Friday, July 31, 2009

Two constituencies Ma can’t ignore (yet)

Perhaps as a result of my working on a book review of Scott Kastner’s excellent Political Conflict and Economic Interdependence Across the Taiwan Strait and Beyond, I have recently begun paying more attention to the role of domestic constituencies in political decisionmaking. While Kastner’s book focuses on the impact of “internationalist business interests” on cross-strait political decisionmaking — which I also address in my July 29 article “What’s behind Taiwan’s stock/media bias?” — another segment that historically has had substantial influence on Taipei’s policy choices is, for obvious reasons, the military establishment.

As is becoming increasingly evident, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) administration is bound and driven by big business and financial institutions to an extent that is probably unprecedented in the history of the party. Given the close relationship between big business, the banking sector, and the KMT, it is no surprise that Ma’s cross-strait policies have been greatly beneficial to those sectors, and that whatever friction may have existed under previous iterations of the party, such as under president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), has largely disappeared. This is largely the result of the leaders’ divergent assessments of the impact of cross-strait economic integration as well as on their respective stance on the question of Taiwanese independence.

For Lee, whose political views on Taiwanese sovereignty took precedence over business interests, cross-strait economic integration had negative externalities, which accounted for his efforts, especially after his re-election in 1996, to “go south” (i.e., diversify foreign investment destinations to minimize reliance on China) and proceed with caution.

The Ma administration, for its part, appears to be indentured to the business community, while it clearly sees cross-strait economic liberalization as less threatening. In fact, Ma and his aides see integration as a stabilizing force, a view that is thoroughly supported by the business community. Another important factor is the fact that while Ma has vowed not to achieve unification during his first term, this development remains a long-term objective of today’s KMT.

But while Ma can count on the corporate and financial sectors to back his policies, and while he can expect full backing — especially now that he is KMT chairman — of the legislature, of which the pan-blue camp controls three quarters of the seats, there are two constituencies, one domestic and one foreign, that he cannot afford to neglect: the military, and Washington.

Ma’s pronouncements on the military balance in the Taiwan Strait, added to his stated willingness to procure for the Taiwanese military the means to defend itself, have at times sounded paradoxical when contrasted with his public statements on political reconciliation with Beijing. In fact, his averred desire to purchase weapons from Washington cannot but have strained relations with Beijing — and yet, this is one sector where Ma has tended to sound like his predecessors.

It would be difficult to reconcile his public statements on defense appropriations with his political statements vis-à-vis Beijing and ostensible efforts to undermine defense (e.g., downgrading of Han Kuang military exercises) were it not for the fact that the military is probably the last remaining branch of government that has remained wary of Beijing’s intentions, as evidenced by its reaction to the Japan Defense Ministry’s White Paper released earlier this month. As such, the military probably represents the last domestic constituency challenge to Ma’s cross-strait policies, and one way to placate it and keep criticism to a minimum is to maintain weapons procurement and to keep military spending at a stable level. 

Ma has yet to consolidate his powerbase to such an extent that he can afford to ignore the apprehensions of the military, although purges, in the form of corruption probes, could soon change that by whittling away at the sectors of the military that remain resistant to unification — in other words, the pan-green elements within the armed forces.

When it comes to Washington, Ma has also been forced to edge against the possibility of abandonment at a time when uncertainty remains in the Taiwan Strait. Over the years, proof of political commitment and good relations with the US has largely come in the form of arms purchases. If Ma were to suddenly cut off the arms procurement spigot with the US, Washington could react either by increasing pressure on Taipei (especially by US constituents that fear a scenario in which Taiwan becomes part of the Chinese camp in East Asia) or abandon it altogether, which could have serious ramifications for Taiwan’s ability to defend itself should cross-strait rapprochement get derailed.

Ma cannot yet disregard the interests of the military establishment. The question is, as his powerbase grows and as the military is “cleansed” of what he sees as revisionist elements, will he become increasingly unresponsive to its appeals? One way to assess this will be to see how the military gets reorganized and the conclusions reached by the corruption probes. Another will be to look at Ma’s future pronouncements on military expenditure, and whether words are turned into action — in other words, whether the weapons are actually purchased and fielded.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What’s behind Taiwan’s stock/media bias?

Since Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) came into office in May last year, financial analysts have shown an alarming tendency to attribute rises on the Taiwanese stock market to “closer relations with China” or the signing of agreements between Taipei and Beijing, while drops on the local bourse have often been blamed on mass rallies organized by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). As I have argued before, those assessments — which are picked up by news wire agencies and newspapers for inclusion in their reporting — often ignore macroeconomic variables and regional trends that explain stock fluctuations far better than local political developments.

For example, a modest rise on the Taiwanese stock exchange on July 27 was far more likely to have resulted from global optimism about a financial recovery than the “election” the previous day of Ma as chairman of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). And yet, news agencies — quoting or paraphrasing “dozens” of analysts from global financial institutions, both “local and international,” as a reporter at a major wire agency told me during a telephone interview on Wednesday — wrote that the 0.79 percent rise was the result of Ma’s election and a congratulatory missive from Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤). That very same day, every single market in Asia was up, not because of local developments in Taiwan or even warming ties across the Taiwan Strait, but because investor sentiment was turning optimistic, as a number of wire agencies reported.

This therefore begs the question: Why, all things being equal, are financial analysts and news agencies attributing fluctuations in the Taiwanese stock exchange on local-specific events rather than general macroeconomic trends?

Part of the answer probably lies in the general belief that Ma’s KMT is pro-business, while the DPP is against it (ironically, during his second term, President Lee Teng-hui [李登輝] of the KMT was far more radical in his opposition to cross-strait economic liberalization than Chen Shui-bian [陳水扁] of the DPP was during the first two years of his first term). Still, given the DPP’s pro-independence ideology, the perception that the pan-green camp is not “business friendly” — especially on cross-strait investment and integration — is almost universal, which invites the belief that its actions are aimed at derailing the efforts to increase cross-strait financial cooperation launched by the Ma administration.

But these perceptions alone do not explain why financial analysts would purposefully attribute stock exchange negatives on the DPP and positives on the KMT. Something else must be at play, such as institutional biases or self-interest.

Starting in the mid-1990s, the nature of Taiwanese investment in China changed dramatically after a revaluation of the New Taiwan dollar severely increased the cost of manufacturing domestically, forcing Taiwanese companies to increase their investment abroad. Cultural and linguistic affinities, along with cheap labor and investment incentives, made China a logical choice. Over the years, the size of the Taiwanese companies investing in China also increased dramatically, as did the nature of the products that were manufactured there. In recent years, powerful companies in the electronics and computer sectors, among others, have established a foothold in China.

At least part of the billions of dollars required by those companies to develop business operations in China likely came in the form of loans by financial institutions and other private investors, who have an interest in seeing those investments prosper. Anything that threatens the return on investment — such as tensions in the Taiwan Strait, the threat of embargos or war — is therefore unwelcome by banks and investors who have a stake in stability. Given, as we have seen, the DPP’s pro-independence mandate and Beijing’s claims on Taiwan, the DPP has therefore come to be seen as a “destabilizing” factor, while the KMT, which favors cross-strait economic integration and warmer ties with Beijing, is now perceived as a “stabilizing” force. For Taiwanese companies operating in China (many, though not all, are either pro-KMT or silent about their pan-green political inclination lest they be singled out by Chinese authorities, as has happened in the past), as well as their financial backers, the KMT is therefore seen as a far safer option when it comes to safeguarding their financial interests.

What this means, ultimately, is that the same financial institutions that lend money to Taiwanese companies operating in China will tend to produce, or develop intimate relations with, analysts who rather than being neutral, will politicize their assessments in a way that reflects the financial priorities of their masters. If this means portraying the KMT as business-friendly, or overemphasizing local developments in a way that favors the KMT as a means to explain fluctuations in the financial market, so be it.

