Thursday, June 27, 2013

So what if Taiwan funds AEI? A response to The Nation

Taiwanese pilots pose in front a F-16 at Hualien AFB
The Nation misses the mark with an article that attempts to draw a link between funding of a think tank and support for U.S. arms sales to Taiwan 

A June 25 article in the left-leaning The Nation claims to have unearthed what could only be described as a nefarious conspiracy of “secret foreign donors” involving the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO), Taiwan’s de-facto embassy in the U.S., and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a Washington-based think tank. 

At the heart of the article is the argument that at the time that AEI — “one of the Beltway’s most consistent advocates for the sale of advanced fighter jets to Taiwan” — was advocating for arms sales to the island, the Taiwanese government was showering it with US$550,000 in contributions, making Taipei its fourth-largest donor in financial year 2009. Furthermore, we are told that AEI had “never publicly acknowledged” the donations. (TECRO told The Nation that it was simply facilitating a donation that a Taiwanese University had made to AEI). 

Drawing from various excerpts from articles and papers written by researchers at AEI (including some published in The Diplomat), and using techniques that, truth be told, border on guilt by association — e.g., mentioning former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz’s (the Left’s version of Lucifer) ties to the institution — the rest of the article endeavors to raise questions about the independence and integrity of the institute. “To what extent have they consulted with the Taiwanese government?” it asks. Those are perfectly legitimate questions, and we’re all for transparency in the funding of research institutions — especially when it comes from abroad. The problem is that the article’s claims are based on two assumptions that belie a poor understanding of the think tank world and, more importantly, the maddeningly complex workings of U.S.-Taiwan relations. 

My article, published today in The Diplomat, continues here. (Photo by the author)

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

‘Apple Daily’ delivery truck set on fire in Hong Kong

A woman reads the Apple Daily in Taiwan last year
A second incident within a week targeting Jimmy Lai’s media empire in Hong Kong  raises questions

I won’t bother to pitch this during the news meeting today, as my employer doesn’t give a rat’s ass, either because it fails to see the connections, or because — let’s be honest here — Jimmy Lai’s (黎智英) group is a direct competitor of the Liberty Times Group. Anyway, here it goes.

Exactly one week after suspects crashed a stolen car into Mr. Lai’s residence in Hong Kong, leaving an axe and a machete behind as a warning, reports are now emerging that early this morning, two men, armed with knives, stopped an Apple Daily delivery truck, ordered its occupants to step out of the vehicle, and proceeded to set it ablaze using lighters. Their act of arson completed, the perpetrators fled the scene, and soon thereafter firefighters were able to put the flames out before the truck — and its contents — were entirely destroyed.

As I wrote last week, the series of incidents targeting the owners of media outlets known for their criticism of Beijing (and therefore banned on the mainland) is a worrying trend, which has evident implications for the media environment in Taiwan.Yes, as some have observed, there is always the possibility that all of this is related to organized crime. But given how Beijing has cracked down on the media in recent months, there could very well be a connection.

Smartphones are making us dumber

Taiwanese children experiment with smartphones
The long-term physical and psychological consequences of this mass addiction to tablets and smartphones cannot bode well for humanity 

From the way people behave on the MRT, on buses, at coffee shops, restaurants, in parks, or on sidewalks, one would think that Taiwan had been hit by a zombie infestation well before the release of summer zombie blockbuster World War Z. Everywhere one turns, they are there, walking about in a daze, sitting comatose, completely oblivious to their surroundings and absorbed in their smartphones, their insect-like fingers tapping and sliding furiously. 

Hailed just a few years ago as a great technological advance, the smartphone has since turned into an instrument that has made the general population more dumb, less attentive, asocial and disconnected from reality. 

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

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Where we part

Hard at work on a hot summer day
He certainly doesn’t know everything, but he knows enough about Taiwan to treat its immense complexities and people with humility and respect 

For years this writer was a good little soldier from the green camp working at a green organization. With the exception of the very occasional snipe from the enemy blue camp — which reached its apex with the threat of deportation over an article on Chinese espionage in September 2011 — he was cruising: he regurgitated what his employer expected of him, and what readers of his employer’s publication looked for, i.e., confirmation and reinforcement of their preconceived ideas.

Then something odd happened; the blue camp left him alone, and instead the animosity increasingly came from within the green camp. That this would occur should not come as a surprise, for his views on the touchy questions of Taiwanese politics, identity, and self-determination matured over the years. In other words, his writing became less a matter of black and white, of antipodes, as it sought to better reflect the huge complexities that underscore the Taiwan “question.”

