Friday, September 27, 2013

Taiwanese Navy holds rare SM-2 live-fire exercise; receives first P-3C

Despite being held close to Yonaguni Island, Taiwan denied speculation that the exercise sent any political message to Japan, which is in the process of deploying troops there

The Taiwanese Navy conducted a rare Standard Missile 2 (SM-2) launch on September 26 during a live-fire exercise simulating an attack by China, one day after receiving delivery of the first of 12 refurbished P-3C maritime surveillance aircraft from the U.S.

The exercise, which was open to the media, was held 60 nautical miles off the coast of Hualien in northeastern Taiwan. One SM-2 (RIM-66) surface-to-air missile, fired from the 10,500-tonne Kidd-class (Keelung-class) destroyer Makong, successfully intercepted a drone target approximately 80 seconds into flight. This was the first time since the annual Han Kuang exercises in 2007 that Taiwan test-fired the SM-2, the most modern ship-borne air interceptor fielded by the Taiwanese Navy.

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

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The current predicament

It seems that we are now finding ourselves in the same predicament as the thinkers, writers, academics, and dreamers who saw themselves stuck, without issue, between the two world wars

When people of this age (see above) have to travel repeatedly to Taipei to protest against the Executive, it tells you there’s something very wrong with the system, and with how the government treats vulnerable citizens.

When the Commercial Times writes, “In 2012, the starting monthly salaries [in Taiwan] for bachelor’s degree holders averaged NT$26,000, down from NT$28,000 in 1999 [and that] the average starting salary of master’s degree holders was NT$31,000, up only slightly from 13 years ago, when the average salary was NT$30,000 [and concludes that] there is an obvious trend in which wealth is concentrated in the hands of the older generations,” we have reason to worry about the future. Eight years of Democratic Progressive Party administration, and five years of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) rule, plus the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (EFCA) and ever-closer interactions with China the Great Savior, and this is where we are.

When a young, idealistic, educated, politically savvy Taiwanese sees his political ambitions destroyed upon learning that one needs at least NT$15 million to enter a race for city councilor in Greater Kaohsiung, we know there is something wrong with democracy, that candidates must either be filthy rich or willing to prostitute themselves with corporate interests, and thus sacrifice their freedom of action.

When a top think tank in the U.S. (hint: they have a brand new headquarters building in Washington) says, “We would love to have you, but sadly we now only consider candidates who come with lots of [institutional] money,” we know there is something dangerously wrong with academia, that public intellectuals are now little more than spokespersons for governments, corporations, and the super-wealthy.

History is cyclical, and it seems that we are now finding ourselves in the same predicament as the thinkers, writers, academics, and dreamers who saw themselves stuck, without issue, between the two world wars. People who want to make a difference confront a world in which the cards are already stacked against them, where tremendous pressure is applied on the individual to conform, to join a system that favors those who have lots against those who forever will have little. (Photo by the author)

Monday, September 23, 2013

No politics on campus and the death of ideals

A recent incident at NCCU sheds light on efforts by those in power to neutralize universities as centers for new thinking and idealism

According to an old saying, the world is a classroom. But that does not mean that actual classrooms do not play a role in developing, shaping, and preparing young minds so they can look to the future with ambition and assurance. It is therefore worrying when schools, education ministries, and government officials seek to discourage students from political activism, as if developing one’s political consciousness were anathema to a well-rounded education.

In the latest incident, National Chengchi University (NCCU) earlier this month barred a group of students from performing a song opposing the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in New Taipei City on the grounds that this constituted taking part in political activism.

Every year, NCCU organizes evening performances to welcome new students to the university. However, before the rehearsals, the group was informed that they could not perform the song “How Are You Gongliao?” (貢寮你好嗎), as it was deemed to involve “anti-nuclear politics.” If they did not change the song, the university said, the group would be barred from performing altogether.

Student Gu Zhen-wei (古振輝) said this was unacceptable, adding that the song addressed environmental issues and had nothing to do with politics. Members of the group decried the event as “scripted” and were furious when organizers accused them of being stubborn by refusing — as others ostensibly had — to select a new song.

On the day of the event, another student expressed his anger by using red spray paint to write the characters “Without freedom of speech, how are we to think independently?” (沒有言論自由,何來獨立思考) next to the door to the gym.

The students have every right to be outraged, as do the many others who constantly feel pressure from above — parents, government officials, professors — to focus on their studies and stay out of trouble. In other words, to avoid politics at all cost, lest they be seen as “troublemakers.”

University is an important period in a person’s life, when one is mature enough to comprehend complex issues yet young enough to still be animated by the precious vitality of idealism. Classrooms and extracurricular activities should serve as venues to confront young minds to the many social and political challenges that beset the nation, and not as sterile environments in which to learn by rote and regurgitate whatever the figures of authority shove down their throats.

