Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Richard Bush on Beijing’s odd behavior

Richard Bush III, director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, had an interesting piece in the China Times on June 27 (English version available here), in which he rightly points out that despite cross-strait rapprochement, China continues to modernize its military in a manner that undermines Taiwan’s sense of security, something I have long argued on this blog and elsewhere.

Bush calls it an “intriguing development” that “the People’s Liberation Army’s [PLA] procurement and deployment of equipment that puts Taiwan at risk continue[s] unabated” despite the conciliatory measures launched by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) since he came into office on May 20 last year. Bush, citing Pentagon sources, puts the number of short- and medium-range missiles China directs at Taiwan at between 1,050 and 1,150 (lower than Taiwanese military assessments of 1,400-plus), a growth rate that, while lower than in previous years (about 100 annually), nevertheless raises the question “what is going on?”

As Bush explains, Beijing’s rationale for upgrading its military and adopting an increasingly aggressive posture vis-à-vis Taiwan was easily explained in the past 15 years, when Taiwan was ruled by governments that pushed for independence. That buildup served as a deterrent should Taiwan declare independence, and in that respect it may have succeeded.

Bush then raises the possibility that China’s continued military development in surface ships, submarines, fourth-generation aircraft and cyber-warfare, among others, may not be intended (at least not solely) for a Taiwan contingency. The Chinese military’s five-year arms acquisition cycle may be responsible for the continued buildup, Bush says, adding that if this was the case, substantial change in posture should be expected in 2011, when the next cycle begins. This could also be the result of institutional forces, Bush argues, in which the PLA continues apace despite changes at the strategic level. This, however, is difficult to imagine, as President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) also doubles as Chairman of the Central Military Commission, which directly controls the armed forces.

A last option, Bush says, is that despite cross-strait détente, the Chinese leadership does not believe that the “threat” of Taiwanese independence has disappeared, with a reversal possible after 2012 if Ma failed to be re-elected. This is an interesting point, as it involves an appreciation by Beijing of the democratic forces that drive policy in Taiwan.

Regardless of the reason(s) why the PLA’s modernization and threatening stance remain unchanged, Bush argues that this is bound to undercut Ma’s policy and undermine Taiwanese confidence in his ability to diminish the Chinese military threat. Ma’s failure to deliver on the economy, coupled with his inability to address the threat of military invasion, could have serious ramifications for his chances to get re-elected in 2012. While the first failure is mostly the fault of the Ma administration, the second is entirely China’s doing, as Ma has done all the right things — sometimes at the expense of Taiwan’s security and democratic voice — to appease Beijing.

With Beijing’s failure to reciprocate on security issues — a “strategic opportunity,” as Bush calls it — the US will have every incentive to continue selling Taiwan the modern weapons it needs to defend itself. Even if the PLA buildup were not aimed at Taiwan, incertitude and the lack of transparence that surrounds the Chinese military will compel both Taipei and Washington to continue, if not accelerate, arms procurement, thus perpetuating the vicious circle that led to an arms buildup in the Taiwan Strait.

This is an encouraging piece by Bush, whose preference for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) over the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party is no secret, as it acknowledges the limitations, if not possible failure, of the Ma administration’s efforts to create rapprochement with Beijing. It certainly is a refreshing read, amid all the reports by so-called experts and wire agencies that can barely resist shouting “peace in the Taiwan Strait” from the rooftops.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Associated Press lists Taiwan as “Not Free”

Letter to Laura Ingalls, Press Officer, Freedom House, and Bo Tedards, Director, International Cooperation Department, Taiwan Foundation for Democracy

Dear Ms Ingalls, Mr Tedards,

[…] In January I attended in Taipei Freedom House’s release of its annual Freedom in the World index, where I had a chance to interact with Mr Christopher Walker, director of studies at Freedom House, and Ms Sarah Cook, Asia researcher, among others. In your map, As you know, Taiwan was listed as “Free” for 2008, while China was “Not Free.”

However, in one of its graphics dated June 24, The Associated Press reproduced the map of freedom — sourced Freedom House — in which Taiwan was the same color as China and therefore “Not Free” for 2008, which, despite a recent erosion of democracy and free speech under the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou, obviously contradicts your findings for that year.

It is my intention with this letter to bring this to your attention, as it either misrepresents your organization’s findings or portrays Taiwan as being part of China. On both counts, this is wrong and Freedom House should request that AP correct the error.

J. Michael Cole

Friday, June 26, 2009

Musings on a day off

Thanks to the idiosyncratic Council of Labor Affairs rules that govern us, editors at the Taipei Times have to work two extra days every month to accumulate sufficient hours to be considered full-time employees. What this means for those overworked personnes à tout faire is that every other week, we only get one day off rather than two, like everybody else.

For yours truly, this week was one such weekend, 24 precious hours that are invariably insufficient to recharge one’s batteries after six days of storming the beaches to meet deadlines (those who imagine armies of editors and sub-editors as in the movies or at, say, the New York Times, would be amazed by how few people can manage, often against incredible odds, to put out a 20-page newspaper seven days a week, 365 days a year). What one does on such a day is usually dictated by whatever amount of energy is left, which isn’t much. For me, it usually involves discovering new areas of the criminally underrated city that is Taipei. Ironically, and for reasons that could only possibly be explained by some demon (as George Orwell), it is also the time of the week when I do most of my thinking about Taiwan’s status and meaning within the international community.

After an insufficient amount of sleep (one must make the best use of those 24 hours), I headed for the Shida (Taiwan Normal University) neighborhood for an exquisite lunch of Lebanese/Israeli food ad Sababa, where I had a delicious platter of pita and hummus that would rival any I’ve had in Montreal or Ottawa, two cities that have large Lebanese communities. Sitting on the patio and absorbed in James Cameron’s (the British reporter, not the American moviemaker) highly recommendable memoirs Point of Departure, I delighted in hearing the different languages that were being spoken at the tables — Mandarin, Taiwanese, Russian, Filipino, English and French (ok, that was me on the phone) — which reflects well upon Taipei’s embracing of various cultures.

