Wednesday, December 30, 2009

China mulls permanent overseas base

Yin Zhuo, an admiral and senior researcher at the Chinese Navy’s Equipment Research Center, said today that China needs a permanent naval base overseas to re-supply its ships contributing to the multinational anti-piracy flotilla in the Gulf of Aden.

Yin, a transcript of whose interview with state radio was posted on the Chinese Defense Ministry Web site, seemed to be echoing Beijing’s view that a more active naval presence abroad is necessary to protect sea lanes. His comments come amid speculation that Beijing may be reversing its longstanding policy of not establishing military alliances or opening bases abroad — in other words, that it has no interest in becoming an expansionist power.

While Yin argues that the re-supply base would be primarily for China’s role in multinational anti-piracy efforts off the coast of Somalia, it is evident that such a base could serve other functions. Growing rivalry between China and India comes to mind. Such a base would hem in India in the Indian Ocean and open up a second front in case of conflict, while giving it an edge over other regional actors, such as Australia. Furthermore, once a precedent is set, it would become much easier for China to open other bases abroad, possibly in North Korea or even Russia, which would have serious implications for security in North East Asia and further complicate US and Japanese efforts to come to Taiwan’s assistance should war break up in the Taiwan Strait (China is reportedly interested in opening bases in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan, Thailand and elsewhere in the South China sea).

Add that to China’s ongoing efforts to build aircraft carriers — stalled for the moment due to technical problems, according to Taiwanese intelligence — and soon enough, China will be in a position to expand its area of control far beyond 200km outside its coastal areas.

The fact that the Chinese Navy is discussing the matter shouldn’t come as a surprise. Despite its avowed lack of interest in maintaining military bases abroad, Beijing cannot resist the desire to expand, as have other emerging powers that came before it. Anti-piracy is only providing the excuse to do so.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Why Akmal Shaikh was executed

Chinese authorities confirmed today that 53-year-old British citizen Akmal Shaikh was executed by lethal injection in Xinjiang, despite pleas for clemency from Shaikh’s family, the British government and the international community. Shaikh, who his family claims suffered from bipolar disorder, was arrested in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, in September 2007 for drug possession. In a half-hour session last year, a court convicted Shaikh for attempting to smuggle drugs into China, an offense punishable by death. His family and campaigners maintain that Shaikh was duped by a criminal gang to carry the drugs.

Shaikh’s Chinese lawyer says his requests to meet his client were turned down by the court and the detention center. Furthermore, Chinese authorities disregarded domestic laws, which mitigate a sentence when a suspect is mentally ill. China’s highest court allegedly never assessed his mental state.

What made it possible for Beijing to ignore international calls for clemency is that it still believes that it can do what it wants and get away with it. In other words, China suffers from single child syndrome. Part of the reason behind this is China’s renewed sense of importance in world affairs as it rises economically. Nationalist is also to blame, as is Beijing’s emphasis on its right to act as it wishes domestically and opposition to foreign involvement in its internal affairs.

The problem with this particular case — and there are many others — however, is that it involves a foreign citizen, in this case a passport holder from China’s third-biggest trade partner in Europe, Britain. China’s role in the failure of the climate talks in Copenhagen earlier this month, which will have global repercussions in terms of countries’ commitment to lower carbon dioxide emissions, is another example. A responsible global stakeholder cannot behave as if others didn’t exist, especially when its actions have repercussions beyond its borders. Why China chooses to do this is simple: No one has raised the important issues of human rights, international law, freedom of expression and environmental protection seriously enough with Chinese authorities for them to take the matter seriously. As long as the international community continues to look the other way when Beijing transgresses for the sake of business relations and “strategic ties,” China will continue to throw dissidents in jail, kill Tibetans and Uighurs, claim special developing country privileges on the environment, threaten Taiwan, and make a mockery of trials involving citizens from other countries, such as Shaikh, or Canada Huseyin Celil.

Not only China, but the entire international community is to blame for Mr. Shaikh’s execution today. Through our silence, we allowed Beijing to get away with it. As long as it knows that there will be no serious repercussions for its actions, it will continue to do this.

What’s needed is a slap that has a sting to it, something like the embargoes that were struck on China after the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. Words alone, or the diplomatic politeness that the Gordon Brown administration exercised after hearing of the execution, fall far short of the remedy that must be administered to Beijing.

China has turned arrogant. It needs to be taught a lesson.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

When outsourcing to China, it’s buyer beware

A handful of noteworthy books have been published in recent years that attempt to weigh the impact of the world’s intoxication with “made in China” products. Financial Times reporter Alexandra Harney’s The China Price, an expose of the human cost associated with China’s competitive advantage, readily comes to mind. More recently, Paul Midler, who for years worked as a consultant and go-between for American importers who descended upon China like sailors to a siren, explores another aspect of the ambiguous relationship — the corporate machinations.

This isn’t to say that Midler’s book, Poorly Made in China, doesn’t have a human element to it. Quite the contrary. Its pages are filled with individuals who truly come to life as they make their first excited steps in China, are courted, get deceived, become disillusioned and, quite often, resignedly do whatever it takes to keep their businesses running. The entire book is human theater, a well-paced and entertaining tale of egos hurt and ridiculous retribution, such as when the author, who perhaps had dug a little too deep, suddenly found it impossible to get a ride back home from the factory.

Despite the many cunning factory chiefs and wide-eyed foreign importers who form the dramatis personae in this book, Poorly Made in China has surprisingly little to say about the fate of the Chinese workers who have made it possible for China’s giant wheel to start turning. We witness a brief, and ultimately pointless, public demonstration, and a handful of workers make the odd appearance, but the focus clearly isn’t on them. Rather, what Midler exposes is the mechanism by which Chinese manufacturers have succeeded in drawing in foreign importers and, equally important, how they made it almost impossible to leave.

In this game, China has many elements playing in its favor. It has a mythical power of attraction, it knows how to unfurl the red carpet to make foreign investors feel like a million dollars, and, a major advantage over its would-be competitors, such as India and Vietnam, it has the infrastructure and adaptability to make manufacturing on a massive scale possible.

Midler’s case studies show us the anatomy of the rise and fall of importers’ relationships with Chinese manufacturers. In the early courting phase, Chinese manufacturers are the epitome of deference and show an incomprehensible (to foreigners) willingness to produce at almost zero-profit, which for obvious reasons proves irresistible to prospective importers. As the relationship matures and the importer becomes over-reliant on the manufacturer, however, small things start happening. Corners are cut. Ingredients are changed without notice. Bottles aren’t properly filled, or the plastic becomes of lesser quality. Shampoo turns into Jell-O.

Guerrilla-like, the manufacturer sallies forth and retreats, making a profit by finding ways to cut on manufacturing costs, oftentimes at the risk of compromising the health of customers (at one point, Midler writes that he’d seen so much to worry about in the skin care products he was monitoring that he stopped using body wash and shampoo altogether). Worryingly, we learn the testing that would ensure product safety is often too costly and is passed on like a hot potato from the manufacturer to the importer, the retailer and, ultimately, to the consumer. On many occasions, the testing is simply not done. Equally disturbing is the fact that manufacturers often keep the list of ingredients secret, even from their clients.

Though Chinese manufacturers that succeed in bringing in foreign investment are celebrated and will sometimes score political points with Beijing, their involvement with importers also presents other lucrative, if not entirely kosher, opportunities. A recurrent one is counterfeiting: stealing an idea, replicating it — the Chinese are past masters at this art — and repackaging it while selling it for a fraction of the price charged for the real product. Another strategy, we learn, is to produce more than what is ordered by an importer and then to approach the retailer directly and offer the same item for less than the importer would ordinarily charge — in other words, bypassing the middleman.

Midler’s worries about the possibility of collusion among Chinese manufacturers and its impact on prices and quality are well founded. Over the years, Chinese manufacturers have formed tightly knit networks of sub-suppliers involving producers of raw materials all the way to makers of end products. Most company chiefs know each other, are part of the same family or went to the same business schools. Consequently, disillusioned importers who, after being burned once too often, threaten to shift manufacturing to the competition have a major handicap, while leaving the country altogether is out of the question, given the months that it takes to consolidate a business relationship. The possibility of collusion, and the weak government regulations and corruption that facilitate the process, also put foreign manufacturers operating in China — such as Taiwanese — at a clear disadvantage, as they are not part of that network and will therefore be charged more for raw materials and components.

Relationships are at their best when operations are small and at their inception. Once a manufacturer has gained what it sought and mired its client in Chinese quicksand, the quality of its product and its willingness to clean up its act drops, often dramatically. Despite this, as Midler shows us, importers will often show unnatural patience and a willingness to look the other way. For many, they’ve gotten in so deep that pulling out would mean corporate suicide. In fact, the book has its share of promising partnerships that, in the end, brought American companies asunder. So the silly dance continues, and consumers are the real losers. Toys, pet food, baby cribs, toothpaste — the potential health hazards are the cost of our frenzied venture into China when neither we, nor the awakening giant, were ready for, or understood, the implications of what we were doing when we opened the gate and jumped in.

