Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Spies Are Coming! The Spies Are Coming to Taiwan!

Damage assessments following the busting of a spy ring must look not only to the secrets that were stolen, but also to the propaganda value of the exercise 

The optics couldn’t be worse — four Taiwanese military officers, including an Air Force pilot, a lieutenant colonel and a former Army major general, indicted on charges of belonging to a spy ring led by a Chinese intelligence officer. Oh, and the owner of a karaoke club, to boot. The January 16 indictments, which follow the arrest in September last year of Zhen Xiaojiang, the Chinese handler who was also indicted, are but the latest in a string of arrests on espionage charges in recent years. Fifteen cases were uncovered in 2014 alone. Has the Taiwanese security apparatus been completely penetrated by Chinese spies, as some analysts have been arguing? 

Maybe, but the extent to which systems and people have been compromised is anyone’s guess. The People’s Liberation Army is particularly interested in establishing a complete picture of Taiwan’s C4ISR architecture, radar and air defense systems, as well as war preparedness plans, a focus that has been confirmed through the string of arrests over the years, including the latest case. Despite warming ties between Taiwan and China since 2008, espionage efforts against the island-nation never abated; in fact, substantially increased contact between the two sides created a wealth of opportunities for intelligence collection and source recruitment by China. 

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

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Debunking the Myth of Inevitability in the Taiwan Strait

Unification between Taiwan and China is not inevitable; in fact, it is no longer an option 

For decades academics and politicians have sought to find ways to untie the Gordian Knot in the Taiwan Strait. Almost every solution proposed has at its core contained some reference, howsoever worded, to “one China.” Thinkers in China, and within both the green and blue camps in Taiwan, have toyed with variations on the theme — “one China, two constitutions,” “1992 consensus,” “one China, different interpretations,” “greater one China,” “constitutional one China,” “one country, two systems,” and so on. Creativity, they hoped, would help avert war in the Taiwan Strait. The problem with all these proposals is not only that the underlying assumption of unification as an inevitable outcome is deeply flawed, but that it is a myth that was created by Chinese propagandists to limit Taiwan’s options — to lock it in, in fact. 

More recently, with the prospect of a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) comeback in 2016, some intellectuals have argued that future stability in cross-strait relations will be contingent on the DPP agreeing to freeze its “independence clause.” Others have more recently opined that the party’s “Resolution on Taiwan’s Future,” which after its adoption on May 8, 1999, replaced the “independence clause,” must also go. 

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

Thursday, January 15, 2015

China’s New Flight Routes Rile Taipei

Beijing no longer has use for President Ma and therefore will not hesitate in the coming year to take what with wants without any consideration for the Taiwanese president’ reputation 

With China’s unexpected announcement on January 12 that four new flight routes running extremely close to Taiwan proper are to be launched on March 5, Beijing may have dispelled any lingering notion that relations across the Taiwan Strait in 2015 will continue to be as “stable” and predictable as they had been over the past six years of the China-friendly Ma Ying-jeou administration. Though sudden, this development is part of a series of signals that lead us to conclude that the era of détente in the Strait, during which Beijing and Taipei engaged in negotiations somewhat as equals, is over. We are now likely entering a period of Chinese unilateralism. 

During the six years since Ma became president in 2008 on a platform that emphasized the need to improve relations with China, the two sides of the Taiwan Strait made good use of the many semi-official bodies and Track-1.5/2 forums at their disposal to negotiate a number of agreements, chief among them the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA). Over time, those efforts were supplemented by party-to-party and, in some instances, contact between government officials from the two sides, such as face-to-face meetings between the Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council Minister and his counterpart at the Taiwan Affairs Office. In other words, there has been no lack of communication channels between Taiwan and China, and the opportunities to negotiate various agreements were seemingly limitless. 

Which makes China’s announcement on the air routes — M503, running on a north-south axis west of the centerline of the Taiwan Strait, and the east-west routes W121, W122 and W123 — rather alarming. Judging from Taipei’s reaction, Taiwanese authorities were either not consulted or negotiations on the matter had yet to have concluded. According to Bloomberg News, Taiwan and China had held two rounds of discussions to date. 

