Friday, May 29, 2009

David Lee at Canadian Senate Committee: Opportunity missed

A welcome precedent was set on Wednesday when Taiwan’s representative to Canada, David Lee (李大維), was invited to address a Canadian parliamentary committee in an official capacity, something that had not happened since Canada severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1970.

Addressing the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Lee touched on the proposed economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) between Taiwan and China and, as expected, toed the line from Taipei on recent developments such as Taiwan’s presence as an observer at the World Health Assembly (WHA) earlier this month.

Signal from Ottawa

It is nice to see Canada, if only symbolically, supporting a more visible international presence for Taiwan, and the invitation extended to Lee undoubtedly was a move in that direction. Somewhat more subtly, Ottawa was also sending a signal that it supports the cross-strait policies of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). Much like Washington, in the eight years under pro-independence president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), Ottawa saw the Taiwan question as an irritant that risked causing difficulties — if not war — in the Asia-Pacific. (Canada’s own problems with Quebec separatists also dampened whatever support there might have been in Ottawa for Taiwanese independence, while its support for Kosovo independence, conversely, likely stemmed from its NATO membership.)

Coming on the heels of the WHA and amid growing exchanges across the Taiwan Strait, Lee’s presence in parliament could be seen as a reward by Ottawa for diminishing the risk of “unnecessary” (in Ottawa’ view) conflict in Asia. (During the “provocative” Chen years, Taiwan’s envoy to Canada would never have received such an invitation.) Canada, like many other countries, wants that problem to disappear and has had little patience for such details as the erosion of democracy in Taiwan or opposition to the manner in which the Ma administration has engaged Beijing. From a safe, though by default nearsighted, distance on the other side of the world, Ma is seen as defusing tensions in the Taiwan Strait and doing all the right, rational things. In light of this, one cannot expect that Lee would have been pressed by members of parliament to discuss (or that he would have volunteered to do so) opposition to Ma’s measures.

Once the irritant of pro-independence and opposition to Ma is removed, it becomes easy to look at the future of the Taiwan Strait with optimism (as the meeting did) and to focus on everybody’s favorite “safe” question — trade.

Missed opportunity

Ironically, this is where Lee stumbled and lost his dignity, by saying that for Canadians, Taiwan was the shortest and best route to China. In other words, Taiwan is a means to an end, a mere stepping stone to the great Chinese market. (It’s an ever shorter and better route if the problems of independence and democracy are swept under the rug, as they were during the meeting.)

Lee didn’t have to say this. After all, Canada, whose trade relationship with the US is similar to that between Taiwan and China, would never say that it is the shortest and best route to the US.

Perhaps Mr. Lee does not understand what international space means, that it actually reinforces a country’s sovereignty. Despite the proximity and cultural similarities, Taiwan is more than a mere pathway to China. Lee was offered a rare opportunity to speak for Taiwan abroad in official capacity. His undignified response, sadly, reinforces the view, unashamedly polished by the Ma administration, that Taiwan is too weak to stand on its feet, that it will readily go down on all four so that others can walk on its back.

That is what, above all, irritated the international community under Chen — Taiwanese dignity.

Version of this article published in the Taipei Times on June 2 available here.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The strange case of the tourist who spied

Ma Zhongfei (馬中飛), the Chinese tourist who on Monday was arrested on charges of spying on a military facility in downtown Taipei, was released on his own recognizance by the Taiwan High Prosecutors Office on Tuesday. Prosecutors also did not bar him from leaving the country. Here’s the little we know about the case: Ma, who is reported to be chairman of a “high-tech” company in China, was apparently invited by a Taiwanese “firm” to visit Taiwan for nine days. On Monday afternoon, Ma reportedly left a group of Chinese tourists at Taipei 101 and somehow found his way to the Armed Forces Recruitment Center on Keelung Road in Taipei. Ma claims he was going to Sindian (新店), Taipei County, to pay his respects to a deceased Taiwanese friend.

Ma entered the computer warfare command area — a restricted area — through a back door and began taking pictures. Soon afterwards, he was apprehended by guards and the case was transferred to the prosecutors’ office. Accompanied by prosecutors, he then went back to the recruitment center, where he was asked to “reconstruct” his activities.

The odd bits and holes:

Ma apparently walked down Keelung Road to the recruitment center, about 2km from Taipei 101. His purported destination, Sindian, is about 10km from the skyscraper, which means that it would take more than one hour by foot to get there. As Chinese tourists have yet to be allowed to go off on their own (aside from free time at locations such as Taipei 101), there is no way Ma would have been able to rejoin his group before it moved elsewhere, especially if he had walked. The recruitment center, meanwhile, is located next to the Liuzhangli MRT station on the Muzha Line (brown). From there, Ma would have had to take the MRT down to Zhongxiao Fuxing and transfer onto the Banan Line (blue) to Taipei Main Station, and thence transfer onto the Xindian Line (green). If his aim was indeed to go to Sindian, it would have been far more efficient for him to walk from Taipei 101 to Taipei City Hall (about five minutes) and take the MRT there directly to Taipei Main Station and transfer onto the green line. (Ma never mentioned taking a bus.)

At this writing, prosecutors have yet to confirm whether Ma’s camera was seized, or if the contents were erased. They have also been less than forthcoming with regards to the name of the high-tech firm where Ma is purportedly chairman (reporters also didn’t seem to bother asking). A Boolean search on the Internet ([“Ma + Zhongfei”] + chairman) returned the following:

Ma Zhongfei, Board Chairman of the silver branch of the China Chamber of Commerce of Metals, Minerals & Chemicals Importers & Exporters (CCCMC) and General Manager of Precious Metals Dept. of China Minmetals Nonferrous Metals Co., Ltd). [Information dates from October 2005. It is impossible to determine whether the two individuals are the same.]

Searches in Chinese were to no avail. As CCCMC is not a high-tech sector company, I kept looking and used other venues. I was eventually able to gather the following:

The name of the company where Ma is believed to be chairman can be loosely translated as Guangdong Sikeda Technologies Co Ltd (廣東思科達信息技術有限公司). I have so far been unable to locate the company Web site.