Poorly Made in China is an important, timely and thoroughly entertaining read that, inter alia, provides a warning about our future engagements with China in other fields, where we can expect it to act with equal selfishness and to treat its interlocutors as mere means to an end. The cost of that will likely make bad cheap shampoo but a trifle.

This review was published today in the Taipei Times. Click here for HTML access, and here for PDF.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Another form of prostitution

If you’ve visited the observatory on the 89th floor of the Taipei 101 building recently, you’ll notice that in order to go down again, you have to walk through an entire floor of shops selling jewelry, coral, jade and so on. All this wasn’t there until about a year ago, when large groups of Chinese tourists started arriving in Taiwan.

One item that features prominently in those stores is the terrestrial globes, which come in different sizes and materials. The globes are, admittedly, quite beautiful, which is reflected in their price. Take a close look, however, and you might reconsider buying one as a souvenir — at least if you share my political persuasions when it comes to Taiwan.

Not only is Taiwan the same color as China, but the font is the same as that used for Hainan Island. And it doesn’t read Taiwan, but “Tai-wan dao,” or “Taiwan island,” which no matter how you look at it makes Taiwan equal to Hainan and therefore part of China.

Now, merchants (at least in a democracy) have a right to sell whatever they want as long as it isn’t injurious to another party or incites hatred or violence. In that regard, and given the fact that many Chinese tourists visit Taipei 101, one could rationalize the decision. But looked at from a different angle, it has the smell of prostitution about it, as if Taiwanese vendors had to denigrate their identity so that Chinese tourists will buy their wares. It’s as if Palestinian vendors — of their own volition — chose to sell atlases, or terrestrial globes, that eradicated the Palestinian Territories in favor of a Greater Israel. Would this be acceptable in Palestine? Probably not; it would be shameless. So why should it be otherwise in Taiwan?

The more I look at it, the more I think that if Taiwan is eventually annexed by China, it won’t be through force or political coercion, but simply greed. If Taiwanese can’t even stand their own and be confident enough to sell Chinese tourists terrestrial globes that clearly identity Taiwan as the sovereign identity that it is, then all is lost. I cannot but be reminded of that cab driver in Kaohsiung a couple of months ago who, discussing Chinese tourists, said “we don’t like them, but we like their money.” What a dangerous, near-sighted thing to say, now that I think of it.

The presence of Chinese on Taiwanese soil presents Taiwanese with an exceptional opportunity to show Chinese a side of history that they never had access to while in China. If they choose to meet the challenge, it’s also a great chance to reaffirm their identity and to display their willingness to defend their nation.

The will to fight starts with little things. But if Taiwanese merchants can’t even do this, then why should we expect the military to defend the nation in its hour of need?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

US arms package could be an expensive illusion

The “new” arms package recently touted by US officials has yet to be confirmed by US President Barack Obama. Nevertheless, supporters of Taiwan are already hailing the news as a great victory, of Obama “thumbing his nose at the Chinese,” as Foreign Policy recently put it. There are signs, however, that there is less to the news than meets the eye.

From what has been made public, the Obama administration could release PAC-3 interceptor missiles, UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, as well as an operations deal for the “Po Sheng,” or Broad Victory, command and control program and design work on diesel-electric submarines.

Not only are the 66 F-16C/D fighter aircraft that Taiwan has sought for years missing from the list, however, there is also nothing new in the “new” arms package proposed by the administration.

“The real question,” Wendell Minnick, Asia Bureau Chief at Defense News, told the Taipei Times on Sunday, “is what is ‘new’ in the arms pipe that hasn’t been in there since 2001. And there is nothing, which is ominous.”

All these items were approved by former US president George W. Bush in 2001. Also problematic is the fact that the design work on the submarines would be both costly and may not even result in actual subs. Even if it did, it would only be many years from now and make an insignificant contribution to Taiwan’s current and mid-term defense requirements.


Furthermore, given the two-to-one ratio required for PAC-3 missiles to shoot down a target, even the addition of the 330 missiles included in the Bush package would be insufficient to ensure full coverage in case of a Chinese barrage.

China’s arsenal, which has been growing by about 100 missiles annually, is about 1,500. A barrage would easily overwhelm Taiwan’s defense capabilities and even a limited attack could quickly deplete its defense stocks.

“It’s simple math,” Minnick said. “Four fire units of PAC-2s procured 10 years ago are being upgraded, but even so, each unit has four missiles, so that’s 16 total missiles that can be fired.”

“It takes 30 minutes to reload one fire unit. So you are down to eight PAC-2 missiles per attack. The Chinese just upped the number of SRBMs [short-range ballistic missile] to overwhelm them. Now Taiwan is getting new PAC-3s. But even if they get the six fire units originally released by Bush, that’s only 24 missiles, plus 16 original PAC-2s — that’s 40 [altogether]. With two missiles dedicated to incoming SRBMs ... that’s really only 20.”

In addition, Beijing could use the announcement of the PAC-3 sale as an argument to continue building up its missile arsenal, which would offset the small advantage created by the purchase.

The price tag for 330 PAC-3 missiles and related equipment is estimated at US$3.1 billion, while each DF-15 missile deployed by China costs about US$450,000, excluding launchers and related equipment. To draw a comparison, 330 DF-15 would cost China US$148 million. By taking the two-to-one ratio into consideration, it would cost China US$74 million to deplete US$3.1 billion worth of PAC-3s — a cost disparity that makes a strong case against the advisability of the PAC-3s purchase in the first place.

Still, some US defense analysts see some benefits to the PAC-3s, as they would be “speed bumps” in a conventional Chinese military campaign and serve to undercut coercive use of force.

Symbolically, the PAC-3s also imply an operational linkage with the US, as US satellite warning is presumably part of the equation.


The Obama administration’s position on arms sales to Taiwan is increasingly looking like a half-hearted effort to “prove” that it remains committed to Taiwan, while limiting sales to systems that do not really tilt the balance in the Taiwan Strait, thus ensuring that Beijing’s “anger” will be minimal and likely not result in China cutting military-to-military ties with the US.

Asked for comment on the possible Obama deal, John Tkacik, a retired US foreign service officer and expert on China, said: “The Obama administration’s breath-taking concessions — not just on Taiwan, but on Tibet, human rights, Iran and North Korea — at the Obama-Hu [Jintao (胡錦濤)] meetings last month have generated pushback in Washington. So now Obama’s people are doing the least they can get away with, and now they are looking at anodyne moves that won’t really make a difference.”

“Of course, their intent — like Ma’s — is to avoid riling China. Any US arms sales, then, are likely to be of marginal use in redressing the already catastrophic imbalance in the Taiwan Strait,” Tkacik said.

“I suspect that if Obama approves a new arms package, Ma’s government and the [Chinese Nationalist Party, KMT]-dominated Legislative Yuan will, once again, go out of its way to temporize, shilly-shally and complain about the costs, utility, and political tensions with China of the sales — and use those factors as excuses to stall procurements. That way, Obama can say ‘it’s Taiwan’s fault’ and [President] Ma [Ying-jeou (馬英九)] will say ‘it’s the Americans’ fault.”

If Obama took Taiwan’s defense seriously, his administration would be releasing the types of weapons that would help Taiwan mount a credible deterrent force, not costly material whose utility and desirability is increasingly questionable.

The sale of 150 F-16A/Bs in 1992 by George H.W. Bush is an example of real commitment. In one swoop, the sale altered the balance of power in the strait and ensured that Beijing would have neither the numerical nor qualitative advantage that would make the use of force a viable option. A case could be made that this helped ensure there would be no war in the Taiwan Strait for a decade.

Taiwan now finds itself in a position where it has to beg for arms that would only have a marginal impact on the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait. There is also evidence, Tkacik said, that Ma administration officials in Washington “refrained from pushing Bush or Obama on the F-16s and slow-balled just about everything else” or even “pointedly refused to raise the F-16s.”

The cost of the items set for release by Obama is prohibitively high and represents a substantial proportion of Taipei’s defense budget. In addition, because of Washington’s refusal to sell it advanced weapons, Taipei is now forced to spend large sums to upgrade its aging F-16 fleet, as well as its Lafayette-class destroyers, Ching-kuo Indigenous Defense Fighters and Dutch submarines as it retires some of its Mirage 2000s and F-5s. Added to the investment that will be required to turn the military into an all-volunteer force, as Ma has called for, it is becoming increasingly doubtful that Taiwan can afford all these items.

“The KMT legislature blocked Taiwan’s military procurements during the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) years, and thus ensured Taiwan’s long-term defenselessness against China. And it seems now that neither Ma nor Obama intend substantively to reverse that,” Tkacik said.

This analysis piece was published today in the Taipei Times.

Errata: Contrary to what my story claims, it is not true that all the military items likely to be included in the Obama package had already been proposed by the Bush administration in 2001. The Taiwanese government only made a request for price and availability data on 60 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters in April 2007. Bush, however, did not notify Congress on the UH-60s in October 2008.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Open-minded and welcoming

Something else I meant to discuss in my previous post about Premier Wu Den-yih’s (吳敦義) address to the Taiwan Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Taipei yesterday was his insistence that Taiwanese should be “open minded” and welcoming when Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林) visits Taichung later this month for the fourth round of cross-strait talks. Wu’s point was that as the meeting will only touch on “technicalities” that will ostensibly benefit Taiwanese, people should show restraint in their protests targeting the envoy’s presence on Taiwanese soil.

