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.