Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Taiwan’s future

Mediocrity and self-interest are far too often the norm in Taiwan. Given the existential threat it faces, the nation cannot afford this to go on, and there are people who are doing something about it

It’s been almost eight years now since I dropped everything in Canada and moved to Taiwan, a country about which at the time I only had a superficially academic knowledge of. Since then I have, in some ways, gone “native” by getting very close to the grassroots, the local vendor, the man on the street, the victim of forced evictions, the farmer whose land has been stolen by the state, and the idealistic youth that is rising to do something about it.

Through my work as a journalist, I’ve had the opportunity (sometimes the honor) of meeting presidents (three of them), ministers, senior government officials, legislators, politicians, diplomats, top academics, business leaders, generals, ace pilots, journalists, and many other individuals who make, and often are, the news.

Sad to say, but the majority of them were either mediocre, cowards, self-interested, self-promoting, Taiwanese-hating in disguise, or completely enthralled by the money god. Many couldn’t look beyond their banks accounts, the next elections, or an opportunity to get some publicity. Most cruise through life as if Taiwan isn’t facing an existential threat. Media moguls who purportedly fight for liberal values and Taiwan’s democracy behave no better than the worst tyrants on the other side of the Strait, mistreating their employees and altogether corrupting the very values they are supposed to defend. Taiwan first and liberty foremost? Think again. My bank account and land development — employees and Taiwanese, to hell with them. That’s more like it.

Such feebleness of mind and heart, such lies, would already be problematic in a “normal” country, but is all the more worrying in a country like Taiwan, whose existence and way of life are threatened by an authoritarian giant. How could Taiwan possibly meet that challenge when the people who are in charge of defending it are cowards, mental midgets, really, who require no more than the bare minimum from the people under them, and who will punish those who actually care and are willing to fight for this place? Such cowardice, the worst sin of all, as Mikhail Bulgakov wrote in The Master and Margarita, is nothing less than treason. How right he was…

Yes; I’ve brushed elbows with them, have attended banquets in their honor, interviewed them, written about them, and been employed by them. And you know what? None of them matter, for towering above them, like the tallest of Formosa’s majestic mountains, are the youth I have gotten to know in the past year — educated, politically aware, untouched by the corrupting money out there, driven not by the promise of glory but by a sense of justice, by injustice, by a desire to stand side by side with society’s most vulnerable against its most powerful. They are the students and activists who make short shrift of the mediocrities that pass off as ministers in this country, who will stop at nothing to defend and help define that which makes Taiwan unique. They are the residents of Dapu, Huaguang, Losheng, Yuanli and Taidong who have proudly and honorably fought for what is theirs when the government abused its authority to steal from them. I have learned so much more from them in the past year than I have in the previous seven cavorting with the rich and the powerful.

People speak of tearing down the government. I fear that doing so is only part of the mission ahead. A whole system has ossified that needs tearing down.

Where the future lies
It’s been an honor to get to know them, to watch them in action, and to document what they have been doing in the name of the country they call home. More than anyone, and despite the derision and criticism leveled at them (when in fact they should be celebrated for their ideals), they, above all, know where Taiwan’s essence lies.

“It is a sign of a nation’s extinction when there begin to be gods in common. When there are gods in common, they die along with the belief in them and with the nations themselves,” Fyodor Dostoevsky once wrote.

That god is money. Taiwan’s activist youth knows there is a different god out there, one that animates their beautiful country. (Photos by the author)

Monday, August 26, 2013

Just so you know, we’re watching you

Police paid a visit to the father of a female lead singer on Sunday and not so subtly let him know that his daughter, who performed during the 816 rally in Miaoli, was on their radar screen

Police states and authoritarian regime often need not crack down on citizens to ensure “social order.” All they need to do is let the potentially restive citizenry — the targets themselves, or in traditional Confucian societies, the parents — that they’re being watched. In most cases, the implicit threat is sufficient to deter individuals from participating in social movements or to take action against the authorities.

Taiwan, of course, is not a police state, and it shed authoritarianism more than two decades ago. But even today, through a mix of antiquated regulations and a tendency among political leaders to occasionally dip their toes in the dark waters of past practices, incidents occur that should make us pause.

As I have written in previous posts, mostly in reference to the protests surrounding the July 18 forced evictions and demolitions in Dapu (大埔), Miaoli County, the government has in some instances resorted to questionable practices in its handling of public discontent. On a few occasions, “special zones” were created to separate protesters from senior Cabinet figures. Police have sometimes grabbed random individuals whose sole crime was to wear a red T-shit (a color often associated with the activists) and to be walking near an area where a protest was taking place. Law enforcement officers, sometimes unidentified, have been asking people to show their I.D. or the latter, refusing, risk being taken away. Journalists have on occasion seen their access denied, and in a few instances were physically removed by police or plainclothes officers. The National Security Bureau has become involved in countering the protests, and in Miaoli itself, the police force has acted more as a personal guard to the local despot and the man behind most of the controversies, County Commissioner Liu Cheng-hong (劉政鴻), than as a lawful guarantor of public safety.

Now, realizing that browbeating by politicians, hard measures by police and disproportionate fines and sentences by the courts are failing to break the movement apart, the government seems to have shifted tactic by letting a few key individuals know that they’re being watched. It’s too soon to tell whether what follows was simply a local initiative, or part of something more widespread. We’ll have to keep an eye out for these things.

