted to quote good old Charles Dickens for rejoinder. “All I want is, facts.” 

Facts is what is lacking in a recent piece by Julian Ku, a law professor at Hofstra University, first published over at Opinio Juris, and then reproduced by The Diplomat. Ku, who is spending the summer in Taipei on a Taiwan Fellowship sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was responding to an earlier article in The Diplomat by Zachary Kech, in which the latter argued that the scenario of a PRC invasion of Taiwan figured largely in Tokyo’s “reinterpretation” of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution. As it is understood, the reinterpretation would allow Tokyo to legally come to the defense of allies if doing so could be tied directly to Japan’s defense. 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by the author)

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Where Would Beijing Use External Distractions?

Should the CCP find itself in dire straits, could provoking external conflicts boost its legitimacy at home? And if so, where would it strike? 

Throughout history, embattled governments have often resorted to external distractions to tap into a restive population’s nationalist sentiment and thereby release, or redirect, pressures that otherwise could have been turned against those in power. Authoritarian regimes in particular, which deny their citizens the right to punish the authorities through retributive democracy — that is, elections — have used this device to ensure their survival during periods of domestic upheaval or financial crisis. Would the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), whose legitimacy is so contingent on social stability and economic growth, go down the same path if it felt that its hold on power were threatened by domestic instability? 

Building on the premise that the many contradictions that are inherent to the extraordinarily complex Chinese experiment, and rampant corruption that undermines stability, will eventually catch up with the CCP, we can legitimately ask how, and where, Beijing could manufacture external crises with opponents against whom nationalist fervor, a major characteristic of contemporary China, can be channeled. In past decades, the CCP has on several occasions tapped into public outrage to distract a disgruntled population, often by encouraging (and when necessary containing) protests against external opponents, namely Japan and the United States. 

My article, published today in The Diplomat, continues here.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

All the King’s Persecutors

In a repeat of the lead-up to the 2012 elections, Ma and his trusted political manipulator seem to be harnessing the powers of the state to undermine their opponents 

There’s something going on in Taiwan at the moment that’s just not right. The source of that malaise, which has descended upon society like a dark cloud, is operating behind the scenes, threatening opponents of the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) regime with means that have little place in a democracy. Young activists, members of the opposition, and legislators from the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) all are fair game, vulnerable to forces that must be called by their proper name: authoritarianism. Lurking behind the scene and presumably pulling the strings is King Pu-tsung (金溥聰), Ma’s longtime aide and now secretary-general of the National Security Council (NSC). 

Regarded in Washington, D.C., circles as a less-than-stellar — and according to some, downright missing — envoy to the U.S., King returned to Ma’s side earlier this year at a time when it looked like the sky was about to fall on the unpopular president. Commenting on King’s expected return to the “corridors of power,” state-owned Focus Taiwan wrote in February, “With less than two years left in his final presidential term, a pressing issue for Ma is how to create a political legacy. King could be the one to help him achieve that goal.” 

One month after the commentary appeared, a group of students, mobilizing several dozen civil organizations and ordinary citizens, gave expression to mounting public discontent with failing administrative systems, cronyism, “black box” dealings with the undemocratic giant next door, and sundry other ills largely of Ma’s making by taking on the government. As the Sunflower Movement launched its occupation of the Legislative Yuan and broke the wall of indifference that for too long had insulated Taiwan from the rest of the world, Ma’s legacy seemed under threat. 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here.

Five Taiwanese Weapons of War China Should Fear

From armed UAVs to mid-range cruise missiles, Taiwan can creatively impose conditions such that a PLA invasion would promise too high a cost 

The initial response to an article titled “Five Taiwanese Weapons of War that China Should Fear” would be to ask why such weapons would be necessary in the first place. After all, relations between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait since 2008 have been, at some level at least, the best they’ve been since the conclusion of the Chinese civil war in 1949. Over that period, many agreements have been signed between Taipei and Beijing; millions of Chinese tourists flock to Taiwan every year; and interactions between Chinese and Taiwanese politicians—including the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party—have reach levels that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Why, then, should Taiwan seek to develop or acquire weapons that would strike fear in Beijing? 