Little did I know, as I was scribbling my notes, that moments later, Wu would be telling media outside the venue that “only irresponsible people or idiots want Taiwan independence.” So much for open-mindedness, respect and hospitality.

Back in October last year, when ARATS Vice-Chairman Zhang Mingqing (張銘清) was “jostled” during a visit in central Taiwan, many in the pan-blue camp and across the Strait were up in arms, accusing Taiwanese of violence and so on. Very little mention, however, was made of the fact that a few days earlier, the same Zhang was issuing a threat against all Taiwanese who support independence. “There will be no war in the Taiwan Strait,” Zhang had said, “as long as Taiwan does not declare independence.” Tens of thousands of people, if not more, could die if China attacked Taiwan, and a top envoy made the threat explicit. And yet, Taiwanese had to apologize because Zhang could not manage to remain on his feet when a group of elderly Taiwanese surrounded him. Poor thing.

The same day Wu was calling on Taiwanese to be nice to Chen, a Taiwanese student in South Korea was reportedly being harassed by a group of Chinese for displaying the Nationalist flag at a Korean-language speech contest. For years, Taiwanese young and old have been harassed for showing the flag — that is, when they are actually allowed to do so. For years, Beijing has endangered the lives of Taiwanese by excluding Taiwan from regional and international organizations such as the WHO, ICAO, the IPCC and others. At a series of academic forums in Taipei last month, retired PLA generals and Chinese academics again threatened war and contended that the independence movement was “doomed” (hardly a nicety), and yet, we should remain hospitable.

How much longer will Taiwanese bend over backwards to be nice and hospitable to Chinese officials who through word and deed are doing the exact opposite? When will Taiwanese finally stand up and ask for the respect that they deserve?

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

All the president’s men

When it comes to prearranged meetings between the media and government officials, one can almost always expect that there will be no surprises. I’ve seen this happen with a series of Taiwanese officials since I began attending those events, from President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) to Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平), former Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) chairman Wu Poh-hsiung (吳伯雄) to Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義). I am beginning to understand why, except for special circumstances, reporters like the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Richard Bernstein rarely attended official press conferences at the White House. This holds true today — truer, in fact, given that the statistics and promises that are made at such meetings can all be found on government Web sites.

Premier Wu addressed the Taiwan Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Taipei yesterday. The full content of his presentation, which does not make for exciting reading, can be found elsewhere. What is noteworthy about the meeting, however, is that it highlighted Wu’s tremendous public speaking abilities. He can croon when necessary, be forceful when the occasion calls for it, and will even stand up and lean toward his audience to make a point. He sounds convincing and will easily win over people with challenged critical abilities. As a government head in a party whose image and credibility has seen better days, someone with Wu’s oratory skills will undeniably score points for the KMT (possible ties with criminal organizations notwithstanding).

During the question period, a great deal of time was spent on the economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) that Taipei intends to sign with Beijing sometime next year. His comments, as well as those of other government officials made in recent days, are showing signs of consolidation. Everybody’s speaking from the same page and there is no room for doubt. An ECFA is inevitable; it will be beneficial; not signing an ECFA would “marginalize” Taiwan; Taiwan will be able to sign free-trade agreements with other countries only after it has signed an ECFA with China; fears of the repercussions (political, economic) of an ECFA are the result of poor communication; the contents of an ECFA are considerably complex, but in coming months the government will work harder to communicate with the public; etc. Note that we’re never told who, or what, the public is. Does it include the opposition, academics, those who so far have been excluded from the talks?

Wu came up with a figure of 60 percent approval for an ECFA, while other opinion polls have shown 60 percent disapproval. Asked where he obtained his figures, Wu admitted he’d made them up, based on a number of convoluted equations. So much for a scientific approach. If things can be summoned out of thin air like this, then the government can say whatever it pleases and its communication campaign on an ECFA will be en exercise in futility.

When I asked Premier Wu to comment on the fact that top officials in the Chinese Communist Party have openly stated that they see an ECFA as stepping stones toward unification, underscoring my point with a reference to the aloofness of and threats by Chinese academics who visited Taipei last month, Wu was impeccably deflective, claiming that his government is aware of what Beijing thinks but that Taiwanese negotiators would stick to the principle of Taiwan first and that ECFA talks would only be economic in nature anyway. Fair enough, but this did not answer the question. Economic integration is part of Beijing’s strategy for unification; it doesn’t matter whether negotiators, when they sit down sometime next month to discuss an ECFA, talk about politics, economics, baseball or Tiger Woods’ little escapades. He had nothing to say about what Taipei might do to ensure that economic integration does not have the political impact that worries many of us. Nothing, either, on the legislature playing a more active, and useful, role in approving the pact.

Trust us — trust me — Wu was saying. You need not stay awake at night worrying about the fears you expressed in your question. Better communication will solve everything and assuage your fears. If we communicate often enough, if we tell you that everything will be OK over and over again, then eventually we will convince you and get the approval that we seek. By dint of repetition, Taiwanese will be hypnotized. All is well ... All is well .. An ECFA is indispensable.

After working for government for a few years, and after re-reading Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, I have every reason to be skeptical when government officials ask me to trust them and to put my fate in their hands. Especially those government officials who are good with words and always manage to package non-answers in an eloquent, convoluted and forceful way.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Book Review: The Second Long March

Modern Chinese history, Yu Peter Kien-hong argues, can be divided into two defining periods — the First Long March, led by Communist leader Mao Zedong (毛澤東) to “liberate peasants and farmers,” and the Second Long March, in which non- and anti-communists sought to “promote full-fledged and mature constitutional democracy” in China.

Yu, a professor at Ming Chuan University, posits that Taiwan and “mainland China” are both part of the Republic of China (ROC). Both Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), though they have engaged in different, lesser marches since, are bound by the same destiny, in the form of the ROC Constitution, to “reunite” at one point. As the ROC was never dissolved, the PRC is a derivative of, or partial successor to, the ROC. In other words, it did not completely replace the ROC, meaning that it can only claim sovereignty over Taiwan as part of the ROC.

My full book review, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here in HTML and here in PDF.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Why she hated Chen Shui-bian

Among the many reasons why the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) didn’t perform well in the 2008 presidential election is the fact that its use of the “ethnic” card — benshengren, or Taiwanese, versus waishengren, or “mainlander” — backfired. Use of that construct intensified during then-president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) election campaign in 2004, where, as some have argued, he was forced to appeal to a more fundamentalist faction within the DPP to secure his support base. As a result, mentions of “real” Taiwanese versus “fake” ones became more frequent, and while the ploy may have won over some deep-greens, it is also apparent that it alienated not only waishengren, but also many otherwise greens who, through marriage, became involved with mainlanders from 1945 on.

Allen Chun, of the Institute of Ethnology at Academia Sinica, has an interesting paper on the subject, and makes many good points about the role of culture, language and geography in the consolidation of ethnicity, while convincingly deconstructing the strictly genetic approach adopted by some.

A discussion I recently had with a Taiwanese friend highlighted the case:

“I have nothing against the DPP and I come from a predominantly green part of Taiwan,” she said. “But I hate Chen Shui-bian.”

Why do you hate him?

“Well, first, he come to office promising to clean up the government, and we believed him. But now he proved he’s as much a crook as the others,” she said.

“But that’s not the main reason why I hate him. During his campaign [in 2004], he often referred to waishengren versus benshengren, you know, to appeal to some people. My dad was a soldier in the Nationalist army and fled to Taiwan in 1949. He married my mother, who was born in Taiwan. When Chen said these things about ‘real’ Taiwanese against ‘fake’ ones, how was I supposed to react? All of a sudden, I was nothing.”

“My dad passed away when I was six, so of course he didn’t vote [in 2008]. But my mother did — and she voted for the Chinese Nationalist Party,” she said. “So did I.”

Would she have voted the same way had Chen not played the “ethnic” card from 2004 on?

“Perhaps. I just resented the fact that he was negating me, my origins, and who I was.”

For a few years, my friend refused to pay taxes and paid the fines for her act, a means to express her disapproval of what Chen and others in the DPP were saying about ethnicity in Taiwan.

Many of my Taiwanese friends have similar circumstances at home. While they, born in Taiwan, may identify as Taiwanese first and Chinese second — a growing trend, as many polls have shown — the impact of a policy that discriminates against loves ones (spouses, parents, friends) cannot be a good one when it comes to winning votes. If the DPP is to secure a solid supporter base in 2012, it will have to reach out and embrace every person in Taiwan, regardless of where he or she comes from, who cares about this place. After all, as Chun argues, “ethnicity” in a case like Taiwan is far more a product of the social environment and of geography than genes. Aborigines, Hakka, Taiwanese and Mainlanders — all, if they identify with the place they call home, are Taiwanese, a concept of ethnicity that is achieved, to varying success, in multiethnic countries like Canada, the US and the UK.

