Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Whither Taiwan’s free media?

Little by little, with subtle changes and amendments, the media environment in Taiwan is being boiled to death like the proverbial frog

The media environment in Taiwan is in a state of crisis, one that did not fully capture the public’s imagination until someone from deep inside said he’d had enough and resigned.

US-based Freedom House may have called it “one of the freest in Asia,” but Taiwanese media are under severe pressure and many indicators are pointing in the wrong direction. The signs were there, but it took reporter Huang Je-bing’s (黃哲斌) resignation from the China Times on Dec. 12, after 16 years of service, to draw attention to the severity of the problem and prompt fellow journalists into action.

The source of Huang’s discontent was the growing practice of government product placement in the media to promote its policies, which in effect constitutes the masquerading of propaganda as news.

The potential for abuse is self-evident, especially when we put it in the context of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration’s friendly attitude toward one of Asia’s worst offenders in terms of media freedom: China.

My unsigned editorial, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

MOFA silent on Chinese patrol boats

The region is moving ever-closer to naval confrontation in the waters surrounding the disputed Diaoyutai Islands

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs yesterday would not comment on reports that China was allegedly on the brink of permanently deploying large fisheries patrol vessels near the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) claimed by Taiwan, Japan and China.

Ministry spokesman James Chang (章計平) said the ministry was not able to comment, as the Mainland Affairs Council was responsible for assessing the authenticity of the information and communications with China.

Chang said the ministry would closely monitor reports on the matter and restated the ministry’s position that all parties should set aside disputes and handle the matter peacefully and rationally.

A diplomatic official told the Taipei Times on condition of anonymity that the deployment was related to Japan’s new defense guidelines, approved by the Diet on Friday, which painted China as a bigger threat than Russia and as a result was shifting its defense from the northern island of Hokkaido to the south, such as Okinawa and territories claimed by both Japan and China.

The Asahi Shimbun reported on Monday that an unnamed “senior Chinese official” at the Ministry of Agriculture’s Bureau of Fisheries had informed it in an exclusive interview on Saturday that China could soon permanently deploy large fisheries patrol vessels in waters near the Diaoyutais.

This article, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Why has the WTO yet to be notified about ECFA?

With two weeks left before the full terms of a controversial trade pact signed between Taiwan and China in June come into force, the global trade body has yet to see the documents. Will it ever?

President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration and its counterparts in Beijing accomplished the nearly impossible this year by signing a complex trade agreement between two entities that are technically at war — and one of which does not recognize the other’s existence — in a matter of months.

While free-trade and free-trade-like agreements signed between two states on an equal footing (at least in terms of two-way recognition) usually require years of negotiations, the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) signed between Taiwan and China on June 29 took a little more than five months.

Now, either officials from the Straits Exchange Foundation and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, the two semi-official bodies that were charged with negotiating the trade pact, were incredibly talented and managed to resolve the immense hurdles that have haunted any type of relation between the two entities, or the two sides were too impatient and couldn’t wait to sign the agreement, which offered “proof” that Ma’s cross-strait policies were bearing fruit.

I leave it to the reader to decide which is likeliest, though I would strongly urge that we bear in mind William of Ockham’s sagacious case for parsimony when seeking to explain the cause of a phenomenon amid a plurality of hypotheses.

My op-ed, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Ma’s delusions of ‘soft power’

Still sounding like he’s running in the 2008 presidential election, Ma Ying-jeou stole an overused term by a prominent US academic and used it to show how much nicer his policies are than those of his predecessor

After years of assailing our ears with notions of “win-win” situations President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has now latched onto a new term that, unfortunately for us, he now seems intent on milking dry: “soft power.”

No sooner had US political scientist Joseph Nye (see above with Ma), the person who coined the overused and oft misused term, left after a quick visit earlier this month than Ma was borrowing it to describe his policies over the past two-and-a-half years. All of a sudden, Ma’s body of work appeared to blossom into a monument to so-called soft power, which, if we looked closely enough, was a euphemism for everything the administration of his predecessor, former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), supposedly was not.

It was soft power, Ma claimed, that recently led the EU and Canadian governments to grant Republic of China (ROC) passport holders visa-waiver treatment. Never mind that governments decide whether to grant exemptions on the basis of such practical considerations as the security of travel documents. In this case, those requirements included the introduction of biometric passports in 2008 — first issued after Ma came into office, granted, but the result of policies implemented under the Chen administration.

In other words, visa exemptions were granted because manifold requirements were met, not because of soft power à la Ma.

My unsigned editorial, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Giving in to local Chinese zealotry

We seem to have entered an era where state governors, mayors and officials in the world’s most powerful nations can be browbeaten by lowly Chinese officials who are slightly overzealous in their nationalistic entrepreneurialism

Over the years, Chinese authorities have relentlessly attempted to prevent Taiwan from joining international organizations lest this give Taipei the sovereign legitimacy that Beijing considers anathema to its “one China” principle.

Although such behavior has made it impossible for Taiwan to have its voice heard in international forums like the UN or the WHO, Beijing’s object was ostensibly the symbolism of Taiwanese participation rather than the practicalities and benefits that Taiwan would derive from membership.

Despite superficially warmer ties between Taipei and Beijing since President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) launched his cross-strait lovefest two years ago, Chinese officials have often overlooked the “goodwill” they are alleged to have showered on their Taiwanese compatriots by continuing to deny Taiwan international breathing space. This has targeted symbols of Taiwanese nationhood, such as a delegation of moviemakers at the Tokyo International Film Festival in late October attending under the name “Taiwan.”

However, behind such headline-grabbing acts of insanity lurk several instances of Chinese officials impeding Taiwanese efforts in a different sphere altogether: the economic sector. This is often the result of Chinese officials at the local level pressuring governments by raising the specter of Chinese “anger.”

My unsigned editorial, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

‘Taiwan consensus’ is a travesty

Su Chi is back with a new consensus, an ill-defined rhetorical contraption that blames the DPP for cross-strait misunderstandings and that highlights his poor understanding of plurality

If one thing can be said of former National Security Council secretary-general Su Chi (蘇起), it is that the man is infatuated with consensuses.

It was he who, just as the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was coming into office after the nation’s first transition of power in 2000, came up with the ambiguous — and dubious — “1992 consensus.” And it was he who, now wearing his academic hat, told a conference on Monday that what the nation needed was a “Taiwan consensus.”

In prescriptions that, on the surface (and only there) may have come across as infused with wisdom, Su said that before Taipei can approach more contentious areas of negotiation with Beijing such as Taiwan’s sovereignty, the DPP should take the initiative and work with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in forging a consensus.

Leaving aside the fact that Taiwan’s sovereignty shouldn’t be negotiable (especially not under coercive terms), Su then conveniently forgot recent history when, using the analogy of the “small triangle” between the DPP, KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), he posited that the triumvirate was unstable because the DPP does not talk with the other two extremes of the geometrical object.