Braving the sweltering 35 degree Celsius temperature, I then walked over to this charming little store on Xinsheng South Road called Taiouan, which a day earlier had informed me that the book I had ordered, A Taste of Freedom: Memoirs of a Formosa Independence Leader by Peng Ming-min (彭明敏, seen left), had arrived (Peng also has a new Chinese-language book, titled A Perfect Escape, on the same subject, and Taiouan also has a DVD of interviews he gave after his return from exile in 1992). The store is worth visiting, as it holds a fantastic collection of books, maps, CDs, DVDs, T-shirts and paraphernalia on Taiwan, Aborigines and the country’s history. It will definitely be one of the first stores I approach when my book, Democracy in Peril, becomes available (sometime next month).

After my purchase I lingered in the neighborhood, which never fails to remind me of the famous Plateau Mont Royal in Montreal, what with its many bars, cafes, architectural style and on the whole sentiment artistique. I randomly picked a café that, as it turns out, had a very good selection of Belgian beer — something that, for some reason, this neighborhood has in abundance. Inspired by the European-esque, wooden feel to the place, I flipped through Peng’s book, then returned my attention to Cameron, every now and then looking at the world outside the window. Once again, as I have done countless times since moving to Taiwan three-and-a-half years ago, I realized how fortunate I was to live here among this exceptional, accomplished, hard-working, tolerant, welcoming and humble people, in one of those rare places in Asia where democracy and freedom of expression are an applied reality rather than some vague concept.

Looking at the students and young adults wandering the streets, it made me realize, too, how oblivious most seemed to be to the serious challenges their country is facing, as little by little China’s plan to annex Taiwan is progressing, with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government of Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) acting as a facilitator. Two tables behind me, a couple was engaging in an animated argument about the KMT and the leader of the opposition, Democratic Progressive Party Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文). But to me the scene was like a microcosm of reality in Taiwan: Inside, a few worried about the future of this country, while outside everybody went on with their lives as if nothing was wrong.

Reading a passage in Cameron’s book about the Korean War, my thoughts wandered again, this time on the fact that Taiwan’s democratization and liberation from authoritarian rule — coming full circle, as the book by Peng that I had just purchased deals with his arrest and exile from Taiwan under KMT authoritarian rule, let alone the fact that Peng once studied at McGill University in Montreal — was one of the rare examples of a successful peaceful revolution. No one ever picked up arms to challenge the KMT; no lynching or public trials occurred after Martial Law was lifted. Individuals like Peng, Chen Chu (陳菊), Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), Annette Lu (呂秀蓮), Chen Yu-hsi (陳玉璽), Reverend Kao Chun-ming (高俊明), Li Ao (李敖) and Shih Ming-teh (施明德), along with their friends abroad, never made recourse to force to change things; all used the legal system (whatever its worth back then), contacts and dialogue to turn things around, an accomplishment that, though far less known, is arguably equally as important as India’s non-violent campaign under Gandhi to end British colonial rule. I say equally important because it puts the lie to the argument that democracy is impossible in “Chinese civilization” and serves as a guiding light for the 1.3 billion Chinese who to this day continue to live under a regime that brooks no opposition. I wish I could have said more about this in my book, but as is often the case, it is only once a manuscript is with the publisher that one’s best ideas emerge. Maybe not ideas themselves, but rather a certain clarity about them.

I often wonder if that success, peaceful as it was, may not have come at a price, especially now when the old demons seem to be rearing their heads once again. Is it not impossible that by virtue of their tranquility, peaceful revolutions are not as readily acknowledged by the international community, in that they do not leave the indelible mark on global consciousness as, say, the violent overthrow of a dictator like Romania’s Nicolae Ceauşescu? Is democracy achieved through non-violence cheaper than that which was gained at the price of blood, of violence made real by the global media? Is it easier to ignore, or to dispense with, than its murderous, vengeful kind? And perhaps more importantly, are peaceful revolutions quickly forgotten by the authors and their descendants, the significance of their achievements played down by the fact that they provided no sudden gasp of violence? Is this why the world doesn't seem to care about Taiwan’s fate today? Are young Taiwanese today, who seem so apolitical and oblivious to the storm that is gathering around them, less aware of the importance of what happened in the 1970s and 1980s than people of the same age in, say, Guatemala, El Salvador, South Korea or Spain? Are young Taiwanese today interested when an old democracy activist like Peng releases a new book about his life under an authoritarian regime? Do they even know who he is?

So much for a newsperson’s precious one day off. Arvo Pärt is playing in the background. Time to let go, to turn the mind off for a few hours.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

China embraces market capitalism? Think again

The Heritage Foundation’s Derek Scissors had a fine piece in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs magazine (“Deng Undone: The cost of halting market reform in China”), in which he argues that after embracing market reform during the Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) era, China under President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) has backtracked on reform, with the state gaining more, rather than relinquishing, control over the private sector.

Scissors’ analysis is told from an economist’s perspective and can be seen as problematic, given that it presumes to give advice to the Chinese leadership after the style of free market capitalism he advocates sparked the global financial crisis that is currently upon us. I might add that my personal views on how countries should run their economies is slightly more socialist than the capitalist style the Heritage Foundation has long embraced.

These differences notwithstanding, Scissors’ piece is quite informative for two principal reasons. First, it exposes the myth that China is continuing reform and gradually embracing capitalism by showing that in recent years some companies that had nominally gone private remained under state control, while others — especially in the largely undefined “sensitive” sectors — have either been pushed behind layers of state controls or altogether renationalized. The intricacies of these developments, from state monopolies to price control mechanisms, state bank lending to protectionism, are beyond the scope of this article and Scissors is far more qualified than me to address them. Suffice it to say that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is showing signs that while it continues to seek economic development, it may be giving more importance to its grip on social and financial institutions than is commonly believed. (As Scissors observed, in 2006 the number of Chinese who owned a business dropped 15 percent to 26 million, while official data showed that during the first nine months of 2007 private companies contributed less than 10 percent of national tax revenues, a figure that reportedly dropped early last year.)

Ironically, the second aspect of Scissors’ article that warrants attention is left largely ignored by the author: The political ramifications of China’s volte-face on economic reform. This matter gains special meaning when it comes to recent moves by the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration and its Chinese counterparts to liberalize cross Taiwan Strait investment. As Scissors points out, state control of private or semiprivate firms means that company heads tend to be CCP officials who are either “retired” or part of a cycle whereby officials alternate between corporate and government positions. Chinese investment in Taiwanese companies, therefore, means that behind the veneer of private-sector investment likely lies the invisible hand of the state.