Why did Ma do what he did?

At this point, Ma’s behavior raises many possibilities:

(a) He acted alone and was misguided into believing he could access a restricted area;
(b) He acted alone and, out of curiosity, sought to test guards at a restricted area;
(c) He acted alone and was hoping to access classified information to sell/pass on to Chinese authorities;
(d) He was under guidance (a “conscious” source) and was asked to test readiness and/or obtain classified information
(e) He was under guidance and is part of a scheme to overload sensitive areas with repeated “attacks” (in other words, using tourists as the overloading element);
(f) His company may serve as a front and Ma is something else (e.g., a spy);
(g) The firm in Taiwan that “invited” Ma may also have served as a cover

In and of itself, the Armed Forces Recruitment Center is not a high-priority or highly sensitive target for espionage. Furthermore, whatever information was deemed valuable from that target could easily have been obtained with far more professionalism than that displayed by Ma, which leads to the conclusion that the “attack” was not directed by Chinese authorities or was only meant to test readiness and/or overload. Furthermore, the recruitment center itself is open to the public, which means that Ma was not breaking any law by being there or taking pictures (he even asked for permission to do so).

Ma’s accessing the restricted computer warfare command area, however, is more troubling, given China’s interest in computer warfare. While Ma would not have had time to steal classified material, he may nevertheless have been able to identify, and take photographs of, hardware for future exploitation. More than anything, this makes it essential that whatever pictures Ma took were either seized or destroyed, especially now that he has been released and will be able to return to China.

Soon after it was announced that a far greater numbers of Chinese would be allowed to visit Taiwan, I pointed out that Chinese authorities could exploit the opening to conduct espionage. Maybe Ma was just a fool who “accidentally” entered an armed forces recruitment center and restricted area. His composure after he was arrested, however, undermines that theory. But if he was a spy — self-made or guided — the present case would just be one instance, and probably not the first. Ma was caught. How many weren’t?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Chen and Roh: More in common than meets the eye

While I was being interviewed by the Voice of America (VOA) yesterday regarding the suicide over the weekend of former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun, it occurred to me that VOA’s interest in hearing my thoughts (after all, I am based in Taiwan, not South Korea) had something to do with the comparisons that have been drawn between Roh’s case and that of former Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).

The two, both former human rights lawyers, have faced accusations of corruption — Chen of embezzling or receiving NT$490 million (US$15 million) and Roh of accepting US$6 million in bribes while in office.

In both cases, the investigations were launched after a transfer of power, from the Democratic Progressive Party to the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in Taiwan, and from the left-of-center Uri Party to the conservative Grand National Party (GNP) in South Korea. (Interestingly enough, just as in Taiwan, the previous government was “green” and was replaced by the opposition “blue.”)

In democratic countries, high-level corruption represents a betrayal of trust that can have ramifications on a party’s performance at the polls. In other words, votes will serve as a corrective to corruption. In one-party systems like China, however, corruption is seen as an impediment to the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), whose grip on power is contingent on its ability to maintain high economic growth and social stability. Anything that undermines that image or threatens to derail modernization (as high-level corruption will) is also perceived as a threat to the CCP, which in recent years has not refrained from ridding the party of highly visible corrupt officials. Under such a non-democratic system, however, direct popular elections cannot serve as an instrument to fight government corruption.

There are two areas in which both democracies and single-party states see eye-to-eye on corruption. One is in the use of corruption probes as a weapon for power plays within a political party, which is especially prevalent within the CCP but not unseen in multiparty democracies. The other — and this is of special interest here — is in the use of probes as a means to discredit the policies espoused by the targeted political figures in another party.

While they were in power, both Roh and Chen advocated policies that were extremely divisive.

In Chen’s case, his advocacy of an independent Taiwan alienated a sector of the polity (predominantly the KMT) that either sought to maintain the “status quo” with China or clearly supported eventual unification.

As for Roh, his most contentious — and equally divisive — policy was his decision to continue the “Sunshine Policy” of his predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, on North Korea, which culminated in a visit by Roh in Pyongyang in October 2007. In January that year, the main opposition GNP had criticized Roh’s government for trying to arrange the Inter-Korean Summit.

In both cases, the opposition had substantial influence on the media.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in a report that the so-called “Big Three” conservative newspapers in South Korea — the Chosun Ilbo, JoongAng Ilbo and Dong-A Ilbo — together accounted for about 70 percent of the country’s newspaper market. These dailies, the CPJ said, had all been critical of Kim’s “Sunshine Policy.” Unsurprisingly, when major South Korean media outlets (including the above-named three) faced tax evasion probes in 2001 (under Kim), the GNP turned out to be their “loud champion,” as the CPJ reported.

In December last year, the Korean Central News Agency reported that Media Action, a grouping of 48 civic and public organizations including the south Korean Press Trade Union, had denounced moves by the GNP — which came to power on Dec. 19, 2007, replacing Roh — to put media under its control. The group accused the party of seeking to revise media laws in ways that risked undermining impartiality and favored conservative media such as the Chosun Ilbo.

In other words, a clear link between the GNP’s control of the media, hardline stance on inter-Korean dialogue and the level of publicity surrounding the Roh case can be established. It is therefore not impossible that through the media and the judiciary, the GNP sought to discredit Roh’s appeasement policies vis-à-vis North Korea by focusing on allegations of corruption against him. Soon after his death, some South Koreans were already starting to ask if the media and the judiciary might not have come “too hard” on Roh — something that would equally apply to the Chen case in Taiwan, where a large sector of the media falls under direct or indirect control of the KMT, and where the KMT-led government has been accused of meddling in the judiciary.

It is interesting to note, too, that much like the KMT, the GNP has roots in a military dictatorship, in this case that of Park Chung-hee in 1963, when it was known as the Democratic Republican Party. Such political dowry may have played a role — an old reflex, perhaps — in the KMT and GNP’s use of mass propaganda campaigns to discredit not just a political opponent, but also an ideology (Taiwanese independence; liberal policies regarding North Korea).

