Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The war of the shoes

The government is cracking down hard on shoe throwers not because the practice is violent, but because this unusual form of protest is a highly successful means of highlighting public discontent with the underperforming administration

If we bought what the government is telling us, we’d believe that graduate students, young mothers, and the elderly in Taiwan have spontaneously picked up the habit of throwing shoes at government officials, a “violent” practice that, so the narrative goes, occurs for no reason whatsoever other than boredom among criminal minds. Now the government, along with ever-compliant Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislators, is seeking measures to eliminate the “improper atmosphere.” Enter prosecutors and the National Security Bureau (NSB).

Despite its high unpopularity, the Ma government, as well as media outlets that like lap dogs support it no matter what, refuses to recognize that shoe throwing is not a spontaneous or irrational phenomenon, but that it is, rather, rooted in a public that has lost patience with an increasingly distant and unaccountable administration, that no longer believes it has an honest counterpart in negotiations. It stems from far more than what foreign media have tended to focus on, which is the poor state of the economy and the controversial (and poison pill) services trade agreement with China that the administration is forcing upon an apprehensive public. Beyond those, the discontent is fueled by the broken promises, lies, evictions, deaths, demolitions, lawsuits, behind-closed-doors negotiations, bogus “public hearings,” countless blocked bills, police and thugs who occasionally beat up protesters, cronyism, and, above all, the not unjustified perception that the government is acting in behalf of the rich and the powerful (here and in China) against the interests of ordinary people and, possibly, the very sovereignty of their nation.

To repeat: there is nothing spontaneous in acts of shoe throwing, nor do they occur in a historical vacuum, as the government would want us to believe. Taiwan’s youth, young mothers, and the elderly have better things to do with their time than to shadow public officials and lob footwear at them. That they do so is a symptom of how bad the situation has become, and the government has only itself to blame.

Another reason why shoes have gone airborne is that this form of dissent has succeeded in attracting media attention, both local and foreign, where other measures — ordinary peaceful protests, legal action, forums and so on — have failed. In a way, the shoes have managed to break the illusion that everything is swell in Taiwan and that the public is fully behind Ma’s policies, something that the international community, oftentimes for selfish reasons, likes and wants to believe.

The shoes have therefore brought Taiwan back into the discourse, back in the world’s headlines, and this is most inconvenient for Ma and everybody else who continues to believe in his unquestioned rectitude as a “peacemaker” and uncorrupt official. The gaunt-looking Ma may pretend all he wants that everything is fine, as will the foreign officials and business tycoons and academics who shake his limp hand during official functions, but one fact remains — Ma is a failing leader, and his failed policies risk dragging down the entire country.

The powerful symbol of the flying shoe, one that, if only for its novelty in this part of the world, cannot easily be ignored, is exactly why the government is now doing everything it can to stop it by deploying expensive catch nets (which themselves contribute to the image of an unpopular president), threatening legal action against the “violent” practice, involving the NSB, and looking the other way when a gangster with a violent past, just returned from exile in China, offers to dispatch 2,000 of his goons to “protect” the president during the KMT congress in Taichung next month (though police plans for the event have yet to be formalized, rumor has it that police will establish a protest zone about 600m away from the venue, and will try to separate protesters from those who oppose them). 

It is the very success of the shoe throwing campaign, and the threat that it could further spread and undermine the government’s dirt-poor image even more, that is compelling the administration to adopt what are, in effect, measures of the desperate.

Such reaction, one might add, can only be conceivable in a country where it is still a crime to scream at the president, under regulations — enacted under Martial Law but which, we should note, were not abolished by any administration in the democratic era — to prevent the humiliation of the head of state. (Photo by the author)

Monday, October 28, 2013

Eviction of vendors at Sun Moon Lake

The elderly vendors have until Oct. 31 to vacate the area, or they will be evicted. In their place, a brand new BOT project will be erected, one that will be far more ‘esthetically pleasing’ for the thousands of tourists who visit the area every day

In recent months, protests outside the Executive Yuan in Taipei — youth and the elderly in the foreground, a row of police officers with shields as a backdrop — have become almost as routine as the meetings of Cabinet officials that take place inside the building.

This morning, it was the turn of elderly vendors from the touristic spot of Sun Moon Lake to arrive on a bus, unfurl their banners, placards, and props to draw attention to their plight. The situation that confronts them is one that has become far too common in recent times, where society’s most vulnerable are shoved aside in the name of “progress” and the creation of opportunities for the wealthy to become wealthier.