In other words, tensions in the Taiwan Strait, or lack of communication, are solely the DPP’s fault, as if the KMT didn’t have a long history of ignoring the DPP or stalling debate at the legislature — the nation’s democratic echo chamber, if you will.

My op-ed, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

US governor nixes visit due to China

Even on matters of trade, China continues to deny Taiwan the international space that would truly stand for goodwill

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon planned to visit Taiwan on a trade mission this week — until the Chinese consulate and business leaders said the visit could “anger” the Chinese government and harm an airport deal with China, forcing him to scuttle the trip, reports said.

Nixon, who last year attended the signing of an agreement between Taiwanese and Missouri business groups in his office, had announced on Dec. 1 that he would head a trade mission to Taiwan and South Korea from Dec. 10 to Dec. 16. While in Taiwan, the governor was scheduled to be party to the signing of a letter of intent on a US$600 million purchase of Missouri agricultural products by the Taiwanese government, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. Nixon was to be accompanied by a large delegation of government and business officials, including representatives of agricultural organizations.

One day after Nixon’s announcement, Mike Jones, chairman of the Midwest China Hub Commission (MCHC), sent the governor a letter on behalf of the commission asking that the visit be postponed. A representative of the Chinese government was afraid the trip would be received negatively in Beijing, the letter allegedly said.

My article on the matter, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Friday, December 10, 2010

What’s the issue here?

Language is often a reflection of hidden assumptions, and by dint of repetition we can lose sight of reality, especially on complex matters such as the Taiwan Strait

Part of my job as deputy news chief at the Taipei Times and columnist for a number of publications involves reading tremendous amounts of literature on Taiwan, not only so that I can keep pace with recent developments in the Taiwan Strait, but also to attempt, in all humbleness, to attain as thorough an understanding as possible of the story and history of Taiwan. This responsibility — and this is what it is, a responsibility — therefore, demands that I read newspapers, magazines, online articles, academic papers and history books, not only about Taiwan, but also China, Japan, the Asia Pacific, World War II, the US political system and so on.

What caught my attention recently is the recurrence of references to Taiwan not so much as an “island,” “Republic of China” or the despicable (and false) “province of China” — of which there are plenty, admittedly — but rather to Taiwan as an “issue,” “question” or “problem.” Such characterizations, which, I am sure, are in many instances the result of unconscious processes, turn a quantifiable plot of land (not to mention 23 million beating hearts) into mere abstracts, as if Taiwan were nothing more than a commodity to be divvied up, parsed out or handed over from one colonial master to another. We thus read about China “retaking the island,” the “Taiwan issue” affecting Sino-American relations, or Taiwan as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” with no reference to Taiwanese having a say over their own future. The problem is sanitized, the people taken out of the equation, just as they are in this era of electronic, long-distance warfare, where the living are killed with ever greater ease thanks to their being out of sight.

Does the world refer to Israel as “the Israel issue” when discussing the Middle East? Of course not: The US defends its ally, Israel, period. Even stateless Palestinians, who have more in common with Taiwanese than we are ready to acknowledge, are not reduced to an “issue” or “question”; instead, we talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the fate of Palestinians, et cetera. How, then, is it any more acceptable to obliterate Taiwanese and turn their nation into a commodity? Why can’t we refer to tensions in the Taiwan Strait as the Sino-Taiwanese conflict?

The great James R. Lilley, former CIA official, US ambassador to China and representative to Taiwan, who passed away last year, once told a young government official never to refer to Taiwan as an “issue.” Wise advice indeed, and something we should keep in mind when we add our own voices to coverage of Taiwan.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Hollow victory for the KMT

No clear victory, no clear defeat in the special municipality elections on Nov. 27, and still a lot of uncertainty over their ramifications for the future

Despite a favorable outcome to the much-anticipated Nov. 27 municipal elections, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) remained cautiously optimistic on Saturday after the opposition increased its lead in the popular vote.

After several weeks of boisterous campaigning, Taiwanese went to the polls on Saturday to vote for mayors, city councilors and borough chiefs in the special municipalities of Taipei City, Sinbei City, Greater Taichung, Greater Tainan and Greater Kaohsiung.

In what some had portrayed as a mid-term election for President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and a preview of the 2012 presidential election, the KMT succeeded in retaining its hold in the northern municipalities of Taipei and Sinbei (Taipei County, which will be upgraded to special municipality status later this month) and Taichung, in central Taiwan. For its part, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) retained Tainan and Kaohsiung. Voter turnout was an impressive 71.71 percent.

In the lead-up to the elections, both parties had argued that winning three municipalities would be considered “overall victory.” During the last weeks of what turned out to be essentially clean electoral campaigns, the races in Sinbei, historically split between the pan-green and pan-blue camps, and Taipei, a pan-blue stronghold, became increasingly close — indeed too close to call.

The race in Taipei, the capital city, pitted incumbent Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) of the KMT against former premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) of the DPP, with three other candidates running as independents. Despite Su running a highly successful campaign, and notwithstanding a Hau administration that was plagued with allegations of corruption over the Taipei International Flora Expo, the incumbent defeated his opponent by an unexpectedly wide margin, with 797,865, or 55.65 percent of the vote, against Su’s 628,129, or 43.81 percent.

In Sinbei, the nation’s largest municipality, former vice premier Eric Chu (朱立倫) of the KMT defeated DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) with 1,115,536 votes, or 52.61 percent, against Tsai’s 1,004,900, or 47.39 percent.

The greatest surprise occurred in Greater Taichung, where incumbent Jason Hu (胡志強) of the KMT, who was expected to easily defeat Su Jia-chyuan (蘇嘉全) of the DPP, only did so by a razor-thin margin, with 730,284 votes, or 51.12 percent, to Su’s 698,358, or 48.88 percent. It is also noteworthy that Su, who had been parachuted into Taichung only six months prior to the election, defeated the colorful, Beijing-born Hu in every riding in Taichung County.

The elections in the DPP strongholds of Tainan and Kaohsiung, meanwhile, were the only two races that were never close. In Greater Tainan, William Lai (賴清德) of the DPP obtained 619,897 votes, or 60.41 percent, against his KMT opponent, Kuo Tien-tsai (郭添財), with 406,196 votes, or 39.59 percent. In Greater Kaohsiung, incumbent mayor Chen Chu (陳菊) of the DPP won the three-way race with more than twice the votes of her two opponents combined. Chen obtained 821,089 votes, or 52.80 percent, to Yang Chiu-hsing (楊秋興) — who quit the DPP to run as an independent after losing the primary to Chen — with 414,950 votes, or 26.68 percent, and the KMT’s Huang Chao-shun (黃昭順), who came third with 319,171 votes, or 20.52 percent.

It remains to be seen if, or to what degree, a shooting incident on election eve in Yonghe City, Taipei County, involving former KMT chairman Lien Chan’s son, Sean Lien, who was shot in the face by a local gangster during a KMT rally, and in which a bystander was killed, affected the vote. Initial assessments put the impact at 3 percent, which though insufficient to alter the outcome in Taipei City, could have done so in Sinbei and Taichung.