Equally important is the fact that many Taiwanese firms, for reasons ranging from insuring their business interests to raising enough capital, have formed multinational corporations (MNCs) with other countries to operate in China. Usually on a bigger scale, those MNCs require huge amounts of capital that can only be obtained from major financial lenders (according to statistics, 400 of the Fortune 500 multinational companies have made direct investments in more than 2,000 projects in China). Given the stakes, those lenders will also seek to ensure that their investments are shielded from the possibly disruptive consequences of rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait. Consequently, MNCs and their international financial backers will tend to disparage the DPP while encouraging the KMT to consolidate stability by accelerating economic integration with China. (This view in part stems from the contentious theory in political science that increased trade between two entities will, over time, reduce the likelihood of conflict or war by rising the cost of conflict.) Maximizing investments and protecting financial interests register far more with those multinationals and financial institutions than the question of Taiwanese sovereignty, which is the raison d’etre of the DPP.

Lastly, we must turn to the convergence of the business sector and the rise of media conglomerates for possible conflicts of interest, which could also account for the bias against the DPP in news reporting. Over the past decade or so, the number of leading companies in the information sector has drastically narrowed. News organizations like Thomson Reuters, Dow Jones and Bloomberg have branched off into other sectors and bolstered their empires through mergers and acquisitions. Thomson Reuters, for example, which has more than 50,000 employees and operates in 93 countries, now operates in the scientific, tax, accounting, legal and media sectors, with revenues last year totaling US$13.4 billion. Like any other major company, Reuters Thomson has sought to expand in China, hoping to tap into the potential 1.3 billion customers there. One recent example of this is the Scientific business of Thomson Reuters, which in September last year formed a partnership with the Investment Promotion Agency of the Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China (CIPA) to create a “World Innovation and Investment Promotion Platform” to boost the soft infrastructure of China’s high-tech zones, Xinhua/PRNewswire reported on Sept. 10.

As Mark Garlinghouse, vice president for Asia Pacific at the Scientific, Thomson Reuters, said: “The Scientific business of Thomson Reuters has long been a recognized information partner of top Chinese universities and government institutes such as the Chinese Academy of Sciences, China’s largest government research institute … We also provide patent, scientific and technical information to … well-known Chinese companies.”

This is just one example among many of media companies diversifying their business and entering lucrative markets with both the private and government sector in China. As incentives increase, and with the promise of lucrative contracts with the cash-heavy Chinese authorities always in the background, it is likely that pressure — subliminal or as the result of direct external persuasion — will eventually build for those companies to “adjust” the information they provide in their news coverage so that it dovetails with their business interest. Times Warner’s ownership of CNN, Disney’s of ABC and General Electric’s of NBC are all examples of conglomerates imposing added business pressures on news organizations.

It is quite possible that portraying the KMT-CCP dyad in a favorable light — at least on the financial front — while painting the DPP in negative terms is the latest iteration of this phenomenon.

As long as big business, MNCs and their financial backers see the DPP as a “destabilizing” threat in Taiwan Strait economic integration, we can expect that the media conglomerates that are increasingly beholden to (if not part of) those giant, multifaceted corporations will continue to disparage the DPP and favor the KMT via stock market analysis.

This article appeared in the Taipei Times on Aug. 7.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Lien Chan’s ‘Great Chinese Nation’

As if it wasn’t enough that the leader of an authoritarian regime would congratulate an increasingly all-powerful and undemocratic Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) over his “election” as chairman of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), the KMT’s honorary chairman, Lien Chan (連戰), was yet again home — that is, in Beijing — cavorting with his namesake and insulting the democratic spirit cultivated by Taiwanese over the decades.

Mutual trust based on opposition to “Taiwan independence” and adherence to the so-called “1992 consensus” was the driving force for progress in relations between China and Taiwan, National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Jia Qinglin (賈慶林) said while meeting Lien on Monday.

The development of relations between China and Taiwan, Jia said, need a “solid cultural hold” besides an economic basis. (Translation: Gradual annexation cannot only occur via economic integration, but also through cultural assimilation.)

For his part, Lien said the two sides of the Taiwan Strait should advance the relations in all fields while enhancing economic and cultural exchanges, adding that they (i.e., the KMT and the CCP) should work to help people in China and Taiwan strengthen their sense of identity to the Chinese nation, Chinese culture and history.

“I believe history sides with the revival of the Chinese nation,” said Lien, the same twice-failed presidential candidate who, just as Beijing enacted its “Anti-Secession Law” “legalizing” use of force against Taiwan in March 2005, was being wined and dined in Beijing. (Revival is a word we have been hearing quite a bit in recent days; though it is hard at this point to know exactly what its users mean by it, the term has worrying undertones of nationalism.)

Lien, who in the wake of the devastating 921 Earthquake in central Taiwan almost 10 years ago could not mask his aloofness toward ordinary Taiwanese during a visit near the epicenter, never represented Taiwanese. He is part of a conservative clique within the KMT that represents the interests of the 15 percent of Mainlanders who comprise the population of Taiwan (and even among them, only those who support unification), and the 1.3 billion Chinese. His comments on Monday were not only a denial of Taiwanese identity as separate from the “Chinese nation,” but paralleled increasing signs that Taiwan is on the brink of experiencing “identicide” — a concept advanced by my friend Sarah Jane Meharg in Canada, which consists of the willful erosion by a particular group (usually the dominant one) of the symbols of another group’s identity, including language, cultural icons, sense of place, landmarks and so on.

With news of increasing cooperation between Taiwan and China on TV productions and in the news industry, added to Chinese investment in newspapers in Taiwan, discriminatory ECFA cartoons and talks of finding a common denominator between the traditional Chinese used in Taiwan and the simplified form used in China — as I’ve argued, a “dumbing down” of traditional Chinese — there is ample evidence that Taiwanese culture is under assault and that this will only intensify. For the 85 percent or so of Taiwanese in Taiwan, “strengthening their sense of identity to the Chinese nation” can only mean one thing: the abandonment of who they are.

Lien, still an influential figure within the KMT and, despite his unelected status, in relations across the strait, has no problem with that.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Ma ‘elected’ KMT chairman, Hu congratulates him, markets ‘react’

In a highly anticipated electoral farce with a foregone conclusion, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) on Sunday was “elected” chairman of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) with 92 percent of the about 300,000 votes cast. Voter turnout was low, at about 56 percent, and Ma was the only candidate. Clearly satisfied with the result, Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) broke 60 years of diplomatic ice on Monday by sending Ma a 73-word congratulatory telegram, in which he pompously said: “I hope our two parties can continue to promote peaceful cross-Strait development, deepen mutual trust, bring good news to compatriots on both sides and create a revival of the great Chinese race.”

Some political analysts are already suggesting that Hu’s telegram is a sign that he would like to hold a summit with Ma sometime before he retires in 2012, which dovetails with both leader’s ostensible hankering for a Nobel Peace Prize. While Ma has denied having any immediate plans to meet Hu, pressure has been mounting for him to do so, especially now that he is KMT chairman. Of course, a precondition for any meeting between Hu and Ma would be that it be held between party chairmen rather than presidents, as the latter would symbolize that Taiwan is a sovereign country, which Beijing denies.


In an article on the Hu letter today, Reuters could not refrain from adding that Ma’s “election” and Hu’s telegram “helped boost Taiwan stocks [,] which rose 0.79 percent … to end above 7,000 points for the first time in 11 months.” In recent months I have observed a tendency by both wire agencies and financial analysts to equate rises in the Taiwanese stock market with “improved relations with China” and to blame drops on Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) “troublemakers” (demonstrations and so on). As the Reuters piece does not attribute the comment, we can only conclude that the reported reached this conclusion on his own or was paraphrasing a unnamed financial analysts.

What Reuters fails to mention, however, is that today — and here I quote The Associated Press — “Asian markets extended their winning … as hopes company earnings will rebound along with global growth continue to drive investors into stocks.”* What Reuters also does not mention is that (a) the Taiwan stock exchange opened flat this morning and (b) investors have known for quite a while that Ma would win the “election.” While recognizing that so-called financial experts and analysts, when contacted by wire agencies, cannot remain silent and must attribute rises and falls in the stock market to something, linking Ma’s “election” or the Hu telegram to a 0.79 rise in the local bourse when region-wide macroeconomic factors and agreement on “better global economic prospects” far better explain the modest rise is dishonest.

