Thursday, July 25, 2013

Taiwan’s handicap (中文 link at bottom)

It might be a while before the world realizes that a serious battle is being fought in Taiwan. But as the government becomes increasingly indifferent and repressive, that could change

Once again today, as I often have in the past, a young Taiwanese approached me and asked what could be done to help raise awareness about what is happening in Taiwan with international media like the BBC or CNN. Evidently, amid indications that the government has taken a more hardline and less accountable approach to politics, his real question was, Why doesn’t the world care about our fate?

As someone who has practiced journalism in Taiwan for nearly eight years, this is a question that I have often asked myself. My conclusion, after years of struggling to tell Taiwan’s story through major international media, is that Taiwan’s democratization during the 1980s was too successful. Now don’t get me wrong; by successful, I do not intend to create the impression that the island’s democracy is perfect — far from it: it is incomplete, unconsolidated, and torn by extraordinary pressures both from within and without.

What I mean by successful is that Taiwan’s democratization occurred without bloodshed, a truly rare instance in this part of the world. It also occurred at a time of tremendous optimism globally as the Soviet Union was crumbling and the forces of liberty seemed to be prevailing. In many ways, Taiwan was the perfect, logical example of the (since discredited) “end of history.” And with that, Taiwan became a victim of its own success. Taiwan was no longer authoritarian; people were no longer being disappeared or murdered by the state’s security apparatus, and furthermore its government had abandoned the delusional hopes of “re-taking” China.

Meanwhile, other countries within the region descended into chaos (Myanmar), threatened regional security with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles (North Korea), faced domestic insurgencies (Philippines), descended into instability (Thailand), or emerged as regional powers while maintaining high levels of repression (China). In contrast, Taiwan was stable, successful, modern, liberal and thus easily forgettable, especially after the year 2000, when China’s “rise,” in addition to its abominable human rights record, became the story in the media, often at the expense of Taiwan. More and more, international media ignored Taiwan, pulling out their reporters and shifting them to China. Furthermore, as Beijing’s influence grew abroad, looking too closely at Taiwan became too inconvenient; showing concern about it risked damaging ties with China.

July 24 protest at the Legislative Yuan in Taipei
I discussed this with Sophie Richardson, director of the China program at Human Rights Watch, during a visit to Washington, D.C., last year. I had first gotten in touch with her a few years earlier, when I had noticed that HRW had removed Taiwan from its list of countries on its Web site. My initial reaction had been to attribute the removal to pressure from China, which often endeavors to efface Taiwan’s presence abroad. However, Richardson told me that the principal reason was that HRW (like the media) had finite resources and had to allocate those to where human rights violations were most serious and frequent, a situation that certainly didn’t apply to Taiwan.

I agreed then. I’m not sure I do now, and that is why I think that organizations like HRW should take a close look at what’s been going on in Taiwan in recent months.

Before skeptics dismiss my views because of the news organization that employs me, I should state that I have always sought to maintain a neutral stance on the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Unlike many of the strident mouthpieces in the pro-green camp media, I have endeavored to become acquainted with government officials as well as members of both the DPP and the KMT. I came out confident that the government had good people in its ranks (and bad ones, like elsewhere) and that the KMT was not the monolithic monster that its enemies would like us to believe.

One consequence of those efforts is that I have avoided demonizing the KMT or the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration. I often have given them the benefit of the doubt, and never hesitated to criticize the DPP when criticism was due. For all that trouble, I was accused of “selling out” or of naively falling for the KMT’s lies, and even got into trouble with my employer.

Until recently, I think I was right in my assessment. But something has happened in recent months that warrants a reassessment. I’m not exactly sure whether it is the result of growing pressure from China, the 2016 presidential elections, or a desire on Ma’s part to accomplish certain things before he leaves office, but one thing is sure: we’re seeing an acceleration of state-sanctioned outrages against citizens, a growing reliance on police and the national security apparatus, and an increasingly restrictive environment for journalists.

Behind many of those infractions lies the issue of land, a precious commodity in Taiwan that I suspect is regarded by a small coterie of connected individuals as a potential gold mine if and when laws are amended that will allow Chinese to invest here. It’s been an ongoing process, and Chinese money is now allowed in major infrastructure projects like ports and airports, something that would have been inconceivable a few years ago. Unfortunately for all involved, the scarce commodity of land often has houses, businesses, farmland, and people on it, which makes seizing it evidently problematic. Or it should. By no means is the problem a recent phenomenon, or something that arose only after the KMT returned to power in 2008. The DPP faced similar issues, and on many occasions, how it handled the matter left a lot to be desired. However, in several instances — such as at the Huaguang Community (華光) in Taipei — it also chose not to act, and preferred to leave the problem to future administrations.