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

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Setting the Agenda for 2015

The 2016 presidential elections are approaching fast, and Thinking Taiwan wants to be part of the action by providing in-depth analysis of what is at stake for Taiwan and the region 

What an exciting, and in many ways pivotal, year 2014 was for Taiwan! In the spring, civil society converged on the Legislative Yuan, which for many had come to symbolize political unaccountability, and occupied the building for more than three weeks, sparking a political crisis which will undoubtedly have long-term consequences for politics in the Taiwan Strait. Then in the fall, Taiwanese voters used their ballots to send a clear signal to the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) that they’d had enough with old practices. Nothing encapsulated that sentiment more than the election on Nov. 29 of Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), a quirky medical practitioner with no political experience and no party affiliation, over the KMT’s Sean Lien (連勝文), who was very much the “establishment” candidate. 

Launched on May 6, Thinking Taiwan couldn’t have seen the light in more interesting times. With the 150-plus articles published since, we have sought to help our readers navigate the complex maze of Taiwan’s domestic politics and relationship with China in a period ebullient with emotions and high in uncertainty. We thank our many contributors from the fields of academia, journalism, politics and civil society, in Taiwan and overseas, for shedding light on those important issues. 

This editorial, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by the author)

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Former Taiwanese President Chen Released on Medical Bail

Chen Shui-bian’s temporary release could further complicate Taiwanese politics in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election 

Former Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian, the outspoken politician who is serving a 20-year prison sentence for embezzlement and money laundering, was temporarily released on medical bail on January 5 in a move that is sure to complicate the island-nation’s already laden political scene. 

Chen, who led the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to victory in the 2000 elections and ended more than a century of uninterrupted rule by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), stepped down in 2008 after serving two complete terms. Soon after the election of Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT that year, the authorities targeted Chen for investigation on various charges relating to misuse of funds and corruption. 

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

Monday, January 05, 2015

Calm Down, Taiwan Does Not Seek War with Vietnam

By parroting the remarks of legislators who don’t know what they are talking about, journalists are contributing to Taiwan’s problems 

The following is a classic example of what can go wrong when legislators who know little about military affairs and are ignorant of geopolitics decide to play Henry Kissinger and are taken seriously by journalists who fail to think critically. 

In late December 2014, reports came out that Vietnam, like Taiwan one of the claimants in the South China Sea territorial dispute, was bolstering its military presence on Son Ca Island, which lies a mere 11km from Taiwan-controlled Taiping Island (Itu Aba). The initial news reports on the matter cited Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislators Johnny Chiang (江啟臣) and Lin Yu-fang (林郁方), who were using information contained in a Ministry of National Defense (MND) report to the Control Yuan.  

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

Thursday, January 01, 2015

‘Press Areas’ Threaten to Undermine Work of Journalists

New administrative measures unveiled by police on Jan. 1 could make it very difficult for the press to document police misdemeanor during protests 

President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) may have waxed about the need for reconciliation and cooperation during his New Year address, but judging from an announcement the day before, it seems that one of his administration’s resolutions for 2015 is to make it more difficult for journalists in Taiwan to do their work. 

As Taiwanese were preparing to usher in the new year, police on Dec. 31 announced that under new regulations which had been in the making for some time, journalists covering protests will now be required to stay within designated “press areas” (採訪區). According to an exercise held by the Zhongzheng First Precinct on Ketagalan Blvd in Taipei this morning, which journalist Sun Chiong-li (孫窮理) of coolloud attended and whose account is used for this article, the press areas will be delineated using red police tape. “Media liaison” officers wearing pink vests will serve as contact points for journalists seeking to conduct interviews. 

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

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

One Same-Sex Unions, the KMT Belongs in a Museum

The KMT-led administration’s antediluvian stance on same-sex marriage is symptomatic of an apparatus that continues to reject modernity 

By once again tackling this subject I fear that I may beating a dead horse, but the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration’s position on same-sex marriage, so abhorrently expressed at the legislature earlier this week, is so symptomatic of everything that is wrong with his government and the party that he led until recently that I fell compelled to comment anew. 