On Sunday the father of Lala Lin (林羿含), the lead singer of the metal band Eye of Violence, was visited by police officers at his residence in Tainan and informed that his daughter, who had performed during the Aug. 16 rally in front of the Miaoli City Hall, was — how should we put it? — “on their radar screen.” In other words, they were aware of her “activities,” and she was being watched.

As Lin rightly pointed out, such “warnings” are usually reserved for individuals who actually pose a threat to society, such as juvenile delinquents, hooligans, or people who have committed major crimes. Apparently, showing solidarity with the residents of Dapu whose homes were demolished is now such a crime. We should note that this kind of police behavior also occurred ahead of the visit by then-Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林) in November 2008.

Of course, once this was made public, the National Police Administration had its explanations and maintained that this was a misunderstanding, that the visit to the Lin household was a show of “goodwill” to ensure “good communication” between law enforcement authorities and activists.


Friday, August 23, 2013

State-sponsored intimidation

In what surely was a break with protocol, police officers were present at a hearing in Taipei this week to discuss safe distances for wind turbines. And they had their cameras turned on the villagers

While the Dapu (大埔) “crisis” is receiving all the attention nowadays, people from Yuanli (苑裡), a little chunk of land in Miaoli County, also continued their long battle this week against the German wind turbine firm InfraVest (英華威集團), which with government complicity has been allowed to gerrymander environmental regulations and erect wind turbines too close to residents’ homes.

As I have exposed in a previous article, the firm has already relied on “muscle” — hired thugs, really — to keep protesters at bay and, when necessary, to rough them up, while police looks on. Police inaction over the repeated incidents isn’t altogether unsurprising, given that the entire local force seems to be under the direct control of Miaoli County Commissioner Liu Cheng-hung (劉政鴻) and that of his thuggish family.

Now, there is nothing new in collusion between county chiefs, the local police, and the judiciary, an unholy triumvirate that is well ensconced in Liu’s Miaoli. But there is more. Inexplicably, the central government and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) have equally backed up Liu, whose haughtiness and indifference to his constituents’ suffering (not to mention four highly suspicious “suicides” by individuals close to his administration) may well have made him the most despised individual in the nation.

That includes InfraVest. For months now, the central government — including the National Police Administration — has ignored the violations in Yuanli and basically gave the firm’s thugs a green light to act as an extrajudicial force.

It gets worse. On Aug. 20, the Bureau of Energy, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Presidential Human Rights Advisory Committee held a meeting in Taipei to discuss the matter of adequate distance for wind turbines and, we are told, to “maximize public participation.” However, there were so many procedural problems with the meeting, which was termed an “experimental hearing,” that it is difficult not to regard it as a joke — if only public money were not wasted on it.

For one thing, the “experimental hearing” had no authority to enforce anything; it was just people talking. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that (we’re all for all sides in a dispute to sit down and try to reach a consensus), here’s the catch: Before the hearing had begun, a large number of individuals associated with InfraVest had “signed up” for the event, which left precious few seats for Yuanli residents and environmental NGOs. In other words, opponents of the project were selected out even before the hearing was held. Oddly, many of the people who had registered never materialized during the meeting.

It gets better. Several police officers and members of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) were inside the venue during the hearing, which in itself is an odd departure from protocol. Moreover, several law enforcement officers held video cameras; individuals who were present (I failed to attend it myself) told me the cops only filmed whenever the villagers were speaking or asking questions. The inevitable intimidation associated with this act, and the selectiveness of its targets, are evidently cause for worry. It made suspects of individuals who have done no wrong, while clearly telling them that the powers that be are clearly siding with the local government and the German firm.

This is highly improper and warrants further investigation. But in the current environment, where the state and the corporate sector are increasingly showing disdain for individuals who stand in their way, there is little to be surprised about. (Photo by the author)

No missiles required: How China is buying Taiwan’s 're-unification'

Since 2009, four rounds of cross-strait investment liberalization have occurred. All play into efforts by Beijing to tighten its grip on the island and turn its democracy against itself 
While experts continue to look at the rapidly expanding military capabilities of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the greatest threat to Taiwan’s sovereignty, Beijing would much prefer bringing about “re-unification” without having to fire a single missile. Ongoing cross-strait investment liberalization could help make that possible.
The key to the strategy is two-fold. First, flooding Taiwan’s economy with Chinese investment and second, ensuring that a greater number of Chinese are in positions of authority on the island.
My article, published today in The Diplomat, continues here. (Photo by the author)

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

On the true nature of violence

However hard the authorities try to twist reality, we can tell the difference between activism and violence, victims and perpetrators

Hit by waves of protests over the past month against state-sanctioned forced evictions and demolitions, the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration has been very creative in how it characterizes the incidents, defining (for prosecutorial purposes) mere misdemeanor as crimes, and spray-painting, egg-throwing and sit-ins, as “violent.”

It’s obvious that in portraying the activists as “violent,” the government hopes to discredit them and thereby turn public opinion in its favor. It hopes to create the image of a law-abiding, rational government repeatedly assailed by groups of young, irrational and violent individuals — Dostoevsky’s demons, if you will. Reasonable Cabinet ministers offer to sit down and have tea; unreasonable protesters respond with slogans, flash protests, and “raids” on ministry buildings.