In the city council elections, both parties ended up with 130 seats of the overall 314 in the five municipalities, with 45 going to independents and the rest to smaller political parties.

In terms of share of total vote, which is where the notion of a KMT victory may sound hollow, the DPP obtained 3,772,373 votes, or 49.78 percent, to the KMT’s 3,369,052, or 44.54 percent, a difference of almost 400,000 votes (independents accounted for 422,692 votes). To put this in context, during the presidential election in 2008, the KMT obtained 58.45 percent of the total vote against the DPP’s 41.55 percent. Consequently, Saturday’s election, which accounted for about 60 of the total electorate, can be regarded as a dramatic turnaround for the opposition party, which only two years ago, was devastated amid allegations of corruption against former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and badly defeated in legislative elections.


For the DPP, Su Tseng-chang’s and Tsai’s defeats could be a blessing in disguise, as both had been touted as potential candidates in the 2012 presidential election, in which Ma is widely expected to run. Had they won, they would either have been unable to run, or would have faced the difficult choice of cutting their four-year term short and risk alienating the electorate. Su’s weaker-than-expected showing, however, may have undermined his prospects for a presidential ticket.

A power struggle over party leadership is now emerging, which could threaten Tsai’s position, and party stability, after she succeeded in reconsolidating the DPP. On Nov. 29, former vice president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮), along with “kung-ma” (or “elder”) faction members, called on Tsai to step down, a tradition in Taiwanese politics following electoral defeat. So far Tsai said she would not do so, and has the backing of the DPP legislative caucus.

As for the KMT, some officials and pan-blue media are portraying the results as endorsement for Ma, who campaigned energetically for the candidates of his party (of which he is chairman), and his pro-China policies. Conversely, others are arguing that the KMT’s loss in the popular vote could force the Ma administration to slow down cross-strait development.

In the end, however, references to the popular vote as an indicator of the 2012 election can only be taken so far, as Saturday’s elections involved predominantly local matters, while the presidential election will entail national policies, such as rapprochement with China, which remains controversial among the Taiwanese polity.

This analysis appeared in slightly different and abridged format in Jane’s Intelligence Weekly on Dec. 6. See also my comments on the elections in The Diplomat magazine [English] [Chinese].

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Ready to talk with Beijing — again

Eager to present Beijing with a rosy picture of the situation back home, the KMT appears to have discredited itself in the eyes of its Chinese interlocutors, perhaps creating an opportunity for the DPP to be taken more seriously

Recent speculation that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was becoming more amenable to talks with Chinese officials rang truer last week when DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) announced the creation of a party think tank which, among other duties, would encourage mutual understanding across the Taiwan Strait through dialogue.

Rumor even has it that the DPP recently allowed Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials to enter its sacred ground — party headquarters in Taipei.

This occurs at a time when Chinese officials have allegedly complained to a pan-blue newspaper that information they have received from the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) painted such an incomplete picture of the mood in Taiwan that it prompted Zhongnanhai to look elsewhere.

Should this be true, Taiwan and China could be on the brink of taking their real first steps toward mutual understanding, or at least toward clearing the ideological air that has poisoned Chinese perceptions of Taiwan for so long. If the noise coming out of Beijing is true and the CCP is indeed realizing that its KMT interlocutors have not been straight with it on the Taiwanese polity’s reaction to President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) detente, this could signify that Beijing is becoming more attuned to the multiplicity of voices that characterizes Taiwanese society.

My unsigned editorial, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Taiwanese polity not an abstract

Whether it be in Beijing, Washington or Taipei, the elite political discourse oftentimes fails to listen to the voices that will ultimately make or break lasting peace in the Taiwan Strait: the 23 million Taiwanese

One, if not the, principal element that in the long term will hamper sustainable peace in the Taiwan Strait is the tendency of world leaders to edit out the principal stakeholders in the equation — the Taiwanese people.

It goes without saying that the authoritarian regime in Beijing, unreceptive as it is to the political grievances of its own people, would ignore the whims and desires of 23 million people across the Strait. This largely accounts for the behind-the-scene, technocratic approach to cross-strait negotiations that Beijing has taken with President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration and helps explain why Ma and his Cabinet have also acted as if the will of the people were more of a nuisance — or at the minimum something to be shaped and controlled — rather than that which, in a democracy, should be driving government policy.

Confucianism and lingering paternalistic tradition, however, only partly explain why the Taiwanese polity appears to have been abstracted from the political calculation in Taipei and Beijing, because other countries with no such ideological baggage often commit the same mistake.

As I argued in a recent op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal Asia, the much-hailed lowering of cross-strait tensions that has occurred since Ma came into office in 2008 will not be sustainable as long as the cost of that rapprochement is the ignoring of the views of Taiwanese on identity and sovereignty.

My op-ed, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

No such restraint on Lien shooting

Overall, the two parties showed restraint during the campaigns for the Nov. 27 special municipality elections, with the KMT doing a little more sniping than the DPP. But a shooting incident on election eve revealed the KMT’s true colors

US academics over the weekend added their voices to the chorus of analyses following Saturday’s five special municipal elections, with highly laudatory remarks on the manner in which the campaigning proceeded.

While their argument that the two camps avoided highly ideological pitfalls and tried to appeal more to grassroots voters was for the most part accurate, the researchers were quoted by Central News Agency as saying that the parties had displayed “restrained reactions” to the shooting of Sean Lien (連勝文, left), son of former vice president Lien Chan (連戰), during a campaign rally for a Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) candidate for Sinbei City councilor on Friday night.

Unfortunately for the academics, they stumbled on that one, or failed to watch the right TV channels in the aftermath of the incident.

Although it is true that on election day President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and other KMT officials adopted a relatively neutral stance on the matter, on Friday night the KMT apparatus — and the pan-blue media — went into full gear insinuating that the attack was somehow related to the election and that the DPP stood for violence. They never said it directly, mind you, but when officials called for voters to “cast their ballots against violence” the following day, the implication was obvious.

My unsigned editorial, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Bigoted response was shameful

If Taiwanese are to express their accumulated anger, they should learn to aim it in the right direction

The outbursts of anger some Taiwanese have directed at South Korea in the wake of the disqualification of Taiwanese taekwondo athlete Yang Shu-chun (楊淑君) at the Asian Games in Guangzhou, China, last week brought to the surface undercurrents that are certainly nothing to be proud of.

Not only was burning the South Korean flag, crushing instant noodles, hacking Web sites and throwing eggs at the Taipei Korean School misguided, these acts — with encouragement from some in the media — highlighted an underlying racism that does not put modern, democratic and pluralistic Taiwan in a favorable light. Such nationalistic bigotry, in fact, is the very poison that lies behind Beijing’s policy of isolating Taiwan and denying its people the right to a separate existence.

That some, though by no means all, Taiwanese would engage in such shameful behavior based on some subconscious hatred for another people makes the claims that Taiwan is a beacon of democracy in Asia ring hollow and, as such, it should be roundly condemned.