For the moment, certain sectors, such as telecommunications and defense, remain off-limits to Chinese investment, but we can expect those restrictions to be lifted over time, both as a result of political pressure from China and Taiwanese companies themselves. We have already observed this with the attempt by China Mobile to buy a 12 percent stake in Far EasTone Telecommunications, Taiwan’s second-largest telecommunications operator (China Mobile’s chairman, Wang Jianzhou [王建宙], is a CCP official who has occupied various posts in government). Despite restrictions by the Taiwanese government, board members at Far EasTone have voted in favor of the investment and we can expect the company to soon start pressuring Taipei to lift the restrictions.

Equally, if not more, disturbing was news that the Taiwanese government-owned Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation, which among other things designs the Ching Kuo Indigenous Defense Fighter, is proposing cooperating with the Commercial Aircraft Co of China (COMAC) to co-assemble commercial airplanes. Shareholders of COMAC include, among others, the Chinese central government and the municipal government of Shanghai. The chairman of the board, Zhang Qingwei (张庆伟), is chairman of the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense of the People’s Republic of China.

These two examples involve transparent attempts by Chinese-state-owned companies to invest in Taiwan. In light of signs that Beijing is retrenching on market reform and strengthening its grip on the private sector, future investments in Taiwanese companies could be made by Chinese firms that, on paper, may seem to be private but that in reality are very much under the control of the state. The security implications as Chinese investment intensifies (a 12 percent stake in Far EasTone, for example, could just be an opening move) and starts involving a greater number of sectors, the potential for technology transfer, espionage and compromised security will only increase. To ensure national security, Taiwanese will have to be extremely vigilant, even when a prospective Chinese investor is ostensibly a private company. With Chinese state banks dominating the lending market and the CCP spreading its tentacles in various sectors of the Chinese economy, it will be essential to determine where the money comes from, and who’s in charge.

Let’s not be deceived: China has not embraced market capitalism to the extent that its political aspirations would take a backseat.

This article appeared in the July 1 issue of the Taipei Times under the title China's capitalism of compromise .

Touching, but how utterly unjust

In its June 21 edition, the New York Times carried a feature by Simon Romero titled “Adopting Forebears’ Faith and Leaving Peru for Israel,” which describes the story of the more than 400 Peruvian descendants of Jewish pioneers who converted to Judaism in the past decade and relocated to Israel.

Most of the “new” Jews in Iquitos, located deep in the Peruvian jungles, were descendants of Jews from Morocco, Gibraltar, Malta, Britain, France and other countries, who settled in Peru in the late 19th century in search of adventure, many of whom seeking to make a fortune in the rubber trade, which was booming at the time. After the rubber trade collapsed, many left Iquitos, others died from disease, while some married locals and became assimilated, losing touch with their faith.

Toward the end of the 1990s, a revival of sorts occurred and the descendants felt a need to reconnect with their Jewish ancestry. Víctor Edery, a patriarch in Iquitos, began holding religious ceremonies at his home; by the beginning of this decade, the Jews of Iquitos were observing Shabbat every Friday as well as holy days. They learned Hebrew from cassette tapes, and launched a campaign to be officially recognized as Jews and to be allowed to emigrate to Israel.

There was a problem, however: As most of the Jews who settled in Peru in the late 1800s were men, the great majority of descendants today could not claim to have Jewish mothers, which through a strict interpretation of Jewish law means that they cannot be Jews. They nevertheless succeeded in convincing Guillermo Bronstein, the chief rabbi at the largest Ashkenazi synagogue in the capital, Lima, to perform two large conversions. This done, hundreds of new Jews from Iquitos emigrated to the home of their ancestors, Israel.

While it is moving to see individuals reconnect with their past and adopt a faith that suits their spiritual needs, this otherwise touching story masks an ugly injustice in Judaism and Israel: While new converts and descendants of Jews who have lived abroad for more than a century are allowed to move to Israel, the descendants of the estimated 700,000 Palestinians who were forced out of their homes during the Nakba (“catastrophe”) — the birth of Israel — are not allowed to return to their homeland, generation after generation forced to live in desultory conditions in refugee camps throughout the Middle East. According to the UNRWA agency, there are more than 4.6 million Palestinian refugees today, and none has a right of return, while new converts to Judaism in distant Iquitos, Peru, can do so by simply converting. Even more troubling is the fact that some of the Palestinians who saw their entire villages destroyed in a campaign of terror to make way for the birth of Israel are still alive today; none of the descendants covered in Mr. Romero’s feature had any attachment to Israeli/Palestinian soil in 1948. In fact most, if not all, were not even born when it happened. And yet, the latter have a “right of return” conferred by religion.

Moreover, under right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank, which now houses more than 250,000 Israelis, will continue to expand, further encroaching on, and disconnecting people from, Palestinian land. Some such settlements could, one day, conceivably accommodate the newly arrived converts featured in the Times story — a beautiful one at that, were it not for the fact that it comes at the cost of a grievous injustice against a dispossessed people.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Beijing makes itself an ‘indispensable’ ally

Ever since the Agreed Framework, signed in 1994 between the Bill Clinton administration and North Korea, crumbled sometime in 2002, Beijing — Pyongyang’s principal backer — has successfully positioned itself as an indispensable ally in global efforts to denuclearize its neighbor. Throughout the years, China has come to be seen as a convener of the Six Party talks and, given its relations with Pyongyang, as a lever to keep Kim Jong-il’s regime from sparking war in the Korean Peninsula.

China’s involvement in the Six Party talks has conveniently dovetailed with its attempts to reassure its neighbors — and the West — that it is rising peacefully, and that as an emerging power it is ready to act as a responsible stakeholder. At the same time, Beijing has also managed to serve as a buffer and to mitigate international responses to Pyongyang’s long streak of seemingly irrational brinkmanship. For both sides in the conflict, therefore, China has increasingly become an indispensable moderator, a balancing power reining in North Korea when it threatens to act out of bounds and pacifying jittery South Korea, Japan and the US whenever Pyongyang conducted nuclear tests or launched ballistic missiles.

