Thursday, June 28, 2007

Taiwan and the art of the irrational

Proponents of Taiwanese sovereignty have placed such high hopes on the law that they have begun to sound like the old woman who complains to the police that the burglars should not have broken into her house because break-and-entry and robbery are against the law. Not a single week passes by that the newspaper doesn’t receive at least one op-ed about some document, signed fifty years ago, showing that China has no legal right over Taiwan. The Cairo Declaration (“Communique”) of 1943, signed by Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt (seen left, at the Cairo Conference), for example, or the Peace Treaty signed by Japan, are often the object of scrutiny by academics, as a close reading clearly shows that, despite Beijing’s claims, they never intended for Taiwan to be handed back to the People’s Republic of China.

Right though the authors may be, the problem is that theirs is a futile battle, and slash wildly as they might, their sword keeps slicing air, as the enemy chose long ago not to fight that battle.

Even though Beijing has, at times, also resorted to the “legal” aspects of its claim over Taiwan by, for example, including the opinion of so-called “experts” in state-controlled publications, it ultimately pays little attention to the law and no amount of legally based argumentation on Taipei’s part will persuade it to abandon what it sees as its own.

In an article published today in the Taipei Times, I argue that if Taiwan is to prevail in its quest to obtain recognition from the community of nations, it must focus more on the irrational. In other words, to sell itself, what it and any entity striving to achieve a similar goal must bring to light is not so much dusty legal documents that no one can dispute as arguments that appeal to the imagination.

Readers can access the article, titled Taiwan and the art of the imagination, by clicking here.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The spymaster in boots

Four years ago, give or take a week or two, I, along with another 19 individuals, was on the brink of “graduating” from what is called IOET — the Intelligence Officer Entry Training — at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). Back then, our trainers spared no effort drilling into our young minds that what we did in the course of our work, the places we visited — hell, the very nature of our work — should be kept secret from others at all cost. Some took this directive to such a level as to hide everything from their families.

As I have written a book, provisionally titled Smokescreen, about CSIS and its deficiencies (the manuscript is currently in the hands of my literary agent), I shall refrain from going into details in this entry, lest I give away too much of what readers will find in my book if it ever hits the shelves. Suffice it to say, however, that I experienced no small amount of surprise when, in the May 25, 2007, issue of the Toronto Star, I came across an article about Jack Hooper, the former Director of Operations (DO) and for a short period Acting Director at CSIS ( Part of the surprise lay in the fact that a high-ranking official would have an article published about him in a national newspaper (remember: we had been told to hide the true nature of our work from others, including officials in other branches of the Canadian government, which we did, to the best of our abilities, through the use of obliqueness and outright lies). Se there he was, the former man at the top, revealing his identity to any Canadian — to the entire world, in fact, thanks to the Internet.

The second shocker in the article was its candidness in describing some of the places Mr. Hooper had visited in the course of his work, places like Uzbekistan, Yemen, Kandahar and Lima. The heart of the matter is that readers are fully aware Mr. Hooper visited these locales in the course of his professional activities and not, as it were, as a private citizen — in other words, he wasn’t on a personal vacation there. Again, during our training, it had been repeated ad nauseam that under no circumstances were we to divulgate trips to or contacts with operational areas, as we were to maintain the myth (a pretense that had so many holes in it that it was more a sieve than a shield) that CSIS only operated domestically. So here he is, the spymaster boasting about his exploits in some of the world’s hot spots. This makes me wonder if this article was ever cleared by CSIS — as all CSIS employees, current or retired — are supposed to do, or if perhaps some of its members are just above the law. Maybe the explanation is simpler. Maybe, as is often the case, CSIS is being inconsistent, if not altogether incompetent.

For many months after I resigned from CSIS in the fall of 2005, I would avoid revealing where I had worked and be cautious in how I characterized my former employer when applying for a job. Part of me still wanted to play spy or simply wanted to respect the agreement that I had made with CSIS not to reveal where I had worked, what I had done. Some still do, choosing to hide behind a screen when testifying at the Air India inquiry, as did my former Director-General. But for the DO to open up the way he did, in an article where he is seen standing, hands in pockets, on a quay in British Columbia — that does it for me. No more hiding. If a 22-year career intelligence officer can unfold the way he did, there is no reason why someone who only practiced the same job for 29 months could not. (I had always wondered, anyway, why former CIA officials, from Robert Baer all the way to former DCI George Tenet, could publish their memoirs with such freedom while their Canadian counterparts were prevented from doing so. Case in point, on two occasions during my stint at CSIS, officials there warned me against ever writing about my experiences at CSIS).