What the DPP simply cannot afford, and what it must avoid at all cost, is to alienate voters who, were it not for its discourse on ethnicity, would support it over the KMT. Not only is discrimination morally reprehensible, but it’s not a vote winner.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Harper’s voyage of ‘contrition’

Following on the heels of US President Barack Obama’s three-day visit to China last month, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrived in Beijing today, launching a four-day tour that will also take him to Shanghai and Hong Kong. This is Harper’s first visit to China as prime minister.

Since Harper’s Conservatives assumed office in 2006, Ottawa has taken a harder line on China than did his predecessors Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, both Liberals who actively sought closer ties with China and, to this end, muted their criticism of the regime. In 2006, Ottawa ignored Beijing’s warnings against giving honorary Canadian citizenship to Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama and, a year later, a meeting between Harper and the exiled leader. Harper was also one of a few world leaders who did not attend the opening ceremony for the Olympic Games last year, claiming that he had a “busy schedule” — a decision that many analysts, and Beijing, interpreted as a signal of protest by Ottawa against the Chinese security crackdown that was occurring in Tibet at the time.

It is little wonder, therefore, that the media — and Beijing — would see this month’s visit as an attempt by Harper to mend fences with China, Canada’s second-largest trading partner after the US, with bilateral trade volume reaching about US$35 billion last year.

On Wednesday, The Associated Press’s staff writer Chi Chi Zhang, however, overstated the matter by writing that “Chinese experts are touting [the visit] as a fence-mending trip to repair ties damaged by Ottawa” (my italics). The problem with this sentence is the assumption, as is often the case when it comes to China, that it was the other party that “angered” China with its actions and that it must show contrition for the damage caused to bilateral ties. Here again, China is portrayed as a victim; the ties were damaged by Ottawa. (It also reinforces the image of supplicant versus master that is so prevalent in the Middle Kingdom mentality.)

When academics, reporters and government officials write these things, they tend to deresponsibilize China, as if the governments that offended Beijing (Washington, Canberra, Ottawa, Paris, Taipei) were operating in a vacuum, in the absence of a cause for their actions. In reality, those governments are “angering” Beijing by criticizing its atrocious human rights record, its repression of minorities and religious groups, its crackdowns in Tibet and Xinjiang, its arrest of lawyers and rights activists, its media censorship, as well as its aggressive espionage activities abroad. They also “anger” Beijing by acting according to their values — on their own soil — in meeting individuals such as the Dalai Lama, or in their reluctance to extradite individuals wanted by China (such as Lai Changxing 賴昌星, who in 1999 fled to Canada with his family after China accused him of masterminding a US$6 billion smuggling ring) for fear they might be executed after their return.

It is Beijing, because of all these things, that ultimately is the principal reason why ties have “languished,” as Agence France-Presse described relations between Canada and China. If it didn’t break international law and didn’t repress its people, Ottawa and others would not feel compelled to act in ways that “anger” Beijing.

Ottawa didn’t damage ties with China — Beijing did. It’s as simple as that. No government should ever be criticized, or forced into contrition, for standing up for universal rights and values.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Zero-sum and propagandistic

Always trust odd titles to reveal propaganda at work. The “Root and Spirit Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage Exhibition,” an event hosted by the Chinese National Academy of Arts, opened in Taipei on Nov. 27, with some 230 Chinese treasures on display, including a giant loom, Peking Opera costumes, wedding sedans, miniature replicas of riverside villages and a wooden imperial palace entry pass. Also on offer is music to “teach” Taiwanese about their Chinese roots.

As if the music — and the free admission — weren’t clear enough proof that this whole thing is an exercise in Chinese propaganda, Tian Qing, an academy professor who manages the exhibit, said that while “the two sides come from the same roots,” Taiwan should be mindful of the cultural influences from outside the region, such as that from the US. (Sadly, in its coverage Reuters buys into that propaganda by referring to Taiwan as “ethnic Chinese.”)

With his comments, Tian, like many of the Chinese academics and retired officials who have been visiting Taiwan in the past few weeks, is highlighting his ignorance of the historical influences that have shaped Taiwanese identity over centuries. Under this Sino-centric view, Chinese roots are pure and immutable and intangible (e.g., the 5,000-years of history held as religious belief, “Han” Chinese and historical “one China”), while every other influence — in this case American, but to which we could certainly add Japanese — is external and a pollutant.

Despite Tian’s beliefs, Taiwanese need not be mindful of American cultural influence; the Taiwanese nation is an amalgam of cultures — Japanese, American, European, as a colonial subject, and yes, Chinese — and it is this what makes it unique, just as worthy of preservation as the artifacts Tian says should be protected. It is perfectly OK to embrace the “shared roots” of Chinese culture, but this should not be done in exclusion, or with the perception that other shaping influences are deleterious to a people’s identity. A failure to do this helps explain, for example, why China does not recognize ethnicity or Aboriginal groups — everybody is simply “Chinese.”

This zero-sum way of looking at Chinese “civilization” is at the very root of the problems that China is facing in regions like Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan, and represents an immense obstacle to conflict resolution. Unless the Chinese elite and academics come to see difference as something positive rather than a threat, we’re in for a long period of trouble in East Asia.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The dumpling soup incident

I don’t want to belabor the topic of Chinese tourists in Taiwan, but something I witnessed during lunch today compels me to revisit the subject, if only so briefly. Eating my shrimp dumpling noodle soup and absorbed in Jay Taylor’s biography of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), my attention was suddenly drawn to a trio of people — one aged man and two mid-aged women — speaking louder than usual. From his accent, I could tell that the man was from China. Had their behavior been limited to the usual loudness with which Chinese carry a conversation, I would have written them off and continued on with my meal.

The real problems started when they got up to pay. I eat at that restaurant all the time and know its staff pretty well; the waitress who process their bill is a good-natured and soft-spoken lady in her late thirties. When one of the women started raising her voice and arguing with the waitress (with the man looming not far behind), and when another young waiter joined in the discussion, I knew something was wrong. The whole scene must have lasted five minutes, whereupon the trip departed in a hurry.

When my turn came to pay, I asked the waitress the obvious — that is, whether they were Chinese, and what the problem was. As it turns out, they were Chinese and didn’t want to pay the total amount of the bill, arguing that they’d run out of Taiwanese currency. This is hard to believe, given that there were three of them and the place isn’t exactly expensive (I had lunch there with my mother and aunt a couple of weeks ago for NT$240). The likelier scenario is that the Chinese were once again showing their arrogance and treating Taiwanese like second-rate citizens — in their own country.

Rather than create a scene or call the police, the waitress played the ever-so-kind Taiwanese and paid the difference using her own money, slightly shaking her head as she closed her purse.

This is a minor, thought I’m sure not isolated incident. It makes me wonder, though, if, as cross-strait investment and economic activity intensifies through financial MOUs and an ECFA, Chinese will not also try to cheat their Taiwanese counterparts out of their money, this time on a much grander scale.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Did the DPP fall into a US beef trap?

The expediency with which the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration announced it was lifting a partial ban on US beef imports — and the predictable response this engendered from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) — raises questions about the government’s intent that go well beyond food safety issues. National Security Council Secretary-General Su Chi’s (蘇起) admission that “poor communication” marred the announcement is insufficient to dispel doubts that the move by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)-led executive branch was a strategy to further undermine the DPP’s already strained relations with the US.

We must remember that a major aspect of Ma’s platform during his election campaign last year was his vow to “repair” relations between Taipei and Washington, which many KMT members — including Su — said had been “damaged” by eight years of DPP administration under president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).

Part of that logic, which often ignores the fact that many of the so-called irritants caused by the DPP administration were the result of the KMT’s antics in the legislature, dovetails with the well-cultivated image of the KMT as “rational” and less likely to turn to populist devices such as the DPP-led anti-US beef demonstrations over the weekend.

While the protests were not solely the affair of the DPP, they have nevertheless become associated with the party, mostly as a result of DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and former presidential candidate Frank Hsieh (謝長廷), among others, leading them and making speeches.

The KMT’s calculations were perfect, as it knew fully well that the DPP could not pass an opportunity to turn an otherwise apolitical issue into a political one. Even if, this time around, the DPP did put food safety first in organizing the protests, its long tradition of thinking solely about the next elections is such that doubts can linger about its honesty on the matter.

The Executive Yuan has now yielded to the pressure and claims that it will recommend additional screening measures that, in theory, will make it more difficult for US beef to enter the Taiwanese market. However, despite this about-face, it will be able to turn to Washington and claim that it had no choice in the matter and that the DPP is to blame for the “unfortunate” turn of events. By dint of repetition over the years, former American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) director Steven Young clearly highlighted that US beef has political undertones and is an important issue in Washington. In fact, it may serve as a yardstick by which to gauge the quality of relations between the US and Taiwan.