Despite its hardening stance on North Korea in recent weeks and backing of a UN Security Council resolution strengthening a package of sanctions against Pyongyang, the fact remains that China is an ally of North Korea, and the unknowns surrounding the depth of its ties with Kim’s regime may have acted as a deterrent against countries like South Korea, Japan and the US that would perhaps have resorted to force by now to resolve the nuclear impasse. How would China react if North Korea were attacked preemptively? Memories of China’s entry into the Korean War of 1950-1953, added to the high secrecy surrounding Beijing’s relations with Pyongyang, have made a military solution far more problematic.

Give some, get some

Beijing is unlikely to have assumed its role as moderator solely out of altruism; its position has been beneficial to its image, and in the process it has managed to extract concessions in a way that is reminiscent of the gains it made when the Richard Nixon administration sought its help in the Cold War (to isolate the Soviet Union) and the Vietnam War (to stop supporting North Vietnamese), a precedent that should not escape our attention.

Washington, meanwhile, has exacerbated Beijing’s image of itself as an indispensable ally and become unhealthily dependent on Chinese participation in the disarmament talks, often at the expense of regional allies. Nothing underscored this reality more than comments by Stephen Bosworth, the US’ special envoy to North Korea, who has made no secret of his position that China’s leverage on Pyongyang trumps such “annoyances” as Taiwanese independence and the fate of two US journalists kidnapped by the North. Sadly, through Bosworth may have been more blunt than other officials, he isn’t the only one at the US State Department and elsewhere to believe that the West can afford to pay a price to ensure China’s continued role in the North Korea talks.

Long used to a style of diplomacy whereby political gifts come at a price, Beijing has been fully aware of the West’s growing dependence on it regarding North Korea and has used its position to soften Washington’s support for Taiwan, among others, which could explain the George W. Bush administration’s volte-face after 2001, drifting from strong support for Taiwan to nearly unending condemnation of the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) administration (the timing of Bush’s change of heart on Taiwan and escalating tensions in the Korean Peninsula could not be more obvious).

With North Korea’s isolation intensifying in recent years, China’s trade and investment with it increased by more than 40 percent year-on-year to US$2.793 billion last year, and throughout the nuclear impasse Beijing has continued high-level contacts with its counterparts in Pyongyang while managing most of Pyongyang’s financial transactions (some banks have now stopped doing so). Many experts have not illogically drawn the conclusion that despite close diplomatic relations and economic ties, Beijing has been unable to influence the North’ decisions regarding its nuclear program.

Status quo as a goal

Another, less explored possibility is that Beijing is exploiting its ambiguous relationship with Pyongyang to create some sort of a status quo, whereby the North Korea nuclear issue is never fully resolved, as an end to the conflict would severely diminish Beijing’s ability to bargain with the international community. Consequently, while it has proven amenable to Western policies and UN action on North Korea, Beijing has just as often worked to water down UNSC resolutions or pushed for further Six Party talks, a policy that, while ostensibly rational, has ensured that the North could continue to threaten its neighbors, reactivate its nuclear weapons program and test fire missiles in defiance of international law. That ambiguity, along with doubts that Beijing is fully committed to forcing Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions, was reinforced around June 10 when reports emerged that Kim’s third son, Kim Jong-un, had visited Beijing and met with Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and other senior Chinese officials.

It is evident, therefore, that the perpetuation of the status quo is in Beijing’s advantage, as it helps bolster its image of a positive force in the region while it gains concessions from the US and others on core issues such as human rights and, above all, Taiwan. This is not to say that China relishes a nuclear North Korea that could spark a destabilizing war in the Korean Peninsula. But if it manages its neighbor well — not allowing it to spark a war while preventing the international community from disarming it, effectively playing one camp against the other — Pyongyang can be used by Beijing as a precious instrument to buttress the foundations of its rise while achieving its political objectives.

Ironically, over-reliance on China by Japan, South Korea and the US on the North Korean nuclear issue could make it less likely that the problem will be resolved, and more probable that they will end up giving too much to ensure that China continues its “indispensable” role on the matter.

A slightly different version of this article appeared in the Taipei Times on June 25.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Chinese navy gets too close for comfort

A recent collision involving the destroyer USS John S McCain and a Chinese submarine near the Subic Bay off the coast of the Philippines received little press coverage, largely as a result of the US playing down the incident and saying it saw no indication of harassment by Chinese.

The incident occurred on June 11, when a Chinese submarine collided with the destroyer’s sonar array, a device that tracks underwater sounds. While the US Navy has provided little specifics about the exact location of the collision, the incident is believed to have occurred 230km off Subic Bay in the Mindoro Strait, which places it in international waters. Unnamed navy officials did not specify whether the submarine was an attack boat or a ballistic-missile sub.

A few days after the collision, the US Navy confirmed that the McCain had been tracking the Chinese sub, and Chinese officials confirmed that the submarine was Chinese.

While sonar arrays are dragged by a cable than can be as long as 1.6km, the incident has nevertheless raised questions as it occurred in international waters and, in nautical terms, the submarine had come dangerously close to the destroyer.

As the Navy Times reported on June 19, while the collision follows recent incidents involving US and Chinese vessels, it did not appear to be deliberate and was not construed as Chinese harassment. More likely, as John Arquilla, professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School said, the Chinese submarine was stalking the McCain to test its detection abilities and response.

Still, Arquilla said, “We should hear alarm bells go off every time we have incidents of this sort … What I see in this pattern of incidents is a growing capability of the Chinese to use stealthy navy assets to get close to our larger and more visible ships.”

As China’s interpretation of its so-called “Special Economic Zone” is not fixed and tends to spread outwards, this latest incident demonstrates that “accidents” will likely become more common, especially in areas disputed by Taiwan, China, the Philippines and Vietnam, among others. The potential for accidents sparking more serious conflict is therefore growing exponentially, especially as China’s neighbors will likely respond to an increasingly modern and adventurous Chinese navy by modernizing their own naval capabilities and becoming equally more aggressive.

Beyond the problem of contested sea lanes and areas, this incident is the latest in a long list of indicators that the Chinese navy is becoming more capable and daring, even at a significant distance from its littoral waters. (Such experience as it has accumulated off the coast of Somalia as a participant in multinational anti-piracy efforts may already be paying dividends.) It also shows that in a Taiwan Strait contingency, the Chinese navy would be in a position to harass US and/or Japanese battle groups dispatched to the area at an increasing distance from the strait, thus severely compromising those allies’ ability to come to Taiwan’s aid — and perhaps even making them more reluctant to do so.

