Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Associated Press fails at history. Again [UPDATED]

This is something that I and others have written about on countless occasions already. But as long as international wire agencies and news outlets continue to misrepresent the facts in Taiwan, I will continue to sound like a broken record and persist in taking them to task.

In its coverage of the May 17 demonstrations against the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration’s pro-China policies, The Associated Press (AP) today recycled many of the falsities, misrepresentations and biases that we have come to expect when it comes to Taiwan. The AP ’s Annie Huang, for example, writes that demonstrators were “underscoring their view that after six decades of separate governance, the democratic island and the communist mainland should never come together.”

“China and Taiwan,” she continues, “split amid civil war in 1949” and Sunday’s protest “may not have come at an opportune time for the [Democratic Progressive Party] to convince the wider population … as the local stock market is soaring amid expanding cross-strait links.” Huang also writes that “China has recently shown a willingness to accommodate [“the Harvard-educated”] Ma’s push for greater international recognition for the island.”

The problems:

“… after six decades of separate governance.” Huang conveniently forgets the 50 years of Japanese rule on Taiwan, from 1895 until 1945, years that had a formative impact on Taiwanese consciousness and nationalism. At the very least, Taiwan and China have had separate governance for more than 110 years, or 11 decades. Not six.

“… split amid civil war in 1949.” (also used by Agence France-Presse’s Benjamin Yeh, while Reuters’ Ralph Jennings does a far better job.) Taiwan and China did not “split.” The losing side in the war, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), fled to Taiwan and imposed itself on the people there. Taiwan was not a participant in the Chinese civil war (1927-1949); in fact, except for the last four years of the civil war (from the end of World War II until the KMT’s defeat in 1949), Taiwan was part of Japan, so it would have been impossible for it to be part of that war. (One simply cannot split from something it is not a part of to begin with.) Furthermore, the literature clearly shows that Taiwanese after 1945 had no intention whatsoever to be sent to China to fight there, and (despite the KMT) great efforts were made to ensure that Taiwanese would remain on Taiwan to defend its territory.

“… soaring stock market amid expanding cross-strait links.” While the TAIEX has indeed performed quite well in recent weeks, this alone is not sufficient as an indicator that the economy is doing better. In fact, some economists have pointed out that Taiwan’s economic fundamentals remain abysmal and that Taiwan may be a perfect candidate for a stock bubble. It should also be noted that the stock market can easily be manipulated to give the impression that the economy is reviving, or that the upward trend is the result of closer ties with China.

“… China has recently shown a willingness … for greater international recognition for the island.” Huang and AP cannot even be bothered to mention what that “willingness” signifies, which is a single event — Taiwan’s “invitation” to attend, as an observer, the World Health Assembly meeting in Geneva this week, under the title “Chinese Taipei.” To believe that this single instance, which does not depart from Beijing’s “one China” principle, is a sign that China is “willing” to give Taiwan more international space belies tremendous naivety on Huang and AP’s part, or a lack of understanding of China’s approach to diplomacy when it comes to Taiwan (see, for example, my article “On Chinese zero-sum diplomacy,” Taipei Times May 3, 2009).

“… Harvard-educated Ma.” No mention is even made of the DPP leader, Tsai Ying-wen (蔡英文), who consistently is never referred to as “the London School of Economics-educated Tsai.”

As happens far to often in wire copy about politics in Taiwan, important facts are left out that mislead the reader or unconsciously tip the odds in one side’s favor (the KMT). The silence on key determinants in Taiwanese identity — in this case Japanese colonialism — added to the usual “split in 1949” will serve to convince those who do not know better — that is, pretty much everybody outside Taiwan — that Taiwan has always been part of China and therefore that the hundreds of thousands of people who took part in today’s demonstrations in Taipei and Kaohsiung were nothing but disgruntled individuals who “oppose” better relations with China. Troublemakers, irritants, extremists, like former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).

If, on important events like today (which newspapers abroad are more likely to pick up), wire agencies cannot even get their basic facts right, what else are they getting wrong on ordinary days?

UPDATE

Thanks to Michael Turton for pointing out that I failed to take AP to account for another glaring mistake in its report: that Sunday’s protests was “the first large protest against Ma’s policies” since Ma come to power on May 20 last year. Large demonstrations were held on Aug. 30, Oct. 25, and throughout Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait Chairman Chen Yunlin’s (陳雲林) visit in early November, culminating with the “siege of Boai” on Nov. 6, all of which attracted hundreds of thousands of protesters. In other words, 517 was the fourth large demonstration against Ma in the past 12 months, not the first, as AP claims.

12 comments:

Michael Turton said...

QUote of the day stuff: london school of economics educated Tsai.

Classic.

Great work. Maybe someday AP will get its history right. Can't wait to see the crowd estimates.

Michael

claudiajean said...

Excellent!

