Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Canada’s Achilles’ heel

Private Simon Longtin, Master Warrant Officer Mario Mercier and Master Corporal Christian Duchesne, the last three Canadian soldiers to die in Afghanistan, had one thing in common: they all came from the French-speaking province of Quebec, a province that historically has always been more reluctant to participate in wars abroad than the rest of Canada.

A Canadian Press-Decima Research survey conducted in July showed that 67 percent of Canadians viewed Canadian casualties in Afghanistan as unacceptable. In Quebec, that number was 76 percent — and that was before the three soldiers killed on Aug. 19 and Aug. 22. Judging from the coverage those deaths received in Quebec newspapers (I happened to be in that province when the deaths occurred) and the soul searching that ensued, it can be expected that opposition to Canada’s participation in Afghanistan will increase in Quebec. And casualties from that province could grow as well, as its Francophone Royal 22nd regiment — known as the Vandoos (a corruption of “vingt-deux,” or 22 in English) — took over the lead of the battle group in Kandahar earlier this month. Within weeks, three of its soldiers had already fallen.

From the looks of it, the killing of those three soldiers — one by improvised explosive device and two by landmines — was random and was not the result of specific targeting by the Taliban or other Afghan rebels. But if I were a Taliban intelligence officer bent on pressuring the Canadian government to pull out its troops before the mission ends in 2009, I would ensure that future attacks focused on soldiers from that regiment. The more soldiers from the 22nd Regiment are injured or killed, the greater the outrage in the province of Quebec will be and, consequently, the greater the pressure on the Conservative government — whose survival relies to a large extent on Quebec votes — will become to pull the troops out or shift their role from a combat mission back to support, as was initially the plan, for provincial reconstruction.

With Canadian soldiers dying at more than three times the rate of soldiers from other countries in Afghanistan — including troops from the US and the UK — the Taliban could now break Canada’s back by turning to a war of polls. All they need to do is kill or injure as many Quebec soldiers as they can and then log on the Internet, or contact friends back in Canada, to get the latest polls. Should the Taliban adopt this strategy, it won’t be too long before the growing opposition in Quebec becomes politically untenable for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.

Monday, August 27, 2007

A flash

The sudden flash of light occurred in mid-flight on the China Airlines flight from Vancouver to Taipei, just as the main character in the Spiderman 3 movie first confronted his evil alter ego. All as one, the occupants of the cabin looked in stupefaction toward the source of light, waves of palpable fear rolling through the plane. Partaking of that recoil, I, too, could only think back on the scenes of the China Airlines aircraft going up in flames in Okinawa a little more than a week ago. It took me — and I would say most passengers — a good minute to calm down after realizing that the source of light was not something that had gone terribly wrong with the plane, but rather a kid who, caught in the action of the movie, could not refrain from taking a picture of the large screen in front of us.

Air accidents — even those than do not result in loss of life — continue to awaken nightmares in people’s imagination, especially so when, as with other catastrophes, the images are repeated over and over again in the media. This barrage of images in the past week turned an innocuous event — a child seeking a shot of his favorite cartoon — into a source of dread.

Not that I want to play film critic or anything, but that moment when the flash went off was, for me, the only source of excitement throughout the whole movie.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

On the road

This entry is being composed from back home, in Canada, on my first visit there since I relocated to Taiwan two years ago. Having traveled from Vancouver, and thence to Toronto, Montreal and now Quebec City, what strikes me most is, of course, the vastness, the space. And to be honest, the air quality in Quebec City is worlds apart from that in Taipei.

Another thing that hit me was how security at Canadian airports has tightened, especially in Vancouver. To give but one example, as passengers from my China Airlines flight awaited our luggage, customs officers would walk round us like vultures and question anyone who looked different (which means anyone with tattoos, long hair or a beard). If this is the treatment reseved Taiwanese and East Indians when they come to Canada, I cannot imagine what it must be like when the plane is from the Middle East.

Another shocker, which found its way into the editoral that I published today, was the ignorance of the customs officer who processed my entry into Canada. According to this misinformed individual, Canada is, hum, liberal enough to have solved the Taiwan issue by making it coterminous with China. And no amount of explanation would persuade him to change his views. So, upon being asked how long I had been in China, I replied: three days, in Hong Kong, in May last year. Obviously, this sense of humor did not go down too well with the official, but to my surprise I was nevertheless spared the expected search through my luggage. (Metal detectors and checks on electronic devices, even on domestic flights, were also much more thorough than what one is subjected to in Asia.)

All that being said, this response by the first-line officer - and therefore first person of contact for visitors to Canada - got me thinking about how Taiwan needs to change its approach to how it advertises itself to the rest of the world. In my editorial, I suggest that the prevailing top-down approach, with Taipei seeking recognition at the UN and other world bodies, is turning logic on its head, and that it stands a better chance of gaining the emotional response it needs by connecting from the bottom up, with individuals, who can then pressure their governments to give Taiwan the space it deserves on the international stage. I also call on expatriates living in Taiwan to lend a hand - or their voices, that is - in that endeavor, by becoming emissaries for Taiwan whenever they visit home.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Beijing caught in a lie

A little while ago I wrote about Beijing’s increasingly aggressive intelligence-collection program in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games, activities which could compel foreign governments to assist the authoritarian regime by sharing intelligence with it.

The picture became even uglier this week when police in Beijing clamped down on a group of foreign journalists and Reporters Sans Frontieres advocates who were calling Beijing’s bluff and accusing it of not respecting the commitment it had made to ensuring press freedom in China. Given the long list of precedents set by Chinese authorities on human rights across the spectrum, one wonders how anyone could have taken that pledge seriously. In fact, the indelible blotch behind all this is the fact that the Olympic Committee and the international community gave Beijing the games despite knowing fully well that they were being lied to, fully cognizant of the fact that China would continue to repress its people and bar reporters — domestic and foreign alike — from painting a complete picture of what’s going on in China.

Sadly, China has so far been able to get away with the lies and has been rewarded diplomatically and economically as if it were a responsible, law-abiding stakeholder.

But there might be hope. Foreign reporters in China may turn out to be worthier adversaries to the authoritarian regime than the diplomatic pushovers Beijing is used to dealing with — or, for that matter, the Chinese activists and reporters whom it can crush with impunity. Judging by some of the reactions, a number of foreign journalists did seem to believe things would improve in China and that they would have the liberty to do their job. Gullible as this might have been, their disillusionment and the attendant anger could put Beijing in an uncomfortable position, as they are unlikely to accept being censored. Moreover, Beijing would be hard pressed to imprison them, for unlike Celil Husayin, a Uighur rights activist with dual Canadian citizenship who was jailed in April (see “Why Celil doesn’t stand a chance,” April 27, 2007), the great majority of reporters are not Chinese. In other words, if those were to be thrown in jail, foreign governments responsible to those foreign nationals would, in contrast to how the Canadian government responded to Mr. Celil’s case, be hard pressed not to come to their assistance.

All in all, Beijing is caught between a rock and a hard place: either it clamps down on foreign reporters and thereby risks sparking an international incident, or it throws them all out, which would be detrimental to the image it is trying to conjure as the games approach. Its last option is to give foreign reporters the rights it promised to give them, with the result that the dire human rights and environmental situation — the rottenness underneath the veneer — will be exposed.

Beijing sought glory by hosting the games, but just as the mythical Icarus, it may see that the glare is just too hot for its own good.