The answer to that question lies in the extent to which rapprochement can continue, and the prospects that an end to this trend could result in a decision by China to resort to martial measures to resolve the “Taiwan question” once and for all. Recent developments in Taiwan, chief among them the Sunflower Movement’s 21-day occupation of the Legislative Yuan in March and April this year, have highlighted the formidable ideological divide that exists between the two societies and the deep fears that are felt by Taiwanese even as their country normalizes relations with China. To be succinct: the majority of Taiwanese are all for economic exchanges with China, and most understand the futility of ignoring the elephant in the room; but parallel to that realization is the deeply ingrained aversion to seeing a reversal of Taiwan’s liberal democracy and way of life. Ongoing events in Hong Kong, tensions that were in part exacerbated by Beijing’s release of its white paper on “one country, two systems,” have further awakened Taiwanese society to the huge costs that are to be paid in sovereignty transactions with China. 

My article, published today in The National Interest, continues here. (Photo by the author)

Monday, July 07, 2014

Officially Unofficial: Confessions of a journalist in Taiwan, is finally out!

Eight years in the making, my semi-autobiographical work on media in Taiwan is finally available 

In this long-awaited memoir, journalist J. Michael Cole takes the reader on a journey of self-discovery as he explores the dreams, motivations, successes, failures, and frustrations of an idealistic foreign correspondent in Taiwan. This semi-autobiographical work will appeal to anyone who is interested in the practice of journalism and the politics of a democratic society that lives under the constant threat of authoritarian China. Although the external forces that seek to undermine Taiwan's democratic foundations have been well documented, much less has been written about the institutional failings - from the island's troubled media environment to the legacies of an authoritarian past - that far too often weaken the ability of the nation's 23 million people to resist aggression. By candidly detailing his personal experiences as an actor in Taiwan's media and placing those in their proper historical context, the author demonstrates that the island's enemies at home can often be just as nefarious as the machinations of outside forces. 

The book is available for order on Amazon.com and should be in bookstores within 3-6 weeks. I also plan on organizing an official book launch in Taiwan once I have received my copies. Stay tuned for announcements! For the time being, the book is available for order on CreateSpace and will soon be up in Kindle version. It is 260 pages, trade paperback.

Friday, July 04, 2014

An Orphan From the Beginning

A review of David M. Finkelstein’s 'Washington’s Taiwan Dilemma, 1949-1950' 

Taiwan’s fear of abandonment by the great powers that are seen as instrumental to the island’s ability to maintain its de facto sovereignty are deeply rooted. In the current context of China’s “rise” and the growing influence of lobbyists calling on Washington to drop perceived irritants in order to improve cooperation with Beijing, it may be tempting to conclude that Taiwan’s time as a sovereign democracy is up, that capitulating to Chinese irredentism is a decision that lies in an inevitable future. Although pessimism seems warranted, historical context helps us understand that the island’s prospects of surviving the People’s Republic of China (PRC) were bleak from the start. What is extraordinary is that nearly 65 years after the birth of the PRC, Taiwan is still here, still vulnerable but nevertheless blessed with a much stronger sense of entity. 

The Naval Institute Press’ reissue of David M. Finkelstein’s Washington’s Taiwan Dilemma, 1949-1950, first published in 1993, allows us to revisit a period in Taiwan’s early modern history — that is, following the end of hostilities in World War II and Japan’s relinquishing of what had been its most successful colony — when its survival seemed highly uncertain and a Communist takeover written in the stars. 

My book review, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Was Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement Successful?

