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, 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 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)

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Neutralizing Contention: A New Policy for Taiping Island and the South China Sea

To create space between its maritime claims and Beijing’s, Taiwan should neutralize Taiping Island 

Rising tensions in the South China Sea between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and other claimants, and the militarization of those disputes, are making Taiwan’s continued sovereignty claim over the nine-dash line untenable. More than ever, as Beijing intensifies its propaganda campaign to encourage the perception that Taiwan and China are cooperating in the defense of “shared” territory and interests in the region, Taipei must present policies that clearly distinguish its aims and means from those adopted by Beijing. 

So what is to be done? The unclear or mixed signals, lack of direction, and self-contradictions that have become a staple of Taiwanese statements in recent years are no longer sufficient. Ambiguity has failed. Taipei must therefore embark on a new path by proposing concrete measures to de-conflict its relationship with other regional claimants and provide alternatives to the ongoing escalations and litigation that can only lead to catastrophe. 

Although it will be some time before Taiwan can fully abandon its claims under the nine-dash line — a legacy of the 1947 Republic of China (ROC) constitution with which it is stuck — it can nevertheless take immediate measures to show its desire to resolve ongoing disputes. One first step would be to neutralize Taiping Island (Itu Aba, 太平島). 

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

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

It’s ‘One Country, Two Systems’ or ‘One System’

A white paper on the successes of the ‘one country, two systems’ model for Hong Kong contains the usual propaganda and a few serious warnings

China on June 10 issued its first-ever white paper on “one country, two systems” and the current state of things in Hong Kong, the former British colony that was re-unified with the Mainland in 1997. While the document contains little that is unexpected in terms of rhetoric that expounds the virtues of the system or calls for patriotism, the timing of its release — this summer promises to be eventful as activists prepare for a series of sit-ins, “unofficial” referenda and other escalatory measures in defiance of Beijing and its allies in the territory — is very telling. The unintended message of the white paper is that Beijing is worried, and that further restrictions are to be expected. There are a few lessons and warnings in there for Taiwan.

Prepared by the State Council Information Office, “The Practice of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ Policy in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region” (full text in English here and Chinese here), argues that “one country, two systems” is “not only the best solution to the Hong Kong question left over from history but also the best institutional arrangement for the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong after its return to the motherland.” First articulated by Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), the formula maintains that there is only one China — the People’s Republic of China — which operates under a socialist system (with Chinese characteristics, inevitably), while the “Chinese” territories of Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan would, once “re-unified,” be able to retain their capitalist systems “over a long time to come” — not indefinitely (italics added).

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

Monday, June 09, 2014

MOFA Clarifies its Stance on Joining US Missile Defense Alliance

A top foreign affairs official denies saying that there is strong ‘domestic pressure’ against Taiwan joining a regional missile defense program 

Ever since the Obama administration announced its “pivot” to Asia in the fall of 2011, the one-million-dollar-question in Taiwan has been what role, if any, the country would play in the U.S.-led multilateral effort. Within defense circles particularly, there was hope that Washington include Taiwan in its rebalancing, a move that, military considerations aside, would do much to assuage the fears of abandonment that have crept up in recent years. A role for Taiwan is therefore almost unanimously seen as desirable. 

Little wonder, then, that many Taiwan watchers were puzzled when a U.S. newspaper quoted a top Ministry of Foreign Affairs Official (MOFA) official telling his interlocutors during a visit to Washington, D.C., recently that President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was facing mounting public opposition to a proposed missile defense program that could ensure a key function for Taiwan in the “pivot.” 

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

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Why June 4 Should Matter to Taiwan

Twenty-five years of maturing as a distinct nation has made Taiwanese seemingly uninterested about the Tiananmen Square Massacre, but they ignore the lessons at their own risk 

Every year on June 4th, it is hard not to feel slightly disappointed by the small turnout at the commemoration events here in Taiwan for the Tiananmen Square Massacre, in which the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) brutally cracked down on students in Beijing, killing hundreds, perhaps thousands. With this year marking the quarter-century anniversary of the Massacre, and given the political awakening sparked by the Sunflower revolution, there was reason to be optimistic and to expect a better turnout — nothing like the 180,000 who participated in the vigil at Victoria Park in Hong Kong, mind you, but better than previous years. 

Sadly, that wasn’t the case. At most, about a thousand people gathered at Liberty Square in Taipei to commemorate the event. This year, the theme of the ceremony was “Tank Man,” a nod to the lone hero who, shopping bags in hand, faced off against a column of Type 59 tanks on Chang’an Avenue during the massacre. As I looked around on that excruciatingly hot night, I kept wondering where the Sunflowers, Taiwan’s own little Tank Men and Women, were. 

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

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

PRC-Taiwan Negotiations at a Dead-End

China continues to reject any proposal for reunification outside the 'one country, two systems' framework 

The Taiwanese referred to them as the “Seven Dwarfs.” The group, led by a former defense minister, an ex-secretary-general of the National Security Council and a former chairman of the main opposition party, proposed a new “Greater One China” framework last week that, though not uncontroversial on the island, should have appealed to Beijing. And yet, within 24 hours China had shot it down, a reminder that in the Taiwan Strait, negotiations on Taiwan’s future status are more process than substance — and may be entirely futile. 

At first glance, it looked like the effort would have some traction in Beijing as well as among those in Taiwan who favor ever-closer ties with China. After all, its chief architects included Su Chi, a former head of the National Security Council and a close confidant to President Ma Ying-jeou (who enjoys cordial ties with Beijing), as well as Hau Pei-tsun, a Kuomintang (KMT) stalwart, former premier and defense minister who has often sounded impatient about the “reunification” of Taiwan with China. 