Minster of the Interior Lee Hong-yuan (李鴻源) pushed that concept further earlier this week when he likened the incident at the MOI during the night of Aug. 18-19 to attacks on McDonald’s outlets. Silly comparisons aside (for all its ills, McDonald’s isn’t in the business of governance, nor does it tear down people’s homes), Lee should know better than to compare the affixing of “fuck the government” stickers and the spray painting of graffiti to smashed windows. He should also know that for more than three years before the recent incidents, victims, supporters, NGOs and lawyers had exhausted every legal means possible to resolve the matter, all in vain.

The only real violence in the Dapu (大埔) and Huaguang (華光) cases, to name just two, has been perpetrated by the state apparatus against ordinary — and in many cases defenseless — citizens. Besides the demolitions, the state has also levied heavy fines and filed various lawsuits against individuals and families who fought back, a form of economic violence whose impact on the victims’ livelihood is quite severe. In some cases, it is devastating. Violence is tearing down a home with all the occupants’ personal effects still in it, which were subsequently dumped, tattered, dirtied, into a field, creating images reminiscent of cities devastated by a hurricane. It is the psychological damage caused a father who has developed clinical paranoia as a result of the ordeal.

At the Jhunan coffee shop
Violence is the smashing, by an unknown individual, of the windows at the Jhunan (竹南) coffee shop in Miaoli County, where activists involved in the protests against the Dapu demolitions usually gather to discuss their plans. Violence is when Chen Wei-ting (陳為廷), a charismatic student activist who has spearheaded the protests in Miaoli, is informed (as he wrote on his Facebook page today) that a certain “government official” has allegedly instructed local gangsters to “take care of him.” There is an abundance of violence in Miaoli, which under the commissionership of Liu Cheng-hung (劉政鴻), a perfect imitation of the local Chinese despot type, has very fast turned into Taiwan’s version of the “Far West.” It manifests itself in Liu’s turning the local police force into his personal militia, when a police officer walks by a peaceful candlelit vigil near Liu’s home bearing an assault rifle, or when a senior police officer orders media he doesn’t like to be “taken out.” It rears its ugly head when InfraVest, a German wind power firm, relies on the local police force and hired thugs to beat up local villagers in Yuanli (苑裡) who oppose the construction of the wind turbines much too close to their homes.

All these are instances of violence — physical, psychological and economic. However hard the authorities try to twist reality, we can tell the difference between activism and violence, and between victims and perpetrators. (Top photo by the author, second photo by the Defend Miaoli Youth Union)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Taiwan’s media divide and the threat of advertisement denial

More and more, media outlets that toe the official line are rewarded with ad placements, while those that refuse to do so are punished by the denial of such revenue

If you want to know how the nexus of big money, corporations, and China intends to elbow out the free press in Taiwan, you need look no further than the front pages of Monday’s major Chinese-language dailies.

The contrast could not be more evident. On one side you find the Liberty Times and the Apple Daily; the former is associated with the “green camp,” while the latter is for the most part “colorless” and regards everybody as fair game for criticism.

The Aug. 19 front page of the Apple Daily is entirely dedicated to the events from the night before, starting with the large protest on Ketagalan Blvd against forced evictions and the subsequent occupation of the Ministry of the Interior building. The Apple Daily complements its front page with a total of nine pictures of the events. None of this is surprising, as of all the major Chinese-language dailies in Taiwan, the Apple Daily has by far had the most sustained and in-dept coverage of the months-long series of protests.

For its part, the Liberty Times dedicates a little less than half its front page to the protests, accompanied by two pictures. Despite the space given on the front page, activists have been rather critical of the Liberty Times’ coverage of the protests over the weeks, which we can partly explain by the fact that the owner of the Liberty Times Group is also a major land developer.

The two other main dailies, the United Daily News and the China Times, tell a very different story. In fact, they tell no story at all, as the front pages of both carry a full-page ad by Chanel. There is nothing surprising here, as both publications have repeatedly downplayed, if not altogether ignored, the protests on land issues, and both are close to big business, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), and China.

In a free society with a free press, what editors put on the front page is for them to decide, and we can assume that those decisions reflect the preferences of the audience that pays for the product. But there is something else, something far more worrying, about Taiwan’s media divide — advertising revenue.

More and more, and as China exerts its influence on Taiwan’s media environment, revenue will be an important factor in the viability of news organizations. Media outlets that toe the corporate/government/China line will be rewarded with ad placements, while those that refuse to do so will be punished by the denial of such revenue. Over time, the impact on the media environment could be severe, with outlets that continue to regard the press as an instrument by which to speak truth to power see their advertising revenue dry out, while those that choose to engage in an complicit relationship with the powers that be, or that self-censor for the benefit of the rich and the powerful, are showered with highly profitable ad placements. The greater Taiwan’s financial dependence on China, the more serious will the revenue crisis become within the media industry, and consequently, the greater the pressure will be on editors to avoid “problematic” news articles.

Yes, in this day and age, this is a problem that media organizations all over the world are facing. But in Taiwan’s case, there is an additional (external) variable, and that is China’s desire to eradicate Taiwan’s democratic way of life, and along with it its free press. (Photo by the author)

Monday, August 19, 2013

With protests, size isn’t everything (中文 link at bottom)

Which is best: One big protest followed by a return to normal, or a series of smaller ones that keep the issues alive?

Several thousand protesters opposing forced evictions and demolitions were at it again on Sunday evening with a mass rally in front of the Presidential Office, followed by a raid on the Ministry of the Interior, which about 2,000 protesters occupied for well over 12 hours.

