Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Whither Taiwan’s free media?

Little by little, with subtle changes and amendments, the media environment in Taiwan is being boiled to death like the proverbial frog

The media environment in Taiwan is in a state of crisis, one that did not fully capture the public’s imagination until someone from deep inside said he’d had enough and resigned.

US-based Freedom House may have called it “one of the freest in Asia,” but Taiwanese media are under severe pressure and many indicators are pointing in the wrong direction. The signs were there, but it took reporter Huang Je-bing’s (黃哲斌) resignation from the China Times on Dec. 12, after 16 years of service, to draw attention to the severity of the problem and prompt fellow journalists into action.

The source of Huang’s discontent was the growing practice of government product placement in the media to promote its policies, which in effect constitutes the masquerading of propaganda as news.

The potential for abuse is self-evident, especially when we put it in the context of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration’s friendly attitude toward one of Asia’s worst offenders in terms of media freedom: China.

My unsigned editorial, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

MOFA silent on Chinese patrol boats

The region is moving ever-closer to naval confrontation in the waters surrounding the disputed Diaoyutai Islands

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs yesterday would not comment on reports that China was allegedly on the brink of permanently deploying large fisheries patrol vessels near the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) claimed by Taiwan, Japan and China.

Ministry spokesman James Chang (章計平) said the ministry was not able to comment, as the Mainland Affairs Council was responsible for assessing the authenticity of the information and communications with China.

Chang said the ministry would closely monitor reports on the matter and restated the ministry’s position that all parties should set aside disputes and handle the matter peacefully and rationally.

A diplomatic official told the Taipei Times on condition of anonymity that the deployment was related to Japan’s new defense guidelines, approved by the Diet on Friday, which painted China as a bigger threat than Russia and as a result was shifting its defense from the northern island of Hokkaido to the south, such as Okinawa and territories claimed by both Japan and China.

The Asahi Shimbun reported on Monday that an unnamed “senior Chinese official” at the Ministry of Agriculture’s Bureau of Fisheries had informed it in an exclusive interview on Saturday that China could soon permanently deploy large fisheries patrol vessels in waters near the Diaoyutais.

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

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Why has the WTO yet to be notified about ECFA?

With two weeks left before the full terms of a controversial trade pact signed between Taiwan and China in June come into force, the global trade body has yet to see the documents. Will it ever?

President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration and its counterparts in Beijing accomplished the nearly impossible this year by signing a complex trade agreement between two entities that are technically at war — and one of which does not recognize the other’s existence — in a matter of months.

While free-trade and free-trade-like agreements signed between two states on an equal footing (at least in terms of two-way recognition) usually require years of negotiations, the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) signed between Taiwan and China on June 29 took a little more than five months.

Now, either officials from the Straits Exchange Foundation and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, the two semi-official bodies that were charged with negotiating the trade pact, were incredibly talented and managed to resolve the immense hurdles that have haunted any type of relation between the two entities, or the two sides were too impatient and couldn’t wait to sign the agreement, which offered “proof” that Ma’s cross-strait policies were bearing fruit.

I leave it to the reader to decide which is likeliest, though I would strongly urge that we bear in mind William of Ockham’s sagacious case for parsimony when seeking to explain the cause of a phenomenon amid a plurality of hypotheses.

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

Ma’s delusions of ‘soft power’

Still sounding like he’s running in the 2008 presidential election, Ma Ying-jeou stole an overused term by a prominent US academic and used it to show how much nicer his policies are than those of his predecessor

After years of assailing our ears with notions of “win-win” situations President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has now latched onto a new term that, unfortunately for us, he now seems intent on milking dry: “soft power.”

No sooner had US political scientist Joseph Nye (see above with Ma), the person who coined the overused and oft misused term, left after a quick visit earlier this month than Ma was borrowing it to describe his policies over the past two-and-a-half years. All of a sudden, Ma’s body of work appeared to blossom into a monument to so-called soft power, which, if we looked closely enough, was a euphemism for everything the administration of his predecessor, former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), supposedly was not.

It was soft power, Ma claimed, that recently led the EU and Canadian governments to grant Republic of China (ROC) passport holders visa-waiver treatment. Never mind that governments decide whether to grant exemptions on the basis of such practical considerations as the security of travel documents. In this case, those requirements included the introduction of biometric passports in 2008 — first issued after Ma came into office, granted, but the result of policies implemented under the Chen administration.

In other words, visa exemptions were granted because manifold requirements were met, not because of soft power à la Ma.

My unsigned editorial, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Giving in to local Chinese zealotry

We seem to have entered an era where state governors, mayors and officials in the world’s most powerful nations can be browbeaten by lowly Chinese officials who are slightly overzealous in their nationalistic entrepreneurialism

Over the years, Chinese authorities have relentlessly attempted to prevent Taiwan from joining international organizations lest this give Taipei the sovereign legitimacy that Beijing considers anathema to its “one China” principle.