Yang’s mistreatment struck a nerve with many Taiwanese who otherwise tend to be apolitical and who have exhibited little or no nationalistic fervor. Whatever the trigger, to rally round the flag in time of crisis is not necessarily unhealthy, but to translate that energy spontaneously unleashed into acts of hatred against individuals, institutions or even entire countries that have nothing to do with the controversial decision is uncalled for.

My unsigned editorial, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.


Admittedly, the Yang controversy is symptomatic of the “Palestinianization” of Taiwanese, who far too often are treated by the international community as stateless second-rate citizens whose aspirations and grievances are conveniently ignored. From that perspective, the disqualification and the ensuing eruption of anger could be construed as a necessary outlet through which Taiwanese can finally vent their pent-up frustrations after being silenced for too long.

However, what is more difficult to comprehend — and which delineates a moral paralysis on the part of the international community — is the almost unanimous characterization abroad of the controversy as “unjust” and “sickening.” Though true, we need to ask ourselves why aren’t the same people, who are so readily offended by an underhanded decision at a sports event, using similar language when China prevents Taiwan from participating in international organizations, or threatens to use military force against it. How do we explain the mobilization of indignation over what remains a trivial event, while rampant injustice cannot even register in people’s consciousness, let alone translate into calls for redress, which would see Taiwanese installed as a full and equal participants in the community of nations?

Correction: I have been informed that WTF secretary-general Yang Jin-suk, whom my editorial refers to as South Korean, is actually Korean-American and a US citizen.

Monday, November 22, 2010

China’s military prowess on full display at air show

China was anything but low profile on matters of military planning, and it was easy to imagine who the targets were

Efforts by the Chinese military to modernize its aerospace capabilities were on full display at the eighth China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition that concluded in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province, China, yesterday, with no less than 25 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) on display.

According to a report in Defense News, three Chinese companies — ASN Technology Group, China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp (CASIC) and China Aerospace Science Technology Corp (CASC) — produced the majority of the UAVs unveiled at the show.

The different models served various roles, from combat to battlefield reconnaissance, reports said.

The most sophisticated models, Defense News wrote, were -produced by CASIC and CASC — the main provider for China’s space program — which had systems designed not only to locate targets, but to destroy them as well.

One model, the CH-3 (right), was a multipurpose medium-range UAV platform suitable for battlefield reconnaissance that could be modified as a precision-attack platform using air-to-ground missiles similar to the US’ Hellfire.

This article, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

War Clouds Over Taiwan

Beijing's expectations that Taiwanese will relinquish their separate identity will be disappointed

Two years into his term, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou seems to have transformed the dynamics of his country's troublesome relationship with China. But this détente is only a temporary phenomenon. The risk of war in the Taiwan Strait is actually growing as Beijing's expectations for a political end to the unfinished civil war rise, and Taiwan's ability to defend itself against attack withers.

After years of cross-Strait tension under Presidents Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian, it's hardly surprising that everyone is breathing a sigh of relief now that the two sides are at least on civil terms. The international business community is taking a fresh look at Taiwan both as an investment destination and, given the linguistic and cultural similarities with China, as a bridge to the world's second-largest economy.

Underneath this façade, however, lies a dangerous reality: Beijing's recent "goodwill" toward Taiwan, which culminated in the signing in late June of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, is fully in line with its stated strategy to complete the consolidation of China after a "century of humiliation." While the Ma administration maintains that the ECFA and other such deals are purely economic in nature and have no political implications, Chinese officials and leading academics are convinced that Taiwan is unwittingly preparing the way for eventual unification.

My op-ed, published today in the Wall Street Journal, continues here.


As I stepped into my office this afternoon, I received, on my landline at work, a most extraordinary phone call from a very, very angry vice chairman of a Shanghai-based global Chinese business organization (didn’t get his name, unfortunately). In good, if uncertain, English, the man started politely, telling me his office had been receiving “lots of angry phone calls” from Chinese all over the world — in China, Hong Kong, the US, Canada — who were complaining about “biased” articles in the Taipei Times. Recently, his office had received many more, he claimed. Why are we so biased, he asked. Why do we do this? He then turned to the article I published today in the Wall Street Journal, which he said made “a lot” of Chinese “very angry.” Again, why did I do that, when “the entire world” knows and agrees that Taiwan is part of China? I tried to say that people were entitled to their own views on the subject, but he always cut me off. Even the Canadian government agrees that Taiwan is part of China, he said — and you’re Canadian, right? Why do you do that? I then told him the 23 million people in Taiwan don’t agree with this view, whereupon he went ballistic and started screaming at me, so much so that I had to take the earpiece away. I tried to ask if he’d ever set foot in Taiwan so he could perhaps understand why his views didn’t dovetail with those of many Taiwanese, but by that point there was no conversation to be had. He said I “hated” China. I said I didn’t, and that instead I loved Taiwan and the fact that it’s people had a right to choose who rules them. Why do you attack China? He screamed. I don’t attack China; I replied, adding that it was “you guys who are pointing 1,500 missiles at us.” “F**k you!” he screamed, and hung up. I’d obviously touched a raw nerve. This is what we’re dealing with, folks, blind, ebullient nationalism that brooks no difference of opinion and shuts the door on any dialogue. Those who think the Ma administration can negotiate with those people — the same kind of nationalist people, plus the military they control — in a way that ensures Taiwan’s independent future should perhaps reconsider.

Dec. 1 update: CNA has Chinese-language coverage of responses to my Nov. 18 op-ed and related editorial in the Wall Street Journal. See also original letters in the WSJ.

Director at Freedom House objects to CNA’s coverage

Negligence or darker motives? A CNA piece on a speech by Christopher Walker on the weekend made him sound as if he was taking sides in the Chen Shui-bian controversy

The director of studies at US-based Freedom House yesterday accused state-owned Central News Agency (CNA) of “misapprehending” his comments regarding the judicial process in Taiwan and claiming that he saw a recent verdict against former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) as positive for Taiwan’s democratic development.

The Formosa Foundation, a Los Angeles-based non-profit organization, invited Christopher Walker to give a speech on freedom in Taiwan on Sunday, in which he focused on democratic processes, institutional transparency and media freedom in Taiwan and the region.

However, a CNA report of the event released the following day misrepresented his remarks on the judicial process in Taiwan in a way that made it appear he was specifically commenting on the corruption cases against Chen, Walker said.

The Chinese-language report, which has not been translated into English by the wire service, read: “After former president Chen Shui-bian recently [on Nov. 11] received his final [guilty] verdict, Christopher Walker ... said he believes that while this was a tough choice to make, punishing a corrupt regime with jail will help Taiwan’s democratic system become stronger.”

This article, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

One ‘friendly reminder’ too many

Signs are emerging that the Ma administration is taking a soft authoritarian approach to freedom of speech

Seemingly isolated incidents observed over a given period of time can, if they occur frequently enough, form a pattern. This is what appears to be emerging under President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration in terms of how it handles the right of ordinary people and the media to freely express their opinions.