Barricades on Ketagalan Blvd
According to estimates by the organizers, close to 20,000 people (this seems a bit high), including 15 self-help organizations, gathered on Ketagalan Blvd from 5pm for the rally, which included a series of talks and musical performances, all to do with the many cases of state-sanctioned land theft, destruction of agricultural land, forced evictions, and demolitions that have spread like cancer across the nation recently. Although some of the cases highlighted at the event have gone on for more than a decade, the catalyst was the July 18 demolition of four homes in Dapu (大埔), Miaoli County.

The crowd cheers in support on 818
A number of artists, including the rock band The Fireman and hip hopers Kou Chou Ching (拷秋勤), as well as film director Ke Yi-cheng (柯一正), continued their longstanding support for the cause, as did a number of academics who delivered the occasional fiery speech (my employer Lin Rong-san [林榮三], a major land developer, was not spared).

As things wrapped up a little after 9:30pm, Frida Tsai (蔡培慧), the Taiwan Rural Front spokeswoman, announced that the protest was to continue with a raid on — and egging of — the Executive Yuan, which had already been the victim of an “attack” last Thursday.

A member of the Zhang family
As about 2,000 of the protesters joined the spear of humanity that headed towards the seat of the Cabinet, I began having doubts about the effectiveness of making the announcement about the raid on the EY so public, and also thought that the slow mobilization would give police ample time to prepare for the protesters, if not block off the area altogether.

A fellow journalist accosted me and said he’d heard there was a “plan a” and a “plan b.” According to him, “plan a” was the EY, while “plan b” was the Ministry of the Interior (MOI), which we were just about to pass by. “There’s tons of police in front of the EY,” he said, “but nobody at the MOI.”

Stickers affixed to the back door at the MOI
The entire group stopped at a red light, with organizers making sure that nobody crossed the street. It dawned on me that “plan a” had been abandoned after all. “Plan b” it was, whereupon by the hundreds young protesters stormed the low-lying fences round the ministry building and easily overwhelmed the small police detachment outside (I have since been informed that “plan a” was a decoy; the MOI was the target from the beginning). I followed them in. Protesters poured in from all sides of the building and parked themselves by the front and back entrances. By the time a larger police force arrived at the scene, several windows and walls had been spray-painted or papered over with the by-now ubiquitous “Fuck the government” stickers. A few eggs were also lobbed at the walls, and for a second time in as many months this reporter’s camera was a victim of the slimy substance (the first instance was during a protest in front of KMT headquarters).

Artists spray graffiti by the main gate
Later on, after sporadic pushing and shoving with police — the descriptor “violence” mischaracterizes the nature of the incidents — rather talented graffiti artists began working on a large fresco on the grounds of the main entrance of the building, which truth be told is among the most drab of all government offices in Taipei. As the vapors turned the night into a ghostly scene, I’d had enough and went home a little after midnight, leaving it to others to witness and document what was going on.

The protesters occupied the building until mid-day on Monday and promised to return if their demands were not met. Later that day, the Taiwan Rural Front filed a lawsuit against Miaoli County Commissioner Liu Cheng-hung (劉政鴻) for corruption in various land deals.

I can already hear it, as I’ve heard it many times before: This is all good, Michael, but a few thousand people isn’t enough to convince the government to mend its ways; what Taiwan needs is mobilization of the type and scale seen in Egypt, or Tunisia, or Syria. Otherwise, the protesters will simply be ignored.

There are several problems with that argument. The first, most obvious one is the fact that none of the countries with which Taiwan is being compared are functional democracies. Without democratic outlets, the public is likelier to resort to more “extreme” measures to voice its discontent with the authorities or seek to unseat the government altogether.

Two other and related important factors are the size of the 15-24 age population — a key variable in political instability — and levels of unemployment. A quick look at those categories helps explain why sustained protest campaigns in Taiwan have not achieved mobilization rates anywhere near as in the other three countries. According to the CIA World Factbook, people in the 15-24 age group represent: Egypt (18%); Tunisia (16.5%); Syria (20.8%) and Taiwan (14.3%) of the total population. The median age in those countries is 24.8, 31, 22.7 and 38.7 respectively. Already, we can see that Taiwan has fewer young people as a share of total population available to fuel the ranks of protests.

Here’s where it gets really interesting. Unemployment within the same age bracket is as follows: Egypt (24.8%, or 2.79 million); Tunisia (30.7%, or 553,500); Syria (19.2%, or 883,200); Taiwan (4.2%, or 130,000). In other words, Taiwan has fewer young people as a percentage of the population, and most of them are either employed or, given their country’s advanced economy, obtaining an advanced education. It should not be surprising, then, that the number of young Taiwanese taking to the streets is much lower than elsewhere, not because they don’t care about the issues or aren’t making a difference in other ways (e.g., helping with Web sites, short films, art work, &c), but because they have a job, or class, or oftentimes both.

Moreover, beyond the behind-the-scenes work referenced above, we must also consider whether large numbers of protesters showing up at a rally are sufficient, in and of themselves, to count as a successful means of pressuring the government. How often in the post-authoritarian era have large protests — say, those assembling 200,000 or more protesters — succeeded in forcing the government’s hand? Since the KMT regained power in 2008, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has held a number of such protests, the most recent one being the “Fury” (火大) in January 2013. Time and again, such protests have been held, only for the government to ignore them altogether and continue with what it was doing. Those were one-shot public expressions; people were bussed to Taipei, they waved flags and placards, shouted slogans, and went back home the same evening.

