Sunday, May 30, 2010

Book Review: The unfortunate consequences of China’s rise

Forget about the military threat from China, risks of war in the Taiwan Strait, Beijing’s purchase of US debt or its dislocating effect on jobs at home — all are manageable challenges that have been blown out of proportion by pundits and government officials.

So argues Stefan Halper in The Beijing Consensus, a timely little book that turns conventions on the “China threat” upside down and argues instead that the real challenge from Beijing — one that the Obama administration has so far unwisely neglected — lies in the transformative forces, operating at the global level, associated with China’s rise.

China is undoing the West, Halper writes, not by a calculated strategy that seeks such an outcome, but rather as a result of its authoritarian model and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) need to maintain a high level of economic growth at home to ensure its legitimacy and survival. In so doing, it has turned to every corner of the earth for natural resources and energy to meet its growing domestic requirements.

While there is nothing unusual, or even alarming, in this development, Beijing’s policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries means that it has no compunction in dealing with the world’s worst human rights offenders, as long as they have certain commodities to offer. As Halper rightly argues, the West — from big oil companies to George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism” White House — has its own checkered past from turning a blind eye to abuse when it is convenient to do so, but in recent years a certain consciousness has arisen that imposes limits on how Western firms and governments can and will engage serious human rights abusers.

This book review, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here (pdf) and here (html).

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Security lax at super-secret base

Defense experts and officials in Taipei and Washington had mixed reactions to the embarrassing news, published on Monday by Defense News and Kyodo news agency, that security at a key signals intelligence facility in northern Taiwan was so lax that neighboring cows were observed walking freely around the base.

Located in Linkou (林口), Taipei County, Linyuan Base collects imagery and signals intelligence deep inside China and at sea.

The facility, which is operated by the Ministry of National Defense’s (MND) ultra-secret Office of Telecommunication Development (OTD), General Staff Headquarters, was built in 2000 and started operations in 2003, Defense News wrote.

Kyodo said construction of the OTD facility cost more than NT$4 billion (US$124 million).

Consisting of a large building for data processing, barracks, a number of satellite dishes and two Circularly Disposed Antenna Arrays (CDAA), or “crop circles” that detect the direction of radio signals, the site has been described by local sources as a combination of the US’ National Security Agency (NSA) and National Reconnaissance Office.

The facility has a range of about 5,000km and can cover all of China, and the larger of the two CDAAs is still, according to Desmond Ball, a signals intelligence expert, “the most important high-frequency radio interception and direction- finding station in Taiwan.”

This story, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

It’s actually not just the economy, stupid

As the saying goes, you stand where you sit. Not long ago, when Paul Wolfowitz was closer to defense than the corporatism he now embodies, he was instrumental in the drafting of alarming reports about the rise of the Chinese military and the threat that this represented to US security and, by extension, Taiwan.

Now that he is chairman of the US-Taiwan Business Council, however, Wolfowitz sings a different tune. This does not mean that his views on the Chinese military threat have softened, but his new role forces him to look at the same object from a different perspective. By doing so, he appears to have lost sight of the fact that China remains a threat, especially in the proximate environment of Taiwan.

Wolfowitz, like many others who look at Taiwan from a purely economic angle, appears to have divorced a conundrum that can only be fully understood if all the components are taken into consideration. In other words, despite what President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration has repeatedly said, the question of cross-strait economics simply cannot be addressed without also taking into account matters of politics and security.

However, this is exactly what the hitherto hawkish Wolfowitz appeared to be arguing when he told the American Enterprise Institute in Washington that “I really hope that somehow the two political parties find a way to come together in a truly bipartisan spirit, because getting an ECFA [economic cooperation framework agreement] and getting it right — which means it will be sustainable even if there is a change in administrations in Taipei — is not only important to Taiwan’s economy, it is important to Taiwan’s national security.”

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

Friday, May 21, 2010

Prosecuting war by other means

On its own, the widening gap in military capabilities in the Taiwan Strait — in which the Chinese air force will enjoy a more than two-to-one advantage in combat aircraft by 2014-2015 — is a worrying development. Equally disturbing, however, are recent signals from President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) that he does not accord the nation’s ability to defend itself against Chinese aggression the importance it deserves.