Back in the US, among beef-producing states and lobby organizations that have pressured AIT directors into insisting that the ban be lifted — and where understanding of domestic politics in Taiwan is limited — the main culprit for the reversal will, expectedly, be the DPP. As a result, the opposition’s image could be further tarnished, serving as proof that the DPP is, as the KMT has claimed, against trade and always a thorn in Washington’s side.

If Washington politicizes the matter and couples US beef with other issues such as arms sales, it would be easy for the KMT to blame the negative consequences on the DPP, which could have a significant impact on the opposition’s ability to regain seats in the legislature or the presidency in 2012. With this gambit, the KMT probably rightly assessed that the domestic political cost of failing to properly communicate its intention to lift the ban on US beef would be marginal, at least when contrasted with the long-term damage that could be caused to the DPP for spearheading the anti-US beef demonstrations. Even if the KMT had no such calculation, the DPP’s long history of organizing mass rallies for political gain could come back to haunt it.

Another possible outcome, this one perhaps desired by more pro-China KMT members, is the alienation of the US and the continuation of rapprochement with Beijing. Under such a strategy, the political cost domestically and electoral considerations have far less weight than widening the wedge between the US and Taiwan and, conversely, facilitating the drift toward China’s sphere of influence. If Washington were to overreact to a reversal by punishing Taiwan in other fields (arms sales, support for membership in international organizations and so on), the next logical step would be for Taiwan to turn to its newfound ally. Should this come to pass, the KMT could argue that it was abandoned by Washington, blame the DPP for the breakup, while achieving the objectives of pro-unification elements within the party.

If indeed it was a trap, it was a well-lain one. By failing to create a buffer between itself and the anti-US beef demonstrations and by playing its usual political games, the DPP fell into it and made it easier for the KMT to portray it as a troublemaker. In such a scenario, diplomacy would be urgently needed on the DPP’s part to mitigate any damage that its association with the protests may have caused to its image in Washington.

The trap also carries a second one — one that the US must avoid falling into. To avert a political disaster, Washington must decouple the beef issue from politics and treat it solely as an economic one. Should it fail to do so by politicizing the controversy and using it as justification for punishment, Washington could inadvertently realize the objective of some conservative KMT members whose ultimate objective is to undermine the US presence in the region and accelerate rapprochement between Taipei and Beijing.

It’s only beef, but by making it a political matter, both Washington and the DPP share the blame for turning it into a potential tie-breaker.

This article was published today in the Taipei Times.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What’s next, Chinese ‘patriotic’ education in Taiwan?

The Ministry of Education confirmed today that Taiwan could recognize Chinese diplomas obtained after 1997 as early as June next year, provided that the proposal is approved by the (KMT-controlled) legislature (meaning that it will).

The ministry plans to start by recognizing diplomas from 41 top Chinese universities — those that Beijing has poured more money into since 1985. Some of those academic institutions include Peking University, Tsinghua University, Tianjin University and Fudan University. Public universities would only be able to recruit Chinese graduate students, while private universities could recruit undergraduates.

Anyone who has read the paper “National Humiliation, History Education, and the Politics of Historical Memory: Patriotic Education Campaign in China” by Zheng Wang of Seton Hall University, published in International Studies Quarterly last year, would know that extra funding by Beijing most likely means more brainwashing in school curricula. If Jian Junbo (簡軍波), one of Fudan University’s top students, is any indication, products of that system never waver from the party line, not even after long exposure abroad — even in Western universities. (This is why, to use one example, so many Chinese students in the US supported Beijing when it cracked down in Tibet prior to the Olympics last year.)

The more Jians enter the school system in Taiwan, the more difficult it will be for Taiwanese students and professors to perpetuate their own historical discourse. The mix of chauvinism and strong nationalism that characterized the Chinese academics who spoke at forums in Taipei over the weekend — where they dictated and threatened, while exhibiting a total disinterest in learning from others — would also likely be present in those students, who from very early on have been fed a strong dose of CCP ideology and little else.

Another worry is that an influx of Chinese students embracing their own ideology would eventually result in strong demand for teachers from China, which could engender a process whereby Taiwanese teachers are slowly elbowed out — especially those who espouse a pro-independence line.

As Zheng and others have argued, schools play an important role in the formation of national identity. If the Chinese discourse is allowed to grow roots in Taiwanese schools — through students, curricula and perhaps professors — then Taiwanese identity will slowly be diluted, and future generations of Taiwanese will have little access to the material that, in their formative years, informs them about, and shapes, who they are.

Of course, all of this would be a different — and less worrying — thing if Chinese who come to Taiwan were actually keen on learning different opinions and bringing those new ideas back to China, in which case exchanges would be a positive development. But this isn’t the case, and the fault lies with the tremendous efforts at educational socialization that Beijing has made, starting in 1991, with its Patriotic Education Campaign.

Taiwan is under attack on many fronts. By opening up universities to Chinese students, a new beachhead could soon be stormed.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Opposition voices absent from cross-strait forums

The government made no effort to invite voices from the opposition to a recent series of forums on cross-strait diplomacy, a former Taiwanese government official said yesterday.

Commenting on the sidelines of a forum on a cross-strait peace agreement at National Chengchi University’s Institute of International Relations (IIR), Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), former Mainland Affairs Council chairman, said agencies under President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration had failed to invite academics from the pan-green camp or former government officials to the forums, at which former Chinese Communist Party officials and Chinese academics were invited to speak.

“They had to invite me [this morning] because I’m a fellow here at the IIR,” Wu, the sole pan-green voice at the forum, told the Taipei Times, adding that the situation had been similar at a pair of forums held over the weekend to mark the 60th anniversary of cross-strait relations.

“[Chinese President] Hu Jintao’s [胡錦濤] confidant Zheng Bijian [鄭必堅] can come to Taipei and claim that the Taiwanese independence movement is doomed and some retired People’s Liberation Army general can threaten us the next day, but academics from the opposition are not invited,” Wu said.

When the Democratic Progressive Party was in power, we always made sure to invite those from the other camp to such events, he said.

This one-sided debate is hardly conducive to the process that is required to build consensus on cross-strait matters, Wu said, adding that pro-Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) academics had a tendency to mirror Ma’s “polite” approach to China, which involves no criticism of Beijing’s human rights record.

“Topics such as a peace agreement are very important and this is the first time that both sides discuss them openly,” Wu said.

Unfortunately, with opposition voices absent there is no plurality of voices and the Ma administration can give the impression that its policies are widely supported, he said.

Wu also said that the American Institute in Taiwan had not been informed about the forums, adding that this was reminiscent of the US government being kept in the dark during negotiations on Taiwan’s participation at the World Health Assembly earlier this year.

This story was published today in the Taipei Times.

I had lunch with Dr. Wu after the morning session of the forum at the IIR, during which we also touched on the DPP’s financial woes, which prevents its members from travelling abroad to share their views, and the government’s preventing visiting dignitaries from getting in touch with former DPP administration members or pan-green academics. Dr. Wu said that Koo Kwang-ming (辜寬敏) was setting up his own think tank, which could perhaps help the DPP make more contacts abroad.

Ultimately, however, Wu said that the only voice the Ma administration is likely to listen to is that of the US government, and he agreed with me that so far it has been easy for the KMT to ignore isolated foreign voices or the opposition in Taiwan.

Wu also mentioned that the government appeared to be scrutinizing former the finances of former DPP government officials for any financial irregularities or leaking of classified information to hang them with. “If I am not careful,” Wu said, “they could get me.”

It is always a delight to listen to Dr. Wu or to have conversation with him. His love and passion for Taiwan is undeniable, and he is very supportive of those who are willing to help out.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

‘Taiwan’s friend’ James Lilley passes away aged 81

James Lilley, American Institute in Taiwan director from 1981 to 1984, died in Washington on Thursday from complications related to prostate cancer. He was 81.

In his long career with the US government, Lilley also served as US ambassador to South Korea from 1986 to 1989, and to China from 1989 to 1991. Prior to entering the diplomatic field, Lilley worked at the CIA for 27 years, which he joined in 1951. His postings at the agency included China, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Laos, Taiwan, Vietnam and Hong Kong.

When the US opened its liaison office in Beijing in 1971, Lilley became the first “declared” US intelligence official in China and the CIA’s first station chief in the capital.

Lilley, who later also came to be known as Li Jieming (李潔明), was born in Qingdao, Shandong, in 1928, where his father and role model, Frank Lilley, worked as a salesman for Standard Oil.

In 2004, Lilley published his memoir China Hands, which eloquently described his formative childhood in China, his years as a CIA operative and the power struggles between China, Taiwan and the US, including his first-hand experience of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

After his ambassadorship in Beijing, Lilley became a forceful — and public — proponent of greater US support for Taiwan, efforts that he continued after being appointed assistant secretary of defense for international affairs from 1991 to 1993. He often clashed with the US Department of State over arms sales to Taiwan, arguing that it would be unwise to grant Beijing the cutoff date that it sought.

Expressing her condolences to the family on Friday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called him “one of our nation’s finest diplomats.”

In its obituary, the Washington Post described Lilley as “one of the most pragmatic voices on the modern Sino-American relationship.”