The similarities in the Chen and Roh cases are more than superficial and may expose deep undercurrents in how young democracies with an authoritarian past address corruption. In both instances, the storm that has accompanied the probes against former officials point to a politicization of the process and the dangers inherent in government control of the media.

Version of this article published in the Taipei Times available here.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Taiwan ‘province’ further downgraded (yes, it’s possible)

The Taiwan External Trade Development Council announced on Friday that for the first time since 1970, Taiwan will take part in the World Exhibition, which will be held in Shanghai next year. So far, so good. Taiwan’s coming in from the cold.

The problem, however, is that Taiwan will participate, with its own pavilion and all, not as Taiwan, the Republic of China, “Chinese Taipei” or any of the other names by which it has been called over the years. It will do so as an NGO — yes, a non-governmental organization.

Given the participation of 190 countries and dozens of international organizations, the Expo will undoubtedly be a great opportunity for participants to showcase their cultures and accomplishments. In that regard, Taiwan’s presence will be welcome, as it has lots to offer to the world and deserves to be recognized. But as an NGO? Doesn’t Taiwan have a government? Would it not have been better to participate as, say, a “special entity,” or under a name that at least leaves room for interpretation?

The danger with the term NGO is that it sets a new baseline for Taiwan’s recognition internationally. In other words, it is a downgrade from the “province of China” designation seen at the WHO and other global organizations. Prior to this, an upgrade in Taiwan’s status would have been from “province” to official statehood. Once it becomes an NGO, even to be called a province (which at least has its own government) would require an upgrade in status.

Taiwan is no longer a country. It’s not even a province anymore. It has become a bodiless entity. Just when you thought the Taiwanese government’s dignity had reached rock bottom ...

Under Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian:

You are a frog, says the bully. At most, a child. No, says the bullied. I am a man.

Under Ma Ying-jeou:

You are not a man, says the bully. You are a child. No, says the bullied. I am a frog.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Strange police behavior on NSB tip-off

After being prodded by a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislator at the legislature yesterday, Minister of the Interior Liao Liou-yi (廖了以) admitted that police officers had mishandled an investigation into the possibility that a protesters could throw petrol bombs during the demonstrations against President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) on Sunday. The case goes as follows: At some point before the rallies on Sunday, the National Security Bureau (NSB) received information that a student surnamed Chen (陳) could be planning violence during the protests. The NSB then shared that intelligence with the National Police Agency (NPA). So far, so good, and it is perfectly normal for intelligence agencies to share information with law-enforcement authorities if they have reason to believe that a crime may be about to be committed.

Liao said the lead turned out to be false and that Chen was only a university student who happened to follow politics. His admission that the police officers’ approach at Chen’s house may have needlessly scared Chen and his family, however, is insufficient, as is DPP Legislator’s Yu Tien’s (余天) insistence that the officers should have apologized immediately after concluding that Chen did not pose a threat. In fact, their focus misses the point entirely.

The real problem with this case (aside from the fact that Chen isn’t exactly an uncommon surname in Taiwan) is that police officers visited the suspect at his home in Pingtung County on Monday, one day after the demonstrations. Surely, if the NSB shared threat-related information with police prior to an event, police would investigate the suspect before the event actually takes place, not after. It would have been perfectly appropriate for police to visit Chen before the rallies to determine whether he represented a threat, even if the information turned out to be wrong.

But as no incendiary attack — or other form of violence — occurred during the protest, police had no business visiting Chen at his home after the event. This also applies in the unlikely scenario that the NSB shared the information with police after the demonstrations, in which case Liao’s contention that the visit by police was meant to ensure public safety during the protest is misleading. If doubts remained, or if the authorities still had reason to believe that Chen remained a threat but did not act on Sunday, the NSB — not police — would have continued investigating, and done so without Chen being aware of it (i.e., through surveillance, intercepts, interviewing sources and so on).

The real mishandling, therefore, isn’t that police failed to apologize. It is, rather, that questioning took place after the fact, which proves that the object of the visit to Chen’s house was not public safety. This may just have been plain incompetence on part of the police. It may also have been an attempt to intimidate, which visits by police at one’s residence will usually accomplish.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The world’s a stage — use it well

Department of Health Minister Yeh Ching-chuan (葉金川) was in for a surprise in Geneva yesterday when two Taiwanese students approached him after dinner and asked him to clarify his position on the designation of Taiwan as “Chinese Taipei” at the World Health Assembly (WHA), the WHO’s decision-making body.

After regaining his composure (he whimpered, lost control), Yeh said he might consider taking legal action — back in Taiwan — against the two women.

Aside from Yeh’s sobs, the reaction of the Taiwanese government and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) was one of outrage, with references to Taiwan being an international “laughingstock” and to the feelings of Taiwanese being hurt by the two women’s actions.

More interesting was Presidential Office Spokesman Wang Yu-chi’s (王郁琦) comments on Monday, who said that while he understood there were differences of opinion over whether Taiwan should agree to the name “Chinese Taipei” at the WHA, the public should voice its discontent at home rather than at international events.

There was, undoubtedly, some loss of face involved with the incident on Monday, which marred an otherwise perfect day for the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration, as it finally had something to show for its pursuit of détente with Beijing. After all, despite its doing so as an observer, this was the first time since 1971 that Taiwan participated in a UN body.

Beyond the loss of face, however, is the fact that the success of the contentious rapprochement between Taiwan and China initiated by Ma after he came into office last year is contingent on opposition to those less-than-transparent efforts not being internationalized. In other words, the rosy picture that has been painted of China-Taiwan relations by international media, investors and most of the world’s capitals in recent months must not be undermined by news that there is something rotten in Taipei, that millions of Taiwanese either oppose, or at a minimum apprehend, the manner and speed by which talks with China have proceeded. This strategy was on full display over the weekend, with the KMT and most foreign media downplaying the importance of the anti-Ma protests in Taipei and Kaohsiung on Sunday and reporting that “thousands” or “tens of thousands” of demonstrators took part in the rallies when, in reality, there were hundreds of thousands.