Of course, this maturing could not have occurred had he chosen the path of least resistance, or if he’d contented himself with keeping his employer and followers happy. Instead, as someone who regards his work as a responsibility (as much to himself as to his readers), he used the access that his position as a journalist gave him to deepen — and in similar ways widen — his understanding of Taiwanese (see the upcoming Officially Unofficial: Confessions of a journalist in Taiwan, for more on this journey). While those who think little of journalists are legion, there is no denying that very few professions provide as much access to a variety of sources as journalism. Granted, that can be abused and misused, and it often is, but in the proper hands, it’s an instrument of undeniable power for those who truly seek to learn, to understand.

What came out of this was the conviction that Taiwanese are much more resilient, self aware, and capable of charting their future, than most people believe. And it was this very realization that got him into trouble with the green camp writ large. A special class of his new critics are expatriates (by no means all of them) in Taiwan, many of whom seem to assume that marrying a Taiwanese and spending a few years teaching English are sufficient, in and of themselves, to make them experts on Taiwan capable of discussing its politics, history, and identity. Profession, training, education, all are irrelevant, as if Taiwan had the unique property of being thoroughly understandable by virtue of proximity alone.

All of them indisputably “love” Taiwan, its people, its ease of living. But many among them also have a sense of superiority that frankly smacks a little of colonialism, of that which Orwell lamented in his fellow British countrymen (and women) abroad. Old habits die hard. The very same people who praise Taiwanese “kindness” and “loveliness” then turn around and accuse them of being ignorant, of being easily bought, of not knowing their own history (as if Canadians or Americans knew more about their own history!). Or worse, of being “brainwashed” by a nefarious KMT which they cannot conceive of being other than a monolithic copycat of its past (interestingly, those people never manage to explain the contradiction: if the KMT were so successful at controlling the minds of Taiwanese through the media and the education system, how could Taiwanese identity and support for independence have continued to grow under four KMT administrations, first under Lee Teng-hui [李登輝], and later under Ma Ying-jeou [馬英九]?)

The armchair experts, despite their lack of access, their long absence from Taiwanese soil (this includes a number of Taiwanese who haven’t lived here for decades), their inability to understand the local languages, resent the notion that Taiwanese are as alert as they are to the challenges ahead. This is especially true of those who, like recent converts to Christianity, feel an urge to prove that they are greener than the greenest among Taiwanese, an affliction that makes extremists of them and sidelines them to the point of irrelevance.

How do they know, to use a recurrent example, that the Taiwanese military has given up, that morale among the troops is low, when they’ve never set foot on an army base, had lunch with recruits and generals, soaked in a pool with soldiers, or traveled with them to various exercises, something journalists do routinely? How can they know that the KMT is betraying Taiwan (or conversely, that there is room for cooperation) if they don’t interact with government officials and party members? And yet, among them one will find those who argue that Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) is a sellout who supports unification with China, and that anyone in Taiwan who doesn’t actively call for the release of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) is a traitor.

They mask their lack of access (“Hello Minister —, I’m a blogger in Chiayi and I’d like to ask you a few questions about your policy on the Diaoyutais”) through intransigence and by passing judgment on everything, often from the comfort of their living room, without every having done the legwork that is a necessary part of journalism. And deep inside, they cannot countenance the notion that Taiwanese, or any other “yellow” or “brown” being, are their equals. Their love for Taiwan is equaled by their belief that as superior whites they are here to “educate” the Taiwanese, to open their eyes, and ultimately to save them from themselves. Perhaps this stems from a sense of having failed back home, and the need to make oneself more relevant here in Taiwan.

This isn’t everybody, of course; there are laudable exceptions, and they know who they are.

That’s where he parts with those who have criticized him and his work in the past two years or so: he refuses to regard himself as superior, in any way, to Taiwanese, especially when it comes to questions such as their identity, their political choices, their past, and their future. In other words, rather than lecture them (or berate them when they “misbehave”), he has dialogue with them and seeks to learn from them, which, fundamentally, is what journalists are supposed to do. His eyes and his brain are open, he is an equal, not anyone’s superior, not a Jekyll and Hyde, who one day loves Taiwanese and the next stabs them in the back by treating them as inferior.

He certainly doesn’t know everything, but he knows enough about Taiwan to treat its immense complexities with humility, and to give Taiwanese of all stripes, from farmers to senior government officials, the respect they deserve. How ironic that such an admission would lead to accusations that he has sold out! If the belief that most Taiwanese are intelligent enough to handle the great challenges that confront them, and aware enough of the dangers that lurk out there, is selling out, then yes, he’s guilty as charged.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Thugs descend on Hong Kong: Attacks on Jimmy Lai and Chen Ping

Next Media's Jimmy Lai
Worrying signs in Hong Kong that underworld figures are being used to silence Beijing’s critics

Apparently this development isn’t newsworthy enough for my employer, so here it is — an exclusive. Less than three weeks after Chen Ping (陳平), the billionaire publisher of iSun Affairs magazine, was assaulted as he was leaving his office in Hong Kong, early this morning someone crashed a stolen vehicle into the gate of media mogul Jimmy Lai’s (黎智英) residence in Kowloon before speeding away. Ominously, they left an axe and a knife behind.