Contrast this with the recent wave of protests over Dapu or the several other issues over which today’s youth, supported by academics and other groups, have mobilized. Though a much smaller number of participants are involved, the protests and guerrilla-style flash rallies, music, videos, and a very original use of visual arts, have managed to keep the issues alive over several months by ensuring that they continue to be the subject of debate on TV talk shows and in newspapers. How long did people continue talking about “Fury” after the streets were cleaned?

Ultimately, protests are a battle for hearts and minds, a competition for public opinion waged between those in power and those who aren’t. Large protests are rarely a spontaneous outburst and instead build-up over time until a certain line is crossed (e.g., the protest group wins the battle for hearts and minds), or people lose complete faith in the system and decide to overturn it. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 didn’t happen overnight, nor did it initially involve a large segment of Iranian society, however unhappy they were under the Shah’s repressive regime. This, in fact, partly explains why the CIA was caught unprepared when the revolution occurred. I would bet that the Jasmine Revolution was also preceded by much smaller and more localized protests that didn’t generate interest abroad. We only know of the larger, destructive ones, but that’s a direct result of the nature of today’s international media.

It’s still far too early to predict that the current movement in Taiwan will manage to effect radical, or structural, change; but it is equally much too early to discount it as a possible instrument for durable change. (All photos by the author)

NEW! A Chinese version of this article is available here.

For God’s sake (and ours), stay out of our bedrooms

One’s perception of his/her gender and identity, as well as one’s sexual preferences aren’t choices, nor are they something that can be ‘healed’

The transgender couple Jiyi Ng (吳芷儀) and Abbygail Wu (吳伊婷) won a major round in the road of freedom earlier this month when a committee of experts at the Ministry of the Interior overturned an earlier decision to nullify their legal marriage. But now that the government has done what is right, an ever more archaic organization is trying to rain on their parade — Christians.

In e-mails and call-ins on TV shows, conservative minds — many of them Christians — have felt it was their right (God-given, presumably) to decide how others should live their lives.

It usually goes something like this, and according to Abbygail’s Facebook page, that’s how it went: “I respect you [Abbygail and Jiyi] but …” The key is the “but,” which imposes a conditionality on the first part of the sentence. I respect you, but in order for me to respect you, you must live according to the rules established and/or upheld by me or my co-religionists. It follows that if one fails to meet such “standards,” he or she isn’t worthy of that respect.

Discrimination and rigid interpretations of the Book aside, this type of behavior also stems from ignorance or, equally likely, a closing of the mind and the heart. How often I have heard otherwise intelligent and kind individuals say of my mother (who is homosexual and legally married in Canada): “I love her,” “I would embrace her,” but I would also pray to God so that she can correct her ways, or “heal,” as if homosexuality were a disease or the free choice of a bad habit (why perfectly sane people would choose to “become” something that remains an object of such hateful discrimination simply boggles the mind).

Homosexuality, one’s perception of his/her gender and identity, and one’s sexual preference(s) aren’t choices, nor are they something that can be healed by psychologists, psychiatrists, witch doctors, faith healers, priests, imams, or the robotic repetition of texts written by frauds over the ages. Those are innate characteristics rooted in biology. If there were such a thing as a benevolent being above us, he/she/it certainly wouldn’t have allowed for the existence of alternative biological preferences that one has absolutely no power to choose at his/her birth. And surely, a person who truly aspires to goodness would embrace the variety of life in its fullest expression and not regard it as something to be loathed, feared, or “fixed.”

For God’s sake (and ours), please don’t force your prejudices and your religion (the two are often indivisible) into our homes … let alone our bedrooms. (Photo by the author)

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Fear not Chinese missiles — towels are the real threat

Activists at a Dapu protest on Ketagalan Blvd
Following ‘complaints,’ Yahoo has pulled a famous towel from its auction site 

Many symbols have emerged in recent months over the protests against forced evictions, the demolition of people’s homes and other forms of government/developer predations. One of the most famous ones is the now ubiquitous “Civil Revolt” towel sported by the popular hip hop band Kou Chou Ching (拷秋勤).

Recently, the band members, who have openly supported the various causes that have led to civilian mobilization against the authorities, put up the black-and-white towels for sale on the Yahoo portal. All the proceeds were to be donated to the Taiwan Rural Front, an NGO that has led the charge in supporting the victims of demolitions, including the most recent ones in Dapu (大埔), Miaoli County.

Now, according to a post by band member Chen Liljay (陳威仲) late on Friday, Yahoo has removed the towels from its site following alleged protests by individuals whose identity has not been revealed, but can certainly be guessed at. The reason? The product was deemed “dangerous.”

I will let the reader be the judge of whether such action as taken by Yahoo was warranted, and what it says about the state of freedom of expression in Taiwan. But ask yourself this: Is civil unrest fueled by the sale of towels with a few radical words printed on them, or is it the result of mounting public frustration with a government that has repeatedly used and abused the law to its advantage and shown only contempt and disregard for the defenseless who, as fate would have it, happen to stand in the way of the enrichment of a few? (Photo by the author)

Friday, August 16, 2013

Taiwan unveils road-mobile “carrier killer” launcher

A land-based version of the anti-ship missile will add depth to Taiwan’s ability to interdict areas in the Taiwan Strait 

In yet another sign that Taiwan is taking the threat of a Chinese sea attack seriously, the Taiwan Navy this week introduced a land-based version of the indigenous Hsiung Feng “Brave Wind” 3 (HF-3) supersonic anti-ship cruise missile at the Taipei Aerospace & Defense Technology Exhibition (TADTE).