Facing a weakened opposition Democratic Progressive Party, the KMT/Ma administration, which control both the executive and the legislature, appear to have reached the conclusion that as long as trouble can be kept at home and does not spill out, they can continue to ignore dissent and proceed with their cross-strait negotiations.

Monday’s incident in Geneva threatened all that, however, because all of a sudden the world (or at least the Swiss and the participants at the WHA), were made aware — perhaps for the first time — that there is real opposition to Ma’s policies and that Taiwanese will not only travel to voice their discontent, but even risk arrest to do so. Yeh’s threat to sue may have been overreaction from a man who has clearly demonstrated his inability to handle stress. But depending on whether this materializes or not, it could also be an attempt to use prosecution as a means to deter others from expressing the fears and discontent of Taiwanese on the world stage.

Perhaps it is easy for the world to ignore little Taiwan when shouts of anger are expressed on the island, as happened this weekend. It might be more difficult to turn a blind eye to what’s going on here, however, if Taiwanese take the fight abroad. Perhaps those two young ladies in Geneva were on to something. (As Michael Turton points out, though, it would have helped if the ladies had protested in English or French, so that what was said could be understood by the audience.)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Associated Press fails at history. Again [UPDATED]

This is something that I and others have written about on countless occasions already. But as long as international wire agencies and news outlets continue to misrepresent the facts in Taiwan, I will continue to sound like a broken record and persist in taking them to task.

In its coverage of the May 17 demonstrations against the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration’s pro-China policies, The Associated Press (AP) today recycled many of the falsities, misrepresentations and biases that we have come to expect when it comes to Taiwan. The AP ’s Annie Huang, for example, writes that demonstrators were “underscoring their view that after six decades of separate governance, the democratic island and the communist mainland should never come together.”

“China and Taiwan,” she continues, “split amid civil war in 1949” and Sunday’s protest “may not have come at an opportune time for the [Democratic Progressive Party] to convince the wider population … as the local stock market is soaring amid expanding cross-strait links.” Huang also writes that “China has recently shown a willingness to accommodate [“the Harvard-educated”] Ma’s push for greater international recognition for the island.”

The problems:

“… after six decades of separate governance.” Huang conveniently forgets the 50 years of Japanese rule on Taiwan, from 1895 until 1945, years that had a formative impact on Taiwanese consciousness and nationalism. At the very least, Taiwan and China have had separate governance for more than 110 years, or 11 decades. Not six.

“… split amid civil war in 1949.” (also used by Agence France-Presse’s Benjamin Yeh, while Reuters’ Ralph Jennings does a far better job.) Taiwan and China did not “split.” The losing side in the war, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), fled to Taiwan and imposed itself on the people there. Taiwan was not a participant in the Chinese civil war (1927-1949); in fact, except for the last four years of the civil war (from the end of World War II until the KMT’s defeat in 1949), Taiwan was part of Japan, so it would have been impossible for it to be part of that war. (One simply cannot split from something it is not a part of to begin with.) Furthermore, the literature clearly shows that Taiwanese after 1945 had no intention whatsoever to be sent to China to fight there, and (despite the KMT) great efforts were made to ensure that Taiwanese would remain on Taiwan to defend its territory.

“… soaring stock market amid expanding cross-strait links.” While the TAIEX has indeed performed quite well in recent weeks, this alone is not sufficient as an indicator that the economy is doing better. In fact, some economists have pointed out that Taiwan’s economic fundamentals remain abysmal and that Taiwan may be a perfect candidate for a stock bubble. It should also be noted that the stock market can easily be manipulated to give the impression that the economy is reviving, or that the upward trend is the result of closer ties with China.

“… China has recently shown a willingness … for greater international recognition for the island.” Huang and AP cannot even be bothered to mention what that “willingness” signifies, which is a single event — Taiwan’s “invitation” to attend, as an observer, the World Health Assembly meeting in Geneva this week, under the title “Chinese Taipei.” To believe that this single instance, which does not depart from Beijing’s “one China” principle, is a sign that China is “willing” to give Taiwan more international space belies tremendous naivety on Huang and AP’s part, or a lack of understanding of China’s approach to diplomacy when it comes to Taiwan (see, for example, my article “On Chinese zero-sum diplomacy,” Taipei Times May 3, 2009).

“… Harvard-educated Ma.” No mention is even made of the DPP leader, Tsai Ying-wen (蔡英文), who consistently is never referred to as “the London School of Economics-educated Tsai.”

As happens far to often in wire copy about politics in Taiwan, important facts are left out that mislead the reader or unconsciously tip the odds in one side’s favor (the KMT). The silence on key determinants in Taiwanese identity — in this case Japanese colonialism — added to the usual “split in 1949” will serve to convince those who do not know better — that is, pretty much everybody outside Taiwan — that Taiwan has always been part of China and therefore that the hundreds of thousands of people who took part in today’s demonstrations in Taipei and Kaohsiung were nothing but disgruntled individuals who “oppose” better relations with China. Troublemakers, irritants, extremists, like former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).

If, on important events like today (which newspapers abroad are more likely to pick up), wire agencies cannot even get their basic facts right, what else are they getting wrong on ordinary days?


Thanks to Michael Turton for pointing out that I failed to take AP to account for another glaring mistake in its report: that Sunday’s protests was “the first large protest against Ma’s policies” since Ma come to power on May 20 last year. Large demonstrations were held on Aug. 30, Oct. 25, and throughout Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait Chairman Chen Yunlin’s (陳雲林) visit in early November, culminating with the “siege of Boai” on Nov. 6, all of which attracted hundreds of thousands of protesters. In other words, 517 was the fourth large demonstration against Ma in the past 12 months, not the first, as AP claims.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Why we (foreigners) get involved

The question of whether waiguoren, or “foreigners,” should get involved in Taiwanese politics is one that has been asked for decades, starting with those, like George Kerr, Linda Gail Arrigo and Lynn Miles, to name but a few worthies, who sought to defend this beautiful country from the abuses of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime from 1947 on. Quite often, the argument is made that foreigners do not understand Chinese culture, which inherently makes them outsiders and mere meddlers in domestic affairs.