Although Hong Kong police has yet to break the cases, the incidents are hardly a coincidence and they suggest active efforts to intimidate the two influential men. Soon after his hospitalization in early June, Mr. Chen told a press conference that the source of the attack was probably to be found in Beijing, or within pro-Beijing types in Hong Kong. “I don’t think I’ve offended the mafia, but maybe the mafia-types were told what to do by certain other people,” he said. “Maybe I offended a few people in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime.” Indeed, iSun, which is currently undergoing restructuring, has a solid tradition of presenting articles that are highly critical of the CCP on questions such as human rights and Tibet.

Chen shows his injuries
The same applies to Mr. Lai’s Apple Daily, which is banned in the Mainland for its criticism of the party and overt support for Hong Kong democrats. Nor was this morning’s incident his first brush with violence: Molotov cocktails were lobbed at his residence in 2008. Mr. Lai, the owner of the Next Media group, made news in Taiwan last year after he announced his intention to sell his Taiwan media operations to a consortium led by the Beijing-friendly Tsai Eng-meng (蔡衍明), chairman of the Want Want China Times Group, a move that directly led to the formation of the Anti-Media Monopoly movement. After the deal fell through, Lai announced his renewed commitment to keeping his operations in Taiwan intact, minus Next TV.

Those two cases, along with physical attacks in recent years against other well-known figures in Hong Kong, such as Abert Ho (何俊仁) and Albert Chan (陳偉業) — or just last week, against a 50-year-old man who was trying to stop harassment of the Falun Gong movement (the Youth Care Association is believed to be behind the beating) — raise worrying questions about the environment in which supporters of democracy and media freedom now operate in the former British territory. And it doesn’t take too much imagination to guess what this might portend for the media environment in Taiwan, which is also under tremendous pressure from Beijing.

More and more, it seems that thugs and violence are being used to silence critics of Beijing in Hong Kong. Stay tuned...

Two ways to look at envoys (like Wu Poh-hsiung)

Wu, left, and Xi, right, meet in Beijing last week
Are the visits to China by KMT members who no longer hold office really that worrying? Or is their role simply to keep Beijing distracted? 

As he faces China’s leader across the long wooden table, a gigantic mural of tall mountains, valleys and temples as a backdrop, there are two ways of looking at the significance of this pudgy envoy and what his presence there means for the future of Taiwan. 

The first is to regard former Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) chairman Wu Poh-hsiung (吳伯雄) as a threat. The man no longer has a position in office, nor did Taiwanese elevate him to some position with their votes. No, Wu is like a shadow, operating behind the scenes and free, it seems, of the restraints that apply to elected party officials or government figures. 

Across from him sits Chinese President and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平) and a few CCP cronies. Wu and Xi are heading a KMT-CCP summit in Beijing, the first since Xi’s ascension to the leadership. Wu is accompanied by former National Security Council secretary-general Su Chi (蘇起) — a Beijing regular — KMT Deputy Chairman Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) and former KMT vice chairman Chan Chun-po (詹春柏). This is, we are told, the first meeting to be held under the “one China” framework rather than the so-called “1992 consensus.” 

As expected, Wu said everything that Beijing wanted to hear, and in the days that followed last week’s meetings, the CCP promised a whole new series of measures to win the “hearts and minds” of Taiwanese. 

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

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Philippines seeks air defense systems, MLRS from Israel

The Rafael Iron Dome in action
Alarmed by a dispute with China and unhappy with lack of U.S. support, the Philippines may be turning to other countries as it seeks to bolster its defenses 

Notorious for dragging its feet on defense modernization, the Philippine government may finally be putting its money where its mouth is thanks to a territorial dispute with China and the belief that the U.S. is unwilling to come to its defense. According to media reports, the Philippine military intends to procure surface-to-air missiles (SAM) and multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS) from two Israeli defense contractors. And this time, it seems to mean it. 

An unnamed source told the Manila Standard, late last week that Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin could head for Israel this week to sign agreements with the two firms, which have been identified as Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. and Israel Military Industries Ltd. (IMI). 

My article, published today in The Diplomat, continues here.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Wind turbine troubles — the Yuanli case

A group of residents in Miaoli County have banded together to halt the construction of wind turbines close to their homes. But corporate interests are getting in the way 

“Where do you want to go?” the old taxi driver inquired as we approached his car outside the Yuanli (苑裡) train station in Miaoli County, a small stop reminiscent of train stations in an old Western movie. “Please take us seaside, where they are building the wind turbines,” we said. 