The reflex by financial experts to use cross-strait political developments as a proximate cause of stock performance in Taiwan is so prevalent that I am beginning to wonder if investment houses are not letting their own political agendas interfere with their assessments.** It is increasingly evident that big business and financial investors (at least in certain sectors that stand to benefit) all favor cross-strait rapprochement, if not eventual unification. By invariably portraying rising stock value in Taiwan as a direct result of Ma’s successes (and conversely, by blaming devaluation on DPP shenanigans), those analysts are politicizing their assessments and undermining their credibility as “experts,” while helping the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party take us closer to economic ultradependence and eventual unification.

* Tokyo’s Nikkei 225 stock average rose 144.11 points, or 1.5 percent, to 10,088.66; Hong Kong’s Hang Seng rose 268.83, or 1.4 percent, to 20,251.62; South Korea’s KOSPI gained 1.4 percent; Australia’s stock measure was up by 1.2 percent; the main index in Shanghai climbed 1.9 percent. Agence France-Presse reported that Singapore shares closed 1.71 percent higher Monday, mirroring gains in regional markets amid hopes of an economic rebound globally.

** On Oct. 24 last year, Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) reported that the Taiwanese stock exchange was down nearly 3 percent as the result of a mass rally organized by the “right wing” and “separatist” DPP, failing to mention that on the same day, all Asian stock markets were also markedly down: Japan 7 percent and South Korea 9 percent, among others. Then, on Oct. 30, it wrote that the Taiwanese bourse was up nearly 6 percent on “positive signs in Taiwan-China ties” ahead of “important dialogue from Nov. 3 to Nov. 7 [ARATS Chairman Chen Yunlin’s visit] to discuss expanding ties.” There again, DPA did not mention that on the same day, the Hong Kong stock exchange was up 12.8 percent, Tokyo almost 10 percent and Seoul 4 percent, while Australia, Singapore and the Philippines added 4 percent or more, developments that had far more to do with macroeconomic factors than cross-strait ties.

This article appeared in the Taipei Times on August 1 under the title “Pro-China politics and the tracking of stocks.” Unfortunately, the article erroneously refers to the South Korean stock exchange as the KOSI. It should have read KOSPI.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The myth of the Sino-Russian strategic alliance

The growing relationship between the Bear and the Dragon does not threaten the West. It is rife with contradictions and at best tactical, author Bobo Lo argues

The history of Sino-Russian relations is a long and tortuous one between neighbors that eyed each other with suspicion. To this day, the Russian psyche continues to be affected by memories of the Mongol invasion and fear of the “yellow peril,” with images of “barbarian” hordes pouring over the border seared in people’s consciousness. For Chinese, Russia was for a brief period a modernizer and ally, but also a threat, as during the border clashes in 1969, which came close to sparking nuclear war. On one side, Russia sees itself as a great power, one which draws ideologically mostly from Western civilization; on the other, China is rising, but its identity is firmly rooted in the Asian tradition and its focus is on domestic development and regional stability.

The long history of mistrust and ideological differences makes Russia and China the least likely of allies. But since the end of the Cold War, the two countries have grown closer and managed to settle, if only temporarily, a number of territorial disputes such as the contentious Russian Far East. Cooperation has increased dramatically in such fields as military procurement and natural resources, while Moscow and Beijing have helped create regional security bodies — such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization — to facilitate coordination and “democratize” international relations.

This is not to say that the process of rapprochement was not without friction. As Bobo Lo, director of the Russia and China programs at the Center for European Reform, argues in Axis of Convenience: Moscow, Beijing and the new geopolitics, the road to convergence was marred by a combination of different expectations, underlying xenophobia and changing global circumstances. Rather than progress smoothly, relations between Moscow and China suffered many setbacks, such as when, in the wake of 9/11, Russian President Vladimir Putin allowed the US to deploy troops in Central Asia without first informing Beijing.

My book review of Axis of Convenience, published today in the Taipei Times, is available in .pdf here and HTML here.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The ECFA is like an unstoppable train

The China Times reported today that Taiwan and China would begin negotiations on a “comprehensive trade pact” — an economic cooperation framework agreement — in October. The vice trade ministers from both sides would head the negotiations, the paper said, quoting Minister of Economic Affairs Yiin Chii-ming (尹啟銘). Yiin, who met his Chinese counterpart at an APEC conference in Singapore earlier this week, said Beijing was “keen” to push for the pact. The two sides will aim to conclude discussions by the end of this year, the report said, with possible signature at the next SEF-ARATS meeting in Taiwan later this year.

Of course Beijing is “keen” for the process to accelerate, as I’ve argued before, and judging from an AFP report on the matter today, which only mentions in passing that “critics warn against the island becoming overly dependent on its giant neighbor,” so are Taiwanese.

But here’s the problem: Many Taiwanese are not “keen” and the main opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party, has just completed the first step toward holding a public referendum on whether an ECFA should be signed, something that AFP could not even be bothered to mention.

AFP is simply regurgitating the usual “closer ties” developing between Taiwan and China, with talks on an ECFA serving as yet another symbol of “rapprochement” between the “former rivals.” There’s nothing new here. But for Yiin to say that negotiations would begin in October before the matter of a referendum — to which we must now add this week’s infuriatingly racist comic blunder explaining the intricacies of the trade pact — shows utter disregard for the opposition’s voice, as if it didn’t exist, or as if an ECFA were an inevitability. No “we’ll discuss matters with our constituents first and get back to you if and when we’ve reached a consensus on the viability of and urgency in signing an ECFA with you.” In other words, Yiin already knows that the referendum will either fail, or that the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration will somehow manage to derail it, or prevent it from being held in the first place. Either way, this is undemocratic and showcases yet again the Ma administration’s scorn for different views or criticism of its increasingly teleological cross-strait policies.

When millions of people oppose or have doubts about the benefits of a policy, a democratic government cannot assume that it can proceed unchecked. That Yiin would think so — and with Ma’s blessing, I gather — shows us that the government does not intend to act democratically when it comes to creating closer ties with China, even as Beijing has openly said that it sees an ECFA as part of the process for eventual unification.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

How to insult a people

The characters were the result of long, painstaking efforts by public relations experts to reflect the make-up of the general public and were “absolutely not” meant to discriminate against anyone from any social stratum. Thus spoke Ministry of Economic Affairs Deputy Minister John Deng (鄧振中), defending a comic strip explaining the intricacies of the proposed economic framework cooperation agreement (ECFA) between Taiwan and China.

Of course they were not. One character is Fa Sao, a 40-year-old Hakka from Hsinchu who works as a supervisor at an import-export company. Fa is active, self-motivated and highly capable. She is a married woman who is fluent in English, Mandarin, Hoklo and Japanese. She is hungry for knowledge and eager to learn more about money-management. Her profile suggests she keeps herself well-informed and is a keen observer of market trends. Fa Sao was recently promoted to company spokesman. Her knowledge of cross-strait trade has prompted her to learn all about the ECFA.

Yi-ge, meanwhile, is a 45-year old Hoklo-speaking (that is, native Taiwanese) man from Tainan City who works as a salesman in a traditional industry. Yi-ge is a vocational school graduate who speaks “Taiwanese Mandarin” (whatever that is) and knows very little about the proposed ECFA. He is content being a follower, but when it comes to protecting himself, he “goes all-out.” If, for example, he were ever accidentally short-changed by a clerk at a breakfast restaurant, he would do almost anything to get the money back, even if it was just NT$5.

One is rational, educated, and works in the business sector. As she is in exports and imports, she likely does business with China. From her description, Fa could therefore be seen as “a good, rational Chinese.” Yi-ge, however, has an “extremist” and “irrational” streak, adjectives that interestingly have often been used by both China, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and pro-big business media to attack their pro-independence nemesis, former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), as well as the Democratic Progressive Party and independence activists in general.

Deng can say all he wants about the ministry not wanting to insult anyone, but the fact of the matter is, surely, at one point in the process of creating the cartoon, someone in the army of “public relations experts” that came up with this brilliant idea would have noticed that by design or accident, the depictions were prejudicial, if not outright racist. Surely, someone would have raised an objection, or called for caution. If this happened, then that person was silenced, as often happens in government. If no one did, then it means that whoever was involved in the creative process all agreed on what can only be seen as defining characteristics based on biology, which is the first step toward outright racial discrimination.