Though the origins of this process can be traced back to the early days of the Ma administration, this month alone confronted us with a series of incidents involving government intrusion into the realm of freedom of expression.

First was a notice by the Ministry of Education to the Professional Technology Temple’s (PTT) Gossip Board, a popular online bulletin board hosted by National Taiwan University, calling on administrators to request that users tone down their political rhetoric to ensure a “cleaner” environment. Although Minister of Education Wu Ching-ji (吳清基) called the notice a “friendly reminder,” PTT users by the hundreds saw it differently, referring to it as the imposition of “martial law on the Internet.”

Then, less than a week later, came the outburst over comments by political commentator Cheng Hung-yi (鄭弘儀), who during a public event used “improper” language when referring to Ma and subsidies for Chinese students. What should have been a minor incident was instantly turned, both by the Ma administration and pan-blue media, into the public crucifixion of an individual who disagreed with the administration’s policies.

My unsigned editorial, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Was the judiciary truly independent?

The Nov. 5 acquittal of former president Chen changes nothing about the heavy sentencing he faces, and provides the KMT with  the ammunition it needs to get the vote.  Accidental timing, or is something afoot?

The ruling by the Taipei District Court on Nov. 5 finding former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and his wife not guilty in a bribery case was construed by many — including this author — as a sign that the judiciary under the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration was beginning to reassert its independence. Reaction to the news by the pan-blue camp was so strident, and the decision so antithetical to what ostensibly has been a policy of keeping Chen in check, that the court appeared to have laid to rest fears that the judiciary had become little more than a conveyor belt for the Ma government.

Commenting on the ruling, some elements within the pan-green camp, meanwhile, said this was only part of a series of rulings that ultimately would fully exonerate the former president. Chen’s smile as he emerged from a police van on his way to court for another case earlier this week also spoke volumes about how he interpreted this unexpected development.

However, we should refrain from jumping to conclusions and assuming that this proves the independence of the judiciary. In fact, the timing — less than a month prior to the Nov. 27 special municipality elections — is itself suspicious. No sooner had Judge Chou Chan-chun (周占春) announced the decision than the KMT shifted into high gear and turned the court ruling and by rebound Chen, into an instrument to mobilize pan-blue voters.

This op-ed, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Clinton is coming, but Bush Jr. and Gingrich couldn’t

Former US president Bill Clinton’s visit to Taiwan on Nov. 14, where he will deliver a speech, comes after unsuccessful attempts by former US president George W. Bush and former House speaker Newt Gingrich to visit Taiwan earlier this year

The Taipei Times has learned that Bush had initially intended to visit Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taipei, but after his office in Dallas, Texas, allegedly received multiple protests from Chinese officials, the former president’s office said Bush could skip Shanghai and Hong Kong altogether and visit only Taiwan.

Chinese officials then allegedly changed their strategy and shifted the pressure onto Taipei, whereupon the latter allegedly asked Bush to reconsider the timing of his visit, in reference to the Nov. 27 elections.

According to a source, Bush’s visit would not have received any funding from the Taiwanese government.

The Taipei Times has also learned that Gingrich’s visit, which would have been sponsored by a private firm, was initially planned for between June and August, and that the former speaker could not come to Taiwan any later than September, given the midterm elections in the US earlier this month.

After a series of delays, organizers allegedly appealed to the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Presidential Office, but approval for the visit was received four months later, by which time Gingrich could no longer visit Taiwan.

The above section, which I wrote, is part of an article on Clinton’s visit to Taiwan this coming weekend published today in the Taipei Times.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Chen’s ghost returns to haunt Ma

The Ma administration reacts to a decision by the judiciary in a manner that, in its disdain for the law, is oddly reminiscent of the Chinese leadership 

Ever since he was taken into custody in December 2008, the Presidential Office has made sure that former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) — the nation’s top “troublemaker,” if we believe the propaganda — did not make waves. It did so via a complicit judiciary that time and again denied the former president his freedom by using tenuous claims to justify extensions to his detention, which now approaches 700 days.

Although Chen managed to publish a few books and articles from prison, the government’s efforts to erase him from the political scene were largely successful, an accomplishment that, admittedly, was compounded by a decision by the Democratic Progressive Party — the party Chen once led — to distance itself from him as it sought to reconsolidate after difficult years. By neutralizing the otherwise ostentatious former president, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration paved the way for its controversial rapprochement with Beijing, which, had he been a free man, Chen would surely have relentlessly attacked publicly.

That was until the Taipei District Court on Friday said it had found no evidence proving that Chen and his wife, Wu Shu-jen (吳淑珍), were guilty of corruption and money laundering in a bank merger deal. No sooner had the decision been made than Ma and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) cried foul, prompting officials — with the president in the lead — to sound worryingly like their counterparts across the Taiwan Strait, where, as Richard McGregor writes in The Party, his study of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), “judges must remain loyal — in order — to the Party, the state, the masses and, finally, the law.”

My unsigned editorial, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Book review: Deep inside the Chinese Communist Party

Two recent books add to the growing body of literature on the Chinese Communist Party and reach similar conclusions about its methods and future

The claim that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is misunderstood by outsiders has become something of a cliche recently, conferring upon the almost 80-year-old political organization an aura of impenetrability. This dearth of knowledge has slowly been remedied, however, with the publication in recent years of solid studies on the party’s philosophy, modus operandi and ability to defy the odds by remaining in power.

Two new books, The Party, by former Financial Times Beijing bureau chief Richard McGregor, and The Chinese Communist Party as Organizational Emperor, by National University of Singapore professor Zheng Yongnian (鄭永年), make important new contributions to our understanding of this most enigmatic of political parties.

This double book review, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Weak defense, poor intelligence

When dealing with China, Taiwan cannot afford to cut on defense and neglect intelligence at the same time, yet this is exactly what the administration is doing

Recent news of a plan by the National Security Bureau, the nation’s top civilian intelligence agency, to introduce an award system to address low morale in the intelligence ranks is as a clear a demonstration of the state of affairs under President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) as we could get.

Amid cutbacks in the defense budget — with the Ministry of National Defense announcing last week that it had no choice but to defer payment on key defense items lined up for purchase from the US — and diminished emphasis on military exercises preparing for potential Chinese aggression, it is not surprising that Ma’s critics have pointed to his apparent lack of commitment to ensuring that Taiwan has the means and skills to defend itself.

This headline-making focus on the military aspect of Taiwan’s defense, however, has concealed what in many regards is an equally worrying trend under Ma — the undermining of the security intelligence apparatus that assesses and analyzes information pertaining to threats against national security.

My unsigned editorial, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Film looks at US news coverage of China

For many, it was almost like being sent to the moon, tasked as they were with reporting on an unknown giant that was part rival, part ally, a new documentary about US reporters working in China shows.