Designed by the Armaments’ Bureau's Chung Shan Institute of Science and Technology (CSIST), the HF-3 “carrier killer” was the highlight of TADTE 2011, where it was showcased as a direct response to China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, which had just embarked on its maiden sea trial. The display showed an aircraft carrier that bore a striking resemblance to the Liaoning being repeatedly struck by HF-3 missiles.

HF-3 land-based launcher prototype on display
Production of the ramjet-powered supersonic anti-ship missile began in 2007. Since then, Cheng Kung-class (Perry) and Ching Chiang-class vessels have been outfitted with the HF-3, which can reach targets within a range of 130km. A new 500-ton radar-evasive fast attack corvette, which is also featured at TADTE 2013, will also be outfitted with the HF-3.

TADTE 2013 runs from Aug. 15 through Aug. 18 at the World Trade Center Exhibition Hall 1.

My article, published today in The Diplomat, continues here. (Photos by the author)

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Journalists under assault in Taiwan

The ongoing assault on press freedoms is real, and in recent cases it has had nothing to do with China or investment in the media by China-friendly business tycoons

It occurred early in the morning of Aug. 15. A small group of anti-forced evictions activists pretending to be part of a Chinese tour group stormed past the front gate of the Executive Yuan and threw paint and eggs at the building before being overpowered by police.

Just as this was happening, Edd Jhong, a Public Television System (PTS) reporter who had gotten wind of the operation and who was documenting the event was manhandled by six police officers. They surrounded him and dragged him away. A number of them were plainclothes officers who refused to identify themselves. According to accounts, Jhong was told he could not document the breaking news because he had failed to register with them first. (A source in the judicial system informs me that the two protesters who were eventually arrested by police over the incident were taken to a police station and kept there in handcuffs throughout the afternoon, despite strong opposition by lawyers. Expect once again fines and/or sentences that are way out of proportion to the “crime” committed.)

PTS journalist Edd Jhong is dragged away by police
This incident is the latest in a series of assaults on press freedom in Taiwan in recent weeks as the government comes under fire over a number of issues involving land grab and the demolition of people’s homes by the state. Amid escalating protest, police have repeatedly prevented accredited journalists from gaining access to various venues. Even when press passes and credentials were shown, police officers replied with a dismissive wave of the hand or curt responses like “I don’t care, go away.”

I first experienced this in late April during a round of demolitions at the Huaguang (華光) community in Taipei, where authority figures at the site suddenly asked all journalists present to provide additional credentials so they could be issued a badge. This was unprecedented. Anyone who did not obtain a badge would be immediately expelled. The night before, several journalists had complained about police blocking them access to the site. I showed by pass and was given a badge, but several others had to leave.

I witnessed this again during a July 18 protest in front of the Presidential Office over the demolition of four homes in Dapu (大埔), Miaoli County. The first instance was when police cordoned off the area when they began taking protesters away on a bus. The directive was clear and heard by all: “Pull the journalists out,” which made it very difficult for us to document what was going on.

Then, amid the chaos, a three-star police officer pushed me with his shield and screamed at me that I should go away because this wasn’t my country, as if there were no foreign press in Taiwan, with the same rights and responsibilities as local ones. Yes, this was an isolated incident, and yes, it probably tells us more about that particular officer’s xenophobia than the police force in general, but in the current context, it is nonetheless worth mentioning.

Following today’s incident, the Association of Taiwan Journalists (ATJ) issued as statement condemning how police manhandled Mr. Jhong and prevented him from carrying out his duties. The ATJ had already complained about similar incidents at Huaguang.

A protester is held in front of the EY
What the authorities need to understand is that journalists have sources, and that those sources will often share information with them under the premise of confidentiality. Unless the information given them concerns plans to cause serious injury or mass casualties, journalists are under no obligation to alert the authorities, or to reveal their sources. In the present case, “registering” with the authorities prior to the protest would have nipped the act in the bud and alerted police to the planned direct action — a betrayal of sorts; and for journalists, there’s no graver crime than to burn a source.

The ongoing assault on press freedoms is real, and in recent cases it has nothing to do with China or investment in the media by China-friendly business tycoons. Its principal cause is the direct result of an administration that fears bad publicity. The demolitions in Huaguang and Dapu, and the reaction to them, have sparked a strong reaction among Taiwanese, partly because of the government’s apparent indifference to people’s suffering, but also because the victims were ordinary people who could be anyone’s mother of father. Scenes of houses being torn down and of the owners wailing nearby are hard to ignore, just as are those of protesters clashing with police over the same issues. The government’s response is always that people should protest “calmly” and “rationally.” But the very people whose lives have been turned upside down by state rapacity did just that for years, and look what good that did them. People have had enough, and the measures taken are becoming more extreme: eggs and paint bombs are lobbed at public offices, and in the process create images that the authorities would rather were not made public.