Not only did Ma claim last year that the country’s No. 1 enemy was mother nature, he has also cut the number of military exercises simulating a Chinese invasion. There is even evidence that Taiwanese officials in Washington have not really pushed for sale of the F-16C/D combat aircraft the nation so desperately needs to level the playing field. All of this, added to Ma’s remark that he would “never” call on the US to fight on Taiwan’s behalf — which he subsequently had to qualify, given the political storm it created — points to a president who does not take defense seriously.

While there are ample reasons to believe this is true, such a discussion distracts from the formidable, and at present far more real threat, to Taiwan’s sovereignty.

Before we explore that other threat, however, let us ask ourselves the following questions: If China really did intend to launch military strikes against Taiwan, would it invest billions of dollars in Taiwanese insurance companies, real estate and other sectors? Would it allow thousands of its own citizens to visit every day? Would it send delegations, led by top Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials? And would it send its students, putting all of them in harm’s way?

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

Thursday, May 20, 2010

China’s new target in Tibet

While the world focuses on China’s monitoring of Internet and SMS activity, news has now emerged that Beijing authorities are clamping down on a medium from the previous century — photocopying machines.

In a report on Wednesday, the BBC wrote that people in Lhasa will have to register their names if they want to make photocopies. From now on, individuals wanting to photocopy documents will have to show their ID cards and have the information recorded. Companies providing copy services will have to register the name and address of the individuals seeking to make copies, the number of copies they want to make and provide the name of the manager in charge of the work.

The authorities, we learn, are particularly concerned about material printed in Tibetan, with less attention paid to material in Chinese. Chinese authorities say the change is aimed at stopping “criminals” carrying out “illegal” activities — in other words, political pamphlets.

Oh yes; China brought civilization to those “barbaric” Tibetans. I wonder if one day we’ll have to do the same in Taiwan (though Taiyu, or Hoklo, isn’t a written language).

Monday, May 17, 2010

Things that get buried

Sometimes important pieces of information that probably belong on the front page bet “buried” inside the paper, which means that they will not attract as much attention and receive the consideration that they deserve. One such bit of info appeared in the lead story on page three of the Taipei Times on Sunday, which I happened to edit. Admittedly, the story tops the political page, but the pithy part is hidden halfway in:

In the past two years, 373 administrative orders involving China took effect without review from the legislature. Only 3.75 percent of administrative orders went through the legislature, information from [Taiwan Thinktank] showed.

The Council of Labor Affairs, for example, amended the Act Governing Approval for Mainland Area Professionals to Engage in Professional Activities in Taiwan (大陸地區專業人士來台從事專業活動許可辦法) last year and again this year to allow Chinese nationals conducting business in Taiwan to stay longer, she said.

The Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) said that Chinese companies investing US$33 million are allowed to send a maximum of seven managerial staff members to Taiwan.

However, the amendment said that Chinese-invested firms in Taiwan can receive an unlimited number of Chinese professionals as long as they are considered to be “making a contribution” to the local economy, job market and society and obtain the approval of government agencies.

So here we are: Only 3.75 percent of all administrative orders have been reviewed by the organ that supposedly keeps the government in check. And yet, Presidential Office Spokesman Lo Chih-chiang (羅智強) was telling reporters on Sunday that “All official dealings with China are supervised by the legislature … Everything is open and transparent.”

Not only are orders not being monitored by the legislature, but amendments are being made that are so vague — intentionally so — that they can open doors to all kinds of abuse. Much as the “in the public interest” clause in the Computer-Processed Personal Data Protection Act (電腦保護個人資料處理法), amended on April 27, is vague enough to allow government authorities to interpret it in a manner that suits their needs, the amendment to the Act Governing Approval for Mainland Area Professionals to Engage in Professional Activities in Taiwan uses language (“making a contribution”) that can mean anything. What are “contributions” and who is the judge of that?