A recent comment posted in response to an entry titled “PRC police to Taiwan” on Michael Turton’s excellent blog, The View from Taiwan, perfectly encapsulates that viewpoint and is well worth, abusive language notwithstanding, quoting in full:

Great!! … The sooner [foreigners leave Taiwan] the better!! … As a matter of fact, all of the foreigners supporting TI [Taiwan independence] with no intention of sheding [sic] your blood, or scraificing [sic] your family or your property should leave Taiwan tomorrow … We Taiwanese will be happy NOT to see your face again EVER!! BYE~~ BYE.

Leaving aside the possibility that this response was posted by a hardcore pro-unification individual, and bearing in mind that such opinions are by no means shared by all Taiwanese, the key factor here is the perception that somehow expatriates in Taiwan are all transitory, perpetual exiles that have no real sense of belonging here. Having been confronted to such accusations myself — made by Taiwanese, Chinese and expatriates — I have long pondered their meaning and whether there might not be some truth in them. After all, the future of Taiwan is for Taiwanese themselves to decide, right?

The problem with this argument, however, is that it altogether fails to take into account the impact of globalization and multiculturalism. Brought down to a local level, it is akin to reprimanding someone who seeks to improve the community he inhabits based on the fact that he was born in the village next door. This has often made me think about my past, when, in 1994, I left home in Quebec City and moved to Montreal, 250km westwards, to go to university. Would someone have been justified in criticizing me for seeking to make my environment a just, clean, tolerant one simply because I was not born there? Of course not. Over time, Montreal became my new home, and the part of the city I lived in — in the “gay village,” which happened to be relatively inexpensive and close to my workplace — became a community that I identified with and cared for. I also wanted the various ethnic groups that constitute that vibrant city — my Lebanese and Colombian friends, and the Italians, Haitians, Pakistanis, Algerians, Jews, Muslims — to be treated with respect and justice. As such, as I developed roots there and became part of that community — in other words, as Montreal turned into my new home — I wanted it to evolve and improve itself because I cared for it. In fact, there was a selfish need in that desire to see the city prosper: I was proud of it, proud of being one of its inhabitants, and the better it got, the more international attention it gained through its achievements, the prouder I became. After all, there is nothing wrong with seeking a nice living environment for oneself.

Eleven years later, I left Canada and moved to Taiwan, which for various reasons came to feel more like home than anywhere in Canada. Having discussed this with many expatriates in Taiwan, I know for a fact that this is a sentiment that is shared by many. Several expatriates — British, Americans, Canadians, Australians, among others — have been in Taiwan far longer than I have. Many have wives or husbands here, and quite a few have children who are Taiwanese citizens. Close friendships have also developed over the years, oftentimes with Taiwanese. Many of those foreigners are therefore not simply “passing through” Taiwan like in the old days, seeking to make a quick buck before moving on to something else. Many have started families, worked on their careers here and, as a result, have become part of the community, which in the past 10 to 15 years has become increasingly multiethnic.

As such, why is it that we never (or at least far less often) hear critics say that Lebanese in Montreal, or South Koreans in Los Angeles, or Indians in London — or Taiwanese in Vancouver — should mind their own business when they seek to improve their communities and fight for justice in their adopted countries, but it is perfectly acceptable for Taiwanese or Chinese to berate foreigners in Taiwan who seek, as members of the community, to make it a better place? Why can a Haitian in Montreal work to make the city more inclusive, or, once he becomes a resident of Canada, vote on whether Quebec should separate from Canada — in other words, become a full participant in the decisions that have a real impact on the fate of the community — while a Canadian like yours truly in Taipei should shut up and not, as an equally involved member of this community, endeavor to make Taiwan a better place for all and ensure that the decisions that pertain to its future are not made through coercion, fear, military threat, or lies? Is it not conceivable, for a person like me who has a Taiwanese partner, who works as a reporter in a (still) free press, to seek to change things when I hear about plans for authoritarian China to deploy Chinese police officers in Taiwan, or when a Hakka Taiwanese is told by the authorities that he cannot obtain a license for his company because the proposed name of said company alludes to a pro-independence movement from years ago? This is not mere missionary zeal, or an odd twist on the “white man’s burden” (which begs the question: have my accusers managed to rid themselves of their colonial mindset?) — this is the real, selfish desire to live in a place that is free and democratic, the same desire that animated me when I sought to do by part for the community in Montreal, or afterwards in Ottawa.

In the modern world, the very terms “foreigner,” “waiguoren” and “expatriate” have become antiquated, a provincial viewpoint on locality that does not stand scrutiny. As the yellow banners in the picture above clearly state, Taiwan is my country. I may have been born a Canadian, but right now Taiwan is my home.

Should the “foreigners” who have made Taiwan their home, who have developed roots here and care about the place, get involved? You betcha!

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Mutually assured destruction in the Taiwan Strait: A review of Craig Addison's 'Silicon Shield: Two Chinas, One World' documentary

HTML version of this article available here.
PDF version available here.

What if something other than military hardware, balance of power and savvy diplomacy could serve as a deterrent against military invasion? According to Craig Addison’s documentary Silicon Shield: Two Chinas, One World, the computer chip preserves the peace across the Taiwan Strait.

No single development has had as great an impact on how we live today than the microchip. The world’s military powers seized on the immense potential of computers to refine the art of war, which became more precise and deadlier: whoever took the lead in the technological arms race gained an advantage. In one instance, however, computer technology became a deterrent against the folly of warfare. Small enough to fit in the palm of the hand, the computer chip guaranteed Taiwan’s survival.

So argues Craig Addison in his documentary Silicon Shield: Two Chinas, One World. More so than any other flash point across the globe, the Taiwan Strait exemplifies how the semiconductor has not only made our world smaller, but changed the nature of warfare forever — and not for the reasons you might think.