In Taipei to present a segment of his Assignment: China — a multi-part series on US news coverage of China from the 1940s up to the present — Mike Chinoy, former senior Asia correspondent for CNN, said that despite China’s growing importance in global affairs, the world’s second-largest economy still doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

The series, reported by Chinoy and produced by the US-China Institute at the University of Southern California, is part of an ongoing effort to address that knowledge gap by giving voice to the pioneering US reporters who ventured into uncharted territory and, through their articles, broadcasts and photographs, shaped how the US came to see this enigmatic country.

Segment four of six, shown at a special dinner organized by the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei, the European Chamber of Commerce in Taipei and the Taiwan Foreign Correspondents’ Club held at the American Club on Tuesday night, looks at the first generation of US reporters dispatched to Beijing following the normalization of relations between the US and China in 1979.

This article, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

FAPA blasts Ma over AP interview, drift toward China

The Washington-based Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA) on Tuesday accused President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration of forcing Taiwan in the direction of political union with China and making deliberate attempts to prevent Taiwanese to choose their future.

Responding to Ma’s comments in an Associated Press interview published on Oct. 19, FAPA president Bob Yang (楊英育) said the interview “clearly reflect[ed] the prevailing view in the Ma administration that it wants to move in the direction of political union with China.”

“Yet polls consistently show that the great majority of the people of Taiwan do not desire absorption by China,” Yang said in a press release. “Ma is paying lip service to democracy in Taiwan, but in the meantime moving Taiwan in China’s direction at the expense of human rights and democracy in Taiwan.”

This article, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Taiwanese identity in the spotlight

The head of the Taiwanese delegation at the Tokyo International Film Festival said in no uncertain terms that Taiwanese would refuse to go by the name 'Taiwan, China' or 'Chinese Taipei,' but according to the head of the Chinese delegation, the ensuing spat was all Tokyo's fault

Maybe it’s something in the water, but Chinese officials have developed the bad habit of airing their extreme nationalistic tendencies with a little more boldness when they find themselves in Japan, resulting in situations that often undermine Beijing’s objectives.

The latest such incident occurred on Saturday at the 23rd Tokyo International Film Festival, when the head of the Chinese delegation, Jiang Ping (江平), accompanied by a robotic-looking Chinese actress, attempted to drill into the heads of the Taiwanese delegation that they were all Chinese. Faced with the refusal of Government Information Office Department of Motion Pictures director Chen Chih-kuan (陳志寬), who headed the Taiwanese delegation, and the organizers of the film festival to change Taiwan’s name to “Taiwan, China” or “Chinese Taipei,” an outraged Jiang announced that China was partially pulling out of the festival.

The Chinese delegation decided to pull out of festival-related events because the organizers “covertly violated the ‘One China’ policy Jiang was quoted as saying by the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party-run publication.

Interestingly, Jiang was also quoted as saying that the spat, and the decision to pull out of the film festival, had “nothing to do with our Taiwan compatriots” and was rather “the fault of the Tokyo organizers.”

My unsigned editorial, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Monday, October 25, 2010

New Chinese subs raise questions

After years of little activity in the Chinese navy with regards to submarines, an increasing incidence of pictures of and reports about new types of subs could be a sign of China’s growing assertiveness

Recent media interest about new types of submarines being developed by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) could provide important clues about China’s naval capabilities and intentions, a specialist on China said in a recent article.

“Whereas the development and deployment of the Chinese navy’s surface fleet have been prominently displayed in unprecedented scale in recent naval exercises both in the South and East China Sea, the expansion of China’s subsurface fleet appears to have been slowed in recent years,” Russell Hsiao, editor of the China Brief, a publication of the US-based Jamestown Foundation, wrote in the publication’s latest edition.

From 2007 until this year, he said, the total number of submarines deployed in the PLAN was steady, rising by a single vessel, to 63, Hsiao wrote.

While the scope of the PLAN’s development remained to be seen and would depend on tested capabilities rather than media photos and speculation, the increased incidence of reports on new submarines could nevertheless provided important clues about Beijing’s strategic outlook, he said.

This story, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Who’s behind Bill Clinton’s Nov. 14 visit to Taiwan? [updated]

As we reported in the Taipei Times today, former US president Bill Clinton will be in Taipei on Nov. 14, his first visit to Taiwan since 2005. Asked by someone in Washington if I thought the timing of the visit, coming as it does a mere two weeks ahead of the special municipality elections, was conspicuous, I did some digging into who’s behind the event. Here are my preliminary findings.

The Singapore-based firm sponsoring the event is called Universal Network Intelligence (UNI, 精新創作有限公司). It should be noted that UNI has a branch office in Taiwan, located at Taipei 101.

The media sponsor, meanwhile, is the Economic Daily News (經濟日報). EDN belongs to the United Daily News Group, which is very pro business across the Taiwan Strait and has overt pan-blue tendencies.

According to the press statement, Clinton will be here to talk about business, economics, and Taiwan's economic prospects. The event Web site also has a “submit your questions” section, where the top 10 questions, gathered via online submission, will be asked during a Q&A session at the event. One question has been filed to date, asking Clinton whether he thinks the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) signed between Taipei and Beijing in June is a positive or negative development.

I haven’t seen signs of direct Ministry of Foreign Affairs/National Security Council/Presidential Office involvement in this, though given the nature of Clinton’s talk, it wouldn't be surprising if it were intended as a means to emphasize the benefits of the ECFA.

Interestingly, I have just learned from another source in Washington that recent attempts to bring former US president George W. Bush and Newt Gingrich to Taiwan (on separate visits) were nixed by US/Taiwanese handlers, the organizers on the US side told that it would be better if the tours occurred after the Nov. 27 elections. H’m. Double standards here, if not inconsistencies...


A source just informed me that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had been working on bringing Clinton to Taiwan “for quite some time,” adding that the timing of the visit was contingent on Clinton’s “busy” schedule rather than to coincide with the Nov. 27 elections. Clinton will be in Manila, the Philippines, on Nov. 10 delivering a speech titled “Embracing our Common Humanity.”

Taiwan moves up press freedom index

The nation's ranking may have improved over last year, but serious questions remain, and its position today is still 12 spots below its showing during Chen Shui-bian's last year in office

Taiwan and South Korea made solid bounds in Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) 2010 World Press Freedom Index released yesterday, rising 11 and 27 places respectively, while China languished in 171st place.

“Taiwan and South Korea rose … after noteworthy falls in the 2009 Index,” Paris-based RSF wrote, placing Taiwan in 48th place and South Korea 42nd.

“Although some problems persist, such as the issue of the state-owned media’s editorial independence, arrests and violence have ceased,” RSF said.

In a press release on Oct. 1, the media watchdog called on Taipei to respect the independence of public media and said it was “disturbed” by Sylvia Feng’s (馮賢賢) ouster as president of Public Television Service (PTS).

It reminded the government “of its undertakings to respect the state-owned media’s independence.”

Explaining its decision to rank Taiwan 59th last year, RSF had said: “The new ruling party [Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)] in Taiwan tried to interfere in state and privately owned media while violence by certain activists further undermined press freedom.”