To put it succinctly, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) doesn’t seem that have learned any of the lessons that were taught it this year. Neither the Sunflower Movement occupation of the Legislative Yuan nor the resounding defeat it suffered in the Nov. 29 nine-in-one elections seem to have affected how the executive and legislative branches under its control regard society. 

Yes, Cabinet ministers on both occasions opined that the administration had heard the voice of the people, that it needed to consult society and youth, and must do better at explaining its (invariably sound) policies to the public. But those were platitudes uttered by politicians who remain wed to an institution that has failed to move into the 21st century. 

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

Monday, December 22, 2014

Arms Sales to Taiwan: Ending the ‘Brutal Interference’

China is successfully cracking down on the means by which the U.S. provides military assistance to Taiwan. It’s time to change the rules of the game... or to play a new game altogether 

Beijing’s reaction on Dec. 19 to U.S. President Barack Obama’s signing into law of an act of Congress authorizing the sale of four decommissioned Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates to Taiwan — saying the move “brutally interferes in China’s domestic affairs and undermines China’s sovereignty and security interests” — was, by standards of Chinese anger over previous arms sales to the island, a bit overdone. The outburst, over what is arguably a minor transfer of defense articles, can only mean one thing: After years of successfully deterring Washington from selling weapons to Taiwan, Beijing is redefining what constitutes “acceptable” arms transfers to Taiwan and what isn’t. 

Up until recently, China’s ire over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan was usually sparked by the announcement of billion-dollar arms packages to Taiwan, which furthermore consisted of modern defense articles (PAC-3 air defense systems, F-16 combat aircraft, submarines) that would ostensibly directly affect the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait. In those cases, Beijing would file an official complaint, threaten sanctions against the U.S. firms involved in the sale, and would temporarily suspend military-to-military exchanges with the U.S. 

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

Friday, December 19, 2014

President Ma’s Honeymoon With Beijing Is Over: Implications for Taiwan

Ma Ying-jeou’s fall from grace may lead Beijing to focus more of its efforts on grooming allies at the grassroots level 

The vagaries of democracy being what they are, it was almost inevitable that President Ma Ying-jeou’s honeymoon with Beijing would come to an end at some point. While it may be tempting to pinpoint the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) disastrous showing in the November 29 nine-in-one elections as the day when the Taiwanese president fell out of favor with Beijing, in reality that process began several months ago. 11-29 only sealed Ma’s fate — and possibly that of the party he no longer chairs. 

That it would come to this shouldn’t surprise us. In 2008, when Ma assumed the presidency, a majority of Taiwanese supported — or did not actively oppose — his efforts to normalize relations with China, the world’s second-largest economy. Most Taiwanese understood that the export-dependent nation of 23 million people couldn’t afford to ignore the elephant next door. 

Less acknowledged was the fact that thawing relations across the Taiwan Strait, mostly in the economic sphere, was made possible by the consolidation of Taiwanese identity, an identity that, once Ma went to far, made sure he could not cross certain lines. 

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

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Were Taiwan’s nine-in-one elections a referendum on Ma’s China policy?

What was foremost on voters’ minds on Nov. 29 was the need to elect officials who can govern with accountability and who are capable of striking a balance between development, people’s rights, the environment — and yes, Chinese capital 

The dust from the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) routing in the Nov. 29 local elections had yet to settle when analysts within the green camp started arguing that the results constituted a referendum on President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) “pro-China” polices. Some held to this belief religiously, and in an unusual instance of disagreement, even turned on the victorious Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) envoy to the U.S. for daring to argue while on a visit to Washington, D.C. that a “China” referendum it wasn’t. 

So who’s right, and what does the outcome of the “nine-in-one” elections tell us about Taiwanese attitudes? Did the Taiwanese public say “no” to China, or did other factors weigh more heavily on their voting decisions? 