According to the cartoon, Taiwanese natives (Hoklo speakers) are less educated, know very little, “go all out,” are finicky about money and followers, while non-natives (mainlanders, Hakka and so on) are active, self-motivated, highly capable, fluent in many languages, hungry for knowledge, well-informed, eager to learn and in big business. Yes, all of this is an accident, as if it were not part of a long, sad pattern of describing the people in Taiwan using different terms. In fact, to this day people in China — the big happy Chinese family, who care so much about Taiwanese they want to bring them in their fold, by force if necessary — describe Taiwanese as “primitive,” “uncouth,” “uneducated” and “low-class.”

If you’re informed and from the “upper class,” you are for an ECFA. If you’re uninformed and from the supposed lower social stratum, you’re against it. This is a perfect Manichean view of the world, one that has no room for opposition to an ECFA based on “irrational” fears that it is part of Beijing’s long-term efforts to annex Taiwan by creating undue economic dependence. The message is that people oppose an ECFA because they are ignorant, and that Taiwanese tend to be more ignorant than Mainlanders, Hakka and so on.

Surely, then, Taiwanese natives like former presidential candidate Peng Ming-min (彭明敏), who speaks Hoklo, Mandarin, English, Japanese and French, who penned revolutionary articles in French and Japanese about the laws of space before anyone had even conceived of the need for such things, and who wrote documents calling for political reform in Taiwan during Martial Law in such impeccable Chinese that KMT officials were convinced that Peng and his friends had been helped by Mainlanders, are just an aberration. Or my wife, for that matter, who speaks impeccable Hoklo and Mandarin and English and is learning French far faster than I ever will Mandarin, who as a 16 year old just arrived in Canada with her family single-handedly filled all the forms — in English, at a time when she barely spoke it — so that her family members could immigrate to Canada and who went on to obtain a Bachelor’s degree in psychology, in English and, since we relocated to Taiwan, earned a number of diplomas in the teaching of Mandarin and so on. She, too, must be an aberration, like all the “low class,” Princeton- and Cambridge- and Cornell-educated Taiwanese that I have come to know since I moved to Taiwan, some of whom are professors at NTU, in the top echelons of the country’s primary financial institution, heads of the Rotary Club, talented architects, Japanese translators for major businesses, officials in High Court, and recruits at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Many of them do not agree to an ECFA, or at minimum would like to get more information about it before they make a decision. But none is low-class, uninformed, uneducated or extremist, as the comic suggests.

The MOEA’s comic is insulting, discriminatory and no accident. Nothing so sensitive, so downright incendiary, would have been allowed to see the light of day had there not been someone at the top who permitted its release. It belittles an extremely capable people who put literacy levels in China (the real levels, rather than fudged official figures) to shame. It is also part of a long history of attempts by the KMT and China to erase achievements in education made during the Japanese colonial period in Taiwan.

If the ministry is not responsible for its contents, whoever is, from the writers to the public relations experts, should be fired and forced to apologize to all Hoklo-speaking Taiwanese and those who love them, as I do. This is state-sponsored racism, paid for with taxpeyers’ dollars, and it has no place in a democracy.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Echoes of White Terror, or descent into paranoia?

Paul Lin (林保華), political commentator and frequent contributor to the Taipei Times, is worried. The China-born critic of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and, more recently, of the Chinese Nationalist Part (KMT), recently went public with fears that his activities are being monitored by the authorities. In an op-ed to be published in tomorrow’s edition of the Taipei Times, Lin alleges that on July 14 he received a phone call from the local section chief of the Investigation Bureau, who accused him of having “ties” to individuals (“terrorists”) from the Uighur independent movement. Lin writes that as the call was taking place, an agent was already outside his residence and requested to have a chat with him — a request that Lin turned down. He also alleges that since he helped launch the Taiwan Youth Anti-communist Corps (台灣青年反共救國團) last month, police have visited his home and informed him that his activities were being monitored.

Equally worrying are his allegations that his computer has been “hacked” into — despite a computer expert’s being unable to find Trojan horse software. Lin writes that unless he unplugs his Internet connection, his computer will, on its own, send “more information … than I had saved on it.” Lin and his wife also suspect that their telephone may have been tapped, as they have been hearing “strange noises” on the line for a while.

It’s hard to know what to make of all this. The Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau (MJIB) is a criminal investigation and counterintelligence agency that is subjected to the coordination and supervision of the National Security Bureau (NSB), which itself is subordinate to the National Security Council, whose Chairman, Su Chi (蘇起), is under the direct administration of the president. Recent developments, including comments by the National Immigration Agency last week that it would bar entry to Dolkun Isa, secretary-general of the Munich-based World Uighur Congress, if he attempted to come to Taiwan, are worrying developments about the state of civil liberties in Taiwan. Increased harassment by police of bloggers and groups in recent months also points to what appears to be a developing trend, of which Mr. Lin’s case could be part.

While not directly accusing the MJIB, Lin contends that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and/or the KMT may be targeting him for his activism, in what would be disturbing echoes of the environment independence activists faced during the dark period of White Terror in Taiwan. At this point, it’s hard to tell whether Lin is indeed being targeted by security agencies, or whether his growing paranoia is simply being fed by the authorities in an attempt to silence him.

Let’s take a closer look at his allegations. First, if Lin indeed were under surveillance, police would not have visited him at his home to inform him of this. Once a target becomes conscious that he is being monitored, he will either engage in counter-surveillance and/or change his habits, thus making it more difficult for the authorities to conduct physical surveillance. The only explanation for the admission by police, therefore, would be that the warnings served as intimidation.

Regarding his fears that his telephone line is being wiretapped: Phone intercept technology has come a long way in recent years. It is an urban legend that wiretaps create “strange noises” on the line, as the process is now fully digital. Two explanations therefore suggest themselves: Either an increasingly paranoid Mr. Lin is becoming more sensitive to background noise, or if wiretapping is indeed taking place, whoever is on the other side wants him to know — either by using rudimentary technology or deliberately generating “noise.” Another possibility is that rather than being a professional (i.e., conducted by the MJIB or the NSB) job, whoever is tapping Mr. Lin’s telephone line is an amateur (lone KMT elements, pro-unification groups, etc).

As for his computer transmitting the contents of his hard drive, Mr. Lin must provide more information on the matter, such as how the computer specialist managed to determine that this is happening, and what, as no Trojan Horse was found, is causing the transfer.

I am not saying that Mr. Lin is imagining all this, but his piece — with his conclusion that if something should happen to him, people should “remember him” — exhibits a level of paranoia that is hard to equate with his activities (unless, of course, he has engaged in more than publishing articles critical of the CCP and KMT). Fear, especially when there are precedents, as during the White Terror era in Taiwan, and in Communist China, where Lin lived for “almost 30 years,” can play tricks on the mind and create a whole new world of lurking shadows. As one gets sucked into the quicksand of paranoia, random occurrences will often be perceived as patterns (during the visit of ARATS Chairman Chen Yunlin [陳雲林] last November, for example, my Internet connection at home was interrupted for four days; the wires were cut, Chunghwa told us. Was it sabotage, given my criticism of the visit, or the fact that the wires were old, in a box exposed to the elements?)

Maybe all of this is real, or maybe none is. More likely, the truth lies somewhere in between. But the man is undeniably scared.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Why Uighur leader Dolkun Isa is persona non grata

The National Immigration Agency (NIA) said on Friday that Dolkun Isa, secretary-general of the Munich-based World Uighur Congress, would be stopped if he attempted to enter Taiwan, in effect contradicting comments on the same day by the Criminal Investigation Bureau (CIB) that as long as Isa entered Taiwan under his own name, he would not be denied entry. The contradiction stems from the fact that the NIA and CIB fall under different branches of government. Situations like these happen far more often than we’d think, especially in countries like the US that have multiple agencies serving different, and sometimes competing, purposes (e.g., the CIA and the FBI, or CSIS and the RCMP).