In a statement on Friday, former US president George H.W. Bush, who was close to Lilley, described him as “a most knowledgeable and effective ambassador who served with great honor and distinction.”

On Saturday night, Taichung Mayor Jason Hu (胡志強) said Lilley had made many contributions to and spoken for Taiwan’s interests.

“His death is Taiwan’s loss,” he said.

This article appeared in the Taipei Times on Nov. 15.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

‘Sorry, they’re Chinese’

On the eve of my relatives returning to Canada, I took them to one of my favorite northern Chinese cuisine restaurants in my neighborhood, a place that offers great variety and succulence. No sooner had we seated ourselves than a burst of laughter and loud conversation emanated from a table behind us. So intense was the noise that all three of us turned around to look. Throughout the meal, the same ear-splitting talk would shatter the otherwise calm ambiance in the restaurant, prompting our kind waitress to apologize profusely.

When I paid the bill, the lady said, rolling her eyes: Dui bu qi, tamen shi zhongguo ren. “Sorry, they’re Chinese.”

Indeed. Loud, disrespectful and chauvinistic. In our three weeks of travel, we ran into many of them. At the National Palace Museum, making it a point to touch every object bearing a “do not touch” sign or putting their hands on the windows, forcing a poor museum employee to follow them like shadow with her cloth and Windex, often shaking her head in dismay. At Sun Moon Lake, busloads of them careening down the narrow roads, roaring as if the world belonged to them.

Before returning home this evening, my aunt wanted to go to a Duty Free shop in Minquan Road, a spot that I know is a favorite of tour operators. Sure enough, a whole group of Chinese was there, their ID cards — and thick Chinese — identifying them as such. Again, they were loud, loud as if they’d never seen a shopping mall in their lives. In their haggling with vendors, they were aloof and often impolite.

As the good taxi driver told me in Kaohsiung last week, we like their money. But what an unpleasant experience it is to be around them. Is it worth it? What will it be like if — and when — they are allowed to travel alone rather than in groups? What if, at some point, they were allowed to rent cars? Would they bring the same type of chaos to Taiwan that drives my good friend Steve crazy whenever he travels to China for business?

I have nothing against Chinese per se, no underlying aversion to their people based on genetics. Rather, my problem with many of them is their social behavior, which is very revealing of the society and system in which they are brought up.

The diplomat in me usually wins over the temptation to turn to them and scream a good Taiwan jiayou! or Yi bian, yi guo at them. I don’t. Steve would have. Maybe I will.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


My interest of late has been the question of whether rapprochement between Taiwan and China would result in an erosion of freedoms in Taiwan — in other words, whether “peace” would come at the price of that for which Taiwanese spilled blood and time to accomplish after 40 years of authoritarian rule. Recent experiences with Taiwanese movies partly produced with Chinese money, or the disregard that the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration has shown for different opinions regarding ties with China or the signing of an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) with China are indications that closer relations will come at a price, which democracy heavyweight Peng Ming-min (彭明敏) highlighted in a recent article. Increased Chinese investment in Taiwanese companies and further involvement in the cultural sector can only exacerbate this development.

It is therefore important that people in Taiwan and supporters of Taiwan as a free, democratic society fully comprehend the extent of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) control over information and its unflinching repression of any view that does not dovetail with its vision. As I have written before, China has little compunction in imposing its views, even in other countries, as we witnessed in Melbourne earlier this year. Still, borders serve to mitigate its actions and it will not go all out to repress opinions in countries like Australia, the US or Canada. That it sees Taiwan as part of China, however, means that this buffer of sovereignty does not exist and that it will not hesitate to exert in Taiwan the pressures it has so successfully implemented at home to control its citizens.

The China: Resilient, Sophisticated Authoritarianism report, written by Joshua Kurlantzick and Perry Link for the Undermining Democracy: 21st Century Authoritarians project by Freedom House, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia, provides a good start in understanding the extent of the CCP’s control measures.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Simplified, empty and too close

With relatives visiting Taiwan, I had the opportunity to leave my desk — the closest thing to the ivory tower in the world of journalism — and to visit, or revisit, many parts of the country. Unable to entirely shed my political skin, even on vacation I kept an eye out for Chinese tourists, their impact, and how the locals were reacting to them. Here are some brief observations on the subject.

Sun Moon Lake is, unsurprisingly, becoming increasingly commercialized. This is the age-old double-edged sword of tourism, where a balance must be struck between attracting tourists and keeping the environment as unchanged as possible. As we went there on a week day, there weren’t too many people around, but I can imagine that weekends would be a nightmare. On my first visit there two years ago, merchants were not overly aggressive in peddling their wares, but were more so this time around. Some stores now had signs in simplified Chinese, which I found a little unsettling. Anyone who knows of the substance “Ice-nine” in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat's Cradle would know where my fear comes from.

While in Kaohsiung, we went to the Liuhe Night Market and enjoyed great food, good deals and a much-needed foot massage after all this walking. The city was stunningly quiet — even the beautiful Love River waterfront, where we rented a villa-style apartment. Again, it was a weekday, but the contrast with Taipei was disturbing. It is hard to entirely attribute the situation to the Chinese boycott of southern cities, however, for surely before Chinese first began visiting Taiwan, tourists from other countries were going to the port city. A friendly cab driver (as always, the greatest source for intelligence on what’s going on anywhere) told us that there was some friction between local vendors and Chinese tourists and that some vendors in night markets no longer bothered to open their stalls as a result. Apparently, some Chinese tourists had a habit of poking food without buying anything (anyone who knows anything about stinky tofu knows that poking a hole in the crust ruins the whole thing). Asked for people’s impression of Chinese visitors to the city, the driver could not have been more blunt: “we like their money.”

After a delightful rest at the White Hotel in Kending and two days on the beach, we took the train from Fangliao, Pingtung County, and snaked our way along the mountainous east coast to Hualien, passing by such ill-fated stations as Sanmin Village, which suffered catastrophic devastation during Typhoon Morakot. The next day, after visiting the awe-inspiring Taroko National Park, our driver took us to the beach at Chishingtan, which is famous for its marble stones and is located right next to the Hualien Air Force base. Putting myself in the shoes of a Chinese spy, I could not help but be struck by how close we were to the base — at some points less than 100 meters, and only separated by a 7-foot concrete wall. We could see the F-16s on the tarmac as they taxied before takeoff and had a perfect view as they roared above our heads. 

While the aircraft are stored in inaccessible mountains, the opportunities for espionage — or sabotage — nevertheless remain. Discussing the matter with our driver, she told me that people caught taking pictures of the base are immediately told not to do so, a line of defense that might work with ordinary tourists but that is far for sufficient to deter determined individuals trained in the art of espionage. The proximity may have been acceptable when only Taiwanese or non-belligerents were visiting the beach, but today, with thousands of Chinese coming to the area, something will have to be done to increase security and create the buffer required to prevent intelligence-gathering, intrusions, and sabotage. 

Given that in time of war the F-16s would be Taiwan’s first line of defense in ensuring air superiority in the Taiwan Strait, it is obvious that more should be done to protect the aircraft and the base. Doing so would also demonstrate to the US government that the Ministry of National Defense is serious about defending the nation and preventing advanced US technology from falling into the hands of the People’s Liberation Army through theft. Such reassurances (though in themselves not sufficient) could make it easier for Washington to continue supplying Taiwan the weapons it needs to defend itself.

Having once again the chance to visit Taiwan from north to south, west to east, I was struck by the beauty of the country, its richness of life and people and ingenuity, as well as the kindness, openness and liberty with which people carry on with their lives. From ceremonies marking the opening of an electoral office in Puli, Nantou County, to Aborigines selling traditional food and performing traditional dances in the heart of Taipei on the weekend, all reinforced my conviction that this country deserves the attention of the international community and that its sovereignty must be preserved at any cost. 

One thing is certain: As a result of everything they’ve seen on this trip and how hospitable Taiwanese have been to them, Taiwan now counts two new goodwill ambassadors who will return home to Canada with news that Taiwan is, undeniably, a magnificent place.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Investors, bankers, soldiers, spies

Following my presentation on Chinese espionage at National Chengchi University’s just-opened MacArthur Center for Security Studies on Oct. 15, a member of the audience asked a question that has stayed with me and probably deserves elaboration on the short answer I provided at the time.

“Once relations between Taiwan and China improve,” asked a young man — an undergraduate exchange student from Dongguan, Guangdong Province — “do you think Beijing might, given the importance of the relationship for the Chinese Communist Party [CCP], decrease espionage activity against Taiwan?”

My answer was that regardless of how important Beijing sees its relationship with other countries, its collecting of intelligence continues unabated. In fact, while there is no arguing that China’s most important bilateral relationship is with the US (and increasingly so), the Chinese intelligence apparatus continues to engage in Cold War-style espionage, targeting the government, the military and the high-tech sector in the US. There is, therefore, no inverse correlation between the quality of the relationship and the breadth of espionage activity.

Capability of the People’s Republic of China to Conduct Cyber Warfare and Computer Network Exploitation, a report released on Oct. 22 by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, said that the Chinese government is ratcheting up its cyberspying operations against the US, using, as the Wall Street Journal wrote the same day, “a carefully orchestrated campaign against one US company that appears to have been sponsored by Beijing.”