My assessment is that Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), the DPP’s envoy to Washington who, as if he wasn’t busy enough already, doubles as party secretary general, was absolutely right in his briefing to U.S. officials that the elections were not a referendum on the KMT’s cross-Strait policy, and partly right when he argued that “cross-Strait relations were not debated as part of this election.” 

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

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Taiwan's 'black Saturday' election: A rebuke to China

The Nov. 29 elections will likely make it far more difficult for President Ma to continue to deepen the relationship with China 

As millions of Taiwanese headed for the polling stations across the nation last weekend, there was a general sense that change was at hand. And as the results of the vote started trickling in during the evening, it soon became clear that the political scene in Taiwan was about to become a much different place. 

My article, published today on CNN, continues here.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Much Deserved Slaughter

The KMT has grown complacent, distant from the public, and unwilling to negotiate with civil society. It paid a hefty price on Nov. 29 

This political junkie couldn’t possibly be in a worse position: An hour hence, he will be boarding a transcontinental flight about 90 minutes before the official results of the nine-in-one elections are released to the public. In other words, he will have to wait an excruciating 14 hours before he can find out how the election went. However, if the trends at this time of writing are any indication, Taiwan could be a markedly different place by the time his plane lands in the Americas. 

My op-ed, published on Nov. 30 in Taiwan News (p. 6), continues here. (Photo by the author.)

Friday, November 28, 2014

Worrying Trends in Taiwan’s Law Enforcement Practices

The incidents that occurred during a protest on Nov. 27 are part of a gradual deterioration observed in the past 48 months, made worse in the wake of the Sunflower occupation

I’ve heard it all before, and it goes something like this: Yes, Taiwanese law enforcement sometimes uses excessive force, and yes, journalists are sometimes prevented from doing their work, but overall, the situation in Taiwan is a lot better than in many other countries. All undoubtedly true, especially in light of the recent developments in the U.S. and the continued assault on press freedoms worldwide, from Poland to next-door China. But should we settle for “less bad”? Should not infractions, when they do occur in Taiwan, result in outcry, and calls for improvement?

The latest incident occurred on Nov. 27 outside the Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC) in Taipei, where a group of supporters of laid-off tollbooth workers were protesting. The “e-Tag” issue has been with us since January, when the electronic system resulted in the layoff of hundreds of workers who had manned the poll collection stations for several years.

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

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Crass electoral politics and the role of a militant civil society

The principal legacy of the Sunflower Movement is that more and more Taiwanese are now paying attention to the quality of the leadership between elections and are willing to take action if quality is found to be lacking 

Merely 48 hours to go before Taiwanese across the nation cast their votes in the nine-in-one local elections. With regulations barring the release of polling data ten days prior to the election, one can only now speculate about how each party, along with independent candidates, will fare on Nov. 29. What is known, however, is that facing the prospects of a major setback, the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has begun to sound desperate and taken eleventh-hour measures that, while possibly giving its candidates an edge over their opponents, could backfire by further discrediting them in the eyes of a watchful—and battle hardened—civil society. 

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

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Musings on the Taipei Elections: Why It’s Hard to be ‘Neutral’

If I’ve struggled to find positive things to report on about the Lien camp, it’s because the latter hasn’t provided much to work with 

I’ve already written a number of articles about the ongoing nine-in-one elections, and it therefore isn’t my intention here to engage in a deep analysis of their proceedings and impact. My aim here simply consists of jotting down a few impressions of what’s happened to date, and to briefly discuss the challenges — especially in the race for Taipei, where I have resided for nine years — in remaining a “neutral,” though interested, observer. 

The first thing that comes to mind is what a Taiwanese couple in their 50s told me when we briefly chatted during the “Hug for Taipei” walk in support of independent candidate Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) on Sunday. As we approached the Zhongxiao-Fuxing intersection, the husband approached me and asked the usual questions — where I was from and what I did in Taiwan. Having dispensed with those, we then moved to the pith: Could I vote? Did I have a favorite candidate? Was my reporting on the election neutral? And had I, as a journalist, attended other rallies, especially the one held the previous day by Sean Lien (連勝文), the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) candidate? The answers were no, yes, no, and no, though I did watch the Lien rally on TV. 