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

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Taiwanese Academics Are Playing with Fire

Three experts involved in the study of territorial disputes in the South China Sea have reportedly been working part-time for a think tank with ties to the Chinese government 

No sooner had the defection of remote-sensing expert Chen Kun-shan (陳錕山) to China been made public last week than a new scandal — this time involving Taiwanese experts on regional security — made the headlines this week, once again raising questions about what, if anything, can be done to prevent a brain drain and potential security breaches. 

During an interpellation with National Security Bureau Director-General Lee Hsiang-chou (李翔宙) on May 28, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) revealed that three political scientists affiliated with state academic institutions had taken up part-time jobs as “distinguished research fellows” with the National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS, 中國南海研究院). The academics in question, all well-respected researchers in their fields, were Song Yann-huei (宋燕輝), an expert on territorial sea disputes at Academia Sinica, Liu Fu-kuo (劉復國), a research fellow in the Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University (NCCU), and Michael Gau (高聖惕), a professor at the Institute of the Law of the Sea at National Taiwan Ocean University (NTOU). 

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

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Reconciling Activism with Politics

Civil society must come to terms with the fact that their good ideas will only become policies if they are adopted and voted in by legislators 

Very few events in Taiwan’s recent history have re-energized the political scene as much as the Sunflower Movement’s occupation of the Legislative Yuan in March. Besides shaking the very foundations of a system that had been on cruise control for far too long, the movement succeeded in mobilizing a large segment of the young population that had hitherto seemed uninterested in politics and social issues. 

But while this development is certainly encouraging, it is largely insufficient. If the movement is to have any long-lasting impact on Taiwan’s future, its philosophy, however noble, will have to translate into policy — and for this, whether activists like it or not they will need politicians and legislators. 

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

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Countering China with Hong Kong’s Help

The forced exile of a well-known Hong Kong actor over his support for the Sunflower Movement highlights Beijing’s fear of cooperation between Taiwan and the territory 

In a surprise announcement on May 26, Hong Kong actor Chapman To (杜汶澤), a rising star in Chinese cinema, said that he and his family were “temporarily” taking leave of the territory and moving abroad. The decision by the 41-year-old, perhaps best known for his role in the classic Infernal Affairs (無間道), followed several weeks of online harassment by Chinese Netizens for his open support of Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and its occupation of the Legislative Yuan in March. 

Other Hong Kong entertainers had joined To in expressing their solidarity for the Sunflowers, among them Anthony Wong (黃秋生) — who also starred in Infernal Affairs — and singer Denise Ho (何韻詩). But To, who had a regular column in the Apple Daily, a publication that is banned from the Chinese market due to its criticism of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), was the main target of Chinese anger. In response to the severe attacks over the past two months, To, who stated that he was leaving for “personal reasons,” said he would never let money buy his principles. This was beyond doubt a reference to the problems that artists who are too vocal in their support for democracy tend to encounter in accessing the highly lucrative Chinese market. In fact, To’s critics have called for a boycott of the movies in which he features, and film projects he was involved with appear to have suddenly found it difficult to secure financing. (We do not know at this point whether To was threatened with physical violence.) 

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

Sunday, May 25, 2014

What We Can Learn From Mass Murderers

Some would like to see the young man who killed four people on the MRT last week put to death as quickly as possible, but doing so would be a mistake 

“Nothing made me happen. I happened.” Thus spoke Hannibal Lecter is Thomas Harris’ masterly psychological thriller The Silence of the Lambs. This was perhaps Hannibal the Cannibal at his most disingenuous, or at his weakest, as he refused to discuss what made him into the psychopath that he was. The seemingly inexplicable act by the 21-year-old Cheng Chieh (鄭捷) on the Taipei MRT last week, which left four people dead and 22 injured, raises the same question that Hannibal Lecter wanted to avoid answering: What made him happen? 

Such inquiry is more than sheer intellectual curiosity. Identifying the factors that shape and motivate individuals like Cheng to commit random acts of violence is a necessary endeavor that can help us prevent future atrocities. That is why we should avoid yielding to vengeful impulses or political expediency and not seek a swift trial and execution for Cheng, however tempting doing so might be as society recoils from his actions. 

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

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Wake Up, Washington: All's Not Well in Taiwan

Unless Washington quickly modernizes its views on current realities in the Taiwan Strait, it will be caught unprepared 

A few months ago I was approached by someone who asked if I would be interested in giving a talk at the Asia Society in Houston on “Taiwan in the 21st Century.” I readily accepted the offer, but for a long time wondered what I could talk about. After all, the subject was extraordinarily vague and we were not given any guidelines. Then the Sunflower Movement burst onto the scene, and I had my angle. 

Very few incidents in the past six years have highlighted the level of incomprehension about developments Taiwan more than foreign reactions to the nearly three-week occupation of the Legislative Yuan in Taipei. Since President Ma Ying-jeou initiated his rapprochement initiative with Beijing following his election in 2008, Taiwan, once regarded as a tinderbox that could spark armed conflict between a rising China and the U.S., appeared to have been neutralized. It no longer was a subject of interest, except among security experts and those whose principal interest in life is to inflate their investment portfolio. It didn’t help that international media companies were going through a rough period, which made it easy for foreign bureaus to freeze hiring, slash positions, or close up shop altogether. Taiwan was democratic, and the once-hostile relations with China were a thing of the past — at least superficially, and superficiality was as far as most media were willing to go when it came to the island’s politics. 

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