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.