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

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Lien Supporters Turn Violent, Attack Protesters

Police inaction during a political event where unidentified individuals assaulted peaceful activists raises questions about possible complicity with gangsters 

The deplorable scene just outside the campaign rally for KMT mayoral candidate Sean Lien (連勝文) was bound to happen. Following weeks of vile attacks and fabrications against Mr. Lien’s opponent Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), and realizing that such tactics have failed to turn public against the surgeon-turned-independent-candidate, tempers in the pan-blue camp have understandably flared. 

The anger boiled over on Friday (Nov. 21) when a group of supporters of laid-off tollbooth workers (who lost their jobs because of the e-Tag) turned up at a pro-Lien rally in Taipei, where President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), for months the target of their activism, was expected to stomp for his party’s candidate. What happened next was an embarrassment for both the KMT and law enforcement at the scene. 

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

Friday, November 21, 2014

He Also Drank the Blood of His Patients

Everything having failed, the KMT now wants us to believe that Taipei mayoral candidate Ko Wen-je is Dr. Frankenstein 

I’ve written two articles in the past week detailing the series of scandalous attacks that the desperate Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has launched against Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), the independent mayoral candidate for Taipei City in the Nov. 29 elections. Had I waited another day, I would have had yet another example. And this latest one, which broke on Thursday, tops it all, both in terms of the defamatory nature of the accusations and in the dullness of the accusers. 

So here it is. Since launching his campaign for the capital, Ko has been accused of: misusing hospital funds; bullying nurses; harvesting organs taken from Falun Gong victims in China; unduly taking credit for an operation on his opponent Sean Lien (連勝文) in 2010 after the latter was shot in the face, being a Japanese colonial subject; launching the “worst slander campaign in the nation’s history” against Lien; being a closet “splittist”; and having a “secret contract” with the opposition DPP. 

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

Attack of the KMT Dinosaurs

To survive in Taiwan, the KMT needs to let go of the past, and its new leaders must intervene when old hands engage in rhetoric that has no place in modern Taiwanese society 

It’s election season in Taiwan once again, as millions of its citizens prepare to elect an astounding 11,300 local officials nationwide on Nov. 29, in what will be the largest election in the country’s history. With the prospects for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) of retaining control of the historically “blue” capital of Taipei looking grimmer by the week, familiar voices in the pan-blue camp have resorted to inflammatory rhetoric that, besides damaging their candidate’s chances, has shown just how out of touch they are with contemporary Taiwan. 

Of course the blue camp has only itself to blame for the situation in Taipei. Sean Lien, the KMT candidate, has run a lackluster campaign in which blunders have been far more frequent than policy proposals and where personal attacks against his principal opponent, independent Ko Wen-je, have set the tone for the entire exercise. With a little more than a week left before the elections, Lien, the son of former KMT chairman Lien Chan, is trailing Ko, a surgeon-turned-politician, by about 13 points. Over several weeks of intense campaigning, every form of attack against Ko — wiretaps, accusations of corruption, of transplanting organs taken from Falun Gong practitioners, of abusing hospital staff, of having a secret contract with the opposition Democratic Progressive Party — has failed. Using wit, humor and, most importantly, evidence, Ko has deflected the volleys and succeeded in keeping the moral high ground, which has had great appeal among young voters and the 20 percent or so of voters who fall in the “undecided” category. 

Ko’s most formidable weapon is also what has the KMT in a panic: a complete novice, he is not the sort of typical politician who will fight the KMT symmetrically. 