Anonymous said...

Great work. I have dealt with my local newspaper (Los Angeles Times) for years and have seen little progress. Nowadays I just send reports emails. Hope they will be more accurate. Have a long way to go.

FOARP said...

"At the very least, Taiwan and China have had separate governance for more than 110 years, or 11 decades. Not six."

In which case the years 1945-49 disappear down the memory hole. This seems like pedantry, and rather dubious pedantry at that.

“… split amid civil war in 1949.”

You have a bit more of a point here, but yet again, Taiwan's governance from the mainland ended with the defeat of the KMT, so it is not inaccurate.

"It should also be noted that the stock market can easily be manipulated to give the impression that the economy is reviving, or that the upward trend is the result of closer ties with China."

. . . but only if you want to put an incredibly paranoid spin on things.

“… China has recently shown a willingness … for greater international recognition for the island.”

Yup, very inaccurate. The PRC is opposed to any and all international recognition of the ROC.

“… Harvard-educated Ma.” No mention is even made of the DPP leader, Tsai Ying-wen (蔡英文), who consistently is never referred to as “the London School of Economics-educated Tsai.”

Perhaps because this is AP we're talking about and LSE is not so well known in the US? Anyway, even as a proud Brit, I would have to admit that Harvard's reputation outstrips that of any British university except Oxford and Cambridge.

FOARP said...

I guess I should add that the insistence on idealogical correctness in reporting is the point at which TT seems most like People's Daily. Granted, TT is never going to be as full of "speech marks" as People's Daily is, but moaning about a supposed 'media bias' which is supported by only the slenderest of evidence is very reminiscent of mainland opinion.

MikeinTaipei said...

FOARP:

Good questions and comments.

“In which case the years 1945-49 disappear down the memory hole. This seems like pedantry, and rather dubious pedantry at that.”

I don't see how acknowledging that Taiwan and China have more than 110 years of separate governance could in any way take 1945-49 “down the memory hole” and represent “dubious pedantry.” Eighteen-ninety-five to 1945 is 50 years. Nineteen forty-nine to 2009 is 60 years, which brings us to 110 years and some. I’ll grant you that given KMT rule in Taiwan from 1945-49, those 110 years were not continuous, that there were four years during which a mainland-based KMT was ruling Taiwan. Still, I think my way of putting it was far more accurate than AP’s version, which ignores 50 years of extremely formative history. We must also take note of the fact that during those four years of KMT rule in Taiwan — the part you claim I “erase” — served to further alienate Taiwanese, especially with the 228 Massacre, thus creating, in the mind at least, a further distancing from mainland rule.

“You have a bit more of a point here, but yet again, Taiwan's governance from the mainland ended with the defeat of the KMT, so it is not inaccurate.”

I maintain that this is inaccurate and misleading because it implies that Taiwan was a participant in the civil war, which it wasn’t. At the very least, this proposal needs a bit more of context to show that the Chinese leadership, which also ruled Taiwan at the time, split and relocated to Taiwan.

“It should also be noted that the stock market can easily be manipulated to give the impression that the economy is reviving, or that the upward trend is the result of closer ties with China.”

Maybe there’s a bit of paranoia here, but never underestimate the power of stock manipulation — not necessarily by the government, but by groups of investors with real buying power who continuously see Taiwanese independence as a nuisance, as something the generates unnecessary friction in their quest to make more money. Listen to the comments by groups such as the European Chamber of Commerce in Taipei and many of the big investors: All paint an extremely rosy portrait — and do so publicly, in an influential manner — of cross-strait investment. As we both know, stock investment is very much an irrational endeavor, one in which we often see “flock” investment that for the most part is based not on rational calculation, but rather on trends and predictions made by so-called experts and stock analysts. It’d be interesting to see if, in some cases, there might not be conflicts of interest in the public comments they make about the future of Taiwan’s economy vis-à-vis China. I could be wrong on this. But this is the feeling that I get whenever I do business pages. I’ll concede that the word “manipulate” may have been too strong.

“Perhaps because this is AP we're talking about and LSE is not so well known in the US? Anyway, even as a proud Brit, I would have to admit that Harvard's reputation outstrips that of any British university except Oxford and Cambridge.”

Well… maybe. But in Canada, LSE has a very good reputation and I think it would only be fair — if agencies insist on referring to the academic background of political leaders — if it were pointed out that Tsai has a PhD from a top British university. Otherwise, we’re once again given the illusion that rational, educated KMT leaders are confronted with irrational, uneducated separatists, an image that has long been cultivated in the media.