The driver, assuming we were ordinary tourists, had evidently not expected such a request. “Why would you want to see those?” he asked. “There are much better things to see here — there’s a puppet show.” 

A man walks by the seashore
But we insisted. While driving, he pointed toward a small community behind the vibrantly green rice paddies, right by the seashore. “Those wind turbines are trouble. People are protesting,” he said. 

The residents of Yuanli Township launched their resistance movement against InfraVest GmbH, a German wind power company, in September, after a concerned Chen Ching-hai (陳清海), a local artist and owner of the Xin Diao Ju (心雕居) wood sculpture gallery, attended a pre-construction information session for residents living within 250m of the planned wind turbines. He learned that the firm intended to build 14 wind turbines, each capable of generating 2,300 kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy, along the township’s 2km pristine coastline. 

A counter-protest at the site
But something wasn’t altogether right: records of the meeting showed that only 18 people in the four affected communities were present at the briefing. Worried about the density and close proximity of turbines to their homes, Chen and the residents formed the Yuanli Self-Help Group (苑裡反瘋車自救會). In all, of the 7,682 residents of Yuanli, 4,281 signed the petition opposing the construction of so many turbines in their neighborhood, and so close to their homes. It wasn’t hard to imagine why the villagers opposed the plan. (Removed from printed article: On our two-hour train ride from Taipei to Yuanli, we’d encountered several dozens of the 80m-tall structures, the long metallic stems, the egg-shaped cores, bringing to mind scenes from H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. We’d expected laser beams to start zapping all life forms at any instant.) 

Since September, members of the self-help organization have protested at the Bureau of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Executive Yuan, the Control Yuan and in front of the InfraVest office in Taipei. Chen, the leathery-skinned group leader, went on hunger strike for 10 days and had to stop after he began throwing up blood. 

The electronics box
The organization claims that InfraVest manipulated data and paperwork to obtain approval from the EPA. They also allege that the firm submitted a single application for Yuanli, Tongsiao (通宵) and Jhunan (竹南) townships for the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to create the illusion of a much larger area for the wind farms and to avoid the 10 percent land usage quota. By doing so, it also avoided having to address the three townships’ idiosyncratic environmental specifications. After receiving conditional EIA approval, InfraVest submitted a Difference of Environmental Impact (DEI) evaluation and requested that five wind turbine sites be shifted to Yuanli, bringing the total there to 14 and above the 10 percent limit. 

The face of opposition
More importantly, the residents accuse InfraVest of not following the distance requirement in the company’s own DEI report, which clearly states that “the wind turbines should ideally be erected away from other structures, and for the wind turbines facing north or south, the turbines should be at least 350m away from each other. For the wind turbines facing east or west, the distance between the turbines should be at least 210m.” 

This feature article, co-written with Ketty Chen, was published today in the Taipei Times and continues here. See this article for my coverage on the thugs hired by InfraVest to scare off protesters ... and journalists. (All photos by the author)

Thursday, June 13, 2013

In defense of political journalists

A street in Tainan
Rather than actually counter arguments, critics of journalists often come up with theories about ulterior motives, as if everybody were willing to sell their soul 

If this writer could somehow encompass all the character traits of which he has been accused over the years, or if he were afflicted by all the mental conditions that self-made psychiatrists have identified in him, he would have been institutionalized long ago, and would be sharing a dank cell with Cinicinnatus C. 

Who is this writer? What is he? He writes about politics, mostly, as a journalist who also often tips his toe into the dangerous waters of opinion. He is motivated by an urge to explore, to understand, and to tell. He does it because he cannot conceive of himself doing anything else, and because he suffers from a serious case of hypergraphia. He regards his work as a responsibility — not only to conduct his work honestly and professionally, but also to demonstrate an ability to learn, to grow, and to progress, even if, in the extreme, this results is positions that contradict his previous work. He believes, above all, in the need to be the antithesis of stasis. 

The late Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscincki, writing about Herodotus, perhaps put it best: “The man who ceases to be astonished is hollow, possessed of an extinguished heart. If he believes that everything has already happened, that he has seen it all, then something most precious has died within him — the delight in life.” 