For the 25 years after the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) scrambled across the Taiwan Strait following its defeat to the Communists in 1949, the focus of the many academics, diplomats and military experts who tackled the question of Taiwan was on how, through conventional balance-of-power means, war could be averted. Weapons were sold, alliances pitting the “free world” against a seemingly communist front were made, and the world held its breath as the brinkmanship of Chiang Kai-chek (蔣介石) and Mao Zedong (毛澤東) threatened international security, more so after China successfully detonated its first nuclear device in October 1964.

Gradually, as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) gained diplomatic recognition, the isolation of the Republic of China on Taiwan (ROC) became increasingly acute.


Seeing the writing on the wall and understanding that isolation exacerbated the threat to the ROC’s survival, the government in Taipei launched an initiative in the 1970s to turn Taiwan’s mostly labor-intensive industrial base into a high tech one. This achievement, which through interviews with key participants and historical footage Silicon Shield outlines with brio, would not have been possible without the dedication of former premier Sun Yun-suan (孫運璿), who spearheaded the initiative and sought help from overseas Taiwanese. Top engineers and scientists, among them Pan Wen-yuan (潘文淵), were brought back to Taiwan to brainstorm about the future of the country. In a matter of days, Pan elaborated a strategy that would spawn an economic miracle.

In 1976, Taiwan sent a team of young, bright Taiwanese to the US to study the nascent field of semiconductors and bring back the know-how. That same year, US electronics manufacturer RCA licensed its 7-micron metal oxide semiconductor (MOS) process (which lagged about a decade behind the most advanced technology at the time) to Taiwan for US$3.5 million. This was a huge gamble and Sun put his career on the line when detractors criticized the millions of dollars that were being spent on a “novelty.”

But the leap of faith paid off, as back in the US, a pair of young technicians — Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak — produced the first commercially successful computer.

The rest, of course, is history and Taiwan happened to be in the right place at the right time. Computers needed memory chips, and Taiwan, having successfully performed a technological leapfrog thanks to its investment in RCA and the bright young minds who made the technological transfer possible, soon became the nerve center of the semiconductor industry. By the 1990s, California’s Silicon Valley and Hsinchu, where most semiconductor manufacturers established themselves, were joined at the hip. Around that time, successful Taiwanese engineers working in the US, such as Morris Chang (張忠謀), then at Texas Instruments, were persuaded to return to Taiwan to lead the semiconductor revolution.

As Taiwan consolidated its lead in the sector, it came to produce about one-fifth of worlds chips, more than the total production in the entire EU. In 2006, contract chip manufacturers TSMC and UMC alone accounted for 67 percent of the global foundry work, while Taiwan ranked No. 1, with 30 percent of global market share, in chip assembly and testing, and No. 2, at 20 percent, in design. By then, the total semiconductor industry was worth about US$250 billion annually, the equivalent of Thailand’s GDP.


Control of tensions in the Taiwan Strait, Addison argues, is not contingent on arms buildup or savvy politics, but rather on the semiconductor, which has become so important to the global economy that disrupting its cycle of production and distribution — as an attack by China against Taiwan could — would be self-destructive. Intel giant Andy Grove called this “the computing equivalent of mutually assured destruction.”

Thus was born the concept of the silicon shield, an invisible yet extremely resilient wall that deters cross-strait conflict, a notion that Addison first expounded in his book Silicon Shield: Taiwan’s Protection Against Chinese Attack (Fusion Press, 2001). In other words, the level of economic integration and interdependence between Taiwan and China is such that the latter would be committing suicide by attacking the former.

Economic integration in the Taiwan Strait, the documentary argues, is analogous to Europe after World War II, when US president Harry Truman called for the consolidation of Europe’s coal and steel industries to create interdependence and thereby reduce the risk of war. While the analogy is helpful, one interviewee in Addison’s documentary observes that there are substantial differences between post-war Europe, where all future members of the EU already existed as states, and the cross-strait situation. Taiwan’s political status remains undetermined, which has implications for the ease with which economic integration can be realized — especially when the principal partner is China.

If somewhat obliquely, Silicon Shield posits that the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait missile crisis — the closest the neighboring countries came to war in decades — didn’t escalate because of the silicon shield, and that Beijing was dissuaded from turning military saber-rattling into all-out invasion after weighing the economic consequences of an attack.

Interviewed for this documentary, former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) provides what is probably a better assessment of the reasons why China did not attack: a precariously positioned, just-installed president Zhang Zemin (江澤民) was being pressured by the military to send a message to Taiwan ahead of its first presidential election. There was no intention to attack Taiwan to begin with.

As William Perry, US secretary of defense under then US president Bill Clinton, tells the interviewer, the silicon shield raises the stakes, but it is not an absolute deterrent.

It would have been helpful if decision-makers in Beijing who played a role in the crisis had been interviewed, but at no point in Addison’s documentary are his assumptions tested by having Chinese officials discuss the matter. This is probably the greatest weakness in what is an otherwise interesting documentary.

So far, so much unproven.

Given that the bulk of the foundries that buttress Taiwan’s semiconductor industry are located in Hsinchu, it would be relatively easy for China to circumvent the silicon shield by simply not attacking the area.

Addison’s argument is also predicated on the notion of the rational actor model, in which decisions are made based on rational cost-benefit analysis. When it comes to Chinese nationalism and the question of Taiwan, however, it could be dangerous to assume rationality in Beijing, or that it would not countenance the economic cost of an attack — especially if it believed it could quickly achieve its military objectives.

It is too soon to forecast what will happen to the silicon shield in President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) rush to forge closer ties with China, which Silicon Shield the documentary, released late last year, takes into consideration toward the end.