I guess I have to thoroughly disagree with your comparison between the TT and the People’s Daily. In the latter case, “correctness” is determined and controlled by the CPP apparatus, and “correctness” serves as an umbrella that blocks criticism of the CCP and its achievements. It is therefore “incorrect” to criticize the government for mishandling SARS, imprisoning dissidents, discussing the health of CCP cadres, environmental catastrophes, disease outbreaks, slow reconstruction efforts in Sichuan and so on. I don’t think the TT would ever construe “correctness” in such a manner and despite its faults, I think its people do strive to use facts, rather than “party ideology,” to base their reporting on.

Finally, I don’t know if its’ necessary for me to do so or not, but I should mention that the opinions on my blog do no necessarily reflect the views of the Taipei Times.

FOARP said...

@MikeinTaipei - But there are also many other periods when Taiwan was not governed from the mainland - should these be included too? My impression from reading it was that it was talking about a continuous period, not a cumulative one. Furthermore, introducing pre-WWII history into it leads to unnecessary confusion - nobody would bother to cover the whole history of control over the city of Jerusalem when talking about current affairs in that city, merely the last changing of hands in '67. I lament the absence of long background pieces on Taiwanese history in the international media, but the middle of a report on demonstrations is probably not the place for them. Finally, as you note, there is no doubt that the KMT were responsible for heinous acts of oppression during the period when Taiwan was 'governed' from Nanjing (as well as after) - why would you want to obfuscate this period by stating the facts in a way which makes things appear as though Taiwan has been separately governed since 1899?

Taiwan fairly obviously did participate in the latter stages of the Chinese civil war, otherwise it is hard to think where the KMT came from. Saying that it didn't merely for the purpose of scoring a political point seems petty. Were this a scholarly article in which a conclusion was reached based on Taiwan's role in the Chinese civil war you might have more of a point.

I guess I should add that although the opinions on this blog are not necessarily those of TT, I have seen more than one article along these lines.

MikeinTaipei said...

FOARP:

I fear I must disagree with you on this one, as the Jerusalem analogy is a dangerous one. Nobody would use 1967 as a benchmark, or historical baseline, to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (For one thing, territory seized by Israel that year is not recognized by the UN and the international community.) At the very least, one must go back to 1948, when the Palestinians were forced out of their homes (the “Nakba”). Just as 1895-1945 were extremely formative years in Taiwanese identity — and therefore key to understanding the present — so was the period from 1948-1967. Excluding those uproots Palestinians and Taiwanese, which gives a clear advantage to the “colonizing” agent. This is not obfuscation, but rather an understanding that history cannot be conveniently ignored.

To omit mention, as AP did, of half a century of Japanese rule to fit the attention span of readers also gives the altogether false impression that before 1945, Taiwan was part of China, which it certainly wasn’t. It’s too important an event not to be mentioned, and it would only have taken AP one or two more lines to provide that precision. Surely that wouldn’t have asked too much of readers.

Michael Turton said...

FOARP, stop acting like a PRC troll and accusing people of being paranoid.

The reason that they use "separate governance" is so that they can avoid pointing out the fact that Japan was sovereign over Taiwan from 1895 to 1952. This way the wire services can insert a slanted presentation that papers over the fact that the KMT did not have sovereignty when it retreated here.

FOARP said...

@Michael - I just call it the way I see it, if I'm seeing it wrong you are free to point it out. Cole makes his case well enough, I just think there is a tendency to be rather thin-skinned about foreign reportage vis-a-vis the cross-strait issue - even if it is not absolutely incorrect.

Some of it is incorrect, and those errors are rightly pointed out (the one about this being the first protest for example). What I take exception to is the enforcement of a politically correct version of history.

Let us take Canada as our example - how many years of independence has Canada had? Arguments can be made for ~140 years, ~80 years, ~30 years and even 0 years. Some of these figures would clearly be contentious and just quoted to prove a political point, but none of them are totally 'wrong'. If an AP article used the Statute of Westminster as their baseline and neglected to mention pre-Westminster history, would you say that this is worthy of strong exception? Likewise, If I were to say that Canada played no part in the first world war as it had not then achieved full independence, wouldn't you think this more than just a tad wrong?

Michael Turton said...

@Michael - I just call it the way I see it, if I'm seeing it wrong you are free to point it out.You;'re welcome to assess the evaluations of others in a fair-minded manner, but paranoia practically leaps out of your mouth each time you open it on a blog I see you at.

There is no "politically correct" version of history offered here, just history, as it occurred. You're free to point out errors, but your comments are always personal judgments: "paranoia" and "political correctness" and as we just saw on my job, you apparently live in a cave and don't understand anything on the political events you are so quick to judge on.

Clue: drop the judgments, stick to facts.

FOARP said...

@MichaelTurton - If you mean 'facts' like the existence of secret back-room deals to sell out Taiwan for which you have no solid evidence, then why should I withhold judgement?

The facts are disputed, thus claiming that one particularly contentious version of them (Taiwan belonged to Japan until 1952 and is now stateless) is true to the exclusion of all others is simply illogical.