Of course, for those in power, it is much better to rule over an ignorant and compliant population, one that does not think freely or know better than to accept whatever is given them from above uncritically. Government officials and corporate leaders — the very same people who are encouraging censorship on campus — desire nothing more than an apolitical, neutralized labor force that will do as told and be too dumb to defy them when their rights are trampled by the rich and powerful. They want good little citizens, little more than automatons, who know what’s best for them, who grow up aware that they must avoid politics. And they cynically regard university campuses not as incubators for ideas and ideals, but rather (with pressure on educators, who themselves are told to stay out of politics) as barriers to prevent the emergence of leaders, thinkers, and revolutionaries, the kind of people who would challenge the very foundations upon which the rich, the powerful and the connected depend for the continuation of their domination.

Just do as you are told, avoid getting into trouble, and you shall prosper (within reason). But you will never transcend the existence of a consumer-subject, for in order to cross that line, one has to become politically aware and involved, willing to take action, and even to be uncomfortable for a while. (Photo by the author)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

In Memoriam: Mr. Chang Sen-wen

An act of despair by a victim of state-sanctioned demolitions today is the strongest indictment of the government’s inhumane definition of ‘progress’

I first met Chang Sen-wen (張森文) in front of the Executive Yuan on July 3. It was an excruciatingly hot day. He was in a blue shirt, wearing a straw hat, underneath a tent that had temporarily been erected in front of the EY. Next to him, his wife, Peng Hsiu-chun (彭秀春), was giving interviews to reporters, making her case, as she had done dozens of times over the past three years, against the efforts by the Miaoli County Government to demolish their home and the small pharmacy they operated to widen an intersection on the way to a science park project.

Chang, left, with Peng on July 3
Mr Chang was taciturn, holding the occasional document but rarely engaged in discussions. He gaze was cast downwards, perhaps a presage of his future state of mind. Later that day, he would lose consciousness and was hospitalized. Briefly the following day, during another protest in front of the EY, Mr Chang, still unconscious, was brought in a wheelchair, whereupon most people present began shedding tears.

Fourteen days later, after promises by then-premier and now Vice President Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) and having exhausted all legal means, their home was demolished, and their personal belongings — jewelry, clothes, pots, pans, wedding photos — carelessly dumped in a mud pit along with the detritus of their home.

Mr Chang on July 4, accompanied by his wife
Mr Chang never recuperated from the trauma, and descended into deep paranoia. Soon after the eviction, the Chang family moved away from Dapu, feeling they were no longer safe there, given the penchant of Miaoli County Commissioner Liu Cheng-hung (劉政鴻), the man most responsible for their demise, for threats and intimidation. Mr Chang faded into the background while Ms Peng, forced despite herself to assume the mantle of public figure, continued the battle, making frequent appearances at protests in Taipei.

This morning, Mr Chang left home early (according to police, at 2:10am), leaving his wallet, cell phone and other personal belongings behind. He was declared missing at 10am and search efforts were launched (those efforts were initially hampered when police confirmed that all five cameras installed in the neighborhood were broken, allegedly since Sept. 17, which meant that search teams didn’t even know which direction Mr Chang had headed for).

Hours later, Mr Chang’s body was found face-down in a drainage ditch under a bridge, lifeless, about 200m from where their demolished home one stood. He was 60. As I write this, I am looking at the pictures taken at the scene, of their eldest son on his knees before his father on a stretcher, in a white shirt, gray pants, his arms frozen upwards in rigor mortis, of Ms Peng, devastated, on the ground, her right hand clawing at the soil. An autopsy will be conducted soon.

Ms Peng, 3rd from left, and her son, at the 818 rally
Whoever said that journalists must remain emotionally detached from their subject is asking for the impossible, or expects nothing more from the trade than the cold, clinical regurgitation of daily events. Emotion, a sense of justice, abhorrence for injustice, compassion for the weak, those are the very fuel that aliments one’s passion for the story, that infuses words with life, with meaning. So yes, I have become attached emotionally to the Chang family and the many people who have selflessly fought on their behalf over the months, and to the many others — farmers, workers, Aborigines — whose rights have also been trampled upon by investors, developers, and governments officials whose understanding of modernity and progress goes little beyond the depth of their bank accounts.

So yes, I am sad, angry, and in a very dark place. For the first time in years I am listening to — needing to listen to — Johann Johannsson’s very haunting How We Left Fordlandia. And yes, I curse whoever is responsible for this, all the officials who looked the other way when victims sought help, or who treated the victims as less than human, disposable, mere inconveniences that would eventually disappear.

Mr Chang’s decision to part with life, if indeed it was a suicide, is an indictment of a system that has abandoned society’s most vulnerable, that has lost touch with humanity. You demolish homes, dreams, lives, there are unfortunate consequences.