In Canada, the then-director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Jim Judd, told a Senate committee meeting in May 2007 that “China accounts for close to 50 percent of our counter-intelligence program.”

A former Public Security Bureau official in Shenyang, Han Guansheng (韓廣生), who defected to Canada in 2001, has stated publicly that Beijing handles informants in Canada’s Chinese community and gathers intelligence on key economic areas.

Chen Yonglin (陳用林), a former Chinese political consul who defected to Australia on June 4, 2005, told the Toronto Star in June 2007 that “China has a huge network of secret agents and it is working hard to influence governments.”

He also told Australian authorities that Beijing had been overseeing a network of more than 1,000 spies and informers in Australia.

Hao Fengjun (郝鳳軍), a second defector in Australia who is believed to have been a low-level intelligence official, has confirmed that China has more spies in Canada than in any other country.

The UK’s Daily Telegraph reported in July 2005 that a Chinese intelligence defector in Belgium, who had worked at European universities and companies for more than a decade, gave the Surete de l’Etat, Belgium’s security service, detailed information on hundreds of Chinese spies working at various levels of European industry.

Oftentimes, even private Chinese firms that engage in what is ostensibly “pure” industrial espionage are found to have links to the Chinese government, as was the case with the Shenzhen-based company Chitron, which violated US defense export regulations and engaged in money laundering. US federal authorities recently established that Chitron’s main customer was the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology, which conducts research, development and manufacturing of missiles and rockets.

Apart from its reliance on traditional spies such as academics, diplomats and journalists, China appears to be using private or semi-private companies to conduct espionage abroad. Because many Chinese firms have former CCP officials on the company board or are partly financed by state-owned banks, many can serve as conduits for intelligence gathering. Back in August 2003, a report by the Asia-Pacific Post said that some 3,500 Chinese spy companies, or fronts, had been identified operating in Canada and the US alone, a number that can only have grown in the past six years.

The US, Canada, the UK, Europe, Australia — all are key partners in China’s economic rise. And yet the espionage continues. Despite denials by Beijing, dozens of reports by various countries show that China’s spying is not only becoming more common, but also more refined.


Based on these precedents, my answer to the Chinese student — one of about 30 currently studying for one semester at Chengchi — was that warm relations or not, Chinese espionage in Taiwan would likely continue.

What I should have added was that China’s espionage in other countries, aggressive though it may be, is mitigated by considerations of sovereignty. In other words, China is aware that it is operating in countries over which it has no claim of sovereignty, and this acts as a deterrent, forcing it to limit its activity to prevent overreach.

Taiwan, on the other hand, is a different story, because Beijing claims it as its own. As such, any consideration of sovereignty that applies to countries in which China conducts espionage and which acts as a deterrent against overly aggressive intelligence collection would not, in theory, apply to Taiwan.

Put differently, as China sees Taiwan as a domestic problem like Tibet, Xinjiang or rights activists, it would have no compunction in using the full array of espionage capabilities it has at its disposal to steal economic and military secrets or collect information on “dissidents” — that is, the independence movement or those who oppose unification.

Given that Beijing’s No. 1 domestic priority is stability, it has not refrained from using the full weight of its security apparatus to monitor and repress entire groups of people, arresting dissidents, shutting down law firms, banning publications and monitoring Internet communications. All of this has accelerated under Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤).

Once China gets its foot in the door in Taiwan — something that is happening now that President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration is opening up various sectors of the economy to Chinese institutional investment and allowing Chinese firms, tourism offices and banks to open branches here — it will be far easier for the Chinese intelligence apparatus to gather intelligence in this country.

The firewall that existed in the Taiwan Strait since 1949, which up until a year ago had made it more difficult, though not impossible, for Chinese spies to gather information in Taiwan, is being dismantled. Similar walls were brought down in the past decade or so in countries like the US, Canada and Australia. As we saw, along with investment and firms came Chinese spies; industrial secrets — worth tens of billions of US dollars — were stolen, as were military secrets. (As early as 1997, CSIS and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police published a report, titled Sidewinder, on the subject, which was watered down for political reasons.)

Since Beijing considers Taiwan a domestic issue, every sector of Taiwanese society will be fair game for Chinese espionage, and whatever off-limit areas may exist in other countries targeted by China will not apply. Furthermore, while Beijing is keen on obtaining economic and military secrets from other countries, those goals pale in comparison with the CCP’s mission of “reuniting” Taiwan. That historical imperative, added to the perception of Taiwan as a “domestic” matter, bodes ill for Taiwan as a target of Chinese espionage.

If nothing is done to bolster Taiwan’s counter-espionage capabilities — and so far the signals given by the Ma administration are not promising — the fears raised in Sidewinder and other reports could read like soap novellas.

This article was published today in the Taipei Times.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Can you spot the lie?

The following letter by Government Information Office Minister Su Jun-pin (蘇俊賓) was published today in the New York Times:

Regarding “Taiwan and China” by Philip Bowring (Views, Oct. 7): In a turnaround from the confrontational stance of the past, the government of Taiwan is pursuing negotiations with mainland China. Cross-straight relations are progressing into a new era of peaceful development that bodes well for the prosperity of people on both sides.

Most of Taiwan’s people favor the decision to bar Rebiya Kadeer, the exiled Uighur leader, from visiting Taiwan but the government has allowed her film to be shown in Taiwan. This is in accordance with the law and out of concern for Taiwan’s national security and the public interest (by protecting freedom of speech).

As for the notion that Taiwan’s government has launched a witch-hunt against members of the previous administration in the name of fighting corruption, several points require exploration. Former President Chen Shui-bian, who was suspected of involvement in several illegal acts, including corruption and money laundering, was indicted in December 2008. Since then, many of Mr. Chen’s former aides and family members that were also accused of crimes admitted to some or all of the charges against them.

I want to stress that Taiwan sees the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan as the cornerstone of peace in East Asia. Improved cross-strait relations between Taiwan and China are advantageous to all parties.

President Ma Ying-jeou’s administration is determined to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty and hold to the principle of putting Taiwan first for the benefit of its people. There is no question of accepting a Hong Kong-style “one country, two systems” arrangement. We need the international community to gain a deeper and more balanced understanding of Taiwan.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

‘Liberty Times’ not part of media delegation to Beijing

On Oct. 14, the Central News Agency (CNA) reported the following:

High-ranking executives of Taiwan’s media outlets will visit China from Oct. 28 through Nov. 11 for discussions on ways and means of enhancing cross-strait media cooperation, Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) Vice Secretary General Ma Shao-chang said on Wednesday.

Headed by SEF Chairman Chiang Pin-kung, the 20-member group will visit Beijing and Shanxi Province to exchange views on journalistic exchanges with their Chinese counterparts and Chinese officials in charge of the media.

Currently, Taiwan and China allow correspondents from their major media outlets to remain on assignment on the other side for a maximum of three months on a rotating basis.

However, there have been calls for a “normalization” of journalistic exchanges between Taiwan and China through the reciprocal establishment of media branches or offices on each side. The Taiwan media delegation to China will include executives and senior journalists from SET TV, Formosa TV and the Liberty Times, which in the past were deemed as having embraced a pro-Taiwan independence stance.

After asking around, senior management sources at the Liberty Times — which is one floor above that of its sister newspaper, the Taipei Times, where I work — informed me that the Liberty Times will not be part of such a delegation. It appears that the Chinese version of the same CNA report read that the SEF had invited top Liberty Times executives to be part of the delegation, an invitation that the Liberty Times turned down. As such, the passage in the English version of the report, that “The Taiwan media delegation to China will include executives and senior journalists from SET TV, Formosa TV and the Liberty Times,” is wrong.

I have also learned from a credible source at the Liberty Times that contrary to what I had been told, the Liberty Times does not have a directive barring its reporters from going to China to cover major events. In at least one instance, however, China has refused to grant a visa to a Liberty Times reporter while showing a willingness to grant one to another reporter who was “acceptable” to the Chinese authorities.

The difference is not insubstantial, as it disputes the belief that management at the Liberty Times forbids its reporters from going to China.


I have now learned that the Apple Daily, which had also been invited by the SEF to be part of the delegation, is not welcome in China. So much for cross-strait media liberalization the very subject of the meeting in Beijing later this month!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Paradigm Shift: Expanded opportunities for Chinese espionage in Taiwan

The MacArthur Center for Security Studies (MCSS) at the Institute of International Relations, National Chengchi University (NCCU), had its grand opening today, with six panelists — including The Associate Press’ Peter Enav, Wendell Minnick of Defense News and myself — discussing national security and the Taiwan Strait. About 125 people were in attendance, including officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Security Council, as well as foreign diplomats (AIT Director William Stanton made an appearance but did not stay for the round table). The MCSS is sponsored by the US-based MacArthur Foundation, with an annual budget of US$550,000 for three years. Its Web site can be accessed here.