It would be reasonable to assume that most journalists, at least those who regard the profession as a calling rather than simply a job, are animated by feelings that approximate those stated above. And yet the expectation from readers, many of whom seem to take devilish pleasure in hating journalists, is that reporters should be little more than propagandists, that their work should not challenge their assumptions, but instead support, or reinforce, their preconceived ideas. When a journalist refuses to do that, those readers react in horror, and rather than parry with a solid counterargument, they come up with sundry reasons to explain why the journalist has lost his way. Here are some of the theories that have been advanced with regards to this writer over the past two years. Every single one of them does away with human agency, with free will; each one hints rather emphatically at ulterior motive:

He criticizes the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to please his masters, the “green camp,” and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP); he publishes an article about Chinese espionage in the Wall Street Journal on the orders of the Liberty Times and/or the DPP to make the KMT and the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration look bad ahead of an important U.S. arms sales announcement; he calls for expatriate humility because he suffers from Stockholm Syndrome after the KMT threatened to expel him for his piece in the Journal; he “hates old people”; he points out successes in the Ma administration because he needs to maintain access to high-ranking officials; he writes for the money and therefore cannot be trusted (a theory that could only be advanced by someone who has never worked as a journalist); or he “shifted to the right,” as a friend wrote recently, because he is angling for a cushy job at a think tank in Washington, D.C. 

All of this is wrong — cheap, and downright insulting, in fact. Things are far more simple, or complex, depending on how one looks at it. Most journalists worth their salt will not sell their souls, period. They accept crappy salaries, equally crappy work hours, constantly fight with their bosses so as to be able to do their job, and will even accept pay cuts, demotions, to join news organizations which they perceive are closer ideologically to their own views. 

If this writer’s sole motivations were glory, comfort and riches, he would not have abandoned a promising career in Canadian intelligence, let alone write a highly critical book about the agency he’d worked for, at some personal risk. He would not be constantly subjected to criticism — threats, even — from managers at his current job. Every day, other journalists go through similar trials as they conduct their work, and will on occasion put their personal safety on the line for the sake of a story (this much cannot be said of their critics). Yes, there are bad journalists oout there, plenty of them, unfortunately. But not all of them are rotten, and in fact, the rotten ones are those who ceased to be astonished, who have seen it all. 

This writer’s views on politics in Taiwan have indeed shifted in recent years, but not for the reasons invented by his critics. He has made a journey, and if he has become more critical of the green camp, it is because he generally sees it to be failing, its ways self-defeating, its constituents incapable of moving beyond a past that long ago ceased to be valid. Money, future jobs, the urge to please power, Stockholm Syndrome, have nothing to do with it. 

We’re human, we make mistakes, and we’re certainly not always right. But give us some credit: we have free will, agency, and we are not, despite the polluting, corrupting nastiness of the politics we come in contact with on a daily basis, cynics who will sell our principles for the sake of a few more dollars, or the chance to secure a more prestigious job in the uncertain future. We’re not all Adrian Leverkuhns. Most of us have a rigidly ethical and principled approach to journalism and will never agree to write something we don’t believe to be true.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Let go of the past, it's the future that matters

Various swords at a temple in Tainan
If the only thing that Taiwan’s supporters can summon to protect Taiwan are dusty archival documents, then this nation’s prospects are indeed bleak 

Given Taiwan’s idiosyncratic international situation, it is often — and understandably — tempting to turn to the past for clarity and proof in pronouncements made by political leaders, or written in official documents, that Taiwan is not part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), as Beijing claims. 

Over the years, many ardent supporters of Taiwan have unearthed a variety of documents to demonstrate that Taiwan was never a part of what is now known as China, or the PRC. Some have made the case, and not unconvincingly, that Taiwan could not be considered to have ever been part of China since the height of the “mainland’s” influence occurred at a time when the latter was itself a Manchu colony. 

Others have turned to historical documents to make the case that after Japan’s defeat in World War II, Taiwan became a protectorate of the UN, part of the US’ territory, or that its status remained in limbo, that it was never officially “returned” to the Republic of China (ROC) government, let alone communist China. 

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

Monday, June 10, 2013

Wind power firm hires thugs to protect site

Security personnel guard the site in Yuanli
A German firm is hiring muscle as security at a controversial construction site in Miaoli, but there is a problem: The guards are operating well beyond their authority 

It became clear as the taxi entered the narrow road, hemmed in on both sides by lush rice fields, that we were not welcome there.

The moment the cab driver brought his car to a halt and rolled down his window, a group of individuals who were sitting on rocks, smoking cigarettes, stood up and approached the car. Most of them wore white construction helmets, simple white shirts and black pants. 

Work continues at the site
The yellow construction cranes jutting above the tree line indicated that we had reached our destination. We were in Yuanli Township (苑裡), Miaoli County, at the site of a controversial wind turbine project by German wind power company InfraVest GmbH, which for the past eight months has met growing opposition by villagers, most of them farmers, who claim that the devices are intrusive and too close to their homes. 