As I wrote in my review of Christine Loh’s (陸恭蕙) study of the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong, Underground Front, the danger of signing agreements Beijing-style is that everything is vague and open to interpretation — by those in power. Again, the entire negotiation process during the 1980s, in which the UK and Beijing prepared the terrain for handover in 1997, should be closely studied by Taiwanese watchers, as history appears to be repeating itself. One complaint on the British side and among those in Hong Kong who worried about their future, was that everything was done behind closed doors, by unelected elite with close ties to the business world, with little oversight or supervision, no public consultation. And a heavy does of vagueness.

The legislature has been sidelined, its speaker rendered obsolete by his willingness to please the Executive, and as a result Taiwan’s democracy is being dismembered before our eyes. The Presidential Office is feeding us lies, which sadly many people appear to be swallowing. Is this in the “public interest”? Is this making a “contribution”?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Book Review: Chinese imperialism and the seeds of anger in Tibet

After nearly half a century of Chine occupation of Tibet, riots on an unprecedented scale occurred not only in the Tibetan Administrative Region (TAR), but also in parts of China with substantial Tibetan populations. Prior to what has come to be known as the March Incident of 2008, Tibetan protests had largely been limited to areas within TAR proper. How can we explain the spontaneous — and violent — uprising that shocked the world months before the Beijing Olympics and invited an ironfisted crackdown by the Chinese authorities?

The answer is the culminating achievement of The Struggle for Tibet, a collection of articles written by Tibetan academic Tsering Shakya and the Chinese intellectual Wang Lixiong (王力雄). In what often reads like a dialogue between the two authors,

the book explores the question of Tibetan identity, religion, assimilation and resistance from the perspective of Tibetans.

My review of this very helpful book, was published today in the Taipei Times and continues here (pdf) and here (html).

Friday, May 14, 2010

Watchdog decries Chinese media sanctions

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on Wednesday condemned a recent wave of sanctions against Chinese business media and journalists over their coverage of the private sector.

Last week, the weekly magazine Business Watch was suspended for a month, while Bao Yueyang (包月陽) was fired on Wednesday as the editor of another business newspaper.

“The free flow of business and financial information is still not a reality in China,” RSF said.

“There is an urgent need for the Propaganda Department, local authorities and both state and private-sector companies to stop obstructing investigative reporting by the business media. We call for the sanctions against Business Watch and Bao Yueyang to be rescinded,” it said.

Business Watch was suspended for a month at the beginning of this month after it published an investigative report in its March issue about the state-owned power company Grid Corp. The reporter had used internal company documents for the report, which Chinese authorities did not appreciate, RSF said.

This was not the first time the Xiamen-based magazine got into trouble over its investigative reporting. Two years ago, it was suspended for two months for an article about Tianjin Mayor Huang Xingguo (黃興國).

In the other case, Bao was removed from his job as editor at the China Economic Times and transferred to another post at the Development Publishing Co following the publication’s coverage of contaminated vaccines in Shanxi Province.

After wide coverage of the matter since March, the authorities restricted reporting on Chinese Web sites and ordered traditional media to limit themselves to dispatches from state-owned Xinhua news agency, RSF said.

Bao is well known for encouraging his reporters to investigate sensitive issues.

Also recently, Chinese authorities ordered the daily Nanfang Dushi Bao to remove from its Web site an editorial expressing reservations about the philanthropic practices of some Chinese firms, RSF said.

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, as many as 10 foreign and local reporters have been briefly arrested in the past few weeks, RSF reported.

At least three Japanese journalists and several South Korean journalists were arrested at Dalian and Tianjin during the visit last week of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Four Hong Kong journalists sent to Sichuan Province to cover a corruption story linked to the 2008 earthquake were prevented from working by local officials, who escorted them to a police station, RSF said.

RSF urged US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to raise the issue of press freedom with Chinese diplomats during a human rights dialogue between China and the US that started yesterday.

This article appeared today in the Taipei Times.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Tsai fell into Ma’s PR trap in debate

A lot has been said about the April 25 debate pitting President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) against Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) over the proposed economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) the Ma administration intends to sign with China next month.

