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.