Security takes a break
We stepped out of the car and were immediately approached by one sunglasses-toting white shirt, who curtly asked us who we were and what we wanted. A few meters away, a group of men, one of them busily chewing on betel nut, cast hostile glances in our direction. 

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

RT-2000 multiple rocket launchers on Matsu?

A RT-2000 during HK29 on Penghu
The military may have inadvertently confirmed the deployment of the Ray Ting-2000 on the outlying island of Matsu, less than 1 km from China 

Taiwan has deployed a powerful multiple rocket launcher (MRL) on the outlying island of Matsu capable of hitting targets in China’s Fujian Province, reports are saying, less than two months after the launcher was made the centerpiece of the annual Han Kuang military exercises. 

Located less than 1 km from the coast of Fujian, the Matsu group of islets — there are 36 in total — have served as a forward defense for Taiwan’s military and a key interception point against Chinese amphibious forces. About 5,000 Taiwanese soldiers are deployed on the islands, from a peak of approximately 50,000 during the Cold War. The steady drop in military personnel there can be attributed in part to improving relations between Taipei and Beijing in recent years. 

My article, published today in The Diplomat, continues here.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Canada’s engagement with Asia is overdue

Defense Minister MacKay, left, with Chang Wanquan
If Canada is to have any influence politically in the Asia-Pacific, its pivot must include more than just military talks with China 

For a Pacific country, Canada has been a relative latecomer to the Asia-Pacific. But if this week’s visit to the region by Defence Minister Peter MacKay is any indication, the government may finally be taking the first steps in engaging a part of the world will be hugely significant for our nation’s security in the future. 

Up to the present, Canada’s principal focus in East Asia has been economic, with little effort by Canada to play a more active, if not significant, political role within a region that, quilt-like, is an mixture of liberal democracies and repressive authoritarian regimes, and where simmering conflicts have the highest likelihood of sparking a major — possibly nuclear — war. Tellingly, it is also the only region where military spending has been rising. 

For those reasons, and given the implications for Canada’s trade relationships as well as the safety of its citizens based in the region, a reorientation to the Asia-Pacific, both institutional and psychological, is long overdue. Canada can no longer afford to treat major political issues in Asia as if the outcomes were of negligible import to our nation. Nor can our universities, government agencies, and think tanks continue to remain fixated on the Americas and Europe. 

My op-ed, published today in the Ottawa Citizen, continues here.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

A serious warning from Hong Kong

Chen Ping, founder of iSun Affairs Weekly
A coincidence, or a random act? Perhaps, but given how China treats freedom of expression, one can be forgiven for assuming the worst 

As those who care about such matters take a moment to commemorate tge 24th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, an incident in Hong Kong on Monday was a reminder of just how fragile freedom is, of how vulnerable it is to those who would cage it for their own selfish interests. 

Just as he was leaving his office in Hong Kong’s Chai Wan district, Chen Ping (陳平), the 58-year-old billionaire publisher of the political weekly iSun Affairs, was assaulted by two baton-wielding thugs in their 20s or 30s, sustaining injuries to his head, arms and chest, and requiring hospitalization. An investigation has been launched and it is not known who was behind the attack, but one can guess. 

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

NOTE: This development is of special significance for me, as just last month I was publishing my first article (translated into Chinese) in Mr. Chen's publication, iSun Affairs Weekly.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

The Chen Shui-bian drama gets weirder

Former president Chen is escorted by police
Sensing that history (and his former party risks) leaving him behind, Chen appears to be resorting to theatrics 

Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice confirmed on Monday that former president Chen Shui-bian, who is serving a 20-year jail sentence for corruption, attempted suicide by hanging on the evening of June 2, the latest in a long list of dramatic events involving the controversial former leader. 

According to reports, the 62-year-old, who served as president from 2000-2008, tried to hang himself with a towel in a bathroom at Taichung Prison’s Pei Teh Hospital, but was stopped by a guard, who immediately sent him over to medical staff for examinations. 

My article, published today in the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute Blog, continues here.

Japan mulls preemptive strike capability

A JSDF uniform
A greater sense of threat, a more hardline government, and a permissive set of circumstances could make this a reality 

Finding itself in an increasingly complex and hostile security environment, Japan has taken the first steps towards developing a pre-emptive first-strike capability. This is a controversial move in a region that remains wary of a potential return to Japanese militarism. 

Just a few years ago, the idea that the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) would be given the ability to conduct operations that go beyond “self defense” would have sounded ludicrous, not to mention that offensive capabilities would have contravened a longstanding interpretation of Japan’s pacifist constitution. 

But North Korea’s continuing belligerence and pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, as well as China’s growing assertiveness and sovereignty claims, both appear to be changing Tokyo’s calculations. 