Just like terrorism, which I studied and made my profession (that it, the countering of it) for a number of years, direct action requires publicity if it is to be effective. If something like the raid on the Executive Yuan this morning occurs without anyone present to document it, it will have little, if any, impact on policy decisions. Images, drama, are necessary, and journalists are in the best position to provide them.  

Hence the assault on journalists, especially the growing number of reporters who are now siding with the victims rather than the government.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Ma lives in fear of his people

Rather than meet the many challenges he faces on the home front, Ma is running away and confirms growing doubts about his ability to lead for the three years he has left in office 

With public approval ratings that have sunk to levels even below those of former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) at his nadir and assailed by both the pan-green and pan-blue camps over his government’s execrable performance in recent months, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) ongoing trip abroad could revamp his image.

However, based on his performance in New York, where he made a brief stop earlier this week, that is unlikely to happen. Foreign trips are a tried, tested and, above all, convenient opportunity for struggling national leaders to garner support by reaching out to overseas compatriots and brushing elbows with influential figures. However, Ma, whose approval ratings are approaching single-digit figures — in striking contrast with his 90 percent support rating in his re-election as Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) chairman last month — did not feel that it was necessary to reach out in this way.

This unsigned editorial, which will be my last article for the Taipei Times, continues here. (Photo by the author)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Amendment to court martial procedure compounds the problem (中文 link at bottom)

Imposing civilian prosecutors and judges on an insular institution like the military is a recipe for trouble

The amendment to the Code of Court Martial Procedure (軍事審判法) passed on Aug. 6, whereby military personnel accused of crimes will now be tried in civilian courts, may be an extremely big change to the legal system, as some commentators have put it, but don’t let the hype deceive you: it is highly unlikely that the new regulations will help prevent future abuse in the armed forces — in fact, they could make matters worse.

It is rightly tempting to regard the amendment, along with the end to the court martial system (at least in peacetime), with optimism. After all, the poor handling by military prosecutors of the case of Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘), who died on July 4 after being mistreated by his superiors, was the direct cause of mounting pressure on the government to reform the system under which such cases are investigated and tried.

The lack of transparency, along with well-founded suspicions that members of the armed forces are protecting one another, would suggest that the best way to handle abuse in the military is to bring in an external regulatory agency — in this case, civilian prosecutors and courts, who do not have the institutional and personal binds that insulate members of the armed forces.

The hope is that investigators, prosecutors and judges who have no personal stake in the military will be able to go where their counterparts in the forces would not, for one reason or another, dare venture. Civilians will therefore be able to cast a light into the darkness of the military clique and, it is hoped, end the corruption and abuse that has been only partly exposed via Hung’s unfortunate fate and that of others who have come out since.

However, here’s the catch: There is absolutely no guarantee that the “extremely big change” will perform the miracles that are expected of it. In fact, as anyone who has worked in secretive government communities such as the military or intelligence will tell you, the introduction of external “meddlers” — and this is exactly how civilian prosecutors will be perceived — will likely make it more, not less, difficult to adequately investigate and try crimes committed in the ranks.

The reason is simple: Agencies involved in matters of national security are not, by their nature, altruistic, and will often refuse to share information with others on the grounds, often valid, that doing so would compromise national security. The classification of information and the use of restricted areas used by defense and intelligence agencies are enough to prevent access to individuals or institutions that do not have the proper clearances, especially when the latter come from the civilian side.

Such agencies are already parsimonious in their sharing of information with the arms-length (albeit still “internal”) oversight bodies — military tribunals, review committees, etc — that have been set up to monitor their activities. Giving the responsibility to investigate and try crimes to external civilians will only compound the problem.

There will never be a guarantee that civilians will have 100 percent access to the material and evidence they need to investigate and try a case; historical precedent, including this writer’s personal experiences in the intelligence community, shows that perfect cooperation does not occur, and that institutions involved in matters of national security will be very selective in what they pass on to civilians. What is worse is that aside from not being given all the material, there is no way for civilians to know whether something (and if so, what) is being kept from them. In other words, they cannot know what it is that they don’t know.

What has been hailed as a rare instance of bipartisan action in the legislature in modern times could end up ensuring that the people who are put in charge of investigating crimes in the military are unable to do so. Facing a mounting scandal, legislators and government officials were understandably compelled to do something, and the revisions to the Code are just that — something.

However, this is not the remedy that the situation calls for. What is required is thorough reform within the military court system and a direct assault on the longstanding practices in the armed forces that make abuse and corruption possible in the first place. Undoubtedly, doing so means tackling vested interests within an institution that civilians have always apprehended. But if the rot that threatens to collapse this indispensable component of the nation’s ability to defend its way of life is to be cleansed once and for all, politicians and legislators will have to overcome their fears and do what is necessary. Half-baked measures adopted for nothing more than political expediency will not suffice. (Photo by the author)

NEW! A Chinese version of this article is available here.

Friday, August 09, 2013

The circus in Miaoli continues

A protester, right, and Commissioner Liu on placard
The Miaoli City Hall has denied a group’s application to stage a rally on Aug. 16 on grounds that it would ‘disturb’ nearby offices and schools

Having received what appears looks like a carte blanche from the central government to do as he seems, Miaoli County Commissioner Liu Cheng-hung (劉政鴻) still isn’t satisfied with demolishing people’s homes and farmland, fining them, deploying police with assault rifles, and performing what can only be explained as magic to “redistribute” high-value plots of land to his close family members via a “lottery.” Warlord Liu is now directly attacking people’s right to assemble.