Mr Chang died of betrayal, of a broken heart. May he rest in peace, and may those who led him down that path rot in the coldest circle of hell. (All photos by the author)

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Threading the Wrong Needle: A Response

A new report by the EastWest Institute only manages to reinforce the illusion that US arms sales to Taiwan are the principal cause of friction in the triangular relationship between Taiwan, the US and China

The belief that U.S. arms sales to Taiwan stand in the way of good relations between Washington and Beijing has been repeated so often over the decades that it has acquired a status approaching that of a religious text. A new report by the EastWest Institute proposes a way to mitigate the irritants, but ultimately fails to address the root cause of the problem.

It should be stated from the onset that any effort aimed at resolving the differences that have long plagued relations between Taiwan, China and the U.S., which if mishandled could quickly descend into a war that nobody wants, deserves our attention. Released last week, Threading the Needle: Proposals for U.S. and Chinese Actions on Arms Sales to Taiwan, submits a plan of action that, it promises, would lead to a “new status quo on the issue [of arms sales] that better serves the interests of all three parties.”

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

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Guang Da Xing No. 28 incident: Successes, failings and lessons learned

The slaying of a Taiwanese fisherman by Philippine Coast Guards in May brought out the best and worst in Taipei. Here's what happened, and how to better deal with similar crises in future

Few incidents in modern times have unleashed emotions in Taiwan as the May 9, 2013, slaying of Hung Shih-cheng, a 65-year-old Taiwanese fisherman, when overzealous Philippine Coast Guard personnel opened fire on the Guang Da Xing No. 28 in waters that are disputed between the two countries. Taipei’s uneven handling of the matter—under what were admittedly very difficult circumstances—provides an opportunity to explore what it did right and to highlight policy shortcomings so that it can handle future crises more effectively.

A number of factors, not all of them immediately related to the incident, ensured that the administration of Republic of China (ROC) President Ma Ying-jeou would face tremendous challenges as it attempted to resolve the dispute with Manila.

My article, published in the Strategic Vision special issue on maritime disputes, continues here.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

ICAO refuses to grant Taiwanese journalists accreditation for assembly, cites ‘one China’ policy [UPDATED]

As a result of the policy, no Taiwanese reporter will be allowed to attend the event in Montreal, where a decision will be made on whether to grant their country observer status at the international aviation organization

The International Civil Aviation Organization's (ICAO) will hold its triennial assembly in Montreal from Sept. 24 through Oct. 4. Taiwan is aiming to obtain observer status at the body — due to the UN’s “one China” policy and UN rigidity, the country of 23 million people, home to the 10th largest airport in the world, cannot obtain membership. Now ICAO, stating the UN’s “one China” policy, is refusing to grant accreditation to Taiwanese reporters, a policy similar to that encountered by Taiwanese journalists trying to cover the World Health Assembly in Geneva every year. In other words, no Taiwanese reporter will be allowed to attend the event, where a decision will be made on whether to grant their country observer status. The Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Ottawa is aware of the situation and is actively seeking to have this fixed. If you’re in the area (999 University St) or want to call (514-954-8219), feel free to tell them what you think! (Photo by the author)

Statement from the Association of Taiwan Journalists (ATJ):




一、ICAO拒發記者證給台灣媒體工作者的做法,已嚴重侵害記者之新聞採訪權,違反新聞自由之世界民主常規,台灣新聞記者協會將行文聯合國提出嚴正抗議,並要求國際記者聯盟就此要求 ICAO應對各國媒體記者一視同仁,勿以任何政治因素,侵害新聞自由。


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Japan on edge as 1st anniversary of Senkaku nationalization approaches

The islets at the center of the tensions
China is stepping up its provocations ahead of the anniversary of Japan’s nationalization of the disputes islets 

The Japanese Self-Defense Forces were on a high state of alert on September 9 ahead of the first anniversary of Japan’s controversial purchase of islets in the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu archipelago, particularly after a pair of Chinese bombers flew near Okinawa the previous day.

Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera has ordered military personnel to strengthen their surveillance around the Senkakus, which are also claimed by China and Taiwan. A source in the Japanese government indicated that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Chinese maritime enforcement could take “outstanding” action in the area on September 11, the first anniversary of the purchase.

The “nationalization” of three of the five islets comprising the Senkakus in 2012 sparked large-scale protests across China, which also claims ownership of the oil- and natural-gas-rich area. Beijing retaliated against Japan’s attempted nationalization of the islets by increasing the frequency of naval patrols in the area, raising fears of accidental clashes and escalation.

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

Monday, September 09, 2013

When democracy isn’t enough, or A Trojan Horse called White Wolf

If one side in a democracy no longer plays by the rules, it would be foolhardy to assume that democratic means will suffice to protect one’s interests

A friend once told a gathering of young Taiwanese in Washington, D.C., that Taiwan’s democracy was like a firewall protecting the nation against external — and internal, I might add — threats. No truer words were said, but what can Taiwanese do when the firewall is breached, when those whose intentions are antithetical to its spirit turn it against itself in an attempt to cut it at the root?