My article, published today in The Diplomat, continues here.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Of dignity and the battle for the Losheng Sanatorium

Once again, humanity and the dignity of the individual, of the weakest among us, stands in the way of what the government defines as ‘modernity’ 

The old, musky concrete building, which formed a U and gave onto a small courtyard, was now but an empty shell. The Japanese-style shingle roof, darkened by decades of exposure to the harsh elements, no longer provided shelter to any of its former inhabitants, nor did the metal structure, propped by beams, that had been erected above it — a roof over a roof, really.

The Losheng community
The flimsy green door, animated by a spring that slaps it shut if you don’t hold it, creaked opened. Inside the small room were the remains of lives lived: a mattress, an empty wooden closet, a small light-blue pillow laid on top of a small desk, as if a small child had last taken a nap there. There was a kitchen, or that is, what used to be a kitchen. Lavatories. Another room, this one empty but for a mattress propped against the wall, and a closet that had not been emptied: one of its doors was open, and there were still clothes in it, which gave off the sweet smell of garment that hasn’t been washed, that hasn’t even been moved, dusted, in years. On the otherwise bare wall, a calendar remained pinned, fixed in time. November 2008. Presumably the time when the room’s last inhabitant had left, perhaps in a hurry, or maybe for a more final, irreversible reason.

This was one of several community buildings that, for decades, had served as home to Taiwanese suffering from Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy. Braving 35-degree Celsius temperature, a tyrannical sun and extreme humidity, we’d decided to pay a visit to the Losheng Sanatorium (樂生療養院) in New Taipei City’s (新北市) Xinzhuang District (新莊).

Losheng, or “Happy Life,” was built in the 1930s, when the Japanese still ruled the island. The area had been chosen because of its remoteness from everything, where the carriers of this unknown disease, which first manifested itself by the apparition of red dots on one’s legs, before the bacteria moved on to devour the cartilage in one’s nose, then the joints, until the sufferer lost fingers, legs, and so on, could be kept away from civilization.

Residents of Losheng
As Mr. Huang, one of the few remaining residents we sat down with for pu-erh tea, told us, Taiwanese from as far away as Kaohsiung, where he was from, or Hualien, Penghu — Kinmen, even — were all brought to Losheng, usually against their will. After being seized from their homes, the authorities often put them in a small van, on which the contents and monstrous nature of their human cargo were clearly inscribed, which made sure to attract fearful glances and a few insults, and take them to Losheng. The disease, where it came from, what it was, and whether it could spread — all of that was little understood at the time. And as is usually the case, ignorance led to inhumanity. Lepers were monsters, a blight, a curse upon one’s family. They needed to be taken away, forgotten.

We sit down at a small wooden table with four of the about 100 residents who still live in the sanatorium, which sits on a lush, dense hillside. Above us in the trees, the cicadas sing their uninterrupted song of summer. There’s a large aquarium to my left, filled with bright busy fish. To my right, behind Mr. Huang, a large furry animal with a large tail dances furiously in a small cage. It’s a squirrel. Further back, cages are filled with rabbits and guinea pigs. A small black dog, Black Dragon, joins us. Black Dragon has many friends, Mr. Huang tells me, referring to the students and activists who often come to provide help. It’s a good thing Ketty is with me, as aside from Mr. Huang, all the others speak Taiwanese, and Mr. Huang’s Mandarin has a thick Taiwanese accent. I know enough words, and enough of the context of our discussion, to understand some of what they are talking about, but the nuance, the essence of their story, is lost on me, and so Ketty fills the gaps.

Work on the MRT depot
One of the reasons we decided to visit Losheng was that it is at risk of being destroyed forever, as a massive mass rapid transit (MRT) depot is being built at the foot of the hill. Unlike what some would believe, this is not a new issue. In fact, plans for the depot were first made in 1994. Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was president when the first protests took place — protests against the project, which endangered the historical site, and against the forced relocation of the sanatorium’s elderly residents. It was the DPP that decided to build a brand new hospital next door to house the residents, without ever asking them if they were willing to move there, let alone consulting them on what the building — a cold, dark, utterly depressing affair of multistory concrete that we briefly walked through on our way to the old sanatorium — should look like. It was former vice president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮), Chen’s colorful running mate, who told them — no, berated them — that they should be grateful to the government for building this expensive hospital for them, that surely they wouldn’t want all that money to go to waste. It was Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌), currently DPP chairman but premier at the time, who had protesters taken away by police when they showed up at his home, the same Su who today sides, purely out of political convenience, with the same residents and protesters accusing Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) KMT administration of ignoring the rights and liberties of the residents (they are right, except that the DPP is equally guilty).