Although such behavior has made it impossible for Taiwan to have its voice heard in international forums like the UN or the WHO, Beijing’s object was ostensibly the symbolism of Taiwanese participation rather than the practicalities and benefits that Taiwan would derive from membership.

Despite superficially warmer ties between Taipei and Beijing since President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) launched his cross-strait lovefest two years ago, Chinese officials have often overlooked the “goodwill” they are alleged to have showered on their Taiwanese compatriots by continuing to deny Taiwan international breathing space. This has targeted symbols of Taiwanese nationhood, such as a delegation of moviemakers at the Tokyo International Film Festival in late October attending under the name “Taiwan.”

However, behind such headline-grabbing acts of insanity lurk several instances of Chinese officials impeding Taiwanese efforts in a different sphere altogether: the economic sector. This is often the result of Chinese officials at the local level pressuring governments by raising the specter of Chinese “anger.”

My unsigned editorial, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

‘Taiwan consensus’ is a travesty

Su Chi is back with a new consensus, an ill-defined rhetorical contraption that blames the DPP for cross-strait misunderstandings and that highlights his poor understanding of plurality

If one thing can be said of former National Security Council secretary-general Su Chi (蘇起), it is that the man is infatuated with consensuses.

It was he who, just as the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was coming into office after the nation’s first transition of power in 2000, came up with the ambiguous — and dubious — “1992 consensus.” And it was he who, now wearing his academic hat, told a conference on Monday that what the nation needed was a “Taiwan consensus.”

In prescriptions that, on the surface (and only there) may have come across as infused with wisdom, Su said that before Taipei can approach more contentious areas of negotiation with Beijing such as Taiwan’s sovereignty, the DPP should take the initiative and work with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in forging a consensus.

Leaving aside the fact that Taiwan’s sovereignty shouldn’t be negotiable (especially not under coercive terms), Su then conveniently forgot recent history when, using the analogy of the “small triangle” between the DPP, KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), he posited that the triumvirate was unstable because the DPP does not talk with the other two extremes of the geometrical object.

In other words, tensions in the Taiwan Strait, or lack of communication, are solely the DPP’s fault, as if the KMT didn’t have a long history of ignoring the DPP or stalling debate at the legislature — the nation’s democratic echo chamber, if you will.

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

US governor nixes visit due to China

Even on matters of trade, China continues to deny Taiwan the international space that would truly stand for goodwill

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon planned to visit Taiwan on a trade mission this week — until the Chinese consulate and business leaders said the visit could “anger” the Chinese government and harm an airport deal with China, forcing him to scuttle the trip, reports said.

Nixon, who last year attended the signing of an agreement between Taiwanese and Missouri business groups in his office, had announced on Dec. 1 that he would head a trade mission to Taiwan and South Korea from Dec. 10 to Dec. 16. While in Taiwan, the governor was scheduled to be party to the signing of a letter of intent on a US$600 million purchase of Missouri agricultural products by the Taiwanese government, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. Nixon was to be accompanied by a large delegation of government and business officials, including representatives of agricultural organizations.

One day after Nixon’s announcement, Mike Jones, chairman of the Midwest China Hub Commission (MCHC), sent the governor a letter on behalf of the commission asking that the visit be postponed. A representative of the Chinese government was afraid the trip would be received negatively in Beijing, the letter allegedly said.

My article on the matter, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Friday, December 10, 2010

What’s the issue here?

Language is often a reflection of hidden assumptions, and by dint of repetition we can lose sight of reality, especially on complex matters such as the Taiwan Strait

Part of my job as deputy news chief at the Taipei Times and columnist for a number of publications involves reading tremendous amounts of literature on Taiwan, not only so that I can keep pace with recent developments in the Taiwan Strait, but also to attempt, in all humbleness, to attain as thorough an understanding as possible of the story and history of Taiwan. This responsibility — and this is what it is, a responsibility — therefore, demands that I read newspapers, magazines, online articles, academic papers and history books, not only about Taiwan, but also China, Japan, the Asia Pacific, World War II, the US political system and so on.

What caught my attention recently is the recurrence of references to Taiwan not so much as an “island,” “Republic of China” or the despicable (and false) “province of China” — of which there are plenty, admittedly — but rather to Taiwan as an “issue,” “question” or “problem.” Such characterizations, which, I am sure, are in many instances the result of unconscious processes, turn a quantifiable plot of land (not to mention 23 million beating hearts) into mere abstracts, as if Taiwan were nothing more than a commodity to be divvied up, parsed out or handed over from one colonial master to another. We thus read about China “retaking the island,” the “Taiwan issue” affecting Sino-American relations, or Taiwan as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” with no reference to Taiwanese having a say over their own future. The problem is sanitized, the people taken out of the equation, just as they are in this era of electronic, long-distance warfare, where the living are killed with ever greater ease thanks to their being out of sight.