Aside from epitomizing the greater liberties former CSIS officials now seem to enjoy in terms of talking about their former employer, what does the article in the Toronto Star have to offer? Sadly, precious little, aside from exposing a man who unfortunately stands as the perfect mascot for the macho attitude that guides CSIS and how it carries itself in the intelligence community. Here, for example, Hooper talks about CSIS and its dealings with governments that are known to disregard human rights:

“Here’s the deal. Everybody would like to believe that we have an array of choices that are good choices and bad choices. But we’re going to a dance where every girl is ugly, okay … They’re all ugly. And all we can do is get the least ugly girl to dance with. But you know, when you bring her home your dad is going to tell you, ‘That is one ugly woman.’ And you're going to say, ‘Yeah dad, but she was the best looking of that lot.’ Does that make you smart? Not in the eyes of your father.”

The above quote was in reference to the Syrian government and how CSIS became involved in the Maher Arar case, the Syrian-born Canadian who, thanks to information given the US by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), was deported to Syria, where he is believed to have been tortured. Besides being a repugnantly misogynistic and elitist analogy, Hooper’s “ugly girl” is indicative of the mindset that prevails at CSIS, one in which the consequences of one’s actions are discarded. The proverbial man in the bar always has a choice, and if all the girls are too “ugly,” he can just leave. He doesn’t have to dance — especially when he knows that choosing to dance will harm innocent people.

Speaking about Justice O’Connor, who presided the Arar Commission, Hooper then demonstrates another undercurrent at CSIS, that of the agency that knows better than everybody else:

“Nobody knows what the right thing is to do [,] so it’s left to us to make the decision about who the least ugly girl is.”

Therein lies the danger for all Canadians, when CSIS is left to decide what is best for Canada, without the accountability and checks that can ensure the survival of a democracy. Unfortunately, these two lines perfectly describe the aversion and contempt that CSIS has shown the court system as well as the Security Intelligence Review Committee and the Inspector General, the two supposed independent yet outright fangless accountability bodies charged with monitoring how CSIS conducts its operations.

But accountability isn't the object of the Star interview. It is about the man. And above all, the one impression it leaves the reader with is that of an unpolished bully, which comments such as “I would never let my guys drink Merlot [wine]. It’s not allowed. It’s a sissy wine … It’s light and girls drink it. And it sounds funny when you say it. Mer-lot. Men should never say that,” cannot but — to pun — leave a bad taste in the reader’s mouth. Why would any self-respecting career official say such things in a “first-time” interview with a national publication? How unrefined a mind must one have to use such derogatory terms to make a point (about what, one wonders)? Beyond that, if CSIS can allow such a person to climb to the top, what does this entail for the minority groups that will be targeted by the organization in Canada? If Hooper can show such outright disrespect for women and homosexuals, how does he treat Muslims, Sikhs, Aborigines, Africans, to name a few? (See “They’re Like Us, But They’re Not,” June 2, 2006, on this blog for more on Hooper and racism).

In my 29 months at CSIS I did not have much interactions with Hooper — “the CSIS chief who has a lot to learn about the Middle East but talks far too much,” as veteran reporter Robert Fisk wrote on June 10, 2006. When I did, however, I was sitting at a long oblong table on the fifth floor of the CSIS National Headquarters building in Ottawa. Next to me was my supervisor, or "head," and at table with us were lawyers and a handful of other officials. At the opposite end, oozing cowboy-like confidence, was Jack Hooper. Every time we went in that room, it was to renew a warrant or request to add targets to our investigation. We would make a short presentation, followed by a mockery of a question-and-answer session. Usually, Hooper would have the final, or next-to-final, word — a blessing of sorts — and we would leave, added powers granted.

The uncomfortable question is, given the man that has been exposed in the article — and by rebound the organization that permitted him to reach the pinnacle of power — how confident can we be that the individuals we asked to be allowed to target in that stuffy room should be targeted?

Perhaps, like ugly girls and Merlot wine, targets can just as easily be spit out.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Of surrender, identity and one big happy family

As is always the case, it is only when one sits down and listens to people's testimonies and experiences that he or she can come closest to truly understanding a people and its history. No amount of history books — which usually focus on politics and economics while giving social aspects short shrift — can compare with a Taiwanese man, say, telling of his experiences of discrimination while working in China. Only novels, I have found, can approximate this intimacy with history. One that does that very well for the Taiwanese experience is Wu Zhuoliu's Orphan of Asia.

It was with this in mind and after having had such an encounter with living personal history that I set out to write an article on the espionage and discrimination that Taiwanese living in China are subjected to, a problem that in fact goes back well before 1949, when the Nationalist forces "lost" China to the communists and fled to Taiwan, giving rise to the cross-Strait conflict we see today.