Depending on who conducted the polls afterwards, Ma or Tsai prevailed in the debate, with some critics saying that Ma looked more comfortable than ever while Tsai failed to make eye contact and appeared too bookish. Some said the occasion helped Taiwanese better understand the reasons for and implications of the proposed trade agreement; others said it failed to persuade them. Tsai was criticized for what some said was turning the debate into an opportunity to position herself for the presidential election in 2012. For his part, Ma was accused of either not answering Tsai’s questions or of dissembling, an art — as we should all know by now — at which he has mastered.

All this post-facto analysis, however, misses the point altogether and blinds us to what actually occurred (or didn’t) on that supposedly “historic” day.

From the onset, it was obvious that Ma wasn’t approaching the debate as a means to learn more about the opposition’s views, let alone as a catalyst for a change in policy. In the tradition of the semi-authoritarian leadership that existed in Hong Kong under British rule or in Singapore today, the government is paramount: It knows what’s best and does not change its mind. At most, it engages in “consultations,” which often is a euphemism for “educating” the simple-minded “natives.”

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

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Thousands protest Chen's detention

Former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) mother yesterday said at a protest against his detention that she was saddened by the fact that for the past two years her son has been unable to call her on Mother’s Day.

Chen Lee Shen (陳李慎) came to Taipei from Tainan to join a sit-in rally on Jinan Road calling for Chen’s release that was organized by various pro-localization groups, including some Democratic Progressive Party officials from southern Taiwan.

“I have not seen my son for so long. I have not heard his voice for so long,” she said, crying. “I feel deep sadness and pain every day. I am more than 80 years old, but I have to live with that pain every day.”

Today marks the former president’s 551st day in custody over money laundering and graft charges.

“My son has been wronged. He is innocent,” his mother told the crowd.

Chen Lee Shen was accompanied by her two daughters and Chen Shui-bian’s son, Chen Chih-chung (陳致中).

An estimated 5,000 people joined the rally. Hundreds of Chen and Taiwanese independence supporters were bused in from all over the country to join the protest.

The Taiwan High Court last month prolonged Chen’s detention until June 23.

“The justice system is dead, but A-Bian [Chen Shui-bian] is not lonely. A-Bian’s mother is not lonely. We are always with them and will always support them,” Central Taiwan Society president Chen Wan-te (陳萬得) told the crowd.

A few blocks away on Ketagalan Boulevard, a second protest took place. Unlike the rambunctious crowd on Jinan Road, however, this protest offered something far more sober: silence. Under the watchful eye of a dozen police officers, more than 1,000 plastic stools were arranged, each anchoring a balloon. When viewed from above, they formed the character “Ma,” or horse — President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) surname — with a large yellow arrow pointing at the Presidential Office a few hundred meters away. At one point, a Buddhist monk walked among the chairs and stood there for a few moments in contemplation.

“Justice is dead,” read signs posted around the venue. A picture of a plaque from Green Island, which served as a prison for political prisoners during the White Terror era, also graced the area.

The former president was first detained on Nov. 12, 2008, and released on Dec. 13, 2008, following his indictment. He was detained again on Dec. 30, 2008, after the Taipei District Court approved a request by prosecutors to take him back into custody. He has remained in detention ever since.

This article, which I co-wrote with Rich Chang, appeared today in the Taipei Times.

Initially, I wasn't supposed to be at the event, let alone covering it. This is why I didn't have a camera with me, which is a shame, as the protest on Jinan Road was, as most protests in Taiwan are, colorful and very entertaining. The silent protest, which no one else seems to have bothered writing about, was also very moving, and sadly no good pictures of it were taken. I chatted there for a while with the chairman of Taiwan Society North, who played no small role in organizing the whole thing, and a few other demonstrators. Rich's assessment of the number of people in the crowd was far higher than mine, which explains why the final article put it at 5,000; it should be said, however, that unlike a parade, this event was more of the kind that people come over for a while, walk around, chat with people, and leave. So the total number of participants may indeed have been higher.