Victims of Dapu
But now, for some reason, the Ma government is showing signs of impatience. It, or investors and developers close to it, want the precious plots now, and the treatment reserved those who stand in the way has on several occasions led to what can only be characterized as human rights violations. By the end of September, Huaguang will be no more, to be replaced by a glitzy super mall for the super rich; in Dapu (大埔), Miaoli County, four homes were razed on July 18 under orders of County Commissioner Liu Cheng-hung (劉政鴻), an act that sparked outrage and a campaign of protests against Cabinet officials who broke promises and simply chose to look the other way. Dapu wasn’t Liu’s first act of terror, and it won’t be the last: the green light he has received from the government has now opened the door for further land grabs in his county as he attempts to create science parks and other mega projects. The fact that there simply isn’t enough demand or capital for those projects doesn’t seem to bother Liu or officials in Taipei. So what’s the alternative? I place my bets on investment from China.

Adding insult to injury, Liu has been unrepentant and unapologetic as people’s loves were destroyed by his acts. For its part, the Ma administration has responded to the public outrage with equal silence and repression of such magnitude as I had not seen since Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) chairman Chen Yunlin’s (陳雲林) visit to Taiwan in 2008. The only difference now is that no Chinese official needs to be present for the state to rely on its security apparatus to quiet dissent.

Unidentified enforcer
It is now known that the National Security Bureau has gotten involved as the protests snowball. During a protest on July 23, NSB officials were heard ordering police officers to take National Chengchi University professor Hsu Shih-jung (徐世榮) away, even though the academic had limited his actions to shouting slogans. On several occasions, people have been asked to show their I.D., told not to approach certain buildings (they did that to a legal expert from Academia Sinica yesterday as he approached the Howard Plaza, where Vice President Wu Den-yih [吳敦義] was attending a function), or have been taken away by police for reasons unknown. Moreover, a larger presence of plainclothes officers has been noticed, and those officers have repeatedly refused to give their name or reveal their organization to members of the public or to journalists, which has echoes of the authoritarian era. On several occasions, police have been unable or unwilling to state the articles of the law under which they took people away. And as this occurs, journalists have seen their access suffer, and often have been turned away or prevented from doing their work.

As those developments are causing serious harm to the image of the Ma government and becoming the subject of TV talk shows, we would imagine that the Presidential Office would seek to de-escalate, especially with local elections in 2014 and the presidential election in 2016. Instead, it escalated and chose an irrational path by rewarding the one person who has done most in recent months to hurt the KMT’s image, and who has become an object of hatred nationwide: during a party meeting on July 24, President Ma nominated Liu to the top of the list for the KMT Central Committee, as clear a sign as any that his government refuses to acknowledge — let alone address — public discontent with the whole Dapu affair. And Liu, who went to the intelligence school when he was young and went up the ranks locally as an official, now has greater ambitions following his retirement as county commissioner next year: he is rumored to be eyeing a shot as a legislator at large, and possibly even as a Cabinet official. 

Yes, the government has good people in its midst, including many career civil servants who were hired or rose under the previous administrations. But serving the Ma administration, they have all become silent, unwilling to challenge their masters and thereby complicit in the crimes that are now being perpetrated against Taiwanese.

I have worked for a government agency, one that, given its nature, tended to be rather unaccountable to the public. I know how easy it is for government officials (think Premier Jiang-Yi-huah [江宜樺]) to abandon their beliefs and humanity for the sake of a promotion, or to avoid being expelled. A few, like me, chose to leave when we could no longer countenance actions that were detrimental to democracy, but most stayed on and became part of the problem. The stakes were not extraordinarily high in Canada, and its democracy is resilient enough to survive. But Taiwan is in the crosshairs of what could possibly be the most successful authoritarian regime in all of history, by a regime that cannot wait to annihilate Taiwan’s democracy. With the return of the pro-unification gangster Chang An-le (張安樂) and the increasingly repressive and unaccountable behavior of the Ma administration, I find it difficult to believe that what we’re experiencing doesn’t have a Chinese component to it. The public is agitating, but eventually it will take government officials who are courageous enough to fight their own institutions for this country to survive as a liberal democracy.

Artists come out in support
Activists, students, academics, artists and members of the public are rising and shouting their anger; let’s hope some noble souls sitting in the ministries nearby hear their cries and act accordingly. It might be a while yet before the rest of the world realizes that a serious battle is being fought in Taiwan at the moment. (All photos by the author)

NEW! A Chinese version of this article is available here.

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