I’m all for democracy, and I come from a country that takes immense pride (albeit in less flashy fashion that its neighbor to the south) in its democratic achievements. Democracy is undoubtedly the least bad instrument we have at our disposal to distribute power, resolve disputes, and have a shot at justice. Over the years as a journalist, I have observed Taiwan’s young democracy at work, both at the surface and deep within the marrow, and I now have reason to fear for its future.

One thing that academics and politicians alike often forget is that democracy isn’t an end state, a fait accompli, a line that, once crossed, automatically and irretrievably confers upon those who have crossed it perpetual status as a democracy. Rather, democracy is a work in progress along a spectrum. Just as important as the title, or the regular holding of elections, is the quality of that democracy, which touches on everything from government responsiveness to public grievances to the removal of corrupt individuals, regardless of their political affiliation.

Given its qualitative nature, it follows that democracy can evolve just as it can backtrack, and it can also once again cross over that line into something that is no longer democratic.

This begs the question: What can the citizens of a democracy do when those in power, or those who would usurp it, become undemocratic? Firewall notwithstanding, democracy has its limits, and can hardly succeed if one side — the more so if it is the most powerful, or the wealthiest — doesn’t play by democratic rules. What good is democracy if citizens expire all legal processes, all democratic means, to prevent injustice, only for the authorities to go ahead and crush everything in their path? How can we retain faith in a government’s commitment to democracy when one of its own rules an entire county like a despot, not only getting away with rampant corruption and perhaps even murder, but in the process gets rewarded by the central government with a position in its Standing Committee? When the executive engages in political machinations to remove those who stand in its path, especially those who are in the way of a controversial services trade agreement with China?

I couldn’t help but ponder those questions on Sunday when I came upon pictures of gangster Chang An-le (張安樂), or the “White Wolf,” as he attended the opening ceremony of his Unification Party office in Greater Tainan. Since his return to Taiwan in late June, Chang, who spent sixteen years in China, has toured the country and appeared on countless TV shows to promote his unification campaign. Somehow, the wanted fugitive was released on bail on the day of his arrival, and has since been free to spread his gospel and engage in “benevolent” activities. Instead of being in jail, or of appearing in court, or of preparing his defense, Chang has been free to travel the nation and confirmed on Sunday his party’s intention to field candidates in next year’s seven-in-one elections and the presidential election in 2016.

I visited his Taipei office earlier this year, and I saw the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) flag, the hundreds of pictures of Chang toasting senior CCP officials. It is plainly evident that Chang’s party is a front, or a spearhead, for CCP political activity in Taiwan, which raises serious questions (among other things) about its financing. Not to mention the gangster methods that party officials and supporters will likely engage into come election time. And yet what is the government doing? Nothing. Taiwan is a democracy, so Mr. Chang’s party is “legal.”

So what does a polity do when facing a political party that, in reality, has no democratic bone in its body and which is intended to serve as a Trojan Horse to destroy Taiwan’s democratic way of life? Allowing it to enter the democratic system itself risks poisoning the entire machine and ensures that democratic means and ways will be distorted in ways that risk bringing the whole thing down. What does a country do when simply not voting for a party isn’t enough? What do its people do when their purportedly democratic government allows for the existence of an undemocratic — no, anti-democratic — party that is backed by an authoritarian regime which has made no secret of its intentions concerning Taiwan’s political system?

For a democracy to function, the players must abide by certain tacit agreements which create an imperfect balance whereby governors and the governed resolve the inherent tensions in any political system. If one side in that equation no longer plays by those rules, it would be foolhardy —in this case suicidal — to assume that democratic means will suffice to protect one’s interests. So what comes next? (Photo CNA)

Thursday, September 05, 2013

The latest eviction victims: Elderly fruit farmers on Lishan

Government authorities are once again resorting to might and lawsuits to kick vulnerable groups off their land, without providing any assistance to help them rebuild their lives

So it continues. After Dapu (大埔) and Huaguang (華光), another vulnerable group is facing evictions and fines for “illegally” living on, and profiting from, land that the government wants back. The victims this time are elderly fruit farmers in Lishan (梨山), Greater Taichung.

The story begins long ago, when the government sought to resettle a number of mainlander Kuomintang veteran soldiers who had been mobilized — for many at the cost of their lives — to build the Central Cross-Island Highway (中橫公路) during the 1950s. A number of them were moved to Lishan, at about 2,000m altitude, to begin a new life as fruit farmers. Through an arrangement with the Forestry Bureau, the residents leased the land they lived on, which needed to be renewed every nine years. Thus began their new lives, growing apples, peaches, and other high-altitude fruit.

This was their home for more than four, in some cases five, decades. Then, on the morning of Aug. 30, officials from the Dongshih Forest District Office, accompanied by police and workers, moved into the area of Rongxing Village (榮興) to begin tearing down fruit orchards, wooden shelters, and homes. As the executors did their work, 85-year-old Ma Yu-ru (馬玉如) fell to his knees and begged them to at least wait one more week so that he could pluck his fruit. His pleas were in vain. Ma, homeless, now leaves at another veteran’s house.

