Thursday, March 05, 2015

Xi, the PLA, and the State of Perpetual Conflict

What if the leadership in Beijing saw advantages in not resolving the Taiwan ‘issue’?

Continuing a long tradition set by his predecessors, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) on Wednesday warned against “independence forces” in Taiwan, calling them “the biggest threat to cross-strait peace and stability” in the Taiwan Strait.

Xi, who made the remarks at this year’s Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), was not saying anything we’ve not heard before: The Taiwan independence movement “poisons” stable cross-strait relations and threatens to “divide” the Great Chinese Nation.

One peculiar characteristic of that rhetoric is that regardless of who runs the government in Taipei — Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) or Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) — Beijing keeps repeating it. That is not by accident. By sustaining the notion of “Taiwan independence” forces threatening peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, Beijing ensures that Taiwan and China remain in a state of perpetual conflict.

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

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

KMT Reform? We’ll Believe It When We See It

A former KMT spokesman argues in an influential foreign publication that the KMT is in the ‘throes of reform’. That would be wonderful, but don’t hold your breath 

A recent article in Foreign Policy magazine penned by Charles Chen (陳以信) has caused a bit of a sensation among some Taiwan watchers for its seemingly candid assessment of the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) failures and need to reform. Chen, who until recently was the KMT spokesman and has now been elevated to the position of spokesman for the Presidential Office, is absolutely right when he argues that the party needs to change. Sadly, he gets just about everything else wrong. 

Published on Feb. 17, Chen’s article, titled “How Taiwan’s Ruling but Reeling Kuomintang Can Win the Future,” sparked an odd reaction among some Taiwan specialists who saw in the piece the germs of true reform within the KMT, which since Jan. 17 has been headed by Eric Chu (朱立倫). A number of those experts, who up until then had been scathing critics of the KMT, regarded the article as a groundbreaking admission of mistakes by the party, a “wow” moment even. Undoubtedly there are many others overseas who will likely reach similar conclusions. 

However, if we pay close attention to the language used in the article, it becomes clear that Mr. Chen’s blueprint for reform is not quite what it seems. 

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

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Sky Isn’t Falling Over Taiwan

Overly bleak pictures of Taiwan’s willingness and ability to defend its way of life are not only misleading, they play right into Beijing’s political warfare strategy 

This cannot be repeated often enough: Although the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is now the most powerful military in the Taiwan Strait, and despite the fact that the capability gap continues to widen in China’s favor, Beijing would much prefer to “win” Taiwan without having to fire a single bullet in anger than plunge into the fog of war, what with all the messiness and unpredictability of armed combat. 

Although it is generally recognized that winning without fighting is a major aspect of Chinese strategy honed over centuries, many people — defense analysts among them — seem to develop severe amnesia when it comes to the question of Chinese designs upon Taiwan, the island-nation Beijing hopes to annex, “by force if necessary.” 

Undoubtedly, in the past two decades or so the PLA has acquired and modernized capabilities that would ostensibly play a role in a Taiwan contingency, and it has held a number of military exercises (some of them high profile) simulating an amphibious assault on Taiwan. 

However, for every drill practicing an attack against the island, armies of soldiers engage in silent, non-kinetic operations to whittle down perceptions of Taiwan’s ability to defend itself — and most importantly perhaps, to erode the willingness of Taipei’s allies to come to its defense should the PLA be activated at some point. 

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

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Prison Hostage Situation in Taiwan Turns Deadly … and Political

A botched prison break in Kaohsiung turns into a political melodrama with a tragic conclusion 

A dramatic hostage-taking situation at a prison in southern Taiwan took a tragic turn early in the morning of February 12 when the six hostage-takers, all inmates at the jail, failed in their bid to escape and turned the guns they had stolen from the prison’s armory on themselves. 

The situation at Kaohsiung Prison began a little before 4 p.m. on February 11 when the six inmates, led by Cheng Li-te, a member of the Bamboo Union triad who is serving a 28-year sentence for murder, pretended they were ill and were sent to the infirmary. Soon thereafter, they reportedly used scissors to take three prison officials hostage and were then able to break into the armory, where they seized four assault rifles, six handguns, and more than 200 rounds of ammunition. 

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

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Let 118 Sunflowers Bloom

A total of 118 people, including Lin Fei-fan and Chen Wei-ting, will be prosecuted for the 318 and 323 occupation and a smaller incident on 411 

If we could be 100% certain that the court system in Taiwan can act independently, it would perhaps be less tempting to suspect that the Taipei District Prosecutors’ Office’s announcement on the morning of Feb. 10 that 118 individuals, including student leaders Lin Fei-fan (林飛帆) and Chen Wei-ting (陳為廷), will be prosecuted for various “crimes” committed during the occupation of the Legislative Yuan (“318”), of the Executive Yuan (“324”) and a small protest outside a police station (“411”) last year was politically motivated. 