Aside from displaying Chinese capabilities, incidents such as this one send a signal to Washington that the seas it had long controlled will no longer be navigated unhampered.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Reconsidering China’s ‘peaceful rise’

Those who believe that Beijing intends China’s “rise” to be a “peaceful” one should consider a pair of excellent articles published in the May and current issues of the US Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine.

The first article, “On the Verge of a Game-Changer” by Andrew S. Erickson and David D. Yang, addresses the substantial amount of technical research and academic publications in China surrounding its program to develop antiship ballistic missiles (ASBMs).* With credible intelligence suggesting that Beijing is pursuing an ASBM based on a variant of the DF-21/CSS-5 solid propellant medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), which has a range exceeding 1,500km, China could be on the brink of undermining the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed by Washington and Moscow in 1988 preventing both countries from possessing conventional and nuclear ground-launched ballistic (and cruise) missiles with ranges between 500km and 5.5km.

While there is agreement in academic circles that China’s “rise” is largely “peaceful” except for the question of Taiwan, the development of ASBMs putting Japan and the Philippines (and Taiwan, of course) within range implies that Chinese military planners may have other contingencies in mind. In other words, the “peaceful” rise may be little more than propaganda.

The second article, “An Undersea Deterrent?” by Erickson and Michael Chase, addresses the emergence of China’s second-generation of nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) — the Type 094, or Jin-class. Beyond the possibility that they are meant to bolster China’s great power status, SSBNs could be part of a “nuclear dyad” composed of land-based strategic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) to enhance the credibility of China’s nuclear deterrent. It would also substantially increase China’s power-projection capabilities outside its territorial waters, which again points to a strategic view that goes well beyond a Taiwan contingency. The article quotes Toshi Yoshihara of the Naval War College as saying that “for at least the next two decades, missile defense … will have no answer to a capable SSBN patrolling the open ocean.”

Both articles are excellent and deserve a close reading, and both point to alarming developments in the Chinese navy that could well spark an arms race in the region, as the authors argue. Of course the ASBM program and the SSBNs could simply be the outcome of Beijing making substantial increases in its military budget in recent years — in other words, large injections of money in the military-industrial complex will inevitably result in research programs and academic debates on the feasibility of various projects. But as has often been observed, once a weapons system is designed, it tends to gain a life of its own and to drive policy, rather than the other way around, which could bode ill for the region.

* Besides differences in launch mechanisms (e.g., cruise missiles never leave the atmosphere as they home in on a target, doing so more like an aircraft) and targeting, the principal distinguishing factor between the two means of delivery is that ballistic missiles such as the ASBMs discussed in this article are almost impossible to intercept. The implication is that to protect itself from a ballistic missile attack, an opponent must target the source; in the present case, this would involve striking launchers on Chinese territory, which could quickly lead to escalation.

Toshi Yoshihara also has an interesting piece on the Chinese navy in the current issue of The Diplomat.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Israel and Taiwan: Two US allies — different worlds

Not so long ago, when Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) of the Democratic Progressive Party was president of Taiwan, Washington berated him for seeking UN membership for Taiwan or holding referendums on the matter. By acting with dignity and democratically, Chen was somehow endangering the peace in the Taiwan Strait, acting provocatively and threatening the precious “status quo.”

Fast-forward to Monday this week, when the leader of another US democratic ally — this time Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — delivered a major policy speech that for all intents and purposes scuttled any chance of peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Finally “bowing” to pressure from US President Barack Obama, Netanyahu did for the first time mention the words “Palestinian state,” but as one Israeli writer put it, he uttered those words “like a rotten tooth pulled from its socket without anesthesia.”

In his speech, the hardline Netanyahu also abandoned previous peace strategies, made no reference to Muslims’ connection to the land, and refused to freeze Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank. He also avoided mention of an Arab initiative that would grant recognition to Israel in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from land it captured in the war of 1967. His request that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state also killed any chance of right of return for Palestinian refugees who have live abroad — often in refugee camps — since they (or their ancestors) were expelled at the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.

His conditions for a Palestinian state, meanwhile, included ironclad security guarantees, full disarmament in Palestine, no Palestinian control of airspace, no right to form military alliances, and Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem — all of which would make it impossible for Palestine to be a viable state.

Netanyahu’s tone, journalist Akiva Eldar wrote in the Israeli Ha’aretz newspaper, was “degrading and disrespectful … that’s not how one brings down a wall of enmity between two nations, that’s not how trust is built.”

And yet, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said yesterday that Netanyahu’s speech was “a big step forward,” while Obama said he saw “positive movement.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel, meanwhile, called it a “first, important step in the right direction toward realizing a two-state solution,” former US president Bill Clinton saw Netanyahu’s speech as “opening moves,” while the EU dubbed it “a step in the right direction.” All of a sudden, Gertrude Stein’s rose no longer was a rose.

To be fair, many still insisted that Israeli should freeze its settlements. But that is beside the point. Rather than be cause for optimism, Netanyahu’s speech spelled disaster and may have been made to ward off pressure from Obama. In other words, Netanyahu remains a hardline who yields to the whims of the Israeli religious right-wing. Palestinians and pretty much the rest of the Arab world saw through this and will reasonably treat the speech for what it was — empty rhetoric. Violence will eventually resume, and Palestinians will once again be blamed for snubbing yet another “peace” initiative by an Israeli leader.

It is ironic that in their criticism of Chen, the US and the West — which all endeavored to frustrate his efforts to join the UN or hold referendums — never once qualified their criticism with calls on China to stop threatening Taiwan with 1,400 missiles and military maneuvers, or block it from joining multilateral organizations. Chen exercised democracy and was reviled for doing so. Netanyahu undoes years of peace efforts and is hailed as taking a step in the right direction. Chen was a “troublemaker,” an “extremist” who threatened peace in the Taiwan Strait yet never departed from democratic norms or relied on force to achieve his political aims. Netanyahu, who never shied from unleashing the might of his military, is taking “big steps forward” by aborting peace and seeking, quite undemocratically, we must add, to turn Israel into an exclusionary “Jewish state” based on “race” and/or religion.