In its latest report on Taiwan released earlier this year, US-based Freedom House also raised questions over the independence of state-owned media and the impact of media conglomerates on freedom of expression.

During the last two years of the administration of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), Taiwan ranked 36th (2008) and 32nd (2007).

This article, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Selling out to the ‘almighty dollar’

China does not make concessions on human rights; the rest of the world does. The latest victim is Canada, whose prime minister in 2006 had vowed never to sacrifice human rights to the 'almighty dollar'

It didn’t take long for the Canadian government to show its displeasure with Beijing’s knee-jerk reaction to dissident Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this month.

No sooner had Liu’s wife in turn been placed under house arrest by the Chinese security apparatus than Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was telling an audience: “The friendship between Canada and China has ... grown in recent years in the context of a frank and respectful dialogue on the universal principles of human rights and the rule of law.”

Right. Harper also told the conference celebrating 40 years of official Sino-Canadian relations that Canada could now talk to Beijing about human rights in a “respectful” manner that (hold your breath) would not harm trade relations.

It should be mentioned at the outset that Harper’s remarks came as he was hailing the “strategic partnership” (here Ottawa is plagiarizing Beijing’s favorite terminology) that has developed between the two countries — and by this he means Canada starting to look more and more like a source of energy for the Asian superpower.

Not so long ago, Harper was getting heat from the Canadian business community for taking too firm a stance on human rights in China, for vowing, less than four years ago, not to sell out Canadian values to the “almighty dollar.”

My unsigned editorial, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

‘Peace’ with China has ugly caveats

Any military confidence-building mechanism between Taiwan and China will be asymmetrical, because only one side threatens the other militarily

Taipei may have turned down Beijing’s offer this time around, claiming the time was not propitious, but it is becoming increasingly evident that at some point between now and the 2012 presidential election, the two sides will sit down and discuss military matters in the Taiwan Strait.

Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman Yang Yi (楊毅) on Wednesday made headlines with his proposal that, when the conditions are right, Taipei and Beijing should sit down and discuss military confidence-building mechanisms and the possible dismantlement of the more than 1,500 ballistic missiles that continue to threaten Taiwan, despite allegedly warming ties.

Although the Mainland Affairs Council and, somewhat surprisingly, Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) said the same day that mutual trust had yet to reach a point where such talks would be feasible, pressure is likely to mount in the coming months on President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration to come to the table and discuss “peace.” In that respect, Yang’s announcement was again proof of how cannily Beijing can play the political game. After all, which peace-loving nation — including the US, Taiwan’s main ally — could, in its right mind oppose “peace” talks in what remains one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints? (Never mind that confidence building creates a moral equivalence in the Taiwan Strait that simply does not exist, as only one side, China, is the aggressor.)

As the expected pressure mounts, the ball will be in Taipei’s court, with Beijing’s peace overture once again portraying the latter as the “rational” actor in the equation and Taiwan as the reluctant partner. Deferral on Taipei’s part, meanwhile, will likely be blamed on the “anti China” elements in Taiwan — in other words, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and anyone who supports Taiwanese independence. That deferral will mostly stem from electoral considerations by Ma’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), which is cognizant of the fact that rushing into political negotiations with China will open a Pandora’s box of controversies that can only cost it votes.

My op-ed, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Taiwanese Air Force turns to indigenous UAVs

With Taiwan unlikely to request drones from the US, the logical alternative is to turn to the Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology, which has been working on unmanned aerial vehicles for more than a decade

A Ministry of National Defense (MND) spokesman yesterday confirmed that Taiwan was developing an unmanned surveillance aircraft, a move that provides further confirmation of a continuing arms race despite closer political and economic ties with China.

Ministry spokesman Major General Yu Sy-tue (虞思祖) said the Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (CSIST, 中山科學研究院), which falls under the ministry’s Armaments Bureau, had initiated research on drones.

According to defense analysts, research on indigenous reconnaissance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) has been going on for at least a decade. The institute unveiled a number of UAVs in August last year — including an operational version of the Chung Shyang (中翔) — during the Taipei Aerospace and Defense Technology Exhibition and Conference in Taipei.

A CSIST representative told Defense News at the time that the first Chung Shyang was built in 2007, with five prototypes already operational.

Asked by the Taipei Times whether the air force was seeking to obtain the Chung Shyang, which appears to be the institute’s most advanced prototype, a ministry spokesman said that “new models” were still in the research and development phase, without elaborating.

This story, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

‘Children’ of Yan and Huang: So what?

President Ma Ying-jeou, the chairman of the party that time and again accused the Democratic Progressive Party of playing the ethnic game uses ... ethnicity to justify closer ties across the Taiwan Strait during his national address on the 99th anniversary of the Republic of China

During the portion of his Double Ten National Day address that focused on cross-strait relations, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) turned to ethnicity to play down the differences between the two countries.

“The people on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are ethnic Chinese — descendants of the legendary emperors Yan and Huang,” Ma said.

While many would dispute this contention, emphasizing ethnicity and ancestry as a means to encourage reconciliation or, conversely, foster alienation misses the point completely. The reason is simple: The longstanding conflict across the Taiwan Strait has nothing to do with ethnicity and lies instead in the political, ideological and imaginary spheres.

History is replete with examples of leaders who used ethnicity to stoke nationalistic fervor, often with devastating consequences. When it comes to Taiwan, this device has two fundamental flaws that make it unsuited as an element of political discourse.

The first is the exclusionary nature of nations built on race or ethnicity. In an increasingly mobile world, genetics have lost relevance in terms of buttressing one’s nationality. Consequently, nationality is no longer predicated on ethnicity, but rather on one’s association to a land or people. That is why the concept of “foreign,” a term often used in Taiwan, has an entirely different, and in many cases irrelevant, connotation in multi-ethnic countries such as the US, Canada or the UK. That is why immigrant societies — and Taiwan is such a society — embrace peoples of all backgrounds as participants in the national experiment. That is why a person of Haitian background, for example, could serve as the representative of Queen Elizabeth in Canada, or why a man with Kenyan ancestry can sit in the White House.

My unsigned editorial, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Analysis: PRC belligerence brings Taiwan in from the cold

Beijing has been surefooted in its diplomacy and Washington appears to be considering conceding Taiwan, but now our neighbors feel threatened

As tensions in the Asia-Pacific region heat up amid disputes involving China and a number of countries over contested islands and sovereignty over the South China Sea, there have been signs in recent months that the US may be on the brink of reassessing its strategy for the region in ways that raise questions about Taiwan’s place in it.

For almost eight years under former US president George W. Bush and the first year-and-a-half or so of the administration of US President Barack Obama, the US, preoccupied with counterinsurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq and severe economic downturn, adopted a hands-off approach to Asia, for the most part limiting itself to assuaging Beijing’s fears that Washington was seeking to contain it.