The CIB falls under the National Police Agency (NPA), which itself is under the supervision of the Ministry of the Interior (MOI). As its name says, its mandate is to investigate criminal activity. Although the NIA also falls under the MOI, the guidance and coordination of intelligence affairs at NIA and three other civil agencies is the remit of the National Security Bureau (NSB) — the nation’s principal intelligence agency — which itself is subordinate to the National Security Council (NSC).

What this means is that from a crime-fighting perspective, Isa is not a threat, as he is not believed to have engaged in criminal activity. Hence the CIB’s having no objection to his entering Taiwan. For the NSB, however, Isa could be deemed a person of interest (or “target”) as his activities may include political violence or “terrorism.” That is why, to use a different example, a domestic agency like Canada’s RCMP (Canada’s CIB, if you will) will investigate criminal organizations like the Hells Angels, but not, say, “terrorist” groups like Hezbollah (only when political violence and criminal activity intersect, such as selling contraband cigarettes to finance a “terrorist” organization, as Hezbollah did, will the RCMP and CSIS work together on a target).

Yang Wen-kai (楊文凱), the head of the International Affairs Division at the NIA, said the decision to bar Isa entry was based on the assessment (denied by Isa) that he doubles as the vice chairman of the East Turkestan Liberation Organization (ETLO), which China (thought not the UN or the US) has listed as a terrorist organization.* Challenged on the matter as to why Taiwan now also seemed to regard ETLO as a terrorist organization, Yang said “we obtained our information from a friendly country.”**

Some critics have rightly observed that the friendly country could be no other than China and that Yang’s comment was obfuscation, on par with the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration and Beijing’s attempts to keep everything “unofficial.” The problem with this criticism, however, is that intelligence agencies all over the world make it a policy not to publicize where they obtained, or the means by which they collected, intelligence. Sources are always kept secret, even in warrants and affidavits: human sources get numbers; foreign agencies, rather than be named, are “friendly” or “allied”; while communication intercepts (wiretaps, video surveillance, etc) are “reliable sources.” It is therefore perfectly normal for the NIA — and by extension the NSB — not to name their source, even if who it is is perfectly obvious, and a nefarious one at that.

Far more troubling than the NIA’s apparent lack of candor is the fact that Isa would be barred entry based on less than airtight intelligence from China, something that would not have happened under previous administrations. Behind this are Ma’s efforts to please Beijing and, perhaps more importantly, the nature of the man who heads the NSC, Chairman Su Chi (蘇起), whose pro-Beijing leanings and China ties are known facts. It should also be noted that the NSC is under the direct administration of the president. With Ma and Su at the top of the nation’s decisionmaking on intelligence matters, it is therefore no surprise that China’s “terrorists” would become Taiwan’s. Which raises the specter of future cooperation on intelligence. First it was Isa, the head of a so-called “terrorist” organization. Next it could be the other two “evils” as seen by the Chinese Communist Party — “extremism” and “splittism,” two concepts with dangerously loose interpretations that could very well include independence activists in Taiwan, pro-Tibetans, pro-Uighurs, Falun Gong practitioners, and human rights activists seeking change in China.

Intelligence drift based on ideology, and political “gifts” of assistance in intelligence matters are dangerous, dangerous things that can undermine the very moral core of individuals.

* Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, two members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, both designated ETLO as a terrorist organization. Despite heavy lobbying by China, in December 2003 Washington refused to recognize ETLO as a terrorist entity, although it did designate its loose affiliate and allegedly al-Qaeda-linked East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) a terrorist entity the previous year. Many pundits have argued that Washington’s decision to comply with Beijing’s request on ETIM was motivated by the Bush administration’s need to secure Beijing acquiescence at the UN as it prepared to invade Iraq.

** James Millward of the East-West Center in Washington wrote in a report titled Violent Separatism in Xinjiang: A Critical Assessment that since 2003, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security has catalogued four Uighur organizations — ETIM, ETLO, the World Uighur Youth Congress (WUYC) and the East Turkistan Information Center (ETIC) — as terrorist organizations. Millward argues that a report published on Jan. 21, 2002, by the Information Office of the PRC State Council titled East Turkistan Terrorist Forces Cannot Get Away with Impunity was “less than systematic in its treatment of terrorist or separatist organizations” and “relies frequently on such vague generic terms as ‘the “East Turkistan” terrorist organization,’ which it intersperses confusedly with references to specific groups, many of which also have ‘East Turkistan’ in their names,” which results in “ambiguity over whether a given act was committed by a specific group known to espouse a separatist line (such as […] ETLO) or by unknown perpetrators whom the authors of the document claim, without providing evidence, to be East Turkistan separatists.”

My colleague Celia Llopis-jepsen has an interesting op-ed on the same subject in Wednesday’s edition of the Taipei Times.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Tokyo releases White Paper, Taipei provides … cartoons

Having read through most of the Japanese Defense Ministry’s wide-ranging 2009 White Paper published this month, I can attest to the fact that such documents are no light beach reading. My four years at the Royal Military College of Canada, and nearly three at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, where I worked closely with the Department of National Defense, also imposed upon me countless hours analyzing white papers, aides-memoires, briefings and bulletins that would make anyone yearn for a manual on how to fix your vacuum cleaner. The difficult, and often tedious reading, means that it will be restricted to a small, specializes audience and remain for the most part outside the public sphere.

Perhaps sensing this, communications departments within the Taiwanese government have come up with a solution: cartoons. Sometime in October, the Ministry of National Defense will unleash upon young Taiwanese readers a cartoon version of its most recent White Paper, all part of a plan to attract young minds to the military as it aims to achieve an all-volunteer force by 2015. Taiwanese youth are avid readers of comic books, and the US did something similar by introducing online videogames to boost recruitment, so the idea might not be entirely outlandish. I still think it reflects poorly on a nation’s maturity level and reading abilities (at least in the government’s view), but it’s worth the try.

Where the cartoons lose their humor, however, is when the Ministry of Economic Affairs announces that it will launch a series of four-column cartoons to explain the doctrines of the controversial economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration has proposed signing with China. With the opposition completing the first step in applying to hold a referendum on the matter, the Ma administration appears to have concluded that now is the time to explain the contents of the agreement, which to date have remained obscure. Rather than treat adults like adults, however, or assume that Taiwanese are intelligent enough to seize the complexities of the ECFA (which they most certainly are), the government will hand out brochures, in which we can expect anime-like Hu Jintaos and Chen Yunlins informing readers that they harbor no sinister intentions.

This tactic reminds me of the Chinese government’s introduction, about two years ago, of cute online characters — oversized-eyed male and female police officers — reminding Chinese Internet users to surf the Web “responsibly,” which is Newspeak for avoid accessing information on human rights, Tibet, Taiwan and basically anything that could remotely constitute criticism of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). (Anyone who thought that Beijing’s censoring of the Internet is primarily to protect young minds from the evils of pornography had better think again.) Through cute, friendly looking characters, the CCP sanitized an instrument of repression and banalized what was fundamentally an addition to the state’s multifaceted approach to mind control.

As there are many apprehensions surrounding an ECFA, which ulterior political motives or not will have a substantial impact on the future of Taiwan, cartoons could help the Ma administration ease the introduction of an ECFA and turn something of tremendous contentiousness into a banality that puts critical minds to sleep.

Taiwanese should know better. After all, they live in a country where the more beautiful and colorful an insect, arachnid or reptile is, the deadlier is its venom.

Wire irritants

I came early to the office today to search the wires for material I could use in tomorrow’s editorial. One drawback to writing editorials on Mondays is that the usual paucity of news developments during the weekend makes it more difficult to find something to write about (when this happens, an easy opt out is to turn to China, which on any given day is bound to have arrested, or killed, dissidents in some part of the country).

Thankfully, today some wire agencies had early on provided coverage of the renaming of National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall to its original name, Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall — an easy target for a pro-independence, pro-democracy editorialist, given Chiang’s murderous past.

One of the handful of agencies that carried news of this development was the consistently off-the-mark Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA), which again did not disappoint by containing a few gems of reportage.