The case stems from approval by the Executive Yuan of the Techi Reservoir (德基水庫) flood-treatment project for the Dajia River area. The plan included a Council of Agriculture decree, formulated in April 2008, which involved cataloging agricultural land used on woodland slopes with a more than 28-degree angle as “overused” and therefore targeted for reforestation. Unfortunately for the farmers of Lishan, they happened to inhabit such land. The leases were voided, and the residents were ordered to leave. Those who refused then faced civil lawsuits for “illegally profiting” from the land, the same type of fine slapped on many of the residents of Huaguang, the majority of whom are also elderly “mainlanders.”

Feeling that he had failed to protect the members of the community, Ye Jin-zhu (葉進住), the head of the village tried to commit suicide with a Swiss knife on Friday, but police saved his life and rushed him to a medical clinic.

Here is yet another case in which the government implements land policies without any consideration for the impact on vulnerable communities. While nobody disputes the need for flood prevention (just as nobody objects to “development” and “modernity”), one wonders whether it was necessary to file lawsuits against elderly individuals with little means, who made not inconsiderable contributions to this country. They were offered no alternatives, no assistance to facilitate a move and to rebuild the little that is left of their lives — yet again — somewhere else.

Governments need not have signed the two U.N. covenants, which President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has made a big show of, to be aware that one cannot deracinate the elderly and cast them to the winds, without some form of assistance, let alone add to their burden by suing them for refusing to cooperate. Surely there are more humane ways to deal with such occasions.

More demolitions and removals of fruit orchards are expected on Sept. 6. (Photo PNN)

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Huang Yan-ru’s political awakening

Nations aren’t built through the pursuit of materialistic gain. Their foundations are erected by individuals with awareness and ideals, by people who are ‘political.’ Here is the case of one young Taiwanese who experienced such an awakening

She lay on the pavement like a broken doll, the slits of her dark eyes expressing deep pain. Above her loomed a line of police officers with riot gear. Behind them, the Ministry of Economic Affairs, where the residents of Yuanli (苑裡), Miaoli County, had gathered on Sept. 3 to deliver, yes, a severed pig’s head — a symbol of anger directed at the government’s refusal to consult them about wind turbines that are being built in their neighborhood, often uncomfortably close to their homes.

Huang after her fall at the MOEA
During a melee with police, Huang Yan-ru (黃燕茹) fell on the ministry building’s side of the fence that had been laid by law enforcement to keep the protesters at bay. It was a bad fall, on her back, which immediately brought the scuffle to a halt and sent people rushing to help her. Minutes later, as she agonized on the ground, an ambulance pulled over, and after immobilizing her neck, medics spirited her away to hospital. After a urine test to ensure she hadn’t damaged her kidneys, Huang was sent home.

The diminutive Huang (she can’t be more than five feet tall) has been a continuous driving force in the activism that has taken Taiwan by storm in recent months, and a regular presence at protests. More often than not, she is in the front lines when things get rough — she had a bad fall during a protest in front of the Presidential Office on July 18 against demolitions in Dapu and had earlier injured her knee in Yuanli — and seems to launch herself into the agitated crowds with nary a concern for her safety.

At a Dapu protest in Taipei, July 18
The truly admirable thing about Huang, however, is that, by her own admission, she wasn’t always like that. In fact, her political consciousness, if we can call it that, is a relatively new phenomenon. In a Facebook entry earlier this week, Huang opened up on the subject with two photos of herself and an accompanying text. The first photo showed a young woman with immaculate makeup and nails, her longish hair done with evident care. Her features are soft, and she is smiling. Just like any other regular girl which one encounters on the streets, in the MRT, or at the shopping mall.

The second picture shows a markedly different person. Gone is the softness. Her hair is cut short, and the makeup is gone, and she is wearing a simple T-shirt.

I used to be one of those girls who obsessed about my image, who spent a lot of time, energy and money on makeup and other superficial things, she writes (I am paraphrasing). She continues: Since I became involved in social issues and started paying attention to questions of justice, I feel that I have become alive, that I am, at long last, a person.

What cause for rejoicing! What rebirth!

Yes. Politics, a sense of justice, this is what makes us alive, what distinguishes citizens from the countless masses who obsess mindlessly about money and other material gains. Nations aren’t built by consumers; countries aren’t made of stock markets, bank accounts, fast cars, jewelry, nail polish, fancy purses, smart phones, expensive restaurants, or any of the other icons of materialism that so often pass off, by accumulation, as living. What Hung, along with the many others who have engaged in activism in the past year, has experienced is a graduation from the perfect law-abiding citizen that people at the top count on to stay in power, into a full-fledged human being who wants more from life, who is animated by a desire to shape her world, and who will defy the status quo system that would rather keep her and everybody around her bottled up as consuming mindless automatons.