Nearly three months after the end of the occupation of the legislature, it is time to assess what the Sunflower Movement has accomplished, and what will happen next 

The Sunflower Movement’s unprecedented occupation of Taiwan’s legislature in March and April this year made the headlines for a month, a feat almost unheard of in the island’s all-too-impatient media. It was the subject of heated debate on TV talk shows. It even became the object of attention overseas after supporters launched their own small protests. For a while, it looked like the occupation would change the face of politics, perhaps even dislodge President Ma Ying-jeou from his all-powerful position as chairman of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). Then the occupation ended, the headlines turned their sights toward new developments, and it looked like things had returned to their original state, the movement fated to little more than a mere footnote in the nation’s political history. Or was it? 

I recently had the pleasure of speaking at a conference on Taiwan’s social movements at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). The main argument of my talk was that small but persistent guerrilla-type protest groups had been more successful than larger movements with mass appeal, such as Citizen 1985. Over the next two days, my use of the term successful often came back to haunt me. Academics, being what they are, wanted — and rightly so — a proper definition. 

My article, published today in The Diplomat, continues here. (Photo by the author)

Monday, June 30, 2014

Setting the Terms of Rationality

In the wars for hearts and minds, governments often set the parameters of legitimacy by effectively masking the arbitrariness of their arguments. The Ma Ying-jeou government has turned this into an art 

The term has been used with such abandon in recent years that it has virtually lost all meaning. Whether it’s the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), their opponents are all too often described as “irrational.” Tibetans who refuse cultural subjugation, Chinese human rights activists, residents of Hong Kong who are running out of patience on universal suffrage, Taiwanese who refuse to be forced out of their homes or Sunflower activists who take action to defend their democracy — all have been relegated to a category of people who, according to the authorities, belong in a mental asylum. 

The terms “irrational” and its healthier counterpart “rational” are, to put it simply, rather subjective. It is easy to see that in any hierarchical system, accusations of irrationality by those in power are a tempting and effective means to discredit their opponents. But who sets the parameters, and under what circumstances, are key to understanding what the term means, or whether it means anything at all. Whenever the stigma of “irrationality” is affixed onto an individual or group of people, especially when done repeatedly by a government, one should think of what French anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu described as the mechanism of “recognition of legitimacy through the misrecognition of arbitrariness.” In other words, subject A frames the argument, sets the norm, and everything that departs from that norm is therefore illegitimate or, to put it in KMT/CCP terms, “irrational.” We all do this, often unconsciously. Evidently, this kind of linguistic hegemony can be highly problematic when it is wielded by autocratic regimes. 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by the author)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Sunflower Leaders Denied Entry into Hong Kong

Lin Fei-fan, Chen Wei-ting and Huang Kuo-chang have seen their applications to visit Hong Kong to support activists there denied by the authorities 

As the crisis in Hong Kong intensifies amid Occupy Central and Beijing’s release of its White Paper on “One Country, Two Systems” — which in many eyes was more a warning to the territory than a mere academic exercise — an increasing number of people are finding that they are not welcome to enter the Special Administrative Region. Earlier this week, three architects of the Sunflower Movement’s occupation fell victim to that growing trend. 

The decision by Hong Kong authorities to turn back Republic of China citizens is not without precedent. In November 2013, Wu’er Kaixi, one of the Tiananmen student leaders in 1989, was denied entry as he was attempting to enter China to be reunited with his parents, whom he had not seen in more than twenty years. After a brief detention, the Uighur, one of the “most wanted” men in China, was sent back to Taiwan. Other individuals have also received similar treatment over the years as the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre approached. Most recently, Tseng Chien-yuan (曾建元), an associate professor of public administration at Chung Hua University in Hsinchu, was informed in late May that his Mainland Travel Permit for Taiwan Residents had been cancelled and was sent back to Taiwan. He was told so upon arriving in Hong Kong. (Since 2009, Hong Kong has granted holders of a Mainland Travel Permit for Taiwan Residents 30-day entry; individuals who do not own such a document must apply for an entry permit prior to their visit.) 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by the author)