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

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Elections in a time of democratic malaise

Taiwanese voters have good reasons to be disillusioned with much of the campaigning ahead of the nine-in-one elections on Nov. 29. But there is still hope for a democratic rejuvenation

On Nov. 29 millions of Taiwanese will once again exert their hard-earned right to choose the men and women who will represent them at the local level for the next four years in nationwide elections of unprecedented scope. Known as the nine-in-one elections, this democratic exercise involves mayors, chiefs, councilors, commissioners, lizhang and other local titles for a total of 11,130 seats. Though there is much to celebrate in holding such elections, several incidents that have occurred during the campaign period serve as a reminder that Taiwan’s young democracy isn’t in very good shape. 

While mudslinging is not unusual in Taiwan’s ebullient democracy (or in any democracy, for that matter, including more “mature” ones), the practice of character assassination, insinuation, and trial by media has reached levels hitherto unseen in the island-nation, casting a pall on the ideals that, on paper at least, are the pride of its 23 million people, “blue” or “green.” 

Arguably, one of the principal reasons why negative campaigning has been so prominent in the elections is that many of the candidates simply didn’t have cogent platforms to start with. In fact, with the exception of a few municipalities, the campaigns have been overwhelmingly lacking in substance and imagination, with candidates banking on the traditionally secure votes along party lines (“greens” voting DPP and “blues” voting KMT, with smaller parties accounting for a small percentage of the ballots). 

My article, published today on the CPI Blog at University of Nottingham, continues here (Photo by the author).

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Wanted: Taiwan’s National Capital

Up until recently, a brochure released annually by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated Taipei as the capital of Taiwan. Not anymore 

Taiwan is one of those places that simply sells itself, blessed as it is with natural splendor and a lovely, dynamic, and welcoming people. It is little wonder, then, that just about anyone who visits it becomes one of its unofficial ambassadors, flag bearers for the protection of a nation that is unique and precious. 

But as you invite family members or friends over for a visit, you might want to make sure they do not turn to The Republic of China (Taiwan) at a Glance, a brochure produced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) for information about, say, things like the nation’s capital — at least not the current version. 

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

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Nightmare in Taipei: A fiction

In my years as an aspiring novelist, I have written several tales (most of them unfinished) in which a hapless protagonist would run into difficulties at the airport due to extraordinary circumstances, in which the laws of logic that tenuously hold our world together, as J. G. Ballard would surely have put it, suddenly ceased to apply. In one, the main character, on his first visit to the People’s Republic of China, was swallowed by a Kafkaesque security system and only set free (or sent packing, that is) after he agreed, following weeks of resistance, to tell the lie that the authorities wanted to hear. 

Little did I expect, then, that I myself would become involved in such a fantasy when I returned to Taiwan from an overseas trip earlier this month. I write this from a dank hovel in one of the remoter corners of the city, hiding in the shadows for fear that the sunlight will again expose me as the fraud that I am not. As long as the Other is still out there, I cannot be myself. It’s simply too dangerous.

I got off the plane bleary eyed and my joints hurting after spending nearly 24 hours at various airports and crammed in economy class. Ours was the first landing of the day, and so I could expect a quick resolution of the necessary hurdles at the immigration desk. Upon reaching the dimly lit immigration area, I discovered that I was alone there. Only two kiosks were open, and I sauntered towards the one under “Resident Card Holders.”

It’s hard to explain, but in recent years I have come to enjoy the immigration process; it’s the lining up that annoys me. Where most passengers tighten up upon presenting their passport to the agent, I can say that I am genuinely relaxed and good humored. The predictability of routine events, I suppose, has something to do with it.

I crossed the red line and with a smile handed my passport and residency card. The agent, a woman, swiped my passport and hit a few keys on her keyboard. The usual. She asked me to look into the little orb-shaped camera on the desk, something that travelers are asked to do on occasion. Again, there was nothing unusual in this, so I complied. Sometimes they took your picture. Sometimes they didn’t. The standard random little things that airports did to people.

The first signal that something was wrong was when the woman’s brows knitted quizzically. She rose her head to stare at me, pulled up her reading glasses, and brought my passport, open to the picture page, to within a few inches of her face. She looked up at me again.

“Is this really you, Mr. C—?” she asked.