We walked through that hospital, we saw the KTV lounge on the ground floor, where the security guard sang alone, went up the small elevators, and saw some of the residents there. A home it isn’t, nor can it generate the sense of community that the now depleted old Losheng provided over the years. It’s a hospital, a prison, a place where one goes to die. Since it was completed in 2005, and since May 2008, when the government began trying to convince the old residents to move to the new building (free electricity, who could say no to that?), more than 300 Losheng residents have died, Mr. Huang told us. I couldn’t help but remember the calendar I’d seen on the wall. November 2008. Had the room’s former occupant been forced to move to the hospital, or had he perhaps died as a result of the stress? Why hadn’t he taken his clothes with him? Three hundred people in what, five, eight years? This brought to mind the three residents of the Huaguang Community (華光) in Taipei who couldn’t, in their old age, fathom the terror of a move, of forced eviction, of government fines, and who had dropped dead just as the bulldozers were raping their homes, the only homes they had ever owned.

Construction continues
The MRT depot could have been built elsewhere, but yes, that would have been more costly. The first site proposed was immediately behind Fu Jen Catholic University, but the residents said no. In the end, it was the old, the weak, the powerless, those who for political calculators have exactly no value, who were the chosen ones. They were disposable, they and the community that they inhabited, which had been home to them over decades, stood in the way, aah yes, of modernity. Who cares whether the soil composition at the site, as some experts in geophysics have already pointed out, is not suitable for such a project, that the entire hill, Losheng included, could one day swoop down like an avalanche upon it? Who cares that large fissures have been appearing along walls, on the floors, of buildings in the area? Who cares that the Losheng Sanatorium truly is a heritage site, even if, by the definition of the (much more recent) Ministry of Cultural Affairs, it isn’t old enough, hasn’t passed the arbitrary 100-year mark that makes it eligible for non-destruction, for preservation?

There are about 100 residents left, out of 400 back in 2005. Three hundred have died, despite the “nice new machines” and “shiny medical equipment” that Lu and Su were so proud of as they contemptuously refused to listen to the wheelchair-bound residents — residents, not patients, as they are cured, they are not contagious, and they are, for the most part, independent. One should see the bedrooms. No green things, as Mr. Huang said, and only a small window on the balcony, which has so many horizontal bars across it that it might as well be a prison. Do they fear that the Losheng residents will jump off the balcony? Why deny them the natural environment that has become their home? Why the attempt to even deny them a view of the hill? Might it be that the architects, the wise government officials who came up with that wonderful plan, fear that by seeing symbols of their old lives, the elderly will mutiny and request to be sent back into nature, where they belong, and where they deserve to spend the few years they have left?

A woman in a red shirt shows up. It’s not even three in the afternoon yet and she’s preparing dinner. Dinner at the Losheng Sanatorium is at four. Since we’re on the subject of food, Mr. Huang tells us of how, in the early years, people from the outside world would bring the food up to a certain point on the hill and drop it there, whereupon the residents would send someone to go pick it up and bring it back. One couldn’t leave Losheng; in fact, it was surrounded by a metal fence, to prevent escape.

Construction, Losheng
The reason why nearly eight years on the protests haven’t abated, why students visit the residents of the sanatorium every week to help them, to talk with them, or entertain them with concerts, is that people, however weak and ailing and forgotten, want dignity. All their lives, the residents of Losheng were treated like criminals, like monsters, forced into a life of isolation. Over the years, as they were cured, and as the world began to understand more about the disease, their prison became their home, and the former inmates, the patients, those who hadn’t died, who hadn’t committed suicide by hanging when the pain of the medical experiments became unbearable, became their friends, their family. This was home. They didn’t even want to go back to their initial homes back in Kaohsiung, in Hualien, Penghu, Kinmen, a world that had left them behind and that they, too, had left behind.

Now that the residents are in their 70s, the government is once again trying to send them to prison to await death. But they’re not dead yet, and some are in fact still quite alive. One of them told us, with no trace of irony, that he hopes one day to take the MRT to Taipei, but added that he would have to be accompanied, as he has little education and fears he would get lost. “I should have a sign on me that tells people where I live, that I’m in Losheng,” he said, smiling the but-two-incisive-tooth-missing smile of Hansen disease patients.

According to Mr. Huang, the government may have decided it will not force them to leave. Whether that is true remains to be seen. But if that is the case, the sustained protests likely played a role in that decision, and would once again demonstrate that a third way, a mobilization that transcends the ossified green-blue divide, is what this nation needs above all.

They asked us if we wanted to have dinner with them. We politely declined, said our good-byes, and went on our way. As we climbed down the hill and left Losheng behind us, we came upon the construction site, the breaking of ground, drilling, sawing, soldering, a gigantic, crushing, cold behemoth made of concrete. A perfect symbol for everything that is wrong with this whole project.

(All photos by the author)