Granted, Israel and Taiwan are a poor analogy at best, and the challenges they face to their survival as nations are substantially different. But both, in Washington’s book, are supposedly on the “right” side, our side, and both are supplied with billions of dollars in US weaponry. Why, then, the different treatment?

A slightly different version of this article appeared in the Taipei Times on June 22 under the title “An unenlightened double standard.”

Saturday, June 13, 2009

China advertises itself

It’s been a good past 30 days for Taiwanese independence. First, on May 18, Department of Health Minister Yeh Ching-chuan (葉金川) — with media in Geneva present — was administered a strong dose of anger by Taiwanese over the government’s participation at the World Health Assembly meeting under the name “Chinese Taipei.”

Though the outburst humiliated Yeh, it also showed the world that a large proportion of Taiwanese are not satisfied with the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration’s opaque and dangerously rushed dialogue with Beijing. With daily headlines in foreign media describing the situation in the Taiwan Strait as one of unhampered rapprochement and closer ties, people outside Taiwan could be forgiven for believing that all Taiwanese are united behind Ma, that they all support his policies on China. As I have written before, the bumps in the road — and there are many — have largely been ignored, and if it takes incidents such as Yeh’s public humiliation to raise awareness about the substantial opposition that exists in Taiwan, then so be it.

Ironically, it was a Chinese official in Fukuoka, Japan, who put shoulder to the wheel of the Taiwanese independence movement late last month, this time by showing the true nature of the Chinese Communist Party’s policy on Taiwan.

The principal actors in this little scene are Chinese Consulate-General in Fukuoka Wu Shumin (武樹民) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Department of International Affairs Director Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴, pictured right), with minor roles for US Consulate officials, Fukuoka officials, and representatives from Thailand and Mongolia. The setting: A banquet hosted by the Fukuoka government for international representatives at the Kyushu National Museum.

Sharing a table throughout the banquet, it was only after they exchanged business cards that Wu realized that Hsiao was a member of the pro-independence DPP. Initially taken aback, Wu then said that a recent visit to China by Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu (陳菊) — also a DPP member — was a first step in convincing the party to abandon Taiwanese sovereignty. Hsiao is then reported to have said that Chen’s visit would not change the DPP’s stance on independence, at least not until China had removed the 1,400 missiles or so it continues to aim at Taiwan (yes, despite all the cross-strait love we keep reading about in international media).

According to Hsiao’s recollection, Wu then replied with the following: “What would retracting the missiles do? We can hit you even if we pull the missiles all the way back to Beijing. We not only have short-range missiles, we have plenty of mid-range ones, too.”


[The DPP] has done its thing for eight years, but didn’t [former President] Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) end up in jail? What international space? Ma Ying-jeou accepts the ‘One China’ principle, so we give him international space. The DPP wants independence for Taiwan and that is a dead-end road. You [Hsiao] are not even from the academic field, so what are you doing here? The DPP is a futureless party, unless it accepts One China.

Hsiao then did what more Taiwanese should do under such circumstances: She put Wu on the spot, not by reciprocating hatred, not by screaming, but by translating, into English, Wu’s comments for the benefit of the audience.

All is well in the Taiwan Strait? Think again. If the rest of the world won’t believe Ma’s detractors or refuse to at least listen to what the DPP and other pro-independence movements have to say, well, what else can be done but to allow Chinese officials to share their thoughts publicly? This was a brilliant coup, an extemporary one at that. More of the same is needed, which calls for a greater presence of DPP officials at public functions internationally, and highlights the dire need for English language abilities within the party so that such things can be communicated with the audience.

This is what is needed, intelligent, rational exposure of the Chinese threat — not headline-grabbing, though ultimately pointless, antics such as the three DPP Taipei City Councilors who around the same time last month slapped white paint onto a KMT symbol on the East Gate (Jingfu men) in Taipei.

Wu is no aberration; there are more where he came from. Despite what the rest of the world is being told, despite the so-called “peace” in the Taiwan Strait, China remains a bully and will not hesitate to threaten, even when things are going its way. The only reason we have been hearing about “peace” in the Taiwan Strait since Ma came into office a little more than a year ago is that unlike the DPP, his government has allowed itself to be intimidated by China’s saber rattling.

(Ms Hsiao describes, in Chinese, the events above on her own Web site, at www.wretch.cc/blog/bikhim/12733383.)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

‘International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence’ reviews my book: A response

Stephane Lefebvre, section head of strategic analysis at Defence R&D Canada’s Centre for Operational Research and Analysis in Ottawa, reviewed my book, Smokescreen: Canadian security intelligence after September 11, 2001, in the June 2009 issue of the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. My aim here is to respond to the criticism in Mr. Lefebvre’s article.

Lefebvre spends four pages summarizing my book, and does so rather adroitly, covering the main themes in my work, from institutional mediocrity to pressure from allies such as the United States and Israel. In the last two pages, he raises a number of questions about my book, which given its polemical nature, was bound to prompt very different reactions. As a result, the reviewer’s contention that Smokescreen “has simply too many problems for it to be taken very seriously” has been balanced by rights activists and defense lawyers who told me they found my book “really valuable” and that it could “literally serve as an affidavit” in court. The ideological divide is wide, hence the divergent reactions.

Lefebvre writes that my “short length of service did not allow [me] to complete [my] five-year probationary period, or to work in the field” adding that my “perspective is therefore shaped from [my] short period of time at the CSIS’s headquarters in Ottawa.” In all fairness, Lefebvre acknowledges that I mention my less than three years at the Canadian Intelligence Service, but in so doing he nevertheless takes a shot at my credibility, while bemoaning that I do not provide material from the junior and senior intelligence officers I interviewed for my book. For obvious reasons, I could not reveal the identity of those individuals or go into details as to what they told me. Still, in the acknowledgments section of my book, I clearly state that their views meshed into my narrative, and as such, I believe my limited experience was substantially augmented by all those individuals, not only at CSIS but elsewhere in the intelligence community. Smokescreen was the best that I could deliver based on my experience and research. At no point did I claim to be speaking “for the community.”