Does the world refer to Israel as “the Israel issue” when discussing the Middle East? Of course not: The US defends its ally, Israel, period. Even stateless Palestinians, who have more in common with Taiwanese than we are ready to acknowledge, are not reduced to an “issue” or “question”; instead, we talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the fate of Palestinians, et cetera. How, then, is it any more acceptable to obliterate Taiwanese and turn their nation into a commodity? Why can’t we refer to tensions in the Taiwan Strait as the Sino-Taiwanese conflict?

The great James R. Lilley, former CIA official, US ambassador to China and representative to Taiwan, who passed away last year, once told a young government official never to refer to Taiwan as an “issue.” Wise advice indeed, and something we should keep in mind when we add our own voices to coverage of Taiwan.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Hollow victory for the KMT

No clear victory, no clear defeat in the special municipality elections on Nov. 27, and still a lot of uncertainty over their ramifications for the future

Despite a favorable outcome to the much-anticipated Nov. 27 municipal elections, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) remained cautiously optimistic on Saturday after the opposition increased its lead in the popular vote.

After several weeks of boisterous campaigning, Taiwanese went to the polls on Saturday to vote for mayors, city councilors and borough chiefs in the special municipalities of Taipei City, Sinbei City, Greater Taichung, Greater Tainan and Greater Kaohsiung.

In what some had portrayed as a mid-term election for President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and a preview of the 2012 presidential election, the KMT succeeded in retaining its hold in the northern municipalities of Taipei and Sinbei (Taipei County, which will be upgraded to special municipality status later this month) and Taichung, in central Taiwan. For its part, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) retained Tainan and Kaohsiung. Voter turnout was an impressive 71.71 percent.

In the lead-up to the elections, both parties had argued that winning three municipalities would be considered “overall victory.” During the last weeks of what turned out to be essentially clean electoral campaigns, the races in Sinbei, historically split between the pan-green and pan-blue camps, and Taipei, a pan-blue stronghold, became increasingly close — indeed too close to call.

The race in Taipei, the capital city, pitted incumbent Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) of the KMT against former premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) of the DPP, with three other candidates running as independents. Despite Su running a highly successful campaign, and notwithstanding a Hau administration that was plagued with allegations of corruption over the Taipei International Flora Expo, the incumbent defeated his opponent by an unexpectedly wide margin, with 797,865, or 55.65 percent of the vote, against Su’s 628,129, or 43.81 percent.

In Sinbei, the nation’s largest municipality, former vice premier Eric Chu (朱立倫) of the KMT defeated DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) with 1,115,536 votes, or 52.61 percent, against Tsai’s 1,004,900, or 47.39 percent.

The greatest surprise occurred in Greater Taichung, where incumbent Jason Hu (胡志強) of the KMT, who was expected to easily defeat Su Jia-chyuan (蘇嘉全) of the DPP, only did so by a razor-thin margin, with 730,284 votes, or 51.12 percent, to Su’s 698,358, or 48.88 percent. It is also noteworthy that Su, who had been parachuted into Taichung only six months prior to the election, defeated the colorful, Beijing-born Hu in every riding in Taichung County.

The elections in the DPP strongholds of Tainan and Kaohsiung, meanwhile, were the only two races that were never close. In Greater Tainan, William Lai (賴清德) of the DPP obtained 619,897 votes, or 60.41 percent, against his KMT opponent, Kuo Tien-tsai (郭添財), with 406,196 votes, or 39.59 percent. In Greater Kaohsiung, incumbent mayor Chen Chu (陳菊) of the DPP won the three-way race with more than twice the votes of her two opponents combined. Chen obtained 821,089 votes, or 52.80 percent, to Yang Chiu-hsing (楊秋興) — who quit the DPP to run as an independent after losing the primary to Chen — with 414,950 votes, or 26.68 percent, and the KMT’s Huang Chao-shun (黃昭順), who came third with 319,171 votes, or 20.52 percent.

It remains to be seen if, or to what degree, a shooting incident on election eve in Yonghe City, Taipei County, involving former KMT chairman Lien Chan’s son, Sean Lien, who was shot in the face by a local gangster during a KMT rally, and in which a bystander was killed, affected the vote. Initial assessments put the impact at 3 percent, which though insufficient to alter the outcome in Taipei City, could have done so in Sinbei and Taichung.