Interestingly, about a dozen Chinese exchange students (undergraduates) were also present. In my short chat with them, they told me that the process of getting visas to come to Taiwan was very complex — especially on the Chinese side. They said that about 30 students were currently at NCCU for one term, until the Spring Festival.

I presented the following paper:

Paradigm Shift: Expanded opportunities for Chinese espionage in Taiwan


While it is too early to render judgment on whether the cross-strait policies of President Ma Ying-jeou will create long-lasting peace in the Taiwan Strait, there is growing evidence that rapprochement has not resulted in a military drawdown on the Chinese side. In fact, while Beijing has shown some diplomatic “goodwill” toward Taiwan, the Chinese military posture vis-à-vis Taiwan has remained belligerent and, in some ways, has hardened. Beijing has refused to redirect or dismantle the 1,500 ballistic missiles it targets at Taiwan, and the rapid modernization of its armed forces, though not solely directed at Taiwan, has been accomplished with a Taiwan contingency very much in mind.

Given this, we can assume that this military posture is being replicated on the espionage front. This is arguably the area where China has benefited the most since Ma assumed office in May 2008, for while the military balance in the Taiwan Strait has gradually been drifting in China’s favor, there has been no fundamental change, no paradigm shift, in Taiwan’s ability to defend itself militarily. In other words, attacking Taiwan today would be just as formidable a challenge as it was, say, five years ago.

On the intelligence front, however, a paradigm shift has occurred. We are seeing today an unprecedented influx of Chinese visitors in Taiwan. This creates opportunities for Chinese intelligence to conduct surveillance, gather information and cultivate sources, “conscious” or otherwise. The second shift has occurred in the investment sector. By opening Taiwan to Chinese institutional investment, the Ma administration is exposing various sectors of the economy to economic espionage, technology transfer and cyber attack. In other words, while investment could be beneficial economically, we must not forget that China is not an ordinary investor and that it may have ulterior motives.

The threat assessment can be summed up with the following: While China’s intent and capabilities have remained stable in military terms, on the espionage front its capabilities have been greatly enhanced by Taiwan’s rapid opening to Chinese tourism and investment.

Tourists, or spies?

In late May this year, a Chinese tourist named Ma Zhongfei was caught taking pictures in a restricted area at the Armed Forces Recruitment Center in Taipei. We will probably never know whether Ma was simply curious, had improvised himself as a spy, or was acting on orders from the Chinese government. What is certain is that his actions were clumsy, overt, and not the work of a professional intelligence officer. This case nevertheless highlights the greater potential for spying by the Chinese intelligence apparatus.

Beijing has retained a tight grip on the Chinese who are allowed to visit Taiwan. By controlling the spigot, China is in an ideal position to insert agents posing as tourists or businesspeople, or to ask ordinary citizens to do something for the state, either for patriotic reasons or through blackmail. Given Taiwan’s relative lack of intelligence about ordinary Chinese, screening potential spies before they enter Taiwan will be a formidable, if not insurmountable, task. It will be even more difficult to keep tabs on Chinese visitors in Taiwan once restrictions on their movement are relaxed, which the Ma administration has said it would do. Clumsy Ma Zhongfei was caught, but for every one that is caught, many intelligence-gathering operations may have succeeded and gone unnoticed. As I have argued elsewhere, it is also possible that Ma Zhongfei was part of campaign to overload Taiwan’s security intelligence apparatus with a series pinprick “attacks.” By creating “info glut,” Chinese agents could generate so much noise that it becomes virtually impossible for Taiwan’s finite intelligence resources to tell credible threats from false ones.

For the past 60 years, strict rules on Chinese visitors to Taiwan meant that its borders were relatively secure from human intelligence (HUMINT) operations on its soil by Chinese agents. As a result, little effort was made to protect critical infrastructure, airports, telecommunication nodes, government offices and military bases from espionage. The sudden influx of Chinese in Taiwan, however, caught everybody by surprise, with the consequence that most of that infrastructure is now relatively accessible to anyone with an intent to conduct espionage. In some cases, “spies” do not even have to be highly professional to collect actionable intelligence.

Chinese media

The Ma administration has also shown its willingness to allow more Chinese media to operate in Taiwan and to water down restrictions on the duration of postings. Given the state’s control of most Chinese media, and in Xinhua news agency’s case its close ties with the Chinese intelligence apparatus, Chinese reporters also represent a real espionage threat to Taiwan. While there is a long history of journalism acting as a cover for intelligence officers — not only by China but also the US and the UK, among many others — Xinhua distinguishes itself by being seen by most Western intelligence agencies as an espionage threat. In fact, my former employer, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), always assumed that whoever was sent to Canada by Xinhua was an intelligence officer. In light of the situation in the Taiwan Strait and the high stakes involved, we can assume that whoever Chinese media deploy to Taiwan will not only be more aggressive in their intelligence collection, but also far more professional. By virtue of the greater access that the profession gives them, such agents could develop high-level sources, gather information on dissidents and members of the media, and provide a variety of actionable data on government, the military and critical infrastructure.

Chinese investment

After embracing market reform during the Deng Xiaoping era, China under President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao appears to have backtracked on economic reform, with the state gaining more, rather than relinquishing, control over the private sector. While some critical companies (in the energy and communications sectors, for example) are fully owned by the state, the great majority of firms are semi-private or only private on paper, with funding coming from state-owned banks.

Many boards of directors and chief executive officers at such companies are retired Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials. For example, China Mobile chairman Wang Jianzhou is a CCP official who has occupied various posts in government, while Zhang Qingwei, the chairman of the board at Commercial Aircraft Co of China, or COMAC, is chairman of the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense of the People’s Republic of China.

With this in mind, the Ma administration’s decision to open various sectors of Taiwan to Chinese institutional investment is troublesome. While critical sectors, such as telecommunications, defense, semiconductors and LCD, remain off-limit or restricted for the time being, many others, such as real estate, banking, electronics and construction, are now — or will soon be — open to Chinese investment. One that door has been opened, little by little the Chinese could whittle away at Taiwan’s restrictions on investment, while Taiwanese firms may pressure Taipei to accelerate the pace of opening or lift restrictions altogether, until we reach a point where no sector is off-limit to Chinese investment.

Already, we have seen attempts by China Mobile to buy a 12 percent stake in Far EasTone Telecommunications (FET), Taiwan’s second-largest telecommunications operator, while the Taiwanese government-owned Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation (AIDC), which among other things designs the Ching Kuo Indigenous Defense Fighter, has proposed cooperating with COMAC to co-assemble commercial airplanes.

As with tourists and journalists, the more contact there is between Chinese and Taiwanese, the greater will be the opportunities for Chinese individuals to collect intelligence, cultivate sources, conduct blackmail, set “honey traps” and so on. Furthermore, institutional contact will involve creating data links between Taiwanese and Chinese parties to facilitate the sharing of information. The consequences of Chinese investment in the banking and telecommunications sector could be dire for Taiwanese, as Chinese intelligence could far more easily gain access to personal and credit information at the source (e.g. theft, malware, etc), or by conducting intercepts on electronic conversations, transactions and so on. Aside from purely economic espionage, the principal targets of such activity could be government and military officials, as well as the Taiwan Independence movement, members of the opposition, and its supporters. Creating an in-depth profile of such individuals and drawing a link network (i.e., who knows who) would therefore be far easier than it has been in the past.


All this is contingent on the Taiwanese government’s assessment of the threat. Previous Taiwanese administrations also opened certain sectors of Taiwan to Chinese investment, or allowed Chinese to visit Taiwan. But as their threat perceptions was far more cautious than that of the Ma administration, they set quantitative and qualitative limits to ensure that national security would not be undermined. The Ma administration, however, seems to live under the premise that its still testy cross-strait initiative has resulted in an immediate change of posture in Beijing. In fact, in the wake of Typhoon Morakot, Ma was arguing that nature, rather than China, was the nation’s greatest enemy. There are indications as well that the National Security Bureau (NSB) under secretary-general Su Chi has adopted a more China-friendly attitude, which implies that its threat perception may have changed. A close reading of Chinese elite views on Taiwan,[vi] however, or an assessment of its Order of Battle (ORBAT), shows that cross-strait dialogue has not been accompanied by goodwill in terms of the behavior of the Chinese military and intelligence apparatus. The kind of assistance, if any, that the Taiwanese government provides to the industry to help it protect itself against Chinese espionage will be a good indication of whether Taipei takes the threat seriously or not.

Lastly, while there is no knowing what will happen in cross-strait dialogue, as the two sides start addressing more contentious aspects of the relationship — political issues, sovereignty and so on — frictions are bound to arise, not only in the dialogue itself, but from within Taiwanese society, which could threaten to derail Ma’s plans through electoral retribution in 2012. Should Beijing fear a return of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the Presidential Office in 2012, it could decide that force is the only option and could do so in concert with aggressive intelligence operations in Taiwan. Given the paradigm shift that has occurred since Ma came into office, Beijing would be in a far better position to target Taiwanese society, critical infrastructure, government buildings, and military bases — the direct result of the intelligence collected by Chinese agents while Taiwan slept.