Recognizing an opportunity when it saw one, Beijing played along and, for most of that period, crafted a policy that managed to reassure the neighborhood of its “peaceful intentions” even as it continued to modernize its military. In doing so, it also successfully isolated Taipei during the eight years of former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) time in office, capitalizing on Washington’s wariness regarding an administration it saw as a potential “troublemaker.”

Beijing’s policy remained quite skillful after the election of the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) in 2008, unveiling a series of carrots to an administration in Taipei that was all-too-willing to please China and foster rapprochement. Not only had Taiwan been neutralized during the Chen era, but since 2008, it was pulled ever closer into its embrace, so much so that doubts emerged as to Taipei’s willingness to remain part of the unofficial US-Japan security alliance.

Then, just as Taiwan was signing the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with China in late June, Tokyo announced it was extending its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) so that it now overlapped with sections of a zone controlled by Taiwan.

My analysis of the changing dynamics in the Asia Pacific. published today in the Taipei Times, continues here, with comments from Richard Bush III, Arthur Waldron, David Arase and Hisahiko Okazaki.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

PRC official targeted Tibetans: reports [updated]

Shortly before his secret meeting with Taiwanese security agencies, Chen Zhimin was in Nepal ordering stronger action against Tibetans

Chinese Vice Minister of Public Security Chen Zhimin (陳智敏), who led a delegation on a secret visit to Taiwan in the middle of last month for meetings with officials from various security-related agencies, was in Kathmandu weeks before, where he sought to strengthen Sino-Nepalese cooperation against Tibetan activists, reports showed.

During a visit on July 26, Chen, who headed a delegation of 11 officials, announced new financial assistance to Nepalese security agencies to better monitor and prevent Tibetan refugees from engaging in “anti-China activities” on its soil, Nepalese media reported.

Chen called the “anti-China activities taking in Nepal in the name of religion and human rights unacceptable to China,” adding that they posed “grave threats to the sovereignty and integrity of China.”

The meeting, held at Beijing’s behest, covered issues including border security, Tibetan refugees and collaboration on security matters, Nepalese media said.

During the visit, Chen announced an extra annual contribution by Beijing of US$1.47 million to the Nepalese Ministry of Home Affairs to strengthen its security apparatus to curb Tibetan activities.

Earlier this week, the Taipei Times asked Taiwanese officials whether the topic of “anti-China activities” was raised during Chen’s Sept. 13 to Sept. 18 visit to Taiwan.

“We didn’t discuss politics and we didn’t discuss religion. Our understanding was that we would stay on the topic at hand as outlined under our agreement to combat crime,” said Hsu Jui-shan (許瑞山), the chief administrator of the Criminal Investigation Bureau (CIB), which organized the trip’s itinerary.

Hsu was referring to the Joint Cross-Strait Crime Fighting Agreement signed in the third round of discussions between Taiwanese and Chinese negotiators in April.

However, it is now clear that Chen, who is also a committee member of the Chinese Communist Party, has become Taiwan’s point man on police matters with the Chinese government. Information from the Chinese Ministry of Public Security shows that Chen is also responsible for maintaining senior-level contacts with police officials in Hong Kong and Macau.

This article (continues here) was published today in the Taipei Times and is a follow-up to our initial reporting on Chen Zhimin's visit to Taiwan. The rest of the article reveals troubling information about certain clauses of the cross-strait agreement on crime-fighting, as well as comments by representatives of the Tibetan community in Taiwan.


I have since received the following information about Chen Zhimin from a source in Hong Kong:

On Aug. 18 and Aug. 19 in Lhasa, the largest meeting in recent memory was convened to discuss security issues as they relate to Tibet. Almost every province of China and every large city in the country was represented including — for the first time — Hong Kong. Chen Zhimin delivered the initial situation report at this meeting. The meeting however was chaired by Yang Huanning (杨焕宁), China’s foremost expert on counter-terrorism and Chen’s superior in the Public Security Ministry. The trip to Nepal by Chen could therefore be seen as only a prelude to the big meeting in Lhasa.

Also, Chen Zhimin is ranked 11th in the Public Security Ministry, making him its lowest-ranking vice minister. He quite naturally is a member of the Ministry’s Party Committee (all senior officials will be Party members and thus members) but he certainly is not a member of the Communist Party Central Committee (Minister Meng Jianzhu (孟建柱) and Vice Minister Yang mentioned above are however members of the Central Committee).

Friday, October 08, 2010

Liu Xiaobo wins 2010 Nobel Peace Prize

Imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize today for his defense of fundamental human rights in China. As expected, the announcement in Norway sparked a furious response from Beijing, which accused the Nobel committee of honoring a “criminal.” Chinese state media reportedly immediately blacked out the news and the authorities blocked Nobel Prize reports from Web sites. In a statement on Friday evening, the Presidential Office in Taipei congratulated Liu for the honor, calling it a “historic” Nobel win that not only honored the 54-year-old, but also all other human rights activists in China.

In 2008, Liu helped organize the “Charter 08” petition, a manifesto signed by hundreds of Chinese intellectuals that called for sweeping political reforms. He was sentenced in December to 11 years in prison for “subversion.”

Beguiled by Wen’s missile promise

Speculation has been rife in recent months that Washington might reconsider its policy on arms sales to Taiwan if Beijing agreed to dismantle, or at a minimum redeploy, the about 1,500 ballistic missiles pointing in Taiwan’s direction.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶), in New York to attend the UN General Assembly meeting late last month, added grist to the mill when, asked by reporters for his thoughts on withdrawing the missiles, he said: “I believe the issue you mention will be realized one day.”

Coincidentally, little more than a week later experts on Taiwanese and Chinese security gathered at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington to discuss the feasibility of such a scenario. Though unconventional in itself, what is particularly worrisome about the meeting is the fact that the fine points raised by participants could easily be missed, misconstrued, or conveniently ignored, as appears to be the case.

On paper, the idea of disarmament in the Taiwan Strait is worthy of serious consideration. However, if not handled carefully, talks on the matter could very well play into Beijing’s hands and end up hurting Taiwan.

Here are some of the problems associated with the recent enthusiasm surrounding the idea of demilitarizing the Taiwan Strait:

For one, there is less to Wen’s Sept. 22 remarks than meet the eye and nothing that he said justifies the positive reception they received in the media and from President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration. By not providing a timeline or context to his answer, “realized one day” could mean just about anything. In fact, Wen would not be lying if his “one day” meant the day when Taiwan is annexed by China, at which point deploying the missiles would be nonsensical.

Other Chinese officials and academics who have discussed the matter have also done so in general terms, an age-old tactic by Chinese officials that leaves too much room for interpretation for a problem of this magnitude.

Although a full redeployment — including the “entire infrastructure” of five missile brigades belonging to the Second Artillery’s 52 Base, as the Project 2049 Institute’s Mark Stokes, a speaker at the talks and a longtime advocate of arms sales to Taiwan, proposed at the conference, would represent a measure of “goodwill” and diminish the immediate threat to Taiwan, such a move would come with its own set of challenges.

My op-ed, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.