After providing brief and, in all fairness, historically consistent background to the man’s journey from China to Taiwan, DPA wrote that despite ruling with an iron first until his death in 1975, “Many Taiwanese are grateful to Chiang Kai-shek [蔣介石] for defending Taiwan from being taken over by Communist China.”

This is just plain wrong. The Chiang regime was imposed on Taiwanese and Taiwanese were until his death at the receiving of a regime of terror, starting with the 228 Massacre of 1947, instigated by governor Chen Yi (陳儀) at Chen’s request, in which as many as 20,000 to 25,000 Taiwanese are believed to have been killed in the following weeks. If any in Taiwan were “thankful” to Chiang, it was the Chinese who fled to Taiwan along with Chiang after the Nationalist’s defeat in 1949.

Chiang’s oppression of Taiwanese became known as the White Terror era, decades during which opponents — mostly, but not only Taiwanese — of the Chiang regime were spied on, discriminated against, jailed, disappeared, or murdered. Through various accounts and historical documents, the White Terror and its abuses has been well catalogued. And yet, according to DPA, Chiang and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), who succeeded him after his death, were criticized for their so-called White Terror rule. So called? The dictionary informs us that the definition of the adjective so-called means that something is “questionable,” “subject to question” and of “questionable origin.” A proven historical fact, therefore, is now of “questionable” veracity, something to be disputed, which dovetails with Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) efforts to rehabilitate Chiang’s image as the “savior” of the nation.

This, of course, would not be the first time the German agency portrayed things in a manner that is highly favorable of the KMT — and murderous tyrants, it would seem.


Authorities said that about 600 police officers were deployed at the hall to ensure public order yesterday. Another 300 were reportedly deployed in the area, including MRT stations. Defending the mobilization, Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) said the number was in line with public safety standards, adding that it was one-tenth the size of police deployed when the hall was renamed during the DPP administration in 2007. In other words, Hau was claiming that between 6,000 and 9,000 police officers were deployed. A quick search through news archives tells us that the numbers in December 2007 were more along the lines of 600 — still high, perhaps too high, but certainly nothing that would lend credence to Hau’s claim.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Ma Ying-jeou the time traveler

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has more in common with characters in a science-fiction novel than you’d think. In fact, based on recent reports, he appears to have in his possession nothing less than a secret time machine. The revelation occurred on Saturday in his first weekly online video (Chinese only) targeting Taiwan’s large Internet population — a kind of tête-à-tête inspired, we are told, by former US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “fireside chats.”

In his premiere video, Ma told viewers that technology was very important to him and that in fact he had been using computers when he was a university student at National Taiwan University (NTU). Which is great, were it not for a little inconsistency: Ma graduated from NTU in 1972, a full year before the first personal computers were introduced. As Ma is, hum-hum, head of a “clean” government, surely he cannot be lying about this, so the only other explanation is that he somehow managed to travel into the future and bring back a PC for use on campus, hiding from view lest his time-defying little secret be exposed.

But I jest. To be fair, maybe some mad scientist at NTU, lurking in a dank basement, beat Bill Gates and friends in the computer race and created the world’s first clunking giant calculator, which for some reason he only allowed Ma to use, perhaps sensing the great future leader hiding under his scrawny façade. If that’s the case, the computer never surfaced. So back to wild theories: There’s more ammunition to support the time-travel theory, and it, too, comes from Ma’s weekly video. As the good old Franciscan friar William of Ockham (which Ma may have visited, who knows) once said, When competing hypotheses are equal in other respects …

Ma’s digital fireside chats, the Presidential Office tells us, are meant to address current affairs and provide updates on his activities — all exciting stuff, I’m sure, what with the daily jogging and verbal faux pas. The problem, however, is that savvy surfers discovered that if one changed the date on the Web site, future videos of Ma could be accessed — in other words, proof that Ma can travel to the future and record videos on current events then. For fear that his contraption would fall in the wrong hands — Americans, Japanese, or perhaps even Taiwanese — an army of programmers in the Ma camp managed to block access to Ma’s voice from the future, leaving surfers with little more than Ma in the present, or the receding past, as it were, given that time continues to speed ahead for the rest of us.

Some have accused Ma of “selling” out Taiwan to China, of mucking up the Neihu MRT Line or of becoming increasingly authoritarian as he grabs the various levers of power available to him. But his worst crime, it is now clear, was that Mr. Clean would lie to us, to Taiwanese, about his time machine. If we can’t trust him with such devices (and where else but in Taiwan would have it been manufactured?), how can we trust him on lesser things, such as national security and freedom of speech?

Maybe all this time travel has distorted his grip on reality, which would explain why, among other things, he was able to alchemically transform a Chinese boycott of the opening ceremony at the World Games in Kaohsiung into a sign of Chinese “goodwill.”

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Taiwan the victim of Asian geopolitics

Currently in India on a three-day visit, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Saturday she was optimistic that a defense agreement between India and the US could soon be finalized. The “end-user monitoring pact,” as defense export controls are commonly known, will be essential for US defense contractors seeking to sell advanced weaponry to India. Once it is passed, US firms will be able to bid for a contract — one of the largest arms deals in the world, estimated to be worth US$10.4 billion — to provide India with 126 multi-role fighters as part of the Indian military’s US$30 billion, five-year modernization plan. Russia, France and Sweden, as well as the European consortium behind the Eurofighter Typhoon, are also in the race. Two US firms, Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co, stand to gain from the pact.

Given the strategic competition that has been developing between India and China, compounded by the latter’s perennial fear of encirclement, news of the coming deal will exacerbate apprehensions in Beijing. Ironically, China’s ally and main source of weapons, Russia, could be contributing to that sense of vulnerability should Moscow win the contract with its MiG-35, though the unease would probably be worse if US firms landed the deal. Although in recent years Beijing and New Delhi have settled a number of territorial disputes, a sense of insecurity and mistrust continues to characterize relations between the two rising Asian giants. Part of India’s drive for modernization is also fueled by fears and the many unknowns surrounding China’s “rise,” as a recent article in Indian Defense Review, which claimed China could attack India by 2012, indicates. Meanwhile, with India firmly in the US sphere of influence and increasingly seen as a counterbalance to China, it would not be surprising if Beijing increased the rhetoric as the sale approaches, or used the modernization of India’s military, as well as US-Indian cooperation on nuclear energy (an agreement expected to be signed by Clinton during her visit), as an argument for further investment in its military.

Whether China represents a threat to India is highly in doubt, but in the increasingly realist world of Asian relations, such fears are used by governments, defense departments and arms dealers to justify heavy investment.

One potential victim of this reality is Taiwan, which continues to underinvest in its defense, a trend that has accelerated under the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). The more China feels it is being encircled and the more insecure it becomes, the higher will be its investment in its military, both in terms of modernization and real numbers (i.e., Order of Battle). The implications of this are that even if China’s military development is geared toward India, Japan or the US, part of the growing arsenal will have applications for a Taiwan contingency, not to mention the impact the perception of encirclement would have on Chinese nationalism and its effect on decisionmaking.

Arms races are never good news, as they exacerbate tensions, increase the likelihood of error and ultimately aggravate the cost of war. If the modernization of India’s military prompted more defense expenditure in China, we can expect Japan would follow suit, thus creating a feedback loop similar to the one that made the Cold War such a threat to the human race. An accelerating arms race in Asia would be even worse news for Taiwan, for despite Chinese unease vis-à-vis external opponents, the principal objective of its military remains the tract of land it claims at its own, a mere 140km across the Taiwan Strait. In such a scenario, either Taiwan would maintain defense spending at the same level, meaning that with every year that passes the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait would further tilt in Beijing’s favor, or it, too, would join the arms race bandwagon and thereby make its own contribution to China’s military drive.

See also: Japan's 2009 Defense White Paper.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Taiwan can’t afford a fissiparous DPP [UPDATED]

The Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Central Advisory Committee will hold a meeting next Thursday to make a final decision on the expulsion of members Fan Chung-tzung (范振宗) and Hsu Jung-shu (許榮淑) for defying a party ban on attending a cross-strait forum last week. DPP regulations stipulate that DPP members are allowed to visit China in a personal capacity, but are barred from doing so as officials, which is why Fan and Hsu are facing expulsion.

