Tuesday, July 06, 2010

‘Bedeviled’ by near-sightedness

Washington Post reporter Keith Richburg (with staff writer John Pomfret and staff researchers in Beijing and Shanghai) had an irritating piece on cross-strait relations on June 30, which replicated a number of mistakes often made by international media.

The article, titled “China, Taiwan sign trade pact,” opens by regurgitating the old platitudes we have been reading about since Ma Ying-jeou came into office, from the 60 years of cross-strait hostility to Ma’s efforts to improve ties with China. It then paints a very rosy picture of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) signed by the two sides in Chongqing, China, last week, followed by this paragraph:

“U.S. officials, however, have predicted that the trade pact will not remove the issue of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan from a list of problems bedeviling Washington’s relations with Beijing,” followed by a reference to the US$6.4 billion arms package announced earlier this year, which the author tells us “prompted a withering response from China and a freezing of military ties with the United States.”

Let’s go back to the byline. It’s always problematic when a report that talks about Taiwan is written by people based in Beijing. When one sees such a byline, he or she should already know that the report will be lopsided and almost invariably reflect the official position in Beijing. That is a major handicap for Taiwan in terms of global media coverage: Only the major wire agencies have someone posted here, while newspapers can’t be bothered and rely on China-based reporters. This suggests that newspapers like the Washington Post and others should perhaps rely on freelancers a little more — that is, if balance were actually something their news desks value.

US arms sales are often characterized by such reports as “bedeviling” or “irritants.” Ironically, China’s threatening posture across the Taiwan Strait, the People’s Liberation Army’s hardline policy on Taiwan, and the 1,500 missiles it targets it with are never called “bedeviling” or “irritants” to Washington’s relations with Beijing, as if it were perfectly normal to thus threaten a peaceful neighbor. It’s a chicken-or egg-kind of thing, and the US sells weapons to Taiwan because China continues to threaten it, not the other way around.

Turning to the supposed benefits of the ECFA (relying, among others, on the always-dependable state-controlled Xinhua news agency, as well as Taiwan’s semi-official Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research*), the article says “Also, Taiwan has been badly battered by the global economic crisis that began in 2008. It was unable to jump-start its export-oriented economy without full and free access to China’s massive market,” which is factually untrue, as Taiwan has just experienced six months of almost unprecedented growth in exports — all prior to the signing of the ECFA last week.

The entire article only provides this on opposition to the trade agreement: “Still, the pact has generated intense resistance in Taiwan, particularly from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party [DPP], which favors more independence from the mainland and fears that opening Taiwan’s markets will lead to the island being economically swamped by China.” No explanations or quotes from DPP officials, as if the passage were mere filler, an afterthought rather than representative of views shared by many Taiwanese.

Immediately after this paragraph, the article quotes Xu Shiquan, former director of Taiwan Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, as referring to the ECFA as a “milestone.”

There have been many reports about the potential negative impacts of the ECFA on Taiwan, both in terms of its economy and sovereignty. Why the Post could not be bothered to at least quote from one of them, let alone mention one, either stems from the paper’s lack of boots on the ground in Taiwan, or its lack of interest in providing more balanced reporting.

* The institution was founded with an establishment fund totaling NT$1 billion, with NT$900 million coming from the central government and the ROC-US Economic and Social Development Fund, and the remaining NT$100 million being donated by the industrial and business sectors.

See also, on the subject of the ECFA, my unsigned editorial on the pan-blue media hoping the DPP will refrain from engaging in partisan politics in the review of the trade agreement by the legislature.

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