What a sad sight it was this morning to see men and women in their sixties, seventies and eighties gather with their cooking instruments, sausages, tea-leaf eggs and other wares, people who are now being evicted by a government that no longer wants them to operate their small businesses at Sun Moon Lake. Many of them have been making a trade there over four, sometimes five decades. One, a woman in her seventies, raised four children on her own after her husband died by selling tea-leaf eggs at NT$10 apiece.

Sausage vendor, victim
For years the vendors conducted their trade on government land in the Wenwu Temple area, obtaining permits for about NT$200,000, which forced many of them to get a guarantor and leasing a small spot for NT$1,700 a month. The first blow came in the form of the 921 Earthquake of 1999, which hit Nantou County, where Sun Moon Lake is located, pretty hard. The vendors rebuilt all they could, but the assistance promised them by the government (both DPP and KMT) never materialized and they were left to fend for themselves, eking out a living with small stalls.

Now the government wants them out, and will no longer issue them the permits to operate there. For one thing, officials say, the ramshackle shacks and booths are “unsightly” and must be replaced by something more esthetically pleasing to the tourists — a growing number of them from China — eye. The plan is to evict the small vendors by Oct. 31, raze the area, and build something more modern on top of it. Unsurprisingly, the project will go to the highest bidder and will be — yes, those three letters could very wall stand for abuse — a BOT (“build, operate, transfer”). Gone will be the elderly vendors who over the decades gave the place a local flavor. In their place will be much wealthier vendors who, you can be assured, will be charged much more than NT$1,700 a month to rent the space there. In fact, given what’s been going on in the area, it wouldn’t be surprising if some of the bidders were Chinese.

Eighty-four-year-old vendor, victim
One solution comes to mind. If the stalls are so unsightly, why not erect something more modern and help the old vendors move back in, a “win-win” solution that would please the esthetically demanding tourists while ensuring that vulnerable vendors who have become part of the area’s charms can continue to make a living? In fact, this approach was considered before, and then-premier and now vice president Wu “I never broke a promise in 40 years of public service” Den-yih (敦義) did vow do to just that for the vendors. But big money and China got in the way, and compassion was once again thrown out the window, along with society’s most vulnerable.

To add insult to injury, the government is telling the vendors that following the 921 earthquake the area has become too seismically unstable. The eviction is therefore for their own safety, they are told. Apparently, however, the area is stable enough for other people’s — wealthier people’s — structures to be built there.

The vendors are appealing to the EY, but the chances that the project will be reversed are extremely slim. If similar cases observed in recent months are any indication, the vendors who refuse to leave will likely be fined by the government, which only and unnecessarily adds to their plight.

As I’ve written before, nobody opposes progress, modernity, and the beautification of one’s environment, from cities to tourist attractions. But the march must be carried out in the spirit of compassion and humanity, with the understanding that some people, people who often are of little financial means, will be dislocated in the process and therefore will need assistance. This government, sadly, only gives them the boot. (Photos by the author)

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Please protest ‘rationally’

The authorities depict young activists as ‘violent’ and ‘irrational’ because they know they cannot win an argument against them. If you can’t defeat them, discredit them

In the past year, we have seen in Taiwan the emergence of an active civil society whose actions should put to rest any doubt as to whether young Taiwanese and academics have within themselves the fiber it takes to fight for their country and ideals.

Given the state of things in Taiwan and the increasingly autocratic nature of a government that, perhaps as a result of growing pressure from Beijing, seems keen on imposing policies that are detrimental to the nation’s well-being, it is not surprising that students, academics, lawyers, journalists, academics, film directors, and ordinary people would become more vocal in their opposition to the authorities, or harsher when those in power refuse to listen to their grievances, break past promises, make a travesty of public consultations, use disproportionate force and legal means to derail dissidents, and callously look the other way when civilians are victimized, evicted, broken financially, injured, or lose their lives.

So far, despite its unresponsiveness and contempt for civil society, the Ma administration has gotten off lightly: at its most radical, dissident action has taken the form of the overnight “occupation” of a government building by students, “Fuck the government” stickers, spray paint, eggs, pig excrement, a hog’s head, flash (peaceful) protests, the chanting of slogans at venues visited by senior Cabinet officials, music videos, and — lo and behold — the throwing of shoes at the president and other officials (there has been only one direct hit so far, which did not involve the president).

And yet, the government, along with its spinners in the media and the corporate sector, have systematically branded protesters as “violent,” impolite,” and “irrational.” On several occasions, public officials have opined that while they understand people’s desire to protest, they should do so “rationally.” In other words, the protesters should adopt a strategy that ensures that their aims are not met. Earlier this week, no less a figure than Minister of Education Chiang Wei-ling (蔣偉寧), whose contