Friday, December 29, 2006

Freedom of the Press is Just Too Precious

Readers of this site will have figured out by now that my perspective on Taiwanese politics and its place in the community of nations tends to dovetail with the positions of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). It is my firm belief, as is the DPP’s, that Taiwan has earned for itself, through a political, historical and democratic process, the full set of rights that are granted to officially recognized states.

Despite claims by parties within Taiwan — and certainly in Beijing — that Taiwan is a but a province of China, the different path that it has chosen since 1949, and to a much greater extent since the 1990s, when it became democratic, makes it a state a political entity altogether distinct from the mainland. We need only turn to freedom of the press to see how the two entities differ: in China, matters such as the weather and natural catastrophes are now categorized as state secrets, and reporting on those subjects can lead to media closures and imprisonment.

Despite the chaotic and, as I have written before, sensationalistic nature of Taiwanese media, the one thing that clearly distinguishes them from their mainland counterparts is the freedom with which they can report events, whether it be arguably tasteless attempts by reporters to interview a child saved from the rubble of a building after it collapsed during the powerful earthquake that struck the nation earlier this week, or unsubstantiated allegations by the China Times that the chairman of the DPP, Yu Shyi-kun (seen left), had called individuals who have been trying to force Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) out of office “Chinese pigs.”

So when Yu says that, as a result of the China Times’ defamatory piece on his uncorroborated “China pigs” comments, the DPP will boycott the paper by denying its reporters access to the party, the echoes of Beijing censorship cannot but make one pause. Regardless of whether he ever said those words or not — and it seems that he did not — and despite my respect for the DPP, boycotting a media outlet because of uncorroborated reporting, however defamatory, is inexcusable. Yu has a right to sue the newspaper, or to publish a rebuttal — even to voice his discontent publicly — but to ban a media in a liberal democracy is unacceptable, as it sets a precedent which cannot but open the door to an open-ended censorship: it starts with slander of the kind that has sparked the incident, then gradually slides towards anything that the party does not agree with, such as voices in the opposition. Whether the China Times, under its current editor-in-chief, is as Yu claims a mouthpiece for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) is irrelevant: the China Times is a voice among many, and it has a place in the spectrum of Taiwanese media.

In the end, it is the public, consumers of the news, that decides whether it will support the positions of a media outlet. If the China Times acts irresponsibly — as it might have in this case — citizens of Taiwan are mature enough to stop reading it. Like everything else, market forces will dictate whether the China Times can continue to publish slander. If sales go down, something will be done to remedy the situation. Natural selection applies even to the media. Political leaders must have confidence in and show respect for their constituents’ intelligence. But it certainly isn’t their place to dictate what is reported in the news, or who is allowed to do the reporting.

If the China Times indeed published false news, it deserves a slap on the wrist and Yu is entirely within his rights to express his anger. But under no circumstance should a political party, let alone its chairman, decide who has a right to report the news. Unless one lives under a dictatorship or a totalitarian regime. Or in China. It is very ironic that the chairman of the very party that strives so hard to distinguish Taiwan from China would behave in a manner that is so reminiscent of the Chinese Communist Party.

In the spirit of the DPP, democracy and all that Taiwan has miraculously accomplished in the past fifteen years of its liberal democratic existence, Yu should seriously reconsider.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Babel of Fear

Yesterday on one of the international pages I was working on at the Times I was asked to edit a wire story about the reaction of people in Virginia to an advertisement campaign in which small signs carrying Arabic script have been put on city buses and in colleges. The signs, in themselves, are pretty harmless and their content ranges from “paper or plastic [bag]?” to an Arabic version of the children’s rhyme “I’m a little teapot” to a version of “rock, paper, scissor.” Underneath the posters are messages reading: “ What do you think it said?” and, tellingly, “Misunderstanding can make anything scary.”

And misunderstanding it was, for no sooner had the buses begun circulating around town than calls started pouring in at local police stations and at the FBI. As it turns out, many concerned citizens were afraid that these were secret code or message used by terrorists to orchestrate their operations. Even when the callers were told that this was simply an ad campaign to raise awareness, some — including educated staff at the universities in which the ads had been posted — were still apprehensive, still feared that there might be a hidden message terrorists could use.

Unfortunately that story never appeared on my page, as it was sidelined by an evidently more newsworthy article about a study which revealed that, hum, more than nine out of 10 Americans had engaged in premarital sex.

The unpublished story is a sign of the times we’re in, however, and it tells of the dangers we face when confronted to ignorance. Every day in Taiwan I am confronted by signs that I cannot understand, but by no means do I see inherent danger in them: no plot by the Chinese Communist Party to take over Taiwan by force, no secret code used by criminal organizations used to coordinate their activities. The same with Korean: there is no message, between the lines, instructing operatives to obtain materials for Kim Jong-il so that he can build more atomic bombs. It is just what it is, a language that I do not fully understand. So why Arabic be any different?

For people who will be fortunate enough to read the entire article, their main worry will be that educated people are not impervious to this irrational fear of the unknown. Staffers at the universities, people with advanced degrees, reacted in panic and could hardly be disabused of their fear. From my own experience, however, this isn’t the greatest problem, or potential danger, we’re facing today. The gravest threat lies in the fact that people and organizations charged with “protecting” citizens from so-called terrorists are themselves incapable of the critical judgment that would dispel those fears — or put differently, those organizations, like the CIA, MI5 and CSIS in Canada, see patterns where none exist or react like regular citizens in thinking that even innocuous messages can still conceal hidden messages. Fear of the unknown — especially when it is an unknown that originates in the Middle East — has become institutionalized to such an extend that it has become part of the fabric of society. People sitting on an airplane that is about to take off will invariably react with alarm if the person sitting next to them is reading from the Koran; the same with Arab or Persian-looking individuals taking pictures of, or filming, or carrying tourism information on, public attractions, public transportation or government buildings (readers who have been following the Maher Arar story in Canada will soon hear more about other individuals who paid a heavy price for carrying the wrong kind of pamphlets, as new inquiries are likely to be launched by the Canadian government).

We now live in a society — in the West, that is — where absence of a reason for seeing something as threat is insufficient in and of itself to cancel one’s reaction of fear. Yes, the ad says “I’m a little teapot,” but what if it were secret code, a signal of some sort instructing Ahmed who works at the convenience store to detonate the ammonium nitrate he’s been hiding in his basement at the local Borders? Absence of evidence is no longer sufficient, for the architects of the “war on terror,” along with the thousands of minions who fill the halls of the intelligence agencies engaged in that war, have cultivated a climate of fear that transcends reason. Networks and hidden cells are out there, bent on the destruction of the West. In that climate, one’s critical thinking has been hacked by the responsibility — told us by political leaders — to be watchful, to keep an eye open for potential threats (if people were serious about potential threats, the FBI would be receiving thousands of phone calls every time citizens saw a gas-guzzling SUV passing by). During my time as an intelligence officer working in the center that dealt with threats to the security of Canada, I had my share of such flags being raised by the public: conversations overheard, the nature and content of which was lost on the concerned citizen by virtue of that conversation being carried out in a foreign language; suspicious-looking men seen driving a minivan from store to store; suspicious-looking men filming subways stations, airports, shopping malls, Canada’s Wonderland, Disney World, etc. Citizens thought they were fulfilling their responsibilities as citizens, and in certain circumstances we cannot blame them for doing so, as fear has been hammered into them by politicians and the media, and some them may not necessarily have very high levels of education, or may not have traveled much or been exposed to other cultures.

But when the intelligence and law-enforcement agencies fail to act as filters to what actually consists of a real potential threat and uncritically assumes that every threat — even the absence of one — is worthy of consideration, when every such threat is then communicated, in the form of trace requests, to allied agencies, then we can say that the system as a whole has failed. And it has.

It is easy to read an article such as the one I refer to above and laugh at the poor individuals who were scared by the Arabic version of “rock, paper, scissor.” But the truth is, many of the so-called specialists and experts who are paid with taxpayers’ money to deal with these matters fare no better, for they, too, have been subjected to and transformed by the climate of fear and making matters worse they work in institutions that actually encourage this uncritical view of reality, as it not only justifies their existence but furthermore ensures that by taking every threat seriously it they can avoid being not acting when the threat turned out to be real — a police euphemism for agencies covering their recently bloated asses. The examples of institutional failure at critical though within the intelligence community are rife and often provide a good laugh, but for obvious reasons I am not allowed to put them in writing.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

A Pivotal Moment for Iraq and the Region

Amid calls for a change in US strategy in Iraq and the continuing trauma that its citizens are going through on a daily basis (all pretense that Iraq was a military success has long been dispelled, to such an extent that the Iraqi president and prime minister no longer feel the need even to serve as mouthpieces to the US administration), the country is rapidly turning into a potential tinderbox for regional instability.

This potentiality was compounded earlier this week when Saudi Arabia said that in the eventuality of a US pull-out of Iraq and sustained violence, the Saudi regime would bankroll Iraqi Sunnis — the religious minority in Iraq — as they try to defend themselves against a Shiite onslaught. Something like this happening would exacerbate the unhealthy polarization that has been building up in the Middle East, a Sunni-Shiite divide that is on the brink of burning hotter than it did when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in the early 1980s to prevent Grand Ayatollah Khomeini’s exportation of his Shiite Islamic Revolution to the region.

At its meekest, such a scenario would fuel a civil war in Iraq, with Saudi Arabia (and perhaps other rich kingdoms in the Middle East) providing money to the Iraqi Sunnis while Iran would reciprocate with the Shiites. The middle — and probably likelier — scenario would involve a war-by-proxy between Iran and Saudi Arabia, where to the money being sent to Iraq we would also see weapons and the training of Iraqi forces by Tehran and Riyadh. Those proxy forces would wage war against each other as instruments in the two states’ strategy for the region. Much as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the proxies would be encouraged to seize strategic natural resources — in Iraq’s case oil — not only to fund themselves but to provide a channel to the countries backing them. It wouldn’t be surprising if, in such a scenario, Iran and Saudi Arabia were to justify such seizures by claiming that they need the resources as a form of reimbursement for their peacekeeping efforts in Iraq.

The worst-case-scenario, of course, involves direct war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. While this eventuality is a distant one, Iraq has nevertheless proven that it is quite capable of dismembering plans of all kinds and take superior armies to their lowest. A giant is now caught between the unpalatable choices of leaving a mess behind or staying in and being unable to change a thing, its sons and daughters meanwhile adding to the already stratospheric casualty rate. If the US, and to a lesser extent the UK, is unable to follow the course it set for itself in Iraq, there is no knowing what would happen to Saudi and Iranian ones, which are not only far less professional but whose leaders have far greater and immediate interests in Iraq, as it is a neighbor and one whose civil war could very well threaten them at home.

On clear winner in this scenario — and let’s hope it never comes to happen — would be al-Qaeda. War between Iran and Saudi Arabia could finally help it achieve one of its original objectives, an objective that came years before its overt enmity towards the US: toppling the Saudi regime. While it certainly is no ally of Iran, al-Qaeda would adopt the age-old “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” approach and could do this even as Tehran remains hostile to its philosophy. No state-terrorist meeting need take place; in fact, an alliance per se doesn’t even need to be made. All al-Qaeda would need to do is ensure that Iraqi Sunnis are being massacred by their Shiite counterparts, with funding and help from Tehran. The harsher the Sunni response (with Saudi funding and support), the more Shiites will in turn be killed, and so on and so forth, tit-for-tat until war between Saudi Arabia and Iran becomes inevitable. The only thing al-Qaeda in Iraq needs to do is target Sunnis — which it already has — and make it look as if this were the work of Shiites.

How ironic, if this were to happen, that by invading Iraq in 2003 the US would have taken Bin Laden and his cohorts ever so closer to their goal of threatening the despised Saudi regime. We are thankfully still far from such a scenario taking place, but the seeds are there, and thanks to US bungling in Iraq, this scenario certainly isn’t confabulation anymore. For the first time, Riyadh could be facing a real threat to its existence. Did al-Qaeda plan for all of this to come about? Who knows. But one thing is certain: someone, somewhere, is seeing the possibilities as they unfold. And he must be smiling a large smile at the moment.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Mayoral elections and foamy snow

Sitting outside a Starbucks coffee shop in mid-afternoon downtown Taipei, with fake foamy snow falling from the clear blue skies and out-of-place Christmas music blaring from the exterior speakers, it was difficult to ignore that tomorrow, Dec. 9, Taiwanese will be hitting the polls to vote for new mayors for Taipei City and Kaohsiung, the second-biggest city to the south of the island.

Aside for the fact that all the talk around town and on TV and in the newspapers is about the elections, or that I received on my cell phone today alone no less than five text messages encouraging me to vote for one candidate or another (regardless of the fact that I cannot participate in said vote), what makes them difficult to ignore were the dozens of vehicles, from simple cars to 4x4 jeeps to modified trucks, roaming the city with placards, flags and people sitting atop and aback them waving to the otherwise indifferent passers-by — with shouts and music and drums to enhance the experience — all representing one candidate or another. Often, one procession will be contending with the next from different street corners, the DPP candidate’s representatives shouting it off with those from the KMT, flags afloat, painting whole streets in green or blue or red. Sometimes they both will be on the same street, resulting in a cacophony of slogans and drumming aggressing enough to start an onset of epilepsy in even the healthiest of onlookers.

As if this were not enough, whole buildings are plastered with placards and gigantic posters of candidates doing the thumbs up or smiling at the unseen masses (see picture). Footbridges are adorned with hundreds of flags, giving one the impression that he or she is walking along a kaleidoscopic tunnel with some sort of wild celebration at the end. The mobilization is unlike anything I have experienced before and makes me wonder what the presidential elections must look like.

Mixed with the elections are the many political scandals that have beset the nation in recent weeks — and mixed is the appropriate word, as every hint of the wrongful use of state affairs funds or discretionary budgets, by the First Family and the current Taipei mayor, as well as other scandals, from the bullet train linking Taipei to Kaohsiung to politicians using state houses longer than they should have — everything is tied in with the elections, to such an extent that when asked to describe what they would do if they were voted into office, most candidates come up short, having used all their energy accusing their opponents.

What compounds the brew of scandals and politics is the fact that more often than not the position of Taipei mayor is a stepping stone to the presidency of the country, and that, too, has seeped into the debate.

All that to say that the entire electoral campaign — which as a newspaper copy editor I have followed first-hand and ad nauseam — is at least as empty of substantive debate as any other campaign I have experienced in Canada. It has largely been a campaign of character assassination mixed with the exploitation of scandals (so much so that at one point a candidate has had to come before the media and prove, with receipts in hand, that he himself, and not the state, had paid his phone bills at 7-Eleven) blended with an all-too-clear positioning in preparation for the 2008 presidential elections. Judging from my experience so far, this will have the result that residents of Taipei and Kaohsiung will not necessarily be casting their vote for the candidate whom they believe will do the best job representing them at City Hall, for they have nothing pithy, no promises, no blueprint proposed by the candidates, to base their votes on.

As always, the elections will boil down to one’s political affiliation: the perpetual pan-green / pan-blue divide. As meaningful a mayoral election, then, than soapy snow falling from the clear blue skies of Taipei.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Quebec analogy is the wrong one for Taiwan

The declaration by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper — which has since received the support of both the separatist Bloc Quebecois and Quebec's Liberal government — to the effect that the province of Quebec should be granted distinctive nationhood within Canada surely will have enlivened those who tend to draw parallels with the situation of Taiwan vis-a-vis the People's Republic of China.

Some commentators, such as Chen I-chung of the Academia Sinica, have in the past turned to the issue of Quebec separatism in the hope of finding some illumination — or perhaps even a template — by which to solve Taiwan's predicament (see "Pragmatic path is the best solution," Taipei Times, Opinion, Feb. 24, page 8). Others might even dream that Harper's declaration could encourage Beijing to act in kind toward Taiwan.

The problem with this view is that it is based on flawed analogies and parallels. Other than the fact that Quebec and Taiwan both do not have official status as countries — Quebec is a province in a federal system and Taiwan is in the limbo between official statehood and international (or at least US) protectorate — the two entities have too little in common to be helpful to each other.

The reason why Taiwan finds legitimacy and a modicum of international support for independence and legal statehood lies in the fact that the other option — reunification with China — implies all sorts of risks in terms of human rights, liberties and so on. Still today, one hears about newspapers and blogs being closed, AIDS activists being arrested and entire minorities being repressed in China. Moreover, the idea of reunification with China is enforced through international isolation of Taiwan as well as the threat of military action, a form of compelling that certainly does not bode well for Taiwan regardless of its decision.

The situation in Quebec could not be more different. No minorities are being repressed (other than the aboriginals, if we really needed to find one) and never was the threat of military action used to prevent separatism — not even when former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau committed the faux pasof declaring Martial Law in October 1970. Francophones are free to express themselves in their language and were even twice granted the chance to vote, through referenda, on independence, with both instances resulting in failure. Moreover, Quebec is located in a country that is the envy of most in terms of human rights, security and the economy. It enjoys an enviable social safety net, relatively cheap education, a booming economy and one of the few truly successful multiethnic societal fabrics in the world. Homosexuals can get married legally and other than for its troops deployed in Afghanistan, no Canadian faces a threat to his security.

In many ways, Quebec's desire for separatism — and the specter of yet another costly referendum being held now that Harper's declaration has reawakened the hopes for a distinct nation — is effrontery; one can think of many poor, war-torn countries that could make a legitimate claim for separatism or some form of political independence, Darfur in Sudan being but one example. But Quebec is nothing more than the pipe-dream of an affluent minority within a minority — the odd 50 percent within the province who think they are being repressed simply because they claim to have a different culture from that which prevails in North America. It is the aspiration of the whiney well-fed who cannot distinguish between language and culture and who fail to realize that culture knows no borders and heeds no laws.

With his comments, Harper is evidently trying to improve his position with voters in the province of Quebec ahead of possible elections next spring. Already, Michael Ignatieff, the onle leading contender for the leadership of the Liberal Party, has flirted with Quebecers on the idea of distinctiveness, an out-of-character crass exploitation of an emotional non-issue to win votes. By playing that game, Harper is reopening a Pandora's Box which had better remain closed. Harper hasn't given independence to Quebec, nor, what with all its caveats, was his declaration the departure that it has been painted as. He was simply playing politics.

One can hardly imagine Communist Party officials wagging the carrots of independence and independence at Taiwan in order to gain votes — oh, that's right; one doesn't get to vote in China.

No hundreds of short-range missiles are pointed at Quebec, and Ottawa will never threaten Quebec City or Montreal with invasion should it attempt yet again to change the status quo. Ottawa is not stopping Quebec from making its place on the international scene, nor is it arresting journalists on the pretense that they were spying for the other side. Taiwan is justified in seeking independence and recognition because the alternative is either war or a grave diminution in the rights and liberties of its citizens. Quebec is located in one of the freest, wealthiest and most advanced societies in the world. By remaining in Canada, no fundamental right of Quebecers will be impinged upon. Once and for all, Taiwanese should look elsewhere for parallels.

Friday, October 27, 2006


There are, in the Taipei Times where I work, sections called “Briefs” on the local and international pages. Consisting of a page-long single column, briefs, usually five to a page, provide little snippets of news — normally no longer than 100 words — from around the world, and the subject is usually something odd or unusual, like “Man loses boa in van,” or “Visitor bites panda at Beijing zoo.” The rest of the page is usually consecrated to more “serious” or newsworthy copy, nowadays nuclear developments in North Korea and Iran, factional violence within the Palestinian Authority, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Georgia/Russia.

It is indicative of the state of the world when, after reporting on unrest in the Palestinian Territories for weeks, where Hamas and Fatah have engaged in internecine violence, stories on people killed — by the factions or by the Israeli military — were relegated to the “Briefs” section. So routine had the killing of Palestinians become, it seemed, that it was no longer news as such; it was part of the oddities, of the briefs people read in passing, with little emotional attachment.

This only occurred on a few days, when violence elsewhere was such that the deaths of a dozen Palestinians didn’t suffice to break the threshold. Iraq, Afghanistan, N. Korea and Sri Lanka, through violence or the detonation of a nuclear device (this is what it takes now to make it to front page) had pushed it aside. As for Iraq, every new day brings an editorial challenge, not so much in preparing the story as in finding a headline that doesn’t read like the previous five, ten, twenty. "Forty killed in bombing in Baghdad"; "Violence intensifies as Ramadan begins"; "Bloody day in Baghdad as Ramadan comes to an end," etc, etc, etc ad bloody nauseam. There, again, the situation has become so routine that our editor-in-chief made the explicit request that we no longer publish pictures of bombings in Iraq. Every day, as we search the keyword “Iraq” in the Wire Graphics Database, which provides thousands of pictures updated on a daily basis from agencies like EPA, AFP, AP, Reuters and others, most of what we obtain are wrecked vehicles, buildings burning or ruins, in front of which are semi-dazed children or injured passers-by. Being given the order to find “something else” to tell the story is, sadly, very challenging. It’s almost like being asked to find a picture of Hong Kong with a clear sky. So in the past few weeks we provided pictures of Iraqi Muslims gathering in mosques to pray during Ramadan, or vendors making popcorn in preparation for celebrations of the Eid al-Fitr marking the end of Ramadan. But for every such picture there are dozens of carnage and violence. Afghanistan fares no better, and Sri Lanka is headed in that direction as well. Oh, and that is without mentioning the bloody pictures showing the results of war, which are too graphic to be printed in a newspaper.

It is saddening but unfortunately a symptom of the world we live in that people killed with missiles fired from the air, or in car bombings, can turn into an item of such normalcy as to become a mere “brief,” or perhaps worse, that copy editors are asked to search for pictures from the hell holes of our world that are devoid of violence, and have a hard time finding any.

Fortunate are those who can afford to read about these atrocities in the “briefs” section of a newspaper. For Iraqis, Afghans, Palestinians — and I could add many others, sadly — there is nothing non-newsworthy about what’s going on around them, and they don’t get to choose what kind of picture gets taken in their immediate environment either. For them, life is unforgiving, amoral, and unedited. Kids in war zones are growing up with severed bodies around them, the very images that "cannot" be printed, and there is no editor above them telling them to look elsewhere for something brighter, more uplifting. They as they might, news outlets can only come so close to reality.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

A Noisy Wakeup

I don’t know if it is like this throughout the non-English-speaking world, but at least here in Taiwan, there is this assumption that if you’re foreign-looking — and above all, “white” — you must inevitably be English speaking. Never mind that in an international city like Taipei, people from Germany, France, Spain, Russia, Italy, Sweden and other countries come to work; foreigner equals English, and English means American.

Once can hardly blame schoolchildren for holding such conceits, as foreign teachers themselves encourage those perceptions. I was in Taipei 101, on my way to a bookstore that I frequent there, when I ran into two dozen young children accompanied by a blond foreigner in her mid-40s. Immediately upon seeing me, the teacher turned to the children and shouted “Look, an English-speaking person!” whereupon in one ear-shattering and unusually high-pitched chorus the children shouted, in turn, “good morning,” followed by an incomprehensible, nerve-wracking consecution of words. I waived politely as I hurried away to the escalators, but it now transpired that the children, along with the teacher, were in hot pursuit and reached the escalators from the other side before I could escape. Seeing my discomfort, the teacher said, “You can run, but you can’t hide,” which somehow was interpreted by the children as yet another prompt to ransack my ears with the enthusiastic squeals.

Besides the offensiveness of such an unwelcome wakeup and, as I already mentioned, the groundless and quite disrespectful assumption that a foreigner must by default speak English, the incident made me feel like an animal in a zoo, something “other” that inherently warrants special attention. I have lived in Taiwan for nearly a year, integrated its society and am a tax-paying, law-abiding full participant in its fabric. Though my citizenship is Canadian, I am presently a resident of Taiwan, and as such I should be treated — and usually am — like one. Expatriates should therefore never feel compelled to become a spontaneous teacher, or a temporary amusement, on the bus, in shopping malls or on the sidewalk, nor made to feel that by virtue of being foreigner it should be expected of me to teach left and right those who are learning the language.

Did I, when I was in Canada, start shouting “ni hao” to every Chinese-looking person I encountered, expecting to obtain a free five-minute Mandarin lesson? Of course not; that would be rude. Why, then, should it be different in Taiwan, and why would foreign teachers, of all people, impress upon the children the idea that it is ok to approach expatriates in such a manner?

Thursday, October 12, 2006

North Korea’s Gift

“It seems impossible to gain any worthwhile insights into the North Korean view of the [Korean] war, as long as Kim Il-sung presides over a society in which the private possession of a bicycle is considered a threat to national security,” wrote historian Max Hastings in his narrative of the Korean War. Substitute Kim Il-sung for Kim Jong-il, and change the date from 1987 — the year Hastings’ history was published — to 2006 and one soon discovers that precious little has changed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Other than the fact that, unless the world community was wrong in its initial seismographic readings following Monday’s underground detonation, it has turned nuclear, that is. Immediately after the test of the device — a 15kt bomb, about the size of the one tested by Pakistan a few years ago, that seems to have fizzled to less than 1kt — condemnation poured from every corner of the planet, including Beijing, Pyongyang’s only diplomatic ally, if we can call it that. Stock markets dropped, and the region’s military — mostly Japan’s and South Korean’s — went on high alert. In addition to demonstrating that a very unstable and delusional regime now seemingly possesses weaponized nuclear technology, the North’s test, however faulty, clearly threatens the very foundations of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

And yet, the greatest threat emerging from the test is not nuclear in nature, however uncomfortable one might be with the idea of a nuclear North Korean. The gravest danger lies in how the international community, and more especially South Korea, Japan and the U.S., reacts in the coming weeks. Already, there have been talks among regional powers, as well as at the UN Security Council, of strengthening the sanction regime against North Korea, short of an embargo.

But it is on the military side, not so much coming in the form of an unlikely military attack against Pyongyang as in the deployment to the immediate region — in the Sea of Japan, in Japan itself and in South Korea — of forces, mostly U.S., which North Korea could construe as indicative of a coming strike, that the true dangers lie. The DMZ which since 1953 has separated the Koreas is the most heavily concentrated conventional military area in the world, with more firepower than obtained in Germany at the height of the Cold War. The North is pointing enough short-range missiles (by some open-source accounts as many as 500 artillery pieces) at Seoul, the South Korean capital, to cause billions of dollars in damage and likely thousands of deaths. Without the necessity of using a nuclear or chemical arsenal — the North has both — Pyongyang has enough deterrent force to make external intervention a la Iraq a very difficult decision to make, and nuclear capabilities notwithstanding, it is difficult to conceive of Washington or Tokyo, let alone Seoul, deciding to endanger the lives of tens of thousands of citizens in the name of the enforcement of the NPT or preemption. Nevertheless, Pyongyang’s threat perception and the paranoid world in which its leader Kim Jong-il lives (he disappeared for weeks before the nuclear test, ostensibly for fear that outside powers might attempt a “decapitation” attack against his regime) contains the risk that it will misinterpret military maneuvers as preparation for a military strike. As is often the case in history, wars are launched not through calculation, but as the result of misperceptions, miscommunication, or downright mistakes.

Finding a solution to the problem that North Korea poses to the region and to the world will not be easy, and the successful resolution of the threat with the avoidance of catastrophic civilian deaths will necessitate a well-calibrated response from the world community. But one thing is certain: had the U.S. and its allies focused on North Korea — which has been a totalitarian, repressive regime since the late 1940s and which possesses proven arsenals of chemical weapons (5,000 metric tons, produced in eight known factories) and which has threatened its neighbors with missile tests and which now can make the claim to being in the nuclear club — rather than Iraq, which admittedly also was repressive but which by many dependable accounts no longer had chemical and biological weapons or a viable nuclear program since at least the mid-1990s and whose conventional military forces had been depleted to such an extent that it no longer posed a threat to the region, maybe the world wouldn’t find itself in the dangerous situation it is in today. It is not a question of historical hindsight; the intelligence on Iraq did prove before the invasion that it no longer had a WMD program, and it was ignored for political reasons. Meanwhile, not only did regional and world powers have intelligence that the DPRK had an ongoing WMD program, but the regime itself claimed that it did.

Politics intervened, and the U.S. went into Iraq. North Korea seized upon that, and now the world is caught wrong-footed, with a U.S. military so overstretched that should it choose to intervene militarily in the Korean peninsula, it would face serious materiel and personnel shortages.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Night Out

Saturday night, after we were done putting together Sunday’s edition of the Times, those of us who were up for it grabbed a cab and headed for a bar. The main reason why we went was to wish good luck to a copy editor who was leaving the Times after two years there so that he could concentrate full-time on learning Mandarin.

After we found a place where we could sit and hear each other talk (the first bar was packed for “South Africa Day,” an occasion that even the South African among us couldn't figure out the reason for), we ordered our drinks and inevitably launched into rather opinionated conversations. Much of the humor touched on two subjects: Taiwanese politics, and the Commonwealth, of which, with a few exceptions, we were all representatives (there were two Australians, one New Zealander, one South African, two Brits, one Canadian, two Americans and a Taiwanese). I soon discovered that in certain ways, New Zealand is to Canada what Australia is to the United States, in that the latter appropriates for itself much of what is, in reality, the smaller state’s. One could say as much about trade, culture, diplomacy, security and everything else.

Ultimately, though, what I retained from the hours we spent chatting was the sense of anger that most of us have towards our home governments. The great majority of us are very much opposed to what is going on back home, mostly in terms of antiterrorism and how that quixotic adventure is defacing the democracies we call home. The greatest anger seemed to be expressed by the Brits and the Americans. The latter, one of whom was in the US military for a while and spent some time in Japan, reserved the most scathing of language for their president and could only shake their heads with dejection at what their country is doing in the name of security (the bill granting the CIA interrogation powers that undermine the Geneva Conventions had just been passed). We all seemed to agree that the NATO mission in Afghanistan was slowly but inexorably turning into a fiasco and that our soldiers who were dying there had not originally signed up for a war against the Taliban — a war that has now spread to the entire country — but rather peace building and reconstruction.

Many learned expatriates I have met in Taiwan share this sense that home, right now, is not the place to be. For many, politics are the principal reason. In a way, this is a forced exile, a need to breathe new, cleaner air. I came out of the bar having realized that one cannot fully understand his country without having stepped outside of it for a while. I had heard that before, and it is true. Never had I spent so much time thinking about what Canada is and what it means to the world than I do now, thousands of kilometers away. Even as I try — one of my main objectives for moving here — to demystify the complex security situation in East Asia, I cannot but also look over my shoulder, across the ocean, and wonder what’s going on back home. Sadly, what I see worries me. And that is something else that I saw in the eyes of most people at table that night: worry.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Titters in Beijing

It seems that the campaign to oust Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) is one of those things that just won’t go away until the deed has become reality. First, an attempt to recall the president failed in June, and for a while it seemed that Chen had weathered the storm. But starting in early September a continuous sit-in and a series of public demonstrations were held in cities throughout Taiwan—events which with but a few unfortunate exceptions were peaceful and orderly. And now it appears that a second recall vote is being considered.

What worries me isn’t the recall process or even the demonstrations, however circus-like they’ve become, what with the concerts held and merchants lining the streets. Though these fall outside the system of law whereby the Taiwanese head of state can be held to account, they are—or should be—intrinsically harmless. What makes me pause as I find myself on Zhong Hua avenue are the swarms of red: T-shirts, baseball caps and flags. Red, as we all know, has long been associated with communism, and the color has long had a special connotation here in Taiwan. It is therefore surprising that the so-called “alliance” against corruption—which in reality is against Chen, for if the people were to turn against corruption per se, most legislators, DPP or KMT, would be jobless as we speak. Whatever they tell the masses, the organizers have made this a crusade against one individual, and that individual is president Chen.

The theory that I am about to propose has already awakened the wrath of the principal organizer of the sit-ins, former DPP Chairman Shih Ming-teh (施明德), who threatened to sue a media outlet that hinted at the possibility that I am about to put on the table. Now, despite the obvious connotation of the color red, I would not establish a theory based on that alone, though I still find it interesting that the organizers of the anti-Chen campaign would choose it to represent their endeavors. They couldn’t use blue, surely, for fear that the whole thing would be perceived to be a pan-blue (that is, KMT-led) effort. Nor could it be green, a color that is associated with Chen’s DPP. But of all the colors remaining in the palette, why did Shih et al have to pick red?

Colors aside, my worries come from the literature on China’s tradition of meddling in Taiwanese affairs. “Taiwanese compatriots are our flesh and blood, we sincerely hope for a peaceful society in Taiwan where the economy develops and people live happily,” said the spokesman of the Taiwan Affairs Office, Li Weiyi (李維一), on Sept. 13. “Our stance and efforts to promote close cross-strait exchanges and all kinds of economic cooperation are unchanged.” At face value, this comment would seem to indicate that Beijing has taken a hands-off approach to recent developments in Taiwan. But then again, who can believe a state that increasingly is regulating the state-controlled media to such an extent as to make the lives of foreign news agencies a newsmaker’s nightmare? I take little comfort in a spokesman of the Taiwan Affairs Office telling us that Beijing wants “a peaceful society,” more so when in the same speech he feels the obligation to mention that China firmly opposes the separatist forces on the island.

Therein lies the key to my theory: it is true that Beijing wants a Taiwan “where the economy develops and people live happily.” After all, who would want to reunite with a chaotic state with an economy in shambles? Despite the saber rattling, hundreds of short- and mid-range missiles pointing at Taiwan and almost weekly threats of invasion, very few are those within the Chinese Communist Party who honestly seek a military confrontation with Taipei. The reason is simple: whether it could actually win the war or not (which would depend on whether the US is capable of deploying rapidly enough to come to Taiwan’s aid), the economic consequences would be catastrophic for China. The CCP gets its legitimacy through the promise of economic prosperity in China; a war with Taiwan and the assured international embargo and sanctions against Beijing that would ensue—added to the freezing of economic activities between Hong Kong and Taiwan—would undermine that prosperity, the consequences of which could very well include the attempted overthrow of the regime in Beijing. And it is unlikely, too, that despite the sometimes irrational decisions that accompany a strong, emotional sense of nationalism, Beijing would overtly go to war with Taiwan and thereby risk losing the 2008 Olympic Games.

Clearly, China stands to loose too much by engaging in military action against Taiwan. But there is nothing that prevents it from doing things covertly to “firmly oppose” the separatist forces on Taiwan—i.e. Chen. What if, somehow, certain elements in the anti-corruption campaign were being encouraged, if not supported, by Beijing? By this I do not mean that suitcases filled with money have necessarily found their way across the strait, but indirect support based on China’s desire for a Taiwan where the economy develops (remember, the KMT has long accused the DPP of not steering Taiwan’s economy well and has promised that, thanks to its close ties with China, it would do better on that aspect) is not altogether impossible. What if Beijing were underhandedly waging war against Taiwanese separatism by propping up the anti-corruption campaign, using it as a cover to accomplish one thing: the “peaceful” discrediting and eventual overthrow of the person who has made it his goal to rewrite the Taiwanese Constitution, change the county’s international status and obtain (so far unsuccessfully) a seat at the UN Security Council? What if this were yet another rung in Beijing’s attempts to isolate Taiwan diplomatically?

The literature on Beijing demanding that Taiwanese investors in China make a vow to oppose Taiwan independence, or on its buying information from retired Taiwanese military cadres is healthy, as are the CCP’s relations with the KMT, with which it engages in diplomacy and thereby sidelines the official—and elected—government in Taipei. Pro-KMT businesses throughout Taiwan (see “Colors Shown,” Sept. 2) have encouraged their employees to show their support for the anti-Chen campaign by asking for donations and giving leave time in exchange for their participation in the event. I have even heard stories of entire offices asking their employees to wear red at work. That there would be a coincidence of interests between the CCP, the KMT and certain business people here in Taiwan wouldn’t be all that surprising. Add to this a well-planned media campaign and a politically divided island, and the people will follow, wear their red T-shirts and baseball caps and brave the rainy weather to suddenly oppose something that has long existed on the island (and in China) and which certainly isn’t limited to the president (not to mention that the whole thing was sparked as a result of accusations not against Chen himself but rather against his son-in-law).

But behind all this, there might be more than meets the eye. What Taiwanese need to ask themselves is, who stands to gain most from Chen’s ouster? Taiwan, or China. There is much to be commended in people’s effort to combat corruption. But in this case, participants should look beyond the official line to see if there might not be some ulterior motive to the endeavor.

If the anti-Chen campaign comes through, Beijing might just have launched a successful decapitation operation without the use of force.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Arar Commission Sets a Precedent

The release on Monday of Dennis O’Connor’s public report on the events relating to Maher Arar demonstrates that when it takes matters seriously, the government of Canada can accomplish good things—even on matters of terrorism, where it tends to overact, and even when the results make it look bad but are in the interest of the people.

Occurring around the time when US President Bush and the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Michael Hayden are pushing for the CIA’s right to continue detaining and using extraordinary interrogation measures against high-value terrorism suspects—using techniques that go against the Geneva Conventions—the release of the Arar report gives us hope that societies have not altogether given up on individual rights when those rights happen to clash with issues of national security. To sum up the Commission’s findings, Mr. Arar has been found not to ever have represented a threat to the security of Canada; the RCMP shared information with US authorities which probably was used by the latter to build a case against him and subsequently deport him to Syria; while in Syria, interrogation techniques utilizing torture methods were likely used against him, leading to confessions that were made under duress; the same information the RCMP shared with the US was deficient but sufficient to damage Mr. Arar’s image; the RCMP and other Canadian governmental agencies were not aware that the information that had been provided to the US would lead to extraordinary rendition resulting in torture; and consular services were provided to Mr. Arar while he was in Syria.

All in all, the RCMP is made to look bad and in fact appears to be the scapegoat. The manner in which Canadian agencies playing the intelligence game distribute and share their intelligence products among themselves and with foreign agencies needs to be looked at. Hearsay, unverifiable or uncorroborated intelligence cannot—should not—be shared willy-nilly with other agencies, especially when it is known that the latter will, in the wake of 9/11, be using it aggressively, as the US so obviously did and still do to this day. It is one thing (already unacceptable) for an investigation to be based on false intelligence occurring here in Canada; it is another for that same information to be shared which will result in an individual’s torture. The quality threshold for intelligence products—raw or finished—that is shared with international allies should be higher. At this writing, it is not, and all kinds of bits of intelligence, from the obviously groundless to the passable, are shared on a daily basis between agencies.

While the Arar Commission sets an encouraging precedent that, one hopes, will force intelligence and law enforcement agencies to clean up their houses, a few question marks remain, and they are troublesome. First, portions of the public report were redacted by the government under the pretext that they contained material whose release could be deleterious to national security. Perhaps this is true, but more likely this continues the long tradition of intelligence agencies hiding blunders behind the wall of secrecy, about which I have written extensively in these pages. And while a full, unexpurgated version has been handed to government, I doubt that even this report is the result of unrestricted access. Here again, walls must have been created to protect high-ranking people at CSIS and the RCMP who have an interest in their activities surrounding the Arar case not being known. I do not intent to imply that there were evil machinations at play in this case, but let’s just say that there is a certain aversion to blunders resulting from incompetence being made public. The old boys’ club likes to keep things the way they are and will do their utmost—use national security confidentiality if need be—to ensure that. Note the sullying campaign, based on groundless accusations, that Canadian agencies launched against Mr. Arar soon after he made his case public.

The clear loser, as I have already stated, in the case is the RCMP. For its part, CSIS seems to have emerged unscathed, and this is not surprising as from the very beginning it has done everything it could to distance itself from the RCMP. But paying close attention to the text raises some questions:

“It is very likely that, in making the decisions to detain and remove Mr. Arar to Syria, the US authorities relied on information about Mr. Arar provided by the RCMP. Although I [O’Connor] cannot be certain without evidence of the American authorities, the evidence strongly supports this conclusion.” The wire service I am relying on to write this entry then paraphrases Mr. O’Connor, adding that CSIS did not share information with the Americans at this time. Those last three words, almost hidden in the text, leave the door open for questions concerning the role of CSIS in all this. What does “at this time” mean? What period does this refer to? While they will likely go unnoticed, those three words seem to imply that CSIS did in fact share information with the US on Arar. If this indeed occurred, was it before, or after the key information that was sent the US way by the RCMP?

The Commission was unquestionably a step in the right direction by the Canadian government. Many future terrorism suspects have Mr. Arar to thank, who unlike most such targets of investigations prefer to suffer in silence. Mr. Arar did not only fight for his own welfare, he fought for what Canada means to our society. He proved, through his courage and not inconsiderable charisma, that in a democracy like ours, individuals can still stand up to entire institutions and come out the winners. If we are lucky, heads will start rolling in Ottawa and the entire process of collection and sharing of intelligence will be scrutinized. The Arar case has demonstrated how far bad intelligence practices can take a targeted individual, and how dire the consequences can be.

If the Commission is simply taken as a list of recommendations, we can assume that nothing of substance will change. For the repercussions of this inquiry to be felt, high-ranking individuals will have to be retired.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Canada’s Fallen

One of the drawbacks, if you can call it that, of having studied at a military college is that when soldiers are deployed on a combat mission overseas and news start coming back that some of them have fallen, you start to expect that one day you will come upon a name that is familiar. With respect to the situation in Afghanistan—where following yesterday’s suicide bombing 36 Canadian soldiers and one diplomat have been killed—I have not yet, thankfully, had such an encounter (I do personally know, however, a few Americans who were seriously injured in Iraq).

According to Canada’s Fallen: Understanding Canadian Military Deaths in Afghanistan, a report released yesterday by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan are three times more likely to be killed than British or other forces deployed there and—get this—six times more likely to be killed than US soldiers in Iraq. Apart from the US, no other country has suffered more military casualties in Afghanistan than Canada. Since February, the report continues, 43 percent (that figure is probably higher now, as the report does not include yesterday’s attack) of non-US casualties in the country were Canadian. Based on these trends, the report concludes with the extrapolation that by the time Canada’s NATO mission in Afghanistan winds down in January 2009, another 108 of its soldiers will have been killed. That number could be higher, or lower, contingent on the vagaries of insurgencies, which by nature are hard to predict and make forecasts on.

The suicide bombing that targeted a Canadian foot patrol in Kandahar Province yesterday killed four Canadian soldiers and injured scores more. What’s even worse is that the bomber, who was riding a bicycle, detonated his bomb while children had gathered around the soldiers, who were handing out (reports conflict) books and pencils or candy. As of yesterday, two dozen children were reported injured.

Tactically, a person choosing certain death to kill a handful of foreign soldiers could make sense—though that person’s commitment to the cause, ratio notwithstanding, may seem alien to us. But for that same person to also target the children of the very country he is ostensibly trying to protect from foreign occupiers points to something else altogether. Combined with the fact that the Afghan insurgency is intensifying, it demonstrates that nearly five years after it was “liberated,” the world is failing Afghanistan, and Canada is part of that failure.

The decision to switch from reconstruction—the original mandate of the Canadian soldiers deployed there—to counterinsurgency has led to Afghanistan resembling more and more like Iraq. Clearly, the “hearts and minds” we had sought to win have slipped through our fingers; how else could we explain the Taliban’s seemingly bottomless pool of militants and the murderous tactics they have adopted to fight NATO? No wonder the British commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan said over the weekend that it would take another three to five years to end the insurgency. This assuredly cannot be seen as good news by those who had swallowed the Afghanistan “success story” line.

The change in Canada’s mandate in Afghanistan was less-than-democratically made when the Liberals were still in power and then expanded upon by the Conservatives. By doing so, Canada has become a participant in a project that without any doubt is not contributing to making Afghanistan—which is scoring record opium production levels—a better place both for its citizens and the rest of the world, which inevitably suffers the consequences of that failed state. Other trends, such as the tripling of the number of attacks against schools this year (172, according to the UN Rapporteur) and the fact that many of the tactics that insurgents have used so effectively in Iraq are increasingly being used in Afghanistan, are worrisome.

Surely, when a man riding a bicycle makes the conscious decision to blow himself up along with children of his own blood, something has been lost, and something terrible has been born to replace it.

Again, as I have done in these pages, I certainly am not arguing for the abandonment of Afghanistan, nor do I mean to imply that we should drop the fight with the Taliban and its allies. However, for the murderous insurgency to pick up steam the way it has in 2006, and for it to take the ugly shape that, as yesterday’s events highlight so bluntly, it has adopted, we clearly have been doing something wrong.

Let us just hope, for the Canadian soldiers and their families’ sake, that the report’s extrapolations were too high.

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Moral Slide

We should be alarmed at the state of the world when the “good guys” in the battle that is currently going on inside the US about the treatment of “high value” terrorism suspects argue for corrective measures to the current system that still fall short of the law.

Yesterday, the Senate Armed Services Committee passed a bill that would provide “fair” trials and meet the demands of the US Supreme Court, which has opposed the measures adopted by President Bush. In short, part of Bush’s plan included a narrow definition of the Geneva Convention—the only way, Bush argues (quite erroneously), that the CIA could obtain the valuable information it needs to combat terrorism.

If it were to become practice, the bill would (a) require that defendants have access to the classified “evidence” against them, (b) limit the use of hearsay “evidence,” and (c) restrict the use of “evidence” obtained by coercion.

The two key words in the paragraph above are “limit” and “restrict.” It has long been demonstrated that hearsay is a terrible tool to use in the world of intelligence. Rumors intelligence (RUMINT) will take analysts down multiple paths that had better remain unexplored. Hearsay isn’t based on provable facts; hearsay is innuendo, slander and fabrication. RUMINT collects myths and pieces of information that, when scrutinized, often prove to be motivated by personal hatreds resulting in payback. A source will provide incriminating “evidence” against an individual because of a quarrel—money owned, a fight for leadership within a community, women. By saying that it will “limit” the use of hearsay “evidence,” the bill still leaves the door open to its use, and it will be used whenever the information fits the model that the analysts are seeking.

The second and more damaging word, restrict, pertains to the use of “evidence” obtained through coercion or, more precisely, torture. It is here, mostly, that the moral slide that has occurred in the US and other countries is expressed at its fullest, for while the individuals behind the proposed bill seem to have taken the moral high ground, their proposal still leaves room for some use of torture, which goes against not only the Geneva Convention but the US Constitution as well. Whether it occurs while detainees are in US custody or abroad, the Convention Against Torture—to which the US must adhere as it has been signed by and therefore became law in the US (as per federal statute 18 U.S.C. 2340-2340A)—states that “the use of torture and other forms of physical and psychological coercion against any detainee to extract confessions of intelligence related information is a violation of international humanitarian law and is prohibited.” The statute adds that “according to the Third (Art. 17, 87, 99) and the Fourth Geneva Convention (Art. 5, 31, 32), evidence that has been obtained through coercion can never be used…”

This is how the moral slide in the fight against terrorism has occurred. We have reached a point, five years after the incident that sparked the whole thing, where the legal and moral battles are no longer about the law—which doesn’t restrict or limit but bans—but about how often and to what degree we are allowed to break the law. It’s as if we’ve taken two steps back and must now fight with all we have so that we can take but one step forward. As decision-makers in Washington, London and Ottawa argue over these matters, citizens are now subjected to the worst-case scenario (greatly inflated powers of the executive and intelligence agencies) and the not-as-bad scenario (selective use of unlawful methods).

In other words, even those who now take the moral high ground are battling for principles that do not meet the benchmark of legality and morality. Alarming indeed.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

A Most Precious Democracy

I am constantly surprised by the position that many Taiwanese people my age and younger have taken on the Taiwan Strait issue. On many occasions when we start talking about whether Taiwan should strive for independence or eventually reintegrate China I am met with the argument that it would be better for the Taiwanese economy if the two Chinas were politically reunited. There is this perception—fed by the media, mostly—that the Taiwanese economy hasn’t been doing well since the Democratic People’s Party (DPP) came to power in 2000.

It’s one thing to think that the economy is ailing, and it is true that during the 1990s Taiwan, one of the small dragons, had fared better. But a close look at the numbers—a GDP growth of 3.8 percent for 2005 (Canada’s is 2.9 percent) and a 4.1 percent unemployment rate (6.8 percent in Canada) and, at about $260 billion, one of the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves—reveals that in spite of the slowdown, Taiwan’s numbers ought to be the envy of many other countries. What compounds the perception of many Taiwanese that unification with China would be a positive development are the stratospheric economic data that are being fed the world by Beijing (unprecedented two-digit growth rates and so on). The problem with those numbers is that they are quite likely exaggerated. Furthermore, China has a very serious distribution problem, which means that the majority of Chinese could hope to benefit from such numbers, even if they were real. Conversely, if China did distribute its wealth in a matter which would permit it to ameliorate its social services, those very same rates would inevitably go down. Failing to invest in its infrastructure (other than building skyscrapers and superhighways that no one uses), the supposed great wealth that is being generated does not result in better living standards for ordinary Chinese. Outside Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and a few other big cities, there lies the “other” China, one where poverty, illiteracy and unemployment are rampant.

But this is just economic matters. More importantly, surely, are the great differences in political freedoms between Taiwan and China. And yet, strangely enough, this is a topic that very rarely is raised by the Taiwanese friends I talk with. I don’t know if that is the result of our reading different publications, but alarmingly most Taiwanese of my generation and those that came after it seem unaware of the pitiful state of affairs in China, where human rights activists are routinely being jailed, reporters and writers forced to revise their comments or also be imprisoned. It is illegal, for example, for sources to leak information on issues of national security—the definition of which is so large and fluid that almost anything, from the outbreak of a disease to how the government deals with a natural catastrophe, can be considered as such and result in prosecution. By the thousands, Chinese are being forced out of their homes so that useless construction projects can continue. Some of those who tried to save their homes have been beaten by police, and news sites reporting on this have been forcefully shut down.

Even more striking is the gradual transformation of Hong Kong, which since its reunification with China—and despite its special status—has also been transformed by the powers that be in Beijing. Surely, if there is something that should serve as a warning to the Taiwanese who are in favor of reunification with China, with HK-like special status or not, the former British territory should be it. Strangely, it doesn’t seem to register. Despite the cries of alarm from various rights groups in Hong Kong, many Taiwanese do not seem to be aware that laws protecting civil liberties are being changed and that the authorities are slowly obtaining powers of intrusiveness that would make anyone in a democracy pause.

Sadly, I do not think young Taiwanese fully understand or appreciate the tremendous value of democracy—a gift that perhaps they take for granted. In their minds, the economy trumps rights and anyway, China is bound to open up and become a better place. Perhaps that is true, but recent signs point in the opposite direction, and this in spite of increased scrutiny as the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing approach. Diplomats from all over the world are being lied to when Beijing—which is also the pollution capital of the world, by the way—tells them foreign reporters will be given unlimited access throughout the games and subsequently. The state media is becoming more powerful, at the great detriment of any independent outlet, which are now faced with a choice between censorship or closure and jail.

Yesterday, Taiwan’s 14th attempt to gain representation for its 23 million citizens at the United Nations once again met with failure, thanks to opposition from China. Given its economic weight, Beijing is able to co-opt, charm and bully states that otherwise would be in favor of recognizing Taiwan. In the process, China manages to pluck recognition of and political support for the democratic island. A quick look at the ongoing peaceful and orderly sit-in led by former DPP Chairman Shih Ming-teh (施明德) to unseat President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) should make the Taiwanese appreciative of their right to do so, to go out on the street and protest. A similar event in China would most assuredly have been met with violence and widespread arrests.

Finally, if all the above isn’t sufficient to convince the Taiwanese that reunification with China for economic benefit isn’t necessarily a good thing, they should consider the odd-800 missiles that Beijing currently has pointing at Taiwan, to which number about 100 new missiles are added every year. Who in his right mind would want to run into the arms of a distant cousin under the threat of physical arm should he fail to do so? Beyond Beijing’s political pressure on potential allies of Taiwan, beyond its meddling in the Taiwanese democratic process, it is the threat of military force, the anti-democratic compelling of a people through the threat of and the planning for use of force (a crime against peace as per Article 6(a) of the United Nations Charter), that should convince every Taiwanese that they stand to lose so much by reuniting with a country that very obviously has no democratic aspirations.

Surely, there must be ways to do business with China without one having to sell his soul in the process.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Five Years (and One Day) Later

There probably were more articles, opinion pieces and editorials about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington over the past week than there were after the strikes five years ago. So much ink has been spilled, pixels been used and airtime taken on that issue that once again it feels like the world has stopped. CNN, the cable news network whose coverage days before the commemoration was nothing if not painfully trite, decided to present the events of 9/11 in real time, five years later, as if every half decade a victim of a car accident had to play the videotape of the event that nearly cost him his life. Experts, not-so-experts, pundits and politicians in office and not—all felt they needed to add their ten cents worth to the chorus. Failing to do so, it seemed, would be an unpardonable sin.

At the Taipei Times where I work, during a time when Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) is facing a concerted effort (though hampered by torrential rains) to unseat him, the Opinions pages for the past three days have been about nothing but that, with pieces written by individuals as varied as CNN’s Nic Robertson to the caustic Christopher Hitchens. Being an editor there, I have had the chance (or misfortune, depending on how one sees it) to read, edit and read them all, over and over again.

What emerges is surprisingly—and in a way alarmingly—thin: the chief architects of the attacks, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, are still at large and continue to release video tapes threatening more pain on the US and its allies all over the world. This time around, whatever it is that is brewing is—if we are to believe what bin Laden’s right arm says in yesterday’s release—for the Gulf States and Israel. We’ve also learned that the US had the world’s opinion in its favor after 9/11, that most supported retaliation in Afghanistan but that there was unanimous opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which created many problems but solved precious little. All but the hardcore right-wingers agree in those opinion pieces that Iraq pushed the world back in its campaign against terrorism. Oh—a study now shows that the reduction in air traffic after the 9/11 attacks delayed the spreading of the flu virus, perhaps one of the few positive offshoots of the terrorist attacks.

As the “world” pauses to meditate on the attacks that occurred five years ago, in which nearly 3,000 people lost their lives, I wonder if we should not select a day in the year when we’d all stop and think about the much greater number of civilians who have been killed by the so-called coalition in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, all of whom died from Western bombs launched in the name of a worldwide campaign to protect the vague though from our perspective narrowly-applied concepts of Freedom and Democracy. Should we not, say, make September 12 a remembrance day for all the innocent people who died as a result of the US-led retaliation (and then enlargement) to 9/11? Or are all these people expandable, not as worthy of our time as were the 3,000 or so who perished on that fateful day in September?

Like everybody else, yesterday plunged me back in time momentarily and I, too, relived the day by visualizing myself at 8:00am, 10:00am and so on. I vividly remember waiting at the bus station in Montreal, waiting to take the bus to Ottawa, where I would be taking my very first class in my War Studies graduate program at the Royal Military College of Canada. I still see that old New York-bound black lady as she approaches me and asks if I know the reason why the border with the US has been closed, at which point my cell phone rang and my father apprised me of the news from New York. The eerily-quiet Ottawa (and that says a lot) upon my arrival there is burned in my mind, as is the mood that filled the air in the meeting room at the National Defense building, where we held classes on Tuesdays. As the course that I was taking was, quite appropriately, an introduction to intelligence, I remember my professor—who for very valid reasons showed up a bit late and winded—saying that in light of the day’s events the perspective of the course would have to change a little.

This last aspect has renewed importance five years after the event, for this reorientation of the mind was exactly what I believed—and I still do—needed to be made if we were to avoid other horrors such as 9/11. We needed to alter how we dealt with the Middle East and change the behavior patterns that had given legitimacy to those who perpetrated the attacks.

Unfortunately, despite Donald Rumsfeld’s supposed new, light way of waging war in Afghanistan, or the “shock and awe” high-tech barrage against a country that had no WMD and which (it is now clear) had absolutely no ties to al-Qaeda, the lessons of 9/11 have not been learned. If they had, powerful states like the US and the UK would not have allowed Israel to wage war the way it did in Lebanon in July and August, nor would they have accepted the continued oppression against the Palestinians. Come to think of it, if those lessons had been learned, the US wouldn’t be bogged down in Iraq today after having created the conditions for a bloody civil war that truly risks inflaming an entire region. In fact, it looks as if the decision-makers in Washington made the conscious decision not to learn anything from 9/11 but to nevertheless use the attacks as a pretext to further their agenda for the Middle East, an agenda that as its first stop quite evidently had Baghdad. Many people believe the US invaded Iraq in response to 9/11. That simply isn’t the case. Even back in 2002, as war loomed, intelligence officials and political leaders in Washington knew fully well that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11 or its mastermind. They also knew—and had reporting to support it—that Iraq had no existent WMD program to speak of.

All that 9/11 did was to give those people the pretext to go into Iraq, and even then they failed to convince the world of the worthiness of their cause. The UN never gave them the resolution they asked for, and the world over millions of people saw the war for what it was: an illegal war of aggression against a sovereign state.

There is no question that Iraq was a mistake and that the invasion took away precious resources and energy from the task in Afghanistan. As a result, five years after the terrorist attacks the Taliban insurgency is more intense today than it ever has been since the regime was ousted in late 2001, resulting to an insurgency that slowly is starting to take on the airs of Iraq. Canadian and British soldiers are being killed over there, waging a war that shouldn’t be theirs. NATO leaders this weekend called for more troops to be deployed in southern Afghanistan and will try again twice this week to convince members of the alliance to commit more.

Five long years of lessons not learned and savagery that can but further alienate and anger those in whose name (rightly or not) 9/11 was committed, half a decade for the greatest military power in history to fail miserably at apprehending the perpetrators of the attacks and in so doing created thousands of new adherents to a vengeful ideology.

And there you see them, the architects of that fiasco, solemn-looking in New York and behind the Pentagon, who have the gall to say, with a mock conviction that would be too painful to bear were it not so risible, that they will catch bin Laden. Or the “leader” of the so-called free world (though he certainly wasn’t elected by that free world) saying that there are still people out there who wish to do us harm, to attack the things we cherish most, our democracy and freedoms. Five years and those people are still lying—worse than that, five years and they are still allowed to lie through their teeth and look convincing. I wonder if there still are people out there who are truly convinced by those hollow words.

The more I think about it, the more I believe we should have a Sept. 12 day for all the victims of Western aggression against the Middle East. Perhaps then, as we collectively stop and think about the men, women and children whose lives we foreshortened through cruise missiles and cluster bombs, we will be able to come up with the solutions to the problem. September 11, 2001, was horrific—there is no question about that. But we cannot continue to see this event in isolation, as if a wrong had been perpetrated without the inkling of a justification. We cannot stop to meditate, pray or write every September 11 and then continue on with our lives on Sept. 12 without a though for the vengeful plan that began to take shape on that day.

Let us all hope—for our sake and that of the millions who live in the Middle East—that five years from now we will have become a little wiser on this most important issue.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Japanese Drums and Day 1 at the Times

My life as editor at a newspaper officially began yesterday at 3pm. Knowing that the job and learning the trade most likely wouldn’t be a walk in the park, I decided to have a very low-key, restful weekend. Most of it, in fact, was spent in coffee shops, reading, or just walking around town.

But we did do something different Sunday night—and it was extraordinary. We went to Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall to attend a Japanese drums concert by a troupe called Za Ondekoza (see picture). For a solid two hours we were treated to a meditative and at times hypnotic feat of taiko drumming accompanied by numerous instruments, from the flute to shakuhachi. I had heard taiko drums before, but I certainly didn’t expect a concert to be as much a feat for the eyes as it is for the ears. In fact, the whole affair had a ritualistic feel to it; every hit of the drum is preceded by kata-like posturing, as if every hit were the result of an elaborate strand of meditation on the part of the drummer. What this creates, therefore, is something that resembles a dance; when six drummers do this simultaneously, it creates a whole that cannot leave the onlooker indifferent. The tremendous concentration with which the players do their percussion is nothing less than stunning; how else could a person, standing akimbo in a position that cannot but be uncomfortable, never skip a beat for a song that lasts more than twenty minutes? The drummers are also in exceptional shape and are but muscle. Some of them beat large drums with sword-like sticks while lying on their backs and holding onto the drum with their feet. For every hit, they would do a sit-up. The play of light was also accomplished with perfection, enhancing the mood swings, which went from quiet contemplative to war-like violent.

The following day launched me into the hectic world of the newspaper. Let’s just say that the learning curve isn’t very long. After being asked to read the style guideline (proper to the Times but drawing largely from the Associated Press guide) and shown how to use certain software, I was asked to start editing two stories from international wires. Both, it turns out, were opinion pieces—one on September 11 and the other on the JonBenet media frenzy. Meanwhile, there was mild journalistic excitement surrounding one of the “big” stories of the day, the death of the famous TV “Crocodile Hunter.”

Over the next seven hours, I would ensure that information was correct, check for punctuation, and make appropriate changes to make sure that the texts reflected the style guide (changing yuan to Yuan, or American to US, for example, when referring to the country). There are hundreds of such idiosyncratic style requirements. This also means making sure that dashes and quotation marks are double ones. What surprised me was how liberal we can be in changing certain things, even when the opinion piece is by someone like, say, Joseph Nye of Harvard University. As long as the spirit of the article is maintained, we can change about anything, from headline to subhead to how the text is organized. More so, even, with news items we get off the wires (AP, CP, CNA, Reuters and sundry others). Even when a story reads “CP” and has no “author,” chances are the text will substantially differ from the information that was obtained from the wires. This, therefore, means a lot of cosmetic surgery and rewriting. Then there are the local and regional news, which are written by our own reporters and, if need be, translated from Chinese to English. These are challenging to the editors, as we oftentimes need to understand what the author of the piece meant and retranslate it into proper, publishable English. When a piece is done, it is submitted to the editor-in-chief who goes through the whole thing. After that, it is made into a proper newspaper item; pictures are added and many checks are made to ensure that there are no “bad breaks” and that everything fits the page perfectly (this I will start doing in a few weeks). Everything is checked once more, proofed, and after that the editor-in-chief signs off on that page and it is submitted for print.

Usually, every editor is assigned one or two pages. Yesterday, I had parts of page 8 and most of page 9, which are the letters and opinion sections. After I had gone through a long letter written by a university professor here in Taiwan, the editor-in-chief and I sat together and went through it together. I was surprised by how liberal he was in making changes, which sometimes meant removing whole sentences. As it turns out, even in an opinion piece, if the facts are wrong (say, “Taiwan is in chaos,” which actually was in the piece I worked on), it will be removed.

Overall, day 1 was a very interesting experience. It is hard work—harder than I have worked in a long time—but it is rewarding. Every day, I know that something I worked on, proofread, wrote or rewrote, is in the newspaper and is being read by hundreds of thousands of people. With this, of course, comes a sense of responsibility. Remaining typos will be noticed, and more importantly, factual errors can have repercussions. Never, however, will a piece be treated by one editor alone. Rather, everything comes out of an organism. It may look chaotic while it is in process, but in the end it works out. When 9pm approaches and the deadline needs to be met, things get a little heated and the editor-in-chief may raise his voice to whip his troops.

So there it is, day one at a daily.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Colors Shown

The level of personal involvement in politics in Taiwan is unlike anything I had ever experienced before. Not only are the news perpetually reporting on the ongoing plan to oust President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) or exposing every allegation of corruption, infidelity or other weaknesses, but politics—the great divide of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)—extends, sadly, into the workplace. Whereas in Canada the distance between ordinary citizens and the powers that be in Ottawa appeared to be calculable only in light years, here in Taiwan people make the battle of politics a very personal one indeed. Perhaps this is a consequence of the small size of the country, where distance—physical, political—uses a very different scale from that which is used in immense countries like Canada, Russia, Germany or the United States.

To demonstrate my point. Yesterday, minutes before I was to leave the office for the last time, every Taiwanese employee was had an envelope by their supervisors. Immediately, this made all the employees talk among themselves. I knew, therefore, that something was up, and I started asking around to find out what was going on. As it turns out, the envelopes came from the very top, from the owner of the series of magazines and schools. The object was to strongly encourage every employee to make a NT$100 (approximately $3.10 Canadian) donation to support the fundraising campaign initiated to oust the president. As an incentive, all employees were told that should they make said donation and provide a receipt, they would get an hour off from work in return. Many said, in jest, that they would do it for three hours, but that one hour wasn’t enough. Humor aside, I believe there is great danger in mixing the gift of leave time to employees with politics of the kind that can affect an entire nation. In other words, some people will willingly make their donation not out of political belief, but simply for the fact that they would like to get an hour off. Others, as the invitation came from the top, might feel compelled to make the donation, as doing otherwise will identify them as someone who isn’t of the same political persuasion as that of the employer. In a way, this could be interpreted as a politically-based threat. I don’t know that this would be a widespread occurrence, but I can very well imagine employees of companies with strong political affiliations suffering the professional consequences of failing to donate.

I remember the first time I accompanied my parents as they went voting. What had struck me then was how secretive people generally were about their colors. One couldn’t tell if your neighbor was a Liberal, or a Separatist. Political persuasion was like a religion, something personal that you did not divulge publicly. Discussing politics made people uncomfortable. It was better—safer—therefore, to go into the little secluded room, drop the vote card in the box, and flee the premises. Conversely, here in Taiwan, people are very open about their colors. I know more about an uncle of Stephanie’s pan-blue (KMT) affiliations than about the man himself, and I know more about my father-in-law’s pan-green (DPP) beliefs, and how those have resulted in friction with the abovementioned uncle, than I know about many other aspects of his life. At work, one could easily know who was KMT and who was DPP (the former were in the majority, by the way). There is no doubt that my former employer was pro-KMT.

Whether this is a good thing remains to be proven. In a way, this showcases a deeper, more personal involvement in politics. This probably makes politics and its ramifications more immediate and therefore less distant than politics in Canada, where politics are seen as having very little impact on personal life. After all, Canadians could only argue with some difficulty that the Harper government has fundamentally changed the way they live their lives—as least not in the short term (I would argue, though, that it might in the mid- to long-term). Yes, the country’s foreign policy has changed somewhat, and some laws like same-sex marriage may eventually be reconsidered, but overall life has remained pretty much the same since Martin was ousted.

In Taiwan, however, the nature of a government can have a very serious impact on the future of the country, as the political objectives of the parties looking at each other across the great ideological chasm are very substantial. One pushes for independence, recognition at the United Nations; the other aims for reunification with China. As a result, the outcome of a political ouster, or of a presidential election, will have an immediate impact on the future of the country, in terms of the economy, democracy, security, and many other issues.

No one seeks the protection of the isolated ballot box here. Green, Blue, you show your colors and encourage others—by offering leave time if need be—to rally to the cause. No closet political beliefs indeed.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Last Day, A Much Lighter Offering

Today represents my last day working as an editor and writer for three English-language magazines in Taiwan. As it wasn't my intention to teach English as a second language (ESL), which is what most foreigners end up doing in Taiwan, this job gave me the opportunity not only to hone my skills as an editor and learn about the magazine trade, but it also provided me with the permits and certificates required to stay legally in the country. But it was evident from the onset that I could only go so far (and long) writing for children and teenagers. In fact, the editor-in-chief who interviewed me back in November last year had been a little apprehensive. "But you have a Master's Degree in [War Studies]" he had said. "Don't you think you will be bored?" he had asked, as it turns out presciently. He was right, of course, but given the choice between teaching rowdy children and working in a magazine, the decision had been an easy one to make.

After eight months of doing this, however, the time has come to do something else and to challenge myself—which is exactly what I will get next Monday when I commence work as a copy editor at the Taipei Times, Taiwan's primary English-language newspaper. With a circulation of nearly 300,000 copies daily (and a web edition), I am yet again expanding the amount of people whose heads I will be welcomed into (the magazines I worked for had, I believe, a circulation of about 80,000 copies).

These will be interesting times to be working in a newspaper as well. Given the coming Presidential elections and the various ongoing motions to recall and expel the current DPP president, as well as continued tensions with China, Taiwan's renewed attempt to obtain—this time using its name, Taiwan—representation at the United Nations, arms purchases (66 F-16s from the United States, among other items) and other issues, I will have my fill of local and regional stories, not to mention international coverage, with the Times offers as well. The Times' inclination is pro-separatist (which as my readers will know I fully agree with) and somewhat pro-DPP, though it prides itself in calling everybody, regardless of their political affiliations and standing, to account. Whether they operate at the DPP, the KMT or in Beijing, crooks are crooks are crooks. This notwithstanding, it should be interesting to work in as polarized an environment as Taiwan's political scene. After all, not so long ago Taiwan's media were part of the state apparatus and, much as in China, had little choice but to toe the official line. In many ways, old habits die hard, especially in how one views the world. Today, though, Taiwan's environment is a truly democratic one that starkly contrasts with that which is available across the Strait, where yesterday a journalist was once again condemned, behind closed doors, for allegedly spying on Taiwan's behalf. No country in the world currently has more journalists in detention than does China. As a newspaper editor and sometime writer, I will not, thankfully, be facing such risks in Taiwan.

In the past month and as an earlier posting indicates, I have had my share of problems with the abovementioned editor-in-chief, but that matters little. Professional differences, exacerbated by cultural ones, dissipate with time and really have no weight worthy of mention. What stays, however, are the nice, dedicated people with whom I worked during that period, people who are now showing me that my presence here was indeed appreciated. I will be having dinner and karaoke with many of them this evening, and for those who cannot make it, I have been given well-wishing cards, pictures and so on. If only they, in turn, could be treated a little more fairly by their employer.

Isn't it ironic that the government employer I resigned from almost a year ago to the day entertained such a fear of the one area I am about to enter professionally—that of the news media and a foreign country's to boot!

Thursday, August 31, 2006

"Shocking" and "Immoral"

This is how the UN's humanitarian Chief, Jan Egelund, describes Israel's incomprehensible use of cluster bombs during the 72 hours leading up to the August 14 ceasefire in Lebanon. In fact, around 90 percent of the overall number of cluster bombs used by Israel during the 34-day war were dropped during those last three days. So far, the UN has identified 359 separate cluster bomb strikes in Lebanon, with as many as 100,000 unexploded bomblets. As a result, there have been 59 confirmed casualties—including 13 deaths—caused by the explosives since the end of hostilities.

According to international humanitarian law (IHL), cluster bombs—considered illegal by the Ottawa Process to ban land mines and other tied campaigns—should only be used against clearly-defined military targets and certainly not in civilian areas, which is where Israel dropped a great share of them. Cluster bombs belong to a category known as "explosive remnants of war" or "unexploded ordnance (UXO)," and as with land mines, a military that uses them in combat should provide a concise map of the areas where they were used, something Israel hasn't done to date. The problem with cluster bombs lies mostly in the failure rate; in other words, a percentage of the bomblets dropped don't explode on impact. As a result, civilians returning to their homes and children attracted by the objects—not to mention humanitarian workers rebuilding the country—are at great risk (in Afghanistan, UXO were often mistaken for yellow food packages). This is like having 100,000 invisible land mines in and around urban areas. Consequently, the already daunting task of rebuilding Lebanon will now require an element of de-mining as well.

What is difficult to comprehend is the reason why Israel felt the need to use these indiscriminate means against Lebanon—and to intensify their use—when it had already become clear that the hostilities would cease. Other than endanger the lives of civilians and make reconstruction more onerous, there is very little military advantage to having done so. The only explanation, therefore, is that the willful use of an illegal weapon was part of Israel’s plan of collective punishment for Lebanon, something that ties in well with the widespread bombing of civilian infrastructure and the embargo, which, despite please from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, endures to this day.

The countries that provide Israel with cluster bombs—a list which includes but is not limited to the United States—should pressure Jerusalem to account for its indiscriminate use of these weapons and refrain from selling them to the Jewish state (or any state, for that matter). Hezbollah was often (and justly so) criticized by Israel and the international community for firing rockets indiscriminately into northern Israel. Jerusalem's use of cluster bombs is, haplessly, as indiscriminate, in that the unexploded bomblets linger on and can maim and kill months later without the benefit of targeting.