The reviewer then contends that I “largely unexploited” the specialized literature on Canadian intelligence, and that my only key source in my discussion on religion and terrorism is former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer. While it is true that my book draws primarily from my own experiences, I nevertheless did tap into the rather limited “specialized literature” on the subject in Canada, including many chapters in The Security of Freedom: Essays on Canada’s Anti-Terrorism Bill (Daniels, Macklem and Roach); The Canadian Military Journal; September 11: Consequences for Canada (Roach); Canada’s Inadequate Response to Terrorism: The Need for Policy Reform (Frasier Institute); Covert Entry: Spies, Lies and Crimes Inside Canada’s Secret Service (Mitrovica); and Cold Terror (Bell). Furthermore, 13 footnotes refer to primary sources or news articles in Canadian media. The thousands of field reports, analyses, assessments, electronic intercepts and affidavits from CSIS, the Canadian intelligence community and foreign agencies that I read while I worked at CSIS — which for obvious reasons cannot be included as footnotes, given that they were all classified — also informed the conclusions that I reach in my book. To claim, therefore, that I did not use primary sources is somewhat dishonest.

To be honest — not that this excuses any of the shortcomings in my book — the warnings by my former employer against publishing a book on the subject also made it difficult for me to explore some gray areas, or quote certain sources, as it was never my intention to end up in jail for accidentally leaking classified material.

As to my alleged over-reliance on Mr. Scheuer on the subject of religion and terrorism, it should be noted that I have made no secret of my differences of opinion with the former analyst in my review of his latest work, Marching Toward Hell, which shows that I did not approach his material uncritically. Moreover, my book also draws from Edward Said (Covering Islam), Michael Ignatieff (arguments in favor of using the term Islamofascism to describe al-Qaeda, his books Empire Lite and The Lesser Evil), Graham Fuller (“A world without Islam”article) and the Foreign Policy Terrorism Index. I quoted Scheuer (whom Lefebvre refers to as “controversial,” which indicates his own bias on al-Qaeda and Israel, as this is where Scheuer has allegedly been “controversial”) on three or four occasions because I believe the manner in which he argued the US’ misreading of the al-Qaeda threat and its raison d’etre was, and remains, the best in the literature.

Lefebvre continues by arguing that my criticisms of the US, Israel and Canada are “couched in such simplistic and unanalytical terms that they must be dismissed out-of-hand,” which again is debatable, as it is evident, given his position in the Canadian defense industry, that we disagree on the strategic outlook that I address in my book. The reviewer accuses me of making “gratuitous anti-American and anti-Israeli comments” (thankfully sparing me the usual anti-Semitic), failing to distinguish between opposing a country’s self-defeating policies and being “anti” everything about it. I am not anti-American, or anti-Israeli (or anti-China, now that I write about Taiwan); I am against some of their policies. I wish nothing less for Israel than for its people to prosper and live in peace. However, I oppose its government’s myopic and racist policy of colonizing a people and treating Palestinians no better than black Africans were treated during Apartheid. And, as does Scheuer, I oppose my government bending over backwards to please those countries or support them even when they embark on murderous adventurism and break international law.

Lefebvre rightly points out that the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS, now known as the Open Source Center), was never an organ of the FBI, as I state in my book. He also rightly takes me to task on CSE, which by accident I refer to as the Canadian Security Establishment, when in reality it is the Communications Security Establishment. I stand by my comment that the Research and Analysis branch at CSIS had among its analysts former diplomats. Unless my memory fails me, I was at a meeting in a RAP conference room where the specialist on a certain part of Africa had served there for Foreign Affairs Canada. Lefebvre is right when he states that, when I was at the Service, there was no Director of Operations (DO), only a Deputy Director of Operations (DDO) and an Assistant Director of Operations (ADO). He also correctly points out that I was mistaken in referring to the Minister of Transport as the Minister of Transportation. I do not disagree with Mr. Lefebvre that the Department of Transport should provide the Canadian government with intelligence and threat assessments on other countries; my main argument was that the Department of Transport should not simply lift CSIS threat assessments and distribute them as its own, as it often did — and then affix a map of said country.

Lefebvre ostensibly catches me in oxymoron delicto by quoting me as saying that post-9/11 recruits are far from being best-suited to become intelligence officers and later arguing that the Service lacks respect “for the ideas, experiences and worth of new employees.” This takes my argument out of context, however, as nowhere do I argue that all post-9/11 recruits are unsuited to become intelligence officers (though many are). To be fair, I should have written that the ideas, experiences and worth of new employees who are actually qualified for the job should be respected by the management at CSIS.

I never pretended that my book would be an authoritative assessment, but I believe it has value, despite its flaws, in that it is the first to discuss CSIS’ working environment and culture head-on — which is where Lefebvre seems to attribute value. It was meant to be polemical and from the onset was intended as a criticism of CSIS as seen from my perspective as an intelligence officer who has read far more on the subject than most intelligence officers working there today.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Real estate that apparently does not exist

Scanning the news Web site of the state-owned Canadian Broadcasting Corp (CBC) over the weekend, I was prompted to leave a comment on a news item about revelations that my former employer, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), had omitted to inform the court — for seven years — that its principal source against Mohammed Harkat, a non-Canadian who had been put on a security certificate over suspicions he was a member of al-Qaeda, had failed a polygraph test.

But this entry isn’t about Harkat or CSIS. It’s about the fact that in order to be able to leave a comment, I had to register on the CBC Web site. Growing up in Canada and the proud son of a man who worked for the state broadcaster for about 30 years, I had always looked up to the CBC, and more than once had mulled the possibility of working there one day. Like any other Web site that requires registration, users must provide some information about themselves, including name, city, password and country. The CBC Web site allows one to type the city, but when it comes to the country, one must choose from a list.

I scrolled down past Canada, China, aiming for T. Switzerland, Syria … Tajikistan — wait, no Taiwan. Republic of China, maybe? Qatar … Romania. No luck. The dreaded “Chinese Taipei”? No. I scrolled up to China, expecting two entries, one with “Taiwan Province” attached next to it. Not even. According to the CBC, Taiwan (regardless of its many designations) does not exist, period. There is China and that’s it.