My only reaction was to laugh. “Yes,” I said. “I can assure you that this is me.”

The woman seemed unconvinced and again repeated the motions of staring into my passport and comparing the picture there with the man who was standing before her on the other side of the booth.

“I don’t think it is.”

“I’ve admittedly put on a few pounds,” I replied, still amused and convinced that the agent had decided to have a bit of fun. “And my beard is longer than it was three weeks ago. But that is definitely me. I am I.”


Motioning me to stay put, she took hold of a telephone and without dialing delivered a short barrage in Mandarin. A minute or so later, a male officer arrived and the pair exchanged a few words while the man stared intently at the computer screen. She handed him my passport, which he inspected before staring at me with narrowed eyes. By this point, I was no longer amused. I suddenly became keenly aware that I needed a shower.

“I’m sorry, but you are not him,” the man said, holding the open passport up so its inside faced in my direction. The picture of me stared defiantly back at me, and for a second it seemed like I was in fact starting at a stranger. “This is not Mr. C—.”

“Of course this is me,” I said, my voice rising. I turned around, fearing that a line of impatient travelers had by then formed behind me, but was shocked to see that I was still alone. “How can you say this is not me!”

The man emitted a laugh, but his eyes contained no humor.

“Because,” he said, his head shaking contemptuously, “the real Mr. C— entered Taiwan the day before yesterday using a legal passport.”

The room started to spin. Very slowly it spun, but enough to make me feel like I was about to throw up. It was one of those moments when the fabric of reality seemed to have unraveled, like the split second before a terrible car accident shatters the normalcy of routine life. In that brief but eternal instant, one finds himself seized by overwhelming doubt: Was I wrong all along?

No, surely it wasn’t so.

“What is this,” I asked, laughing. “Operation Shylock?”

“Now don’t be silly,” the female agent retorted, evidently not amused by my reference to American literature. “That was a work of fiction.”

With that, powerful hands grabbed me from behind and I was dragged away from the immigration area and deposited into a small detention room.

Hours went by, during which I was visited by a number of agents who asked me a series of questions about my true identity and the reasons why I was trying to enter the country illegally. Was I a terrorist? A secret agent? Did I traffic drugs? Firearms? Round and round it went, with no apparent issue. I didn’t know what to do. It was as if gravity had ceased to exist, and try as I might I could not bring back the Newtonian forces that would make everything normal again. Someone brought food, but I didn’t touch it.

I may or may not have dozed off for a while. When I came back to my senses, a new agent was standing above me. He was smiling broadly.

“Good news,” he said as he helped me get off the little couch I’d been slouching on. “They’ve cleared the whole thing up. An unfortunate mix-up, really. You are free to go, Mr. C—.”

My two pieces of luggage, which I had not been able to claim since my arrival, stood by the door. I seemed I was indeed a free man. I walked right by him without saying a word, grabbed my suitcases, and exited the room.

“Wait!” the man came running after me. “Your passport.” I took it sullenly and walked away. I dragged myself over to the taxi area, grabbed a cab, and gave the driver the address of my apartment in Taipei, where I lived alone. The world was normal again, everything was as it should be. The industries, houses and temples, all grayish blue against the verdant mountains in the early morning, zipped by outside the window, all in their proper place. Even my passport had been stamped.

The cab dropped me off just outside the four-story apartment complex I’d lived in for several years. I was home, finally, looking forward to the grounding that home provides us after extended travel overseas, not to mention the nightmare at the airport that I had just awakened from.

Grabbing one suitcase by the side handle, I unlocked the front door and began ascending the four flights of stairs (mine was one of those 1950s-era buildings that didn’t have elevators). I reached my floor, panting. I’d drop off the first suitcase in and go back downstairs to bring up the second after a bit of rest and a glass of water.