It must be said, politics, dreams, idealism and thinking are all highly inconvenient to forces that are bent on maintaining the system as it is, which is little more than a mechanism by which the already rich continue to enrich themselves (pressures that, I should add, play directly into unificationist dynamics), while the middle class and the poor — along with Taiwan’s youth, which looks to the future with not unjustified apprehension — crawl on. Many people accept this reality as a fact of life, a law of Nature even, and will cruise through their entire lives without ever being truly alive.

For people like Huang who have had their awakening, however, there is no going back, unless one is willing to shed one’s self. It is they, not the architects, investors, bankers, who are the world builders, who infuse nations with ideas, ideals and mores that animate and distinguish nations. Let us hope, for Taiwan’s sake, that others, many others, experience the same epiphany. (Photos by the author)

The case of Tseng I-mei

The torments and death earlier this year of a 91-year-old resident of Taipei’s Huaguang Community provide a laundry list of the inhumane manner in which the government has treated the residents of a community that is no more

I first met Chen Hsiang-ming (陳祥明) on Aug. 27, just as the residents of the Huaguang Community (華光) in Taipei were bidding a final farewell to the part of the city that had been home to most of them for more than five decades. I had just finished taking pictures of little ghosts, made of cloth, that were hanging from strings next to black-and-white photographs of some of the residents in their youth.

Mr. Chen came over, trembling, the eyes above the surgical mask and underneath his white baseball cap filled with unmistakable anger. Cradled in his arms was a large framed picture of an elderly woman in a dark-red shirt. “Are you a journalist?” he asked in perfect English. I replied that I was. And out came the torrent of pain, the story of a 91-year-old widow’s torments, and ultimate death, in the midst of the government’s efforts to evict the members of the community and raze their homes to make way for yet another glitzy building intended for the supremely rich.

As a small group of fellow journalists gathered round him, Mr. Chen, a graduate of Kansas University, fished out documents from a large envelope and handed them over to me. Among them was a letter, in English, addressed to US President Barack Obama asking for his intervention, or at least his attention. Of course, neither is likely to happen, with Obama busy trying to defuse various crises and conveniently inattentive to any occurrence in Taiwan which might cast shadows on President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) supposed peacemaking in the Taiwan Strait. But it is a story worth repeating here, one of the many cases of suffering and injustice that emanate from a community that very soon will no longer be.

Mr. Chen tells his story during a rally on Aug. 27
Like many of the residents of Huaguang, Tseng I-mei (鄭依妹) fled China in 1949 and settled in Taiwan following Mao Zedong’s victory against Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang. Like most “mainlanders,” she and her husband, who also escaped from China, thought at the time that the move would be a temporary one, hopeful that Chiang would eventually retake the Mainland. Of course, history had other plans in mind, and no such retaking ever occurred, which meant that for people like Tseng, Taiwan would be home for the rest of their lives. Ms. Tseng and her husband divorced in 1968, and from then on she lived on her own. Struggling to make ends meet and with very little education, Tseng managed to scrape by enough money to purchase a shabby wood-and-brick house in Huaguang. It became her home, and the city government issued an official street number tag.

The nightmare began four years ago, when the then-87-year-old was sued by the Ministry of Justice for refusing, like many other residents of the community, to relocate after the government decided to go ahead with its plans to demolish the community. Like other residents, Tseng was accused of living in Huaguang illegally. Their refusal to move prompted the government to file lawsuits against them, not only for living there “illegally,” but also in several cases for “illegally” profiting from the small businesses they had established within the community. Some lawsuits ran in the millions of NT dollars. To add insult to injury, those who refused to move were charged a demolition fee, which ran in the tens of thousands of NT dollars. Most cannot afford to pay the fines; those who do so will se their entire life savings vanish. How are they supposed to continue living? Pay Rent?

Many times, as I have walked through the rubble of Huaguang, I have asked myself how the residents could have lived there “illegally” when state-owned companies like Chunghwa Telecom and Taipower provided them with phone lines and hooked their homes to natural gas and electricity. Surely, if operating a small business there constituted illegal profiting, then the very same state-owned companies should also be slapped lawsuits. But of course, that isn’t so.

Intent on fighting for their rights, some of the residents — many of them, like Tseng, elderly, in poor health, and dirt poor — sent a petition to the government asking for humane treatment. Ten days later, Tseng’s house burned down, possibly from arson (Mr. Chen gave me a picture). I remember walking by the charred remains back in late March. I now know who its former occupant was. Tseng died during the Lunar New Year, aged 91.

Her fate is shared by many others, elderly and single individuals who have now been scattered to the winds. Their community is gone, the bonds woven over the decades broken by the distance that now separates former neighbors who have been temporarily placed in housing all over Taipei, mostly on the peripheries.