As a colonial people with a geography and a history all their own, Taiwanese have never really belonged — despite what the Chinese say — to anyone who has put a claim on them. In reality, Taiwanese are neither Japanese nor Chinese; they are Taiwanese. True, the generation of Chinese that came to Taiwan with the retreating Nationalists still has an attachment, or an emotional link, to the Mainland, but the children born to that generation were born in Taiwan, as were all the generations born since the first Chinese came to Taiwan hundreds of years ago. Orphan of Asia, itself written by a Taiwanese living under Japanese colonialism (the book was originally written in Japanese), does an apt job portraying this sense of not belonging anywhere, a condition that is exacerbated by how Chinese and Japanese react to the Taiwan reality and how this forces Taiwanese, then as today, to hide their true identity.

If they were one big happy family, or "cousins," as Beijing refers to Taiwanese, then why must Taiwanese be treated with contempt whenever they are in China, entrepreneurs facing extortion, racism, threats and spying, not only in time of conflict, as today, but as Wu's novel shows us, well before that as well?

Readers can access the full article, titled "The myth of the big happy family," by clicking here.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Stuck in a moment

While attending the G8 summit in Germany last week, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper may finally have revealed just how behind the times he is. Not that many of his conservative stances on numerous issues — from same sex marriage to the Israeli bombing of Lebanon last summer — had not already revealed the telltale signs of an antiquated mind, but this time around, by publicly snubbing an international celebrity-cum poverty activist who in recent years has done a lot of good for the world’s destitute, Harper may have reached a new low.

Or rather, he may have shown the extent to which his world view is tainted by big money. After all, the G8 summit is about the world’s wealthiest countries, which can afford to dine and wine while bickering about where to park their next anti-ballistic missile systems and so on. So no time to meet U2’s lead singer Bono (hence is stiff mug not appearing next to the popular musician above). Even US President George W. Bush could find the time, as did German Chancellor Angela Merkel — in the process giving publicity and lending legitimacy to a man who genuinely endeavors to find solutions to one of the planet’s worst scourges, that of poverty.

Adding insult to injury, Harper said that unlike his predecessor, he had no time to meet mere “celebrities,” that it wasn't his "style." Paul Martin, whom Harper never misses an occasion to snipe at, had met Bono, along with other celebrity activists, on a number of occasions. The implicit message in Harper’s comment was that Martin was either wasting his precious time or simply seeking to brush elbows with pop stars.

Busy prime ministerial schedule or not, a true leader should make the time to hold talks with activists who have successfully used their star status to publicize a cause. In more ways that one, it is such individuals nowadays — the Bonos, Gates and so on — who are making a true difference, not government representatives who, not unlike Harper, are too busy talking defense and business, in the process kowtowing to the US and, increasingly, to Beijing (how quickly Harper forgot about jailed human rights activist Husayin Celil).

A true leader is one who realizes that the world we live in is now much more than the sum of its countries and governments, a world where ideas and the capacity to make a difference come from technologically super-empowered individuals, to quote New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, along with media-savvy non-state actors such as NGOs and the Bonos of this world.

A visionary leader who takes his responsibilities to the world seriously would recognize that someone like Bono, even if said leader cannot look beyond the “pop star” status, has the capacity to affect much more lives in places like Africa than any government department in Canada ever could. Bono and his like have a mobilizing power and have gained a level of respect that allows them into households with much more ease than politicians and government officials, who are often the object of suspicion, if not cynicism. Imagine for a second all the good that could be accomplished if Bono were to move the Wall Street high-flyers to give but 1 percent of the year-end bonus they collectively received last year — yes, just the bonus — which reached a whooping US$23.9 billion (Canada's total budget for foreign aid this year is C$3.45 billion, or about seven times less than that year-end bonus). Think governments, people like Stephen Harper, can accomplish such a feat? Think again. If anyone will, it will be someone like Bono.

But no. Not Harper. To realize this would be asking too much of him. Stick to old, safe protocol and the status quo (in other words, to his so-called "style"), whereby heads of state give the impression they are doing something while in reality all it is they do is perpetuate a system that leaves nearly half of the world’s population behind while rich countries continue to enrich themselves (activists have been accusing Canada of trying to block a deal that would ensure Western countries will live up to their promises to boost aid to Africa).

So in the name of many Canadians who actually care, my sincere apologies, Mr. Bono, for the man we put in office and the disrespectful manner in which he snubbed you. Harper wasn’t too busy to meet you; he simply didn’t have the vision, stuck in a moment as he is (to paraphrase one of your songs) to do so.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

