Saturday, May 10, 2014

Launching ‘Thinking Taiwan’ and other surprises

Were it not for Dr. Tsai Ing-wen’s vision and trust in my ability to help tell Taiwan’s story to the world, I would not be in Taiwan today

What an extraordinary week this has been! And what an unexpected journey! Had life taken its expected course, things would have been a lot different. It’s been a very busy week, and only now, by this late Saturday afternoon, do I finally have a few moments to put my thoughts into writing. Bear with me.

Where to start? In November last year, I guess, when after a seven-and-a-half-year stint with the Taipei Times I decided to call it quits. I’d worked as a copy editor, deputy news chief, journalist, editorial writer, photographer for the paper, and during that period I had also succeeded in branching out to other publications, among them the Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, The Diplomat, National Interest, Ottawa Citizen, Jane’s Defence Weekly and others. Over time, this also gave rise to invitations to write for academic publications and to give conferences. This was all well and good, but I was stuck. The Times felt increasingly like a prison, and for various reasons its management would not allow me to fulfill my ambitions and decided instead to punish me for trying to accomplish what I firmly believed were my responsibilities as deputy news editor. (I remember reading somewhere a comment to the effect that I’d had to leave because I refused to do my job, which was downright silly. Two months prior to my resignation, I’d received the highest possible annual bonus, which was based on performance. Had I not done my job, it’s hard to imagine that management would have done so.) Anyway, that is all behind me, and despite my highly frustrating and disappointing last year at the Times, I would not be where I am today had they not hired me and given me a chance to make myself known.

I won’t hide that since late 2012 I had been actively looking for work alternatives in Taiwan. But there simply wasn’t anything, especially not for someone like me who wanted to write about politics. Facing budget cuts, international wire agencies, which would have been a natural outlet for someone with my ambition to tell Taiwan’s story to a global audience, either had a hiring freeze or, more frequently, were slashing jobs or pulling out of the country altogether. Equally aware of the limited opportunities here, the few international journalists who remained naturally chose not to leave. There were no think tanks to speak of that would hire foreigners. A few opportunities did come my way, but unfortunately my non-U.S. citizenship got in the way of that (the jobs required a security clearance granted by the U.S. government, which cannot be conferred upon non-U.S. citizens). By the time of my resignation, I had concluded that it was time to leave the country and to continue to fight for Taiwan somewhere else.

After quitting my job, I extended my Alien Resident Certificate for 90 days — the Taiwanese government did a poor job advertising it, but it’s true; extensions for white-collar workers are not 90 days rather than 15 as in the past — and planned to rest a little while preparing for a return to North America (we were looking for work in Washington, D.C.). I also intended to get married, which I did in January, and to finish editing Officially Unofficial, an autobiographical work about my experiences as a foreign journalist in Taiwan, and putting together Black Island, a collection of my writing about civil society. I continued to write articles for The Diplomat and to post articles on The Far-Eastern Sweet Potato, which was receiving good traffic. My articles were increasingly being translated into Chinese, which earned me an entirely new audience, especially when The News Lens made me one of their contributors.

After nearly nine years in Taiwan, I’d accumulated a lot of stuff and spent days sifting through, throwing out, and packing my belongings. Safely packing my 1,600-plus book collection was no minor challenge. I tried to remain upbeat and to convince myself that a move back home was the right thing to do, at least in terms of my career. But I was doing so begrudgingly, and deep inside I knew that I wasn’t ready yet to leave what had become my home. A few good things came my way, including being made an associate researcher at the French Center fort Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) and senior non-resident fellow at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute (CPI), for which I’d been writing for a while.

One day in mid-January, my partner asked if I would be interested in joining her giving a talk to the Thinking Taiwan Foundation, the think tank that former DPP chairperson and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen had established after her unsuccessful election bid. I said yes, thinking that what I regarded as a post mortem would give me the opportunity to talk about what I regarded as Taiwan’s — and the DPP’s — shortcomings.