“This is the way Ma’s government treats its people,” Mr. Chen’s letter to Obama reads. If it were me in his shoes, I, too, would be shaking in anger. (Photos by the author)

Taiwan to bolster its presence in the South China Sea

The current wharf at Itu Aba
Taipei maintains that the move is part of efforts to encourage cooperation in the region 

Taiwan has announced it will invest 3.37 billion New Taiwan Dollars (US$106.5 million) over three years to build a wharf on Taiping Island in the disputed Spratly Archipelago to increase its naval presence in the area, a move that is likely to irritate other claimants to the region. 

According to Lin Yu-fang, a legislator from the Kuomintang (KMT) who sits on the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee, 1 billion NTD (US$33.6 million) is to be set aside for the project during FY 2014. The budget is expected to be passed by the Legislative Yuan when it reconvenes later this month. Work on the wharf is to be carried out by the National Expressway Engineering Bureau under the Ministry of Transportation and Communications.

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

Monday, September 02, 2013

Confucianism as authoritarianism

If Taiwanese are to vouchsafe their distinct identity and way of life, they will need to be daring, innovative, and defiant — everything that Confucianism tries to discourage

It’s often been said that Taiwan’s achievements in the 1970s and 80s — first by achieving and sustaining high levels of economic growth, followed by a peaceful transition from authoritarian to democratic rule — constituted some sort of “miracle.” Given the deeply ingrained Confucian traditions that influence this country, its democratization was indeed nothing short of miraculous.

Like all great religions and major philosophies, there is nothing intrinsically nefarious about Confucianism. However, what its interpreters, who themselves often are in the employ of individuals with power and authority, make of it can have deleterious repercussions for society.

Confucian “values,” if we can call them such, are top-down and tend to reinforce hierarchical systems by encouraging deference to one’s superiors, a category that includes officials, teachers, parents, and anyone older. From this alone, it should be evident that Confucianism invites abuse. While there is nothing wrong in showing respect toward one’s elders or a figure of authority, we run into problems when the values are used to stifle dissent, prevent the emergence of new ways of thinking, or to insulate mediocrities who have attained certain positions within society.

Mao Zedong quickly dispensed with Confucian thought, only to replace it with totalitarianism, which after he departed this world was in turn replaced with authoritarianism. Having undergone no revolutionary spasm such as was experienced in China, Taiwan has continued to be influenced by the Chinese philosopher’s thoughts, a legacy that exists to this day.

And that, by and large, is detrimental to Taiwan’s ability to develop as a nation. In fact, I would argue that Confucianism has arrested Taiwan’s development, which suits the agenda of a certain group of individuals to perfection. Confucian thought has replaced authoritarianism of old and has been much more successful at penetrating every sector of society. It is found in education, in the work environment, in households, and within ministries.

That is not to say that non-Confucian societies, or even liberal democracies, do not have their own problems with rigidity of thought and opposition to innovation. Every system is, by its very nature, hierarchical, a means of organization that imposes a certain level of deference and respect for authority. I certainly experienced (and had trouble with) this phenomenon during my years at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, as has anyone who has served in the military.

Taiwan faces similar problems, but Confucian thought exacerbates them, as does the stultifying adherence to he “status quo” when it comes to the nation’s sovereignty. All these forces militate against free thought, innovation, or systemic rejuvenation. Confucianism, above all, allows mediocrity, sloth, greed — treason, even — to get away, provided that those traits are exercised by individuals with a modicum of authority. By conjuring the notion of “face” — a derivative of Confucian thought — people in positions of authority can clamp down on “subversives” below them while ensuring their hold on their position. Only in such a system can an employee who works too hard, who goes beyond the call of duty, or who meets great success, can be berated by his supervisors, for his actions make them lose face. It breaks the “chain of command.” Only in such a system (and I know this from personal experience) will Small Employee be told by Big Boss that, despite there being every sign that Small Boss is incompetent and hurting the company, Small Employee must respect and follow the directives issued by Small Boss. Only in such a system will a panelist shower a fellow presenter with praise after the latter has delivered what can only be described as a pathetic waste of everybody’s time.

Aware of the cost of offending one’s superiors (from reprisals to dismissal), subordinates therefore tend to avoid innovation and are in fact encouraged to avoid transcending what is expected of them. They become automatons, which is highly convenient for those in positions of authority.

Over time, this inevitably drags everything down. Organizations gradually become accustomed to, and eventually expect, the bare minimum from their employees. Laziness and incompetence become acceptable, as long as their behavior doesn’t threaten the system.

Confucian thought is also very much evident in how the current administration has reacted to the wave of protests that has hit various agencies in recent months. The language inevitably contains references to “unruliness, “violence,” “irrationality” and lack of respect for government figures and symbols. To drive the message home, the administration also has had no compunction in resorting to harsh police measures and the court system to clamp down on dissidents, who rather conveniently tend to be of university age. Many critics of the youth movement have expectedly referred to the activists as “unruly” and “creating trouble.” In other words, they are “bad Confucians.” Little wonder that the Ma Ying-jeou administration is so keen on emphasizing Confucianism in classrooms and for visiting scholars.