While the cross-strait forum is very much a Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)-Chinese communist Party (CCP) affair, this time around Beijing made “accommodations” so that DPP members could attend. As I argued in a previous article, as the main opposition party the DPP cannot afford to not know what’s going on at the forum, especially at a time when cross-strait rapprochement is being managed by the KMT and CPP in less than transparent fashion and when the Legislative Yuan has been sidelined by the executive. My argument was that the DPP should seek to achieve an admittedly difficult balancing act by sending observers while clearly stating its opposition to the manner in which rapprochement has been orchestrated under the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).

Fan and Hsu did not go as observers, nor did they attend in a personal capacity. In other words, they attended as DPP members, which the CPP (and to a lesser extent the KMT) could exploit to tell the world that the pro-independence party agrees with the process of unification — in other words, that it has come to its senses. In TV interviews last night, Hsu made it clear that her attending the forum in Changsha should not result in questioning of her allegiance to Taiwan, which, given her long service to country and party, is a fair statement. Her participation does not mean that she has abandoned her aspirations for Taiwanese independence.

Yes, Chang and Hsu broke party rules. But expelling them would be self-defeating, as it would play into the CPP’s divide and conquer strategy and splinter a party that since its twin defeats in the legislative and presidential elections last year, added to its minority in the Legislative Yuan, has struggled to remain relevant. Delinquent members, if they can be thus called, should be reprimanded for their infractions, but expulsions are too drastic and would further weaken the party while serving as fodder for those who argue that the DPP is intransigent, intolerant and unable to make accommodations.

The DPP’s problem is not that it bars members from going to China — to wit, Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu’s (陳菊) visit in May to promote the World Games — but that it lacks a strategy regarding its members’ participation in cross-strait talks, which whether we like them or not are simply inevitable. Dialogue is not intrinsically bad; what’s needed is for a confident opposition to ensure that talks do not sabotage Taiwan’s sovereignty and right to determine its own future. Expelling members for attempting to do so simply closes the door on dialogue and monitoring, and helps ensure that the process remains opaque. Admittedly, that opacity creates fears in the Taiwanese polity, fear that the DPP can exploit to its advantage. But a self-respecting political party worthy of running a country must have more to propose its people than that. Fear is the weapon of the weak, a poor alternative to ideas and policies.

DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) should overturn the decision to expel Fan and Hsu — hopefully via democratic means, meaning through party vote — before more harm is done to the party’s image. Failure to do so will open yet another door, one that allows critics of the DPP and Taiwan independence to portray the party as “extremist” and oppositionist at all cost. In other words, a party that claims to fight for democracy but that in reality acts far short of the principle.


Thanks to Taiwan Echo (see comments for this story) for providing extremely useful precisions on Hsu’s comments after she returned to Taiwan. This has forced me to revisit my assumptions about the gravity of her “error” and what the DPP should do about it. One question that needs to be asked, now, is what motivated her to do and say what she did? This is highly hypothetical, but I’m beginning to wonder if Chinese operatives might not have been keeping DPP officials under observation for signs of weakness or shifts in ideology for possible cultivation. It would be interesting to see if Hsu was directly invited by the CPP to attend — and if so, who. I have long argued that increased contact following an influx of Chinese in Taiwan would result in more espionage, collection and — yes — influence of local leaders. If, and this is a big if, Hsu was cultivated and approached by China because they were aware of a “weakness” in her identification with the DPP (old age, conflicts of interest, blackmail or perhaps even failing mental health), she could indeed have been used to create a rift within the DPP. Under such a scenario — this calls for investigation, not a witch hunt — I would definitely be in favor of her being expelled from the party.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

2012 will not be 1996 redux

In my piece “Why 2012 will be a deadly deadline” published earlier this week, I argued that 2012 would be a dangerous year in Taiwan’s history, mostly because of the risks that electoral retribution could undermine President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) efforts to pursue rapprochement with China. As I state in my op-ed, Beijing has made not secret of the fact that it sees cross-strait talks and a possible economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) as means to ultimate unification. Both Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) have openly stated their views on the matter, hard facts that moot the criticism of those who have expressed apprehensions about the lack of transparency in cross-strait dialogue.

The 2012 presidential election in Taiwan, therefore, will be a pivotal point in the nation’s history, as it will serve both as a public verdict on Ma’s pro-China policies and an opportunity for the opposition to halt a process that has dovetailed perfectly with Beijing’s designs on Taiwan — with or without Ma’s blessing. In my article, I point out that in the lead-up to the elections, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) will likely seek to exploit the threat of Chinese attack to its advantage: Vote for us and there will be no war; vote for the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and China might attack. Ironically, the KMT could be right in raising such fears, because Beijing could very well resort to force if it perceives that the political pendulum is about to shift in the DPP’s favor.

This is where critics of this argument come in. One commentator has argued that my assumption that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would do a replay of 1996 — firing missiles off the waters of Taiwan to influence the Taiwanese electorate and compel voters not to vote for pro-independence Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and the DPP’s Peng Ming-min (彭明敏) — is flawed. Where the critics of my argument are wrong, I think, is in their failure to comprehend the tremendous changes that have occurred in China’s military posture in the 16 years between 1996 and 2012, during which the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has seen double-digit growth in its budget for more than a decade. China’s declared defense expenditures at the time of the missile crisis in 1996 was about US$10 billion — the equivalent of Taiwan’s military budget today. In March 2007, Beijing announced it would increase its annual defense budget by 17.8 percent from the previous year, to US$45 billion. In March 2008, the submitted budget was about US$57.22 billion, followed by a nearly 15 percent rise announced in March 2009. The period 1996-2009 also experienced a shift in China’s military reorganization and modernization drive following the Gulf War of 1991. Assuming similar double-digit growth in PLA expenditure until 2012, we can expect a defense budget by that year to be in the neighborhood of US$80 billion. While this still falls quite short of the US defense expenditure, and recognizing that the PLA has yet to achieve parity with the US military, there is no question that China is becoming more assertive within the region, both as a result of its growing economic clout and military strength.

This is not to say that it would make light of a decision to risk war with the US over Taiwan. But there is no question that the PLA today — and in 2012 — is far more confident in its abilities to fight a war than it was in 1996, when the missile crisis was more bluff than real threat. By 2012 Beijing could miscalculate by believing it could win a quick war over Taiwan, that its extended power projection could deter the US from intervening in the country, or even reach the conclusion that an already overstretched US military cannot afford to fight on another front in the Asia-Pacific region. The latter point is often neglected by critics of the 2012 scenario, who only focus on the Order of Battle and quantifiable forces while neglecting military commitments. The US military budget, and the quality of its forces, will dwarf China’s for many years to come, but this does not change the fact that the US military is serving in every corner of the world, fighting a war on terrorism in Afghanistan, in the Horn of Africa and in Iraq, while providing support in countries such as the Philippines, Pakistan and Colombia. China, meanwhile, has very little military commitments, its borders are secure and up until recently it has not become embroiled in the “war” on terrorism. A substantial part of its military budget, therefore, is solely dedicated to a Taiwan contingency or can quickly be reconfigured to meet that requirement.

One critic — ostensibly in reference to my background as an intelligence officer — wrote that:

It must be said how often these kind of predictions have been made in the past decade without actually coming to pass, you need only think of Lee Teng-Hui’s warning about 2008, or the warnings of trouble ahead of each of the elections since ‘96, to see how often they are proved wrong. I know Mr. Cole won’t like me making this comparison, but this is all rather reminiscent of the on-going crisis surrounding the Iranian nuclear program, where pundits feel free to make regular predictions of the inevitability of military action against Iran, and never seem to learn from the failure of their predictions to come true. Just as with Iran, the most likely outcome is that in three years time we will be roughly where we are now.