I had nothing to lose, as we were leaving. So I was very blunt in my presentation. Tsai, along with some of her board members, listened attentively and didn’t seem the least offended by my remarks (among other things, I spoke about some of the problems that I had identified in her presidential campaign, the dinosaurs in the DPP and among overseas supporters, and Taiwan’s general inability to connect with the rest of the world). On the latter point, I also mentioned that what Taiwan needed was a new publication, in English, to tell Taiwan’s story to the world, unfiltered by the many ideological biases and restrictions that far too often handicapped existing media here. Above all, that publication should strive to engage foreign media and officials who more often than not were lazy about Taiwan and inattentive to its travails.

After our presentation was over, Tsai asked that we join her in her office for further discussion. There and then, she offered me a job with her foundation. As far as I know, I am the first foreigner to join her think tank. One of my chief responsibilities is to run, as editor in chief, Thinking Taiwan (, a platform created to accomplish exactly what I told Dr. Tsai during my presentation.

Our small team worked very hard to put the product together. Twice, events beyond our control — the Sunflower Movement’s occupation of the legislature and Lin I-hsiung’s hunger striker over the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant — forced us to delay the official launch and press conference. Finally, on May 6, we were able to do so. And while I’d gotten used to giving TV and radio interviews over the years, this was my first press conference. As I said in my opening remarks, this was highly usual, as I was used to being on the other side with the members of the press.

Our line-up for the launch issue was varied and reflected what I sought to accomplish with the site. Jerome Cohen, an internationally recognized lawyer and China expert (and a former professor of President Ma Ying-jeou’s), graciously agreed to write the pièce de résistance. Other writers included Mark Stokes of the Project 2049 Institute and Stéphane Corcuff of the CEFC. We also had new voices, including Aphrodite Hung, one of the spokespersons for the Black Island Youth Alliance, and Jonathan Lee, who heads the FAPA-YPG chapter in Northern California. I felt we had succeeded in striking an ideological and generational balance. Above all, I wanted to ensure that despite its association with Dr. Tsai’s foundation, Thinking Taiwan was regarded as a neutral publication that provides a plurality of views and voices.

I’d made that clear to Dr. Tsai when we sat in her office on that fateful day: I saw no need in having yet another publication that played sides or served as a mouthpiece for any political party. I did not want to be seen as a propagandist for the DPP, and by then it should have been obvious to anyone who followed my work that I had grown highly critical of the green camp and never hesitated to do so. That Dr. Tsai hired me despite this is a sign that she understands the need for a new and impartial voice for Taiwan. The editorial is as simple as it is a departure from the norm; the baseline is what is good for Taiwan, not for any political party.

The platform has received a warmed reception, for which I am extremely grateful. However, some people have already pointed out that our publication will be “tainted” by its association with Dr. Tsai and the high likelihood that she will once again be DPP chairperson. On anonymous commentator on Michael Turton’s View From Taiwan opined that “a bit surprising to see J. Michael Cole has ‘pinned his flag to the mast’ of the DPP so publicly, as it will tend to affect how his work is received.” My answer to this is to ask readers to give us a chance to prove ourselves, and evaluate our worth by the quality and independence of our product. Dr. Tsai’s foundation is not the DPP (the party already has its own think tank, the New Frontier Foundation), and she has made it clear to us that Thinking Taiwan will be regarded as a separate institution free of her political ambitions. I can already tell readers that Dr. Tsai is way too busy with meetings and politics to involve herself in the running of an online publication. I have never been a propagandist, and I will never agree to become one, which is why I got into so much trouble with the Taipei Times in 2013. I don’t think Jerome Cohen or Mark Stokes would have agreed to write for us if they believed that they were writing for the propaganda arm of the green camp. If you’re not convinced yet, wait until you see some of the commentators we have lined up or reached out to for Thinking Taiwan. I’ve long called for a fresh and honest take on this important part of the world, and I’m not about to miss that opportunity.

The same anonymous writer then added, “The site and quality of articles posted so far is impressive, so it is a shame that is could not have been produced under a truly independent and nonpartisan banner.” Nobody else had the vision — and just as importantly the financial means — to do so. Dr. Tsai understood the need to reach out to the international community, and she trusted me to run the platform that would help us do so. Had she not done so, I wouldn’t be in Taiwan today. (Photo by Ketty W. Chen)

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