The challenges that Taiwan faces are as extraordinary as they are unique. If its people are to vouchsafe their distinct identity and way of life, they will need to be daring, innovative, and defiant — everything that Confucianism, and those who wield it as a stick, try to discourage.

Confucian thought turns people into cowards. It is oppressive, restrictive, and it is authoritarian. Taiwanese cannot afford to allow this philosophy to continue poisoning its government institutions, companies, schools, and families, as only a few — groups that undeniably do not have Taiwan’s best interests at heart — will benefit. (Photo by the author)

Sunday, September 01, 2013

The BOT at Sun Moon Lake: Wrong and injurious (中文 link at bottom)

Plans to build a hotel on ancestral Aborigine land at Sun Moon Lake once again highlight the rapacious nature of the government-developer complex and its utter disregard for people’s rights and dignity

The shamans lined up in front of us, their colorful uniforms contrasting starkly with the drab Environmental Protection Administration building behind them. Dipping their fingers in paper cups, they began chanting incantations — an exorcism — and sprayed the alcohol-fragrant water at our feet. It was, needless to say, one of those moments that gives one a certain frisson.

They were Thao Aborigines, members of one of Taiwan’s smallest tribes. Dozens of them, from the about 700 alive today, filled two buses on Friday to come petition the government and to attend a “consultation” meeting at the EPA, where the fate of their ancestral land on Hsiangshan (向山) was to be decided.

One of the shamans bursts in anger during the exorcism
Here was yet another of Taiwan’s vulnerable groups facing the nexus of government, investors, land developers — and in this case tourism organizations — that seek to expropriate their land for the sake of “modernity.” In the present case, the plan is to erect a 300-room-plus hotel resort and banquet hall smack on the mountaintop, ancestral Thao land. The build-operate-transfer (BOT), which will be funded by Hong Kong’s Bonds Group (寶聲集團), the firm that was awarded the contract in 2009, is part of ongoing efforts to further transform the once-beautiful Sun Moon Lake area into an hodgepodge of hotels, motor boats, and rowdy Chinese tourists.

Appeals for reason, or for the law, have failed, something that under the current administration has sadly become the norm. This is Thao ancestral land, and under the law, permission — through consultations with the tribe — must be granted by the Thao before anyone can use parts of their land for development. But here’s the catch: the central government has never formalized the Thao claims to that land. Therefore, Article 21 of the Aboriginal Basic Act (原住民基本法), which stipulates the requirement for consultations, doesn’t apply. Or so claims the government, which has conveniently dragged its feet in granting the recognition that would have made Article 21 relevant. One should note the terrible irony in this: Aborigines who inhabited that land well before the government came into existence must receive recognition of their rights to their land from the latter, which denies such recognition so that it need not consult the members of the tribe before it can bring in investment (and more Chinese tourists, who have been unwilling to pay the higher rates at existing hotels around the lake).

Tribal elder delivers a speech
As always, the authorities, acting very much like their cousins across the Taiwan Strait, pretend to follow the law and go through the motions. But this is all show. They make the law or interpret it as they see fit, and then accuse critics and opponents of being “irrational” or “violent.” A meeting between developers and Thao elders that is alleged to have taken place, for example, has yielded permissions that the Thao are adamant were never given.

Friday’s assessment was also a travesty. The members of the evaluation committee — all eight of them “Han” — unanimously (with one abstention) gave “conditional” approval to the project. The developers must secure permission to proceed with the 50-year BOT plan through the Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP), a government body made solely of political appointees who work hand in glove with the KMT. In other words, consultations will not occur between the Thao whose land is being taken, but rather through the CIP on their behalf, which assures us of one thing alone: the project will be approved.

To add insult to injury, the developers maintain that the project will create jobs for local Thao people — as servants, waiters, and “entertainers.” Translation: I steal your land, but I am magnanimous and generous enough to treat you like a circus animal.

Sadness and pain
Ultimately, this is not an Aboriginal issue; this is a land issue just like the many others that Taiwan’s most vulnerable, all over the country, are facing, and about which I have written over the past several months. Sadly, the victims in this case are from a segment of society that tends to generate little interest in mainstream media. The scarce coverage on Friday was proof of this. If only for self-interested reasons, non-Aborigines, or Aborigines from other tribes, had better not only pay close attention to what goes on at Sun Moon Lake, but should join the fight as well.

After the EPA meeting concluded on Friday, the Thao made the following promise: 如果你們的文明是叫我們卑躬屈膝, 那我就帶你們驕傲的野蠻到底. If civilization means humiliation and slavery, I would have them see the pride of the savages!

I would disagree with one thing: It isn’t the Thao who are the savages. (All photos by the author)

NEW! Chinese version available here.