While some see greater economic interdependence as benefiting both China and Taiwan, others worry of a “hostage effect,” whereby Taiwanese companies could become so dependent on China that Taipei will be vulnerable to leverage from Beijing. Another fear is the “hollowing out” effect, or “brain drain.” Lastly, there is no reason why China, as it gains access to, or steals advanced Taiwanese technologies, and as Taiwanese chipmakers build higher specification fabs in China, could not emulate the technological leapfrogging that Taiwan achieved in the 1970s and 1980s and become the new center of semiconductor manufacturing, in the process obviating Addison’s thesis in the Silicon Shield.

Did the silicon shield prevent war between China and Taiwan over the past three decades? That’s debatable. But as China shows no sign of abandoning its goal of annexing Taiwan — by force if necessary — a silicon shield is better than a fig leaf.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Review: Nixon and Mao: The week that changed the world
By Margaret Macmillan

Historian Margaret Macmillan’s Nixon and Mao, the record of US president Richard Nixon’s surprise visit to China in 1972, may have been published a little more than two years ago, but it was only recently that I felt compelled to read it. Perhaps that choice was prompted by signs that Taiwan may be up for yet another round of “secret” diplomacy in which its future and the fate of its 23 million people is to be decided by outsiders. Macmillan’s approach is reminiscent of David Halberstam’s in his classic The Best and the Brightest, in which short biographies of the key participants, ostensibly as a means to explain the policy decisions they make, are woven into the narrative. This is a technique that the late Halberstam had used to great effect and one that Macmillan also uses well.

The key personalities in the story of how the United States opened up to communist China, which culminates with the visit, in 1972, of president Nixon and the signing of the problematic Shanghai Communiqué, are Nixon, his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, Mao Zedong (毛澤東), and premier Chou Enlai (周恩來).

While there is nothing controversial in Macmillan’s take on the years of secret diplomacy (mostly performed by Kissinger) leading up to the meeting, she successfully presents the main geopolitical considerations — on both sides — that made rapprochement possible: shared fears of the Soviet Union and the US war in Indochina. Macmillan also does a fair job showing how the White House sidelined other agencies — especially William Rogers’ State Department — an approach that, though preferred during the Nixon years, may very well have been exacerbated by the knowledge that dealing with the Chinese is very much a person-to-person affair. Doing so also conveniently disposed with the friction that naturally happens in a democratic system, where competing voices with sometimes different agendas must be taken into consideration when policy is fleshed out. In the present case, the principal casualties are Rogers, the State Department and the American media, contempt for which Nixon made no effort to conceal. Nevertheless, whenever doing so was convenient in negotiations with authoritarian China, where Mao’s and Chou’s decisions were very much policy, Nixon and Kissinger complained to their Chinese counterparts that their hands were tied, that they could not ignore other voices in the US political arena — the Chinese (Taiwanese) lobby, conservative Republicans, Democrats and so on. Despite Nixon’s attempts to circumvent a large swathe of the American political system, the inherent pressures remained, and if one thing, the reader is left with the impression that accomplishments notwithstanding, Nixon’s plan involved at its core the betrayal of American democracy and that of its allies, especially Japan and Taiwan.

The book is filled with little-known anecdotes (what did Canada offer to China when the two countries established diplomatic relations? Answer: a pair of beavers, stuffed in the washrooms of an Air Canada flight; Nixon’s low resistance to alcohol and how he almost set the White House on fire while trying to demonstrate how one could set fire to a mao-tai drink; and how the president became increasingly grumpy as his week in China imposed interminable sightseeing tours).

Macmillan makes little effort to conceal her admiration for Kissinger’s and Chou’s negotiating skills, while portraying Mao and Nixon as the strategic thinkers who had final say over the agreements reached.

In terms of organization, Macmillan’s book could have been better, as it goes back and forth in time for no real purpose. Her nonlinear approach does not add to the narrative; in fact, it gives the impression that the book is more repetitive than it actually is.

Where Nixon and Mao gains its importance is in showing how ambiguity resulting from a desire to establish contact at all cost can sow the seeds of future conflict. On this, no question has been more problematic, or so undermined the efforts of the principal players in the visit, than that of Taiwan. The passage in which a meek Kissinger, after begrudgingly receiving input from State Department officials, goes back to his Chinese counterparts and asks for revisions to the Shanghai Communiqué after it had been approved by Mao and Nixon is quite entertaining, as is Macmillan’s description of the to-ing and fro-ing that ensued. It is also very important, as the final text, vagueness, compromise language and all, established the foundations of what became US policy vis-à-vis the Taiwan question and shows that, had Nixon not been forced out of office after the Watergate scandal, Taiwan very likely would have been sold out.

Instead, what we have today is an extension of that communiqué, with Taiwan’s status remaining — a dangerous word these days, judging for the treatment reserved Japan’s de-facto ambassador to Taiwan, Saito Masaki — “unresolved.” Two reasons why it might be important to return to Nixon’s opening to China — and hence why Macmillan’s book should be read — is signs that the administration of US President Barack Obama may be willing to act in similar fashion with China, and the equally secretive approach to negotiation that has characterized relations between the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) under President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and China, with all the undemocratic shortcomings that doing so implies.

There is no doubt that at one point the world would have to recognize the People’s Republic of China and its 1.3 billion people. It is equally natural that as it sought to modernize, China could not remain forever in isolation and had to join the international community. This conjunction, added to war in Vietnam and other, more tactical, considerations created a natural platform for Nixon’s visit. What remains in question, however, is whether the US had to promise so much so that channels of communication could be established — especially when, as it soon became clear, it could not deliver on all those promises, partly as a result of the same democratic, multi-agency pressures discussed above. Perhaps deep inside Kissinger knew that, which would explain the ambiguous language that ultimately wove itself into the communiqué (the US “acknowledges” China’s position that there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of China) and haunts the relationship to this day. Or perhaps, in a more sinister twist, Kissinger used that language so that the State Department and the Taiwan lobby would not be overly distressed and block the process. The answer to that question, sadly, rests with Kissinger, and despite her best efforts Macmillan comes no closer to providing elucidation on that question.