Liu, who reportedly spent NT$16,000 of our hard-earned money as taxpayers per night on hotels during a recent visit to China, has gotten away with a lot of violations over the years, so much so that people’s immediate reaction when local residents complain of abuse is to counter with a “what did you expect, this is Miaoli.” But now, following a first round of evictions and land grabs in 2010, and July 18’s demolition of four homes in Dapu (大埔), a group of people, along with NGOs, are saying they’ve had enough. Various protests were launched nationwide following the demolitions, and a large rally, this one regrouping Dapu activists and other individuals who have had their homes demolished by the state, will be held in Taipei on Aug. 18.

A “Youth League to Defend Miaoli” has also been formed in response to the state’s unwillingness to stop the local predations. Some of its activists successfully blocked a demolition earlier this week (oh yes, Liu is insatiable). The League has also applied for a permit from the Miaoli City Hall to hold a “Dismantle the government! Guardians of Miaoli” (拆政府!守護苗栗晚會) event on Aug. 16, starting at 6pm. But today the organizers were informed that the government has turned down their request, saying the rally would disturb nearby government offices, a library and cram schools. From 6pm, on A Friday. Government offices. Right.

As the League wrote on its Facebook page today, Liu has held several rowdy events at the same location over the years, but somehow a peaceful protest would disturb the peace in the area. This undoubtedly is an attempt by Liu to deny people’s right to assemble, and to silence any opposition to his increasingly authoritarian deeds.

Needless to say, the organizers have decided not to cancel the event. “You wait and see, Liu Cheng-hung!” the post concludes. (Photo by the author)

Thursday, August 08, 2013

An underworld role in Taiwan’s military scandal?

Protest material in front of Ministry of National Defense
People close to a prominent gangster have come out publicly supporting an unyielding response from the military to the Hung Chung-chiu scandal

As the controversy over the July 4 death of Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘) and the subsequent resignation of two ministers of national defense within a week continues, another aspect of the crisis that hasn’t received enough attention is the possible exploitation of the situation by groups and individuals who actively seek the unification of Taiwan and China.

Whether those individuals are acting on their own, or at the direction of the Chinese Communist Party is hard to demonstrate at this point, though I have been suspecting from the onset that United Front work is somehow involved in the spiraling controversy.

While Andrew Yang’s (楊念祖) resignation was the big news item on Aug. 6, two things that occurred earlier in the day went largely unnoticed, though I firmly believe that both warrant closer scrutiny.

The first item was ex-convict and debt collector Tung Nien-tai’s (董念台) filing a lawsuit against Citizen 1985, the group behind two large protests held in recent weeks over the Hung case, and Hung Tzu-yung (洪慈庸), the soldier’s sister. Tung accused Hung Tzu-yung and Citizen 1985 of inciting hatred towards the government and the armed forces (he field another lawsuit on Aug. 8, this time accusing Citizen 1985 of fraud).

Just as Tung was filing his first lawsuit on Tuesday, Kuo Kuan-ying (郭冠英), a former press officer at the TECRO office in Toronto who was pulled back to Taipei (and eventually fired) in 2009 after it was revealed that he was the author of several vicious op-eds targeted at Taiwanese, weighed in with an interview in which he argued that the military should never apologize for the death of soldiers like Hung.

In and of itself, Tung and Kuo should be dismissed as marginal creatures seeking attention in a time of crisis. But here’s where things get interesting: it is well known that Kuo is actively involved with the Unionist Party, the pro-unification political party founded by Bamboo Union gangster Chang An-le (張安樂), who fled to China in the mid-1990s and returned to Taiwan in late June. As I mentioned in a recent article about my visit to Chang’s party headquarters, the UP has very intimate ties with senior CCP officials and is indisputably involved in United Front in Taiwan on Beijing’s behalf.

Here’s something else that’s rather interesting: Aside from his failed attempt to court then-vice president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮), Tung, whom I met at a TFCC event in April 2008, is widely known in Taiwan as an “unofficial spokesman” for the underworld and for his efforts to help gangsters re-integrate society. When Chang, also known as “White Wolf,” returned to Taiwan in June 29, who else but Tung came out and said that the public should not be too quick to judge people who involved themselves in gangster activities, adding that Chang had been “young and frivolous” and that not all murder suspects are bad individuals.

Now, while I have been unable to draw a direct link between Tung and Chang or his party, I find it extremely difficult to regard his decision to sue Hung and Citizen 1985 on the same day as Kuo came out firing from the hip as a simple coincidence. Tung has every right to defend ex-convicts’ rights, but how do we explain his sudden involvement in matters of national security? And all of this happens at a time when Chang is free on bail, actively promoting his “peaceful unification” platform.

This is all circumstantial, but to me this screams efforts by pro-unification forces in Taiwan to curry favor with more conservative — and perhaps pro-China — elements within the military. A pro-unification party in Taiwan could certainly benefit from the support of senior members of the armed forces. Moreover, by encouraging intransigence at the top, Kuo, Tung and Chang would help fuel public resentment towards the military and thus further weaken morale in the troops and the armed forces’ ability to attract recruits. How else can we explain “support” by the pro-unification camp for an institution whose principal raison d’etre is, after all, to defend Taiwan against China?

I won’t go as far as to claim that the underworld, or even United Front workers manufactured the whole Hung mess. But it is very likely that they will seek to exploit the current situation to their benefit. (Photo by the author)