A corrective of sorts

For all its support for liberty and democracy, the Taipei Times has, over the years, run a great number of op-eds written by specialists from American conservatives and right-wingers whose connections to the defense establishment cannot but taint their views and diminish their credibility. In opinion piece after opinion piece, writers like John J. Tkacik of the Heritage Foundation, or Kurt M. Campbell, CEO of the Center for a New American Century, to name but two, have relentlessly argued a highly paranoid perspective on China’s military, unflaggingly called for a robust militarization of Taiwan and Japan (always contingent on and preparing for the worst-case scenarios) and unwaveringly provided arguments for US primacy through military means. From China’s less-than-transparent modernization of its military to its potential acquisition of aircraft carriers to a military budget equivalent of US$45 billion that, if we are to believe them, is in reality thrice that, these writers and others have adopted a realist, zero-sum take on regional matters, one that shows absolutely no promise of resolving tensions across the Taiwan Strait and that can only but increase the risk of something going wrong, some mistake being committed, which could very well engender catastrophic results. By banking on military deterrence alone, these writers and the decision-makers they influence are only making the problem worse by adding complexity and firepower. Of course, I strongly suspect that these pundits’ connections to right-of-the-spectrum think tanks and the defense industry play a large part in their understanding (or misunderstanding, I should say) of the situation in North East Asia, in that they are part of a system whereby its adherents enrich themselves by (a) painting a grim picture and (b) selling weapons to give the illusion that it will solve problems. Once one digs a little into the matter, it soon becomes clear that these supposed friends of Taiwan are anything but.

The fact that today’s edition of the Taipei Times contains an op-ed that I wrote on the subject gives me some relief, as it shows that by allowing me to articulate a position that goes counter to the general, pro-armament view found in its opinion pages, its owners are not merely puppets of the US military-industrial complex. Visitors to The Far-Eastern Sweet Potato will realize that this piece, A regional arms race is no answer, is a shorter and revised version of the May 10, 2007, posting titled “How the US is sparking an arms race in North East Asia.”

Friday, June 01, 2007

The man in the hall

In many ways, history is like a chemical experiment — chemicals are mixed in and the reactions are influenced by variables such as room temperature and barometric pressure. Sometimes the compound blows up in your face, while on other occasions it reacts in most unpredictable fashion. The main difference between the experiment of history and that which is conducted in a laboratory is that in the former, an experiment gone wrong cannot simply be thrown out.

As a linear experiment, history is all we have; we change it, add chemicals, the environment exerting pressures on it changes, but if something goes wrong, it takes time, effort and some amount of risk to bring it back to a stable form. No matter what is done to it, no matter what state it is in at a specific point in time, it will always be the product of everything that went into it down the chain of reactions.

This analogy would perhaps elucidate the Taiwanese lawmakers and politicians who, for a number of weeks now, have substituted their responsibilities toward the nation for bickering over the renaming of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei. The polarization and fighting that has resulted from the proposed name change — to Taiwan Democracy Hall — has reached a level of absurdity possibly unparalleled in the long history of party warfare, to such an extent that the Taipei City Government has begun splitting hairs on the law, making the CKS Hall a temporary historical site and suing a ministry for putting up banners on the walls surrounding the monument during the renaming ceremony a few weeks ago. In an ill-concealed stab at President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), the city government has also proposed renaming part of a boulevard Anti-Corruption Democracy Square, a likely, though unacknowledged, reference to an ongoing investigation into the president's use of special state funds.

The much ado stems from the ongoing debate over the role Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) played in the history of Taiwan. Some, mostly on the Kuomintang (KMT) side, see him as the man who saved Taiwan from communism and brought it modernity, while others, mostly Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) supporters, see him as a dictator who tyrannized Taiwanese during the White Terror, imprisoning thousands and killing tens of thousands. The KMT would also have us believe that the DPP’s move to rename CKS Hall is yet another instrument in its quest for Taiwanese independence.

The result from all this has been that many important development projects in Taiwan — including this year’s budget — have been brought to a standstill.

What both parties, and Taiwanese, must realize is that like him or not, Chiang is among the chemical ingredients that make Taiwan what it is today, for better or worse. He is part of its genetic code. Reviling the man to no end and removing every reference to his reign will not change the fact that he is very much part of the fabric of the country. There is no knowing what would have happened had someone else, after losing to the civil war in China in 1949, fled to Taiwan — or, for that matter, what the outcome would have been absent a massive relocation there. The possibilities are limitless, and there is little point in pondering the what ifs. A far worse fate could conceivably have been reserved Taiwan, as today it could be another North Korea or, for that matter, China, with fewer rights and greater inequality.

Taiwanese must move on (and I suspect many, if not most, are begging to do so, were it not for the politicians who have hijacked this issue to gain points) and acknowledge the role the Generalissimo played in the history of their nation, regardless of the outcome and irrespective of whether this outcome is what he had in mind or not. He is part of the chemical mix, and there is no going back.

However, by expending undue time, energy and money debating whether he was a dictator or not, the devil incarnate or the savior of Taiwan, Taiwanese have allowed the slumbering man in the hall to reign over Taiwan once more, this time from beyond the grave.

If, as many suspect, Chiang was an opponent of democracy, upon close scrutiny of the massive statue that sits eternally inside the hall, the onlooker might perhaps see a trace of a smile.