In the city council elections, both parties ended up with 130 seats of the overall 314 in the five municipalities, with 45 going to independents and the rest to smaller political parties.

In terms of share of total vote, which is where the notion of a KMT victory may sound hollow, the DPP obtained 3,772,373 votes, or 49.78 percent, to the KMT’s 3,369,052, or 44.54 percent, a difference of almost 400,000 votes (independents accounted for 422,692 votes). To put this in context, during the presidential election in 2008, the KMT obtained 58.45 percent of the total vote against the DPP’s 41.55 percent. Consequently, Saturday’s election, which accounted for about 60 of the total electorate, can be regarded as a dramatic turnaround for the opposition party, which only two years ago, was devastated amid allegations of corruption against former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and badly defeated in legislative elections.


For the DPP, Su Tseng-chang’s and Tsai’s defeats could be a blessing in disguise, as both had been touted as potential candidates in the 2012 presidential election, in which Ma is widely expected to run. Had they won, they would either have been unable to run, or would have faced the difficult choice of cutting their four-year term short and risk alienating the electorate. Su’s weaker-than-expected showing, however, may have undermined his prospects for a presidential ticket.

A power struggle over party leadership is now emerging, which could threaten Tsai’s position, and party stability, after she succeeded in reconsolidating the DPP. On Nov. 29, former vice president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮), along with “kung-ma” (or “elder”) faction members, called on Tsai to step down, a tradition in Taiwanese politics following electoral defeat. So far Tsai said she would not do so, and has the backing of the DPP legislative caucus.

As for the KMT, some officials and pan-blue media are portraying the results as endorsement for Ma, who campaigned energetically for the candidates of his party (of which he is chairman), and his pro-China policies. Conversely, others are arguing that the KMT’s loss in the popular vote could force the Ma administration to slow down cross-strait development.

In the end, however, references to the popular vote as an indicator of the 2012 election can only be taken so far, as Saturday’s elections involved predominantly local matters, while the presidential election will entail national policies, such as rapprochement with China, which remains controversial among the Taiwanese polity.

This analysis appeared in slightly different and abridged format in Jane’s Intelligence Weekly on Dec. 6. See also my comments on the elections in The Diplomat magazine [English] [Chinese].

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Ready to talk with Beijing — again

Eager to present Beijing with a rosy picture of the situation back home, the KMT appears to have discredited itself in the eyes of its Chinese interlocutors, perhaps creating an opportunity for the DPP to be taken more seriously

Recent speculation that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was becoming more amenable to talks with Chinese officials rang truer last week when DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) announced the creation of a party think tank which, among other duties, would encourage mutual understanding across the Taiwan Strait through dialogue.

Rumor even has it that the DPP recently allowed Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials to enter its sacred ground — party headquarters in Taipei.

This occurs at a time when Chinese officials have allegedly complained to a pan-blue newspaper that information they have received from the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) painted such an incomplete picture of the mood in Taiwan that it prompted Zhongnanhai to look elsewhere.

Should this be true, Taiwan and China could be on the brink of taking their real first steps toward mutual understanding, or at least toward clearing the ideological air that has poisoned Chinese perceptions of Taiwan for so long. If the noise coming out of Beijing is true and the CCP is indeed realizing that its KMT interlocutors have not been straight with it on the Taiwanese polity’s reaction to President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) detente, this could signify that Beijing is becoming more attuned to the multiplicity of voices that characterizes Taiwanese society.

My unsigned editorial, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Taiwanese polity not an abstract

Whether it be in Beijing, Washington or Taipei, the elite political discourse oftentimes fails to listen to the voices that will ultimately make or break lasting peace in the Taiwan Strait: the 23 million Taiwanese

One, if not the, principal element that in the long term will hamper sustainable peace in the Taiwan Strait is the tendency of world leaders to edit out the principal stakeholders in the equation — the Taiwanese people.

It goes without saying that the authoritarian regime in Beijing, unreceptive as it is to the political grievances of its own people, would ignore the whims and desires of 23 million people across the Strait. This largely accounts for the behind-the-scene, technocratic approach to cross-strait negotiations that Beijing has taken with President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration and helps explain why Ma and his Cabinet have also acted as if the will of the people were more of a nuisance — or at the minimum something to be shaped and controlled — rather than that which, in a democracy, should be driving government policy.

Confucianism and lingering paternalistic tradition, however, only partly explain why the Taiwanese polity appears to have been abstracted from the political calculation in Taipei and Beijing, because other countries with no such ideological baggage often commit the same mistake.

As I argued in a recent op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal Asia, the much-hailed lowering of cross-strait tensions that has occurred since Ma came into office in 2008 will not be sustainable as long as the cost of that rapprochement is the ignoring of the views of Taiwanese on identity and sovereignty.

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