Then just as I was about to insert the key into the lock, I heard it, which sent cold chill down my spine. The unmistakable sound of the TV playing inside my apartment. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Xi Jinping Turns the Screws on Taiwan

Beijing’s recent hardening on Taiwan, from its insistence on 'one country, two systems' to accusations of espionage using Chinese students, stems from a mix of paranoia and cold political calculation 

Not unlike other authoritarian and totalitarian regimes throughout history, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has always had a paranoid streak, whose stridency has ebbed and flowed according to the times. In periods of high instability, such as during the Cultural Revolution, the CCP leadership went to extraordinary lengths to eliminate its enemies — real and imagined. Unrest in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and signs that Taiwan may be “slipping away” after half a decade of cautious rapprochement, seem to have engendered a new phase of paranoia in Beijing, as evidenced by the detentions of and travel restrictions imposed against dozens of Chinese individuals in recent months. 

Those measures have been accompanied by an increasingly xenophobic line in Zhongnanhai. President Xi Jinping, the hoped-for reformer who, as it turns out, is very much the strongman, has repeatedly warned against “pollution” by Western values and has directed the implementation of policies to counter such nefarious influences. Chinese agencies and propaganda outlets, meanwhile, claim to have uncovered “evidence” of several plots hatched abroad to destabilize China. 

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

Monday, October 27, 2014

LGBT Rights v. the Anti-Rational Passions of the Right

Opponents of same-sex marriage in Taiwan might not be aware of it, but much of the rhetoric they use comes from ultra-conservatives on the American right, climate change deniers and white supremacists 

One thing that can be said of the organizations that have mobilized in recent years to oppose same-sex marriage in Taiwan and elsewhere is that they are tenacious. Over and over again, they have repeated the same rhetoric with the expectation that, by dint of insistence, they will obtain what they want — or in this particular case, prevent others from obtaining what they want. Two strategies, religious texts and pseudo-science, are at the bottom of those efforts. Knowing where the language comes from can help Taiwanese society make enlightened decisions on the ongoing controversy. 

The principal actor in Taiwan is the Protect the Family Alliance, a group that has taken the lead in opposing proposed regulations to the Civil Code that would legally recognize unions between individuals of the same sex. Time and again the Alliance, which in no small part has been inspired by a rigid interpretation of Christianity, has resorted to what can only be referred to as fantasy to make its case against homosexual unions, with warnings of attendant social ills that have much in common with the fire and brimstone sermons of ancient times: social chaos, the spread of AIDS, bestiality, incest, polygamy, erosion of morals, assault on human rights and freedom of speech, and so on. 

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

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

From Gunboats to Nuts and Bolts

The age of major U.S. arms sales to Taiwan is probably over. But Washington can still play a key role as Taipei shifts to indigenous production 

Despite the recent optimism expressed by some of the participants at the 13th annual U.S.-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference held earlier this month in Williamsburg, Virginia, the days when the U.S. sold billion dollars of military platforms to Taiwan are probably over. It has been more than three years since the U.S. released a major arms package for the island, the longest period since the early 1990s. Barring a radical shift in Washington, we can expect that the U.S. government will maintain its current strategy of seeking to avoid angering Beijing with major sales of military equipment to Taiwan — and this despite a hardening stance in the U.S. vis-à-vis a China that, after years of cajoling, has become increasingly belligerent. 

For those in Taiwan who contend that China remains a major military threat (the authoritarianism of President Xi Jinping should dispel any belief to the contrary), Washington’s reluctance to directly sell to Taiwan the defense articles that it needs — submarines, 4.5/5th-generation aircraft, modern surface combatants and so on — can be alarming, as major arms sales have historically carried the important symbolic value of political support. A decision by Washington to no longer sell major weapons systems to Taipei could therefore be interpreted as a sign that the U.S. is ready to “abandon” Taiwan. 

But don’t throw in the towel just yet. An end to major arms sales — one of the lynchpins of U.S.-Taiwan relations since 1979 — doesn’t necessarily mean that Taipei has lost the support of its longstanding ally. Rather, this development reflects the current geopolitical situation, one in which China now ranks as the world’s second-largest economy in a global economic system where Beijing carries a lot more weight than it did just a decade ago. 

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

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.)