What did yours truly do next? He wrote to the CBC, of course, making a complaint that any reader of this blog would be familiar with and providing the usual historical, political and geographical arguments to make my point. Two days later, I received a reply from the moderator (you all know what’s coming):

Mr. Cole,

In this note to us, you flagged that Taiwan is not listed as a country when registering in the CBC Member Centre. We have followed the lead of the Canadian International Affairs department, which supports a 1 China policy. This is why Taiwan is not separately listed in our drop-down.

How often I have seen this in recent years, an organization “following the lead” of another body on the Taiwan/China question. Wikigender, about which I wrote on March 13, was “following” the OECD’s lead. In this present instance, the CBC “follows” the lead of Foreign Affairs Canada, which, I am told, “supports a 1 China policy.” That’s what the problem is — to many followers, not enough people of strong mettle who will take a stand.

It is quite ironic, too, that a respected news organizations like CBC news would refer to Foreign Affairs’ supporting a “1 China policy” when in fact the legal documents laying the basis of Canada-China relations stipulate that Canada takes note of Beijing’s contention that there is one China and that Taiwan is part of China. Ottawa takes note of that view, which implies even less support for Beijing’s contention than does Washington’s acknowledges in the Shanghai Communiqué.

Former Canadian minister of foreign affairs Maxime Bernier said at a meeting of the Asian heads of mission in Ottawa on March 12, 2008: “For almost 40 years, Canada has maintained a One China policy … We recognize the Government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the sole legitimate government of China. This remains the core of our China policy. It guides our bilateral relationship with the PRC.” In other words, Canada recognizes the government of the PRC as the sole legitimate government in China, but nowhere does it say that Taiwan is part of China.

Maybe Taiwan would have a better chance if people stopped seeking refuge behind some authority so that they won’t have to make their own decisions. In a way, this sheep-like following is very much akin to authoritarian systems in which the top dictates and everybody else below takes that cue, perpetuating it down the chain. No one has to think, no one is guilty if the policy causes damage. We were just following orders, the great, oft-used deresponsibilizer that lies behind so much injustice and atrocity.

I’ve come full circle. I did end up writing about CSIS after all.

Readers wishing to express their discontent with the CBC can do so online at www.cbc.ca/contact.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Tiananmen amnesia, indifference

Mother nature looked somewhat unkindly upon those in Taiwan who sought to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, choosing June 4 to empty herself of the long-delayed juices of the plum rain season. The 24-hour downpour did nothing to help the dwindling population of Taiwanese supporters of democracy, justice and accountability in China, resulting in a few dozens of people participating in a vigil in downtown Taipei in the evening (a far cry from the “million people” march in support of Chinese demonstrators 20 years ago).

On the political scene, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) annual address on June 4 disappointed as expected, distinguishing itself for one thing alone — the extreme carefulness in choice of words to avoid ruffling feathers in Beijing. While Ma said that “[China] must face this section of painful history and not shy away from it,” he also could not help but add that China should be praised for its economic reforms, lifting people out of poverty and for paying more attention to human rights. The latter comment was pure propaganda and goes in the face of undeniable signs that since Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) became president of the People’s Republic of China in March 2003, human rights in China have regressed rather than improved, with controls of the media tightening and security crackdowns and arrests becoming more frequent.

Muzzled by his own “see no evil” policy on China, Ma had to balance things out and mitigated the sting of his remark by lauding Beijing on different matters. Likewise, his administration was extremely low-key on June 4, choosing not to participate in commemorative events lest this “anger” Beijing. June 4 came and June 4 passed, as if the massacre — and Beijing’s continued refusal to discuss it, to admit its guilt and bring the perpetrators to justice — were not the very symbol of what is still wrong with China and why, as cross Taiwan Strait ties increase, Taiwan had fain tread with extreme caution.

Not only did China sin 20 years ago, but to this day it refuses to admit it was wrong. On the day of the anniversary, it was blocking the airing of a Hong Kong-made documentary on the massacre as well as Web services such as Hotmail, Flickr and Twitter. Foreign reporters were prevented from entering Tiananmen Square (plainclothes made ridiculous efforts to prevent CNN reporters from filming by blocking the camera view with umbrellas). Dissidents, meanwhile, were under increased surveillance, confined to their homes or forced to leave Beijing, while one of the most famous organizers of the student movement in 1989, Wu’er Kaixi (吾爾開希), was denied entry in Macau and sent back to Taiwan, where he has lived for years. Twenty years on, the No. 2 most-wanted man in Beijing’s list of 21 top student organizers could not even return to China to visit his parents, who have been barred by Chinese authorities to leave the country.

Again, not a single word of protest from the Ma administration. Progress on human rights, indeed. This is the cost of Ma’s efforts to foster better relations with China: Betrayal of one’s ideals, and forgetfulness. Judging from the lack of interest in Taiwan on the 20th anniversary of the massacre, it would not be surprising if on the 30th anniversary the event were not marked at all.

Speaking of forgetfulness, a Frontline documentary airing on Taiwanese public television on the evening of June 4 had a very interesting segment in which the announcer sat down with four students from the elite Beijing University. Showing them the iconic picture of the “Tank Man” — the lone Chinese who, holding what looks like a bag of groceries, defiantly stood in the way of PLA tanks and prevented them from joining the massacre on June 4, 1989 — the announcer asked the students what the image meant to them. “A military exercise,” one said, while another admitted she had no idea what it was. Not one student seemed to know when the picture was taken, or what it was about. Perfect amnesia or ignorance among the elite, the future leaders of the country. This is unsurprising, given that in China’s Orwellian, firewalled Internet environment, a Google search of the words “Tiananmen Square” will only return harmless pictures of smiling tourists posing in front of the square.

Sadly, there are disturbing signs that the collective amnesia that has been poisoning Chinese minds is beginning to infect people abroad — including in Taiwan. Had Beijing mended its ways, admitted its responsibility and truly reformed (as Germany did after World War II, for example), a loss of interest in the sins of its past would not be terribly dangerous.

But it hasn’t, and we forget at our own peril.

Chinese are unaware of the trauma of 1989 largely as the result of a relentless, state-orchestrated amnesia, so perhaps we can forgive those who, like the students in the Frontline documentary, know nothing about it. But there is no excuse for Taiwanese not to know or care, especially at a time of growing contact between the two countries.

(Ma Jian’s novel Beijing Coma is an excellent read on the events surrounding the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the collective amnesia that has descended on the country ever since.)