Sadly, our faith in the court system is justifiably shaky, and this encourages speculation that the indictments, and the timing of the announcement, may provide needed distraction for the embattled Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), which faces numerous crises at the moment, including the recent arrest of Tainan City Council Speaker Lee Chuan-chiao (李全教) for bribery in the Dec. 25, 2014, council elections, the possibility that the reprehensible Legislator Alex Tsai (蔡正元) will be unseated by the Appendectomy Project on Feb. 14, and corruption investigations that could very well implicate former Taipei mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌), who has presidential ambitions, and President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). 

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

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Chinese Students Go Ballistic at Model UN Event

Proud and nationalistic Chinese students are increasingly vocal overseas. Often, though not always, they get away with bullying others on key issues 

A delegation of Chinese students at the Harvard Model United Nations held Jan. 29 to Feb. 1 made a dreadful discovery when they cracked open this year’s conference handbook. What they saw was so offensive that they made a scene, and several members of the group ended up being expelled from a meeting. Two words were at the heart of the kerfuffle: Taiwan and country. 

There is something about Taiwan that brings out the very worst in many a Chinese student overseas. Time and again, young Chinese have gone haywire at academic settings whenever someone dared to argue that Taiwan may actually be a country rather than a province of China, as Beijing claims. When that happens, they just snap. They scream, storm out, threaten, gang up on others, and intimidate whoever stands in their way, including school authorities. 

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

Friday, January 30, 2015

Taiwan: Between the Pivot and a Hard Place

What role, if any, can Taiwan play in the U.S. rebalancing to Asia? And what can Taipei to do increase its chances of being given a role in the fledging regional alliance? 

More than three years have elapsed since then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton posited the idea of a U.S. “pivot,” or “rebalancing,” to Asia in her article for Foreign Policy magazine. To this day, nobody seems to have a clear idea how to define the nature and shape of the endeavor in either quantitative or qualitative terms. An even more difficult question is whether Taiwan could, or will, play a role in the pivot, and if so, what would be the extent of its involvement. 

Although several factors favour a role for Taiwan—its geographical location within the first island chain and a democratic political system, among them—integrating the island-nation into the pivot also involves risks and challenges that are unique to its situation. 

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

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Two Ways of Looking at a Spy

The Zhen Xiaojiang spy network sounds like bad news for Taiwan, but the damage to national security might not be as severe as it sounds 

The philosophical questions over what compels individuals to betray their country were once again raised on Jan. 16 when prosecutors unveiled indictments against five Taiwanese and a Chinese citizen on espionage charges. As with other cases over the years, the revelation that members of Taiwan’s armed forces had agreed to spy for Beijing exacerbated the perception that the island-nation’s security apparatus has been thoroughly penetrated, that it is unreliable, and that Taiwanese would sell their country for a dime. 

Given the frequency with which spy cases have been uncovered in the past decade, the alarmists are certainly not entirely unjustified in contending that this is bad news for Taiwan and its security relationship with the U.S., though as I argued elsewhere, we do not want to overstate the matter and need to take the propaganda value of intelligence operations — even those that are discovered — into consideration. 

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

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Does Taiwan Need a Ko Revolution?

Reforming the system is absolutely necessary. But what can society do if entrenched interests and status quo powers stand in the way of what needs to be done? 

On many occasions since the members of the Sunflower Movement voluntarily exited the Legislative Yuan after a more than three-week occupation in April 2014, I had found myself correcting the perception among a number of foreign journalists and at academic conferences overseas that the dramatic events in the spring constituted a revolution. Though the term “Sunflower Revolution” was repeatedly used, it was a misnomer: It was never the intention of the Sunflowers to overthrow the system, or to replace it with another. Rather, the sole objective was reform of existing institutions. Therefore, notwithstanding the “extreme” nature of their actions, the Sunflowers overwhelmingly agreed that the prevailing political system should continue to exist, though they wanted to see its many flaws remedied, and unaccounted officials expunged. 

We still don’t know to what extent the Sunflower Movement succeeded in achieving its goals. What is clear is that governments can rarely implement in the whole the maximalist requests of civil society; after all, politics is the art of compromise — at least in democratic societies. The controversial services trade agreement that sparked the occupation remains stalled, and an oversight mechanism for future cross-strait negotiations, one of the conditions set by the activists before they vacated the legislature, to is under consideration. 

There were other less easily quantifiable successes. Despite officials claims to the contrary, the Ma administration’s reputation suffered a terrible blow. The drama re-energized civic activism, bringing political awareness among the population to levels unseen in years, and generated substantial interest overseas by making Taiwan exciting and newsworthy. Finally, the occupation undoubtedly had an impact on the Nov. 29 “nine-in-one” local elections, in which the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) was roundly defeated. 

As I argued in a commentary a few months ago, the next step for the Sunflowers and the young activists the movement inspired is for themselves to enter politics and work from the inside. Since then, it has been encouraging to see a number of them choose to do so. Some of them ran in the Nov. 29 elections, while others started their own party or decided to join an existing political party — in almost every case the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), a much more natural ally, given its ideology, than the KMT. 

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

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.”

“Hmm…”

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.