The problem with this argument, as anyone who has studied threat analysis will know, is that it adopts the fallacy known as T=T-1 (T is time, and what was applicable yesterday continues to be so today). What the critic implies is that my assumptions about 2012 are a “a failure of intelligence.” In reality, however, “intelligence failures” are as frequently overassumptions (e.g., Iraq and WMDs) as they are T=T-1 fallacies (e.g., the Iranian Revolution, Iraqi invasion of Kuwait). In the context of the Taiwan Strait, threat assessments made on the T=T-1 assumption — or that 2012 will be the same as 1996 — are extremely dangerous and blind us to changing realities, not only in terms of military capabilities, but also in political differences. In 1996, China was nowhere near achieving annexation of Taiwan; today and by 2012, that long-held dream is within reach, and the US, weakened by military campaigns, record national debt and the economic crisis, is no longer the dominant power it was a few years ago. Other imponderables, such as rising Chinese nationalism, social unrest and new CCP leadership, also make comparisons with 1996 tenuous at best.

I do not believe for one second that China is bent on expanding its empire, which is why I fully disagree with reports such as the Indian Defense Review that argue that “China will attack India by 2012 to divert the attention of its own people from ‘unprecedented’ internal dissent, growing unemployment and financial problems that are threatening the hold of Communists in that country.” I have just finished reading Bobo Lo’s Axis of Convenience: Moscow, Beijing and the New Geopolitics, which I will be reviewing in the Taipei Times over the weekend. Lo’s analysis convinces me more than ever that China has no interest in invading other countries, whether it be India or the Russian Far East, as its focus remains on domestic development. In that regard, the CPP has very much been the professional, rational actor. But I maintain that when it comes to Taiwan — which Beijing never ceased to regard as an “internal” problem along the lines of Tibet and Xinjiang — critics of my 2012 argument had fain avoid committing a second common mistake in intelligence analysis, and that is the assumption that the rational actor model applies in every case.

Even over Taiwan, China will never make light of a decision of going to war especially if this risks a confrontation with the US and Japan. This said, if China is to miscalculate, based on 16 years of solid military buildup — quantitative and qualitative —, a weakened US and cross-strait dynamics, 2012 will be it. I stand by my assessment regarding that year.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Why 2012 will be a deadly deadline

In an op-ed published today in the Taipei Times — meant for publication in newspapers abroad but not picked up by any — I argue that failure to pressure the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration now on human rights, transparency and accountability in its interactions with Beijing is sowing the seeds of disaster for 2012, when Taiwanese could very well derail his plans through electoral retribution. What, in this scenario, makes 2012 such a dangerous year is that aware of this possibility, Beijing has continued apace with the modernization of its armed forces despite better relations across the Taiwan Strait. If, after coming so close to unification (its openly stated goal for the cross-strait talks), Beijing saw that its plans risked failing because of Taiwanese voters, the likelihood that it would resort to force to complete the process could be higher than it’s ever been — much higher than during the 1996 missile crisis, when Beijing’s saber rattling was much more bluff than signs of a coming attack. This piece attempts to set the record strait and to provide a counterbalance to all those “experts” who have hailed Ma’s opening as “pragmatic” and “masterful,” or claimed, without ever setting foot here, that everybody in Taiwan is on the same wavelength on how to approach talks with China.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Al-Qaeda has a new enemy: China

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an Algeria-based offshoot of al-Qaeda, has reportedly threatened to target Chinese interests overseas in retaliation for Beijing’s deadly crackdown against Uighurs in Xinjiang last week, in which 184 people were killed. Quoting a security consultancy, the South China Morning Post wrote that while AQIM was the first al-Qaeda-linked group — or, according to experts on terrorism, a loose umbrella for regional extremist organizations — to issue such a threat against China, others were likely to follow.

It matters little that, according to Beijing’s claims, of the 184 people who were killed in the clashes in Urumqi and elsewhere in Xinjiang, 137 were Han Chinese rather than Muslim. For extremist organizations like AQIM (a rebranding of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, GSPC) and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the decades of victimization of Muslims in Xinjiang is the essence of the problem; last week’s violence was simply the trigger.

Interestingly enough, the targeting of China follows a pattern established with the West, and the US in particular, whereby the interests of the “oppressor” are targeted by al-Qaeda where they are weakest and as a means to pressure its central government to (a) change a policy and (b) leave the region. In this present case, the proximate enemy is China, but ETIM and other extremist organizations in Central Asia — China’s rear — are in no position to target it head-on. Instead, they will punish Beijing by attacking soft targets abroad: Chinese workers, diplomatic missions, firms, and so on. Just like the US, China will be the victim of its growing presence abroad. Given China’s severe reliance on oil and natural gas, combined with the fact that a large share of those resources comes from the Persian Gulf, Africa and Central Asia, exposure of Chinese interests to radical groups will not be minimal.

In coming weeks and months, therefore, we can expect kidnappings and attacks on Chinese soft targets in Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Maghreb and the Middle East, as well as certain parts of Latin and Central America with large Muslim populations, with the first two regions the likeliest to see violence. Should this transpire, we can predict that China, which so far has remained relatively hands-off on regional security, to become more involved militarily in Central Asia to protect its people, interests, and the flow of energy.

Implications for Taiwan

Two things stand out for Taiwan relative to this development. First — and this harkens back to my days in the Threat Assessment Unit at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service — by virtue of their similar features and language, Taiwanese abroad could be mistaken for Chinese and targeted by such extremist organizations. This is akin to the threat level facing Caucasians whenever al-Qaeda or other extremist groups call for attacks against Americans or British.

Another offshoot of this threat is that it will likely add urgency to US-Chinese cooperation on antiterrorism, as a terrorist attack against Chinese interests would “confirm” that Beijing and Washington face a common enemy. If this were to happen, this would provide Beijing with yet another lever with which to pressure the US — especially under a scenario where the People’s Liberation Army is called upon to exercise a security role in Central Asia and perhaps further into Afghanistan, where ETIM elements are believed to have sought refuge.

A slightly different version of this article appeared in the Taipei Times on July 19.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The CCP wants things to be ... simpler

The fifth round of talks between the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continued in Changsha on Sunday, with more discussion on cultural matters. Aside from calling on academics and researchers from both sides of the Taiwan Strait to collaborate on standardizing scientific and specialized Chinese terms and to develop software that translates traditional Chinese characters into simplified form, a joint statement called on both sides to “gradually reduce the differences” between traditional and simplified Chinese characters.”

This statement can only mean one thing: One does not reduce differences between two systems by adding complexity to the simpler one; rather, they are reduced by dumbing down the more complex of two. In other words, Taiwan’s use of the more complex traditional Chinese would be simplified, one stroke at a time, in line with the simplified Chinese characters introduced by the CCP after it came to power in 1949.

While I’ve never been one to equate language with ethnicity (e.g., French as a defining factor in Quebec identity vis-à-vis Canada), the fact remains that language provides a direct link to the cultural baggage of a people; it serves as a bridge to the past, whereby ancient wisdom is kept alive, passed on from one generation to another.

When it comes to traditional Chinese, Taiwanese did not retain the more complex version for the sake of complexity, or as a means to prove their intellectual superiority vis-à-vis people in China. Nor, conversely, did the CCP adopt the simplified form solely for the purpose of helping to educate the masses. Rather, it’s the importance a people gives to the past that matters. While one system of government (Taiwan) chose to maintain ties with ancient times (both as a source of knowledge and a means by the KMT to “resinicize” Taiwanese after 50 years of Japanese colonial rule), the other (China) sought to reinvent the national discourse by disconnecting the population from the past. By abandoning the traditional system and imposing the simplified form, the CCP made sure that it could gradually engineer a population that did not know where it come from and therefore would be less likely to question authority based on the lessons of history (under authoritarian systems, ignorance is bliss — for those in power). Of course, ancient texts written in the traditional form could be translated into simplified characters, but this would take time, and the state could control which texts could be permissibly translated. “Dangerous” or “polluted” ones, works that did not dovetail with Communist China’s version of history after Year Zero, if you will, would be barred from translation and further recede into oblivion as generation after generation grew up under the simplified system. There is a reason why many people today will say that Chinese do not know their history — it was stolen from them after 1949.

Symbolically, the more Taiwan drifts toward simplified Chinese, the more it will be seen as doing so politically and culturally as well. If it came about, it would also threaten Taiwanese people’s understanding of their past. If a people doesn’t know where it’s from, it will be hard for it to dispute claims that it belongs to another.