While executive diplomacy may bring quick results, the secrecy that it necessitates also means that the checks and balances that usually (and should) accompany sound diplomacy are lacking. While, as in the Taiwan Strait today, this approach may serve short-term political needs, it may also, in its shortsightedness, create more problems for the future. This is what the Ma administration appears to be doing today, in the name of expediency. In the long run, however, whatever benefit may emerge from the talks could spell trouble for all those involved.

If Macmillan’s book serves one purpose beyond providing an informative and entertaining recapitulation of the week that changed the world, it is this — a warning to American and Taiwanese negotiators that there is no such thing as a quick fix with China. Or, rather, that a quick fix with China comes at a steep price.
Widening the door for PRC spying

The announcement on Wednesday last week that Far EasTone Telecommunications Co intended to sell a 12 percent stake to China Mobile Ltd following a decision by the government to allow Chinese institutional investors to invest in Taiwan’s equity market was understandably welcomed by financial analysts. But behind the deal — which will require government approval — lies a world of dangers.

While a 12 percent minority stake in a firm may appear innocuous, the target sector — telecommunications — is a sensitive one, as it touches on matters of individual liberties and freedom of expression. In democratic countries, intelligence agencies must obtain a warrant before they can intercept someone’s conversations on mobile phones, land lines or via electronic means of communication such as the Internet.

Op-ed, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here .

Monday, May 04, 2009

‘Taipei Times’ v. the ‘People’s Daily’

As a frequent contributor to and editor at the Taipei Times newspaper, I often search the Internet to see which Web site carries our stories, or what is being said about them in chat rooms and blogs. Especially when it comes to my articles, I use this as a means to see whether my arguments are getting traction with readers as well as to remain critical about the assumptions that underlie my writing.

As expected, comments cover the full spectrum of reactions, from character assassination (“numbskull,” “vermin” and so on) to flattery (“eloquent,” “knowledgeable), with the core of responses lying somewhere in between.

One position that, above all, strikes me as odd is the perception, not so much in Taiwan but abroad, that somehow the Taipei Times is a “mouthpiece” of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), with one commentator going so far as to claim that the Taipei Times is Taiwan’s equivalent of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-controlled People’s Daily newspaper.

This comparison is not only wrong (there is no institutional connection between the DPP and the Taipei Times or its parent company, the Liberty Times Group), but it also fails to take into account the vastly different environments in which the two newspapers operate. While it is true that, like the DPP, the Taipei Times supports independence for Taiwan, it certainly has not been uncritical of the DPP administration when it was in power, or of its policies since it became an opposition party last year. In fact, in both its coverage and editorial page, the Times was often quite critical of DPP presidential candidate Frank Hsieh’s (謝長廷) campaign strategy, and has never boycotted or censored comments made by the President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration. In other words, despite its political inclinations, it does not represent a political party and its management has not pressured reporters and columnists into avoiding certain subjects or warned them against criticizing the pan-green camp.

Obviously, this much cannot be said about the People’s Daily, which by virtue of its being controlled by an authoritarian regime, cannot depart from the party line and will censor anything that smacks of criticism of the Chinese leadership.

The key here is the nature of the political systems in which the papers operate. If, as some critics have averred, the Taipei Times were but a mouthpiece for the DPP, its survival in a free-market and highly competitive democracy would be very much in doubt, as its editorial line would justly be construed as overly biased and therefore unreliable. To put it in evolutionary terms, it would be selected out by market mechanisms, with readers refusing to consume it. In a democratic system such as Taiwan, as well as in the countries where people read the Taipei Times (certainly not China, where its Web site is blocked by the authorities), readers can make informed decisions as to where they get their news from, and while those decisions are undeniably influenced by one’s political views, if a source is deemed unreliable, or incapable of providing a reasoned counterweight to political views at the other end of the spectrum (say, pan-green versus pan-blue media, or, in newspaper terms, Taipei Times versus the China Post), it will be dropped. That is why, despite the obvious polarization of Taiwan’s media environment, pan-blue (i.e., pro-KMT) channels such as TVBS, or newspapers like the China Times, will at times be critical of the Ma administration, and why the Taipei Times, the Liberty Times and Taiwan News will not refrain from criticizing the DPP when criticism is warranted.

Unlike China, where such topics as the health of senior CCP cadres or disease outbreaks are “state secrets,” Taiwan does not have “no-go areas” in terms of news coverage — if one thing, it is maddeningly intrusive, to an extent that would probably result in lawsuits in many countries. This media openness allows for media to remain critical and, as a whole, to provide enough competing views so that citizens can make their own informed decisions (not everybody does that, of course, and there will always be those who choose media that tend to confirm their views). The same rules apply to the UK, the US, Canada and France, to name a few, where no newspaper that strictly adheres to a party line — as does the People’s Daily — or completely departs from reality, could survive, given the market mechanisms. In democracies, toeing the line to the extent that a news outlet becomes a mouthpiece for a political party would be corporate suicide, something that does not apply to the People’s Daily, which, funded as it is by the CCP, does not depend on readership or subscriptions for its survival.

Does the Taipei Times have an editorial line that at times overlaps with the policies of the DPP? Absolutely, as does the New York Times vis-à-vis the White House, or the Guardian vis-à-vis 10 Downing Street. But to claim that it is an organ of the DPP is an invidious accusation that completely fails to understand the nature — and impact — of authoritarianism, versus that of democracy, on information.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

A little bit of cross-strait game theory

With Straits Exchange Foundation Chairman Chiang Pin-kung (江丙坤) and his team of negotiators just back from the third round of cross-strait talks in Nanjing, it is time to dwell a little on the concept of game theory. A branch of applied mathematics, game theory is an attempt to understand human behavior in a strategic context, wherein a party’s success is contingent on the decisions made by another party.

In the context of negotiations, game theory contains four possible outcomes that guide decision-making, which can be represented in the matrix commonly known as the prisoner’s dilemma: win-win, win-lose, lose-win and lose-lose.

How negotiators weigh their options and how they negotiate is predicated on whether they intend to play a zero-sum or non-zero-sum game.

My op-ed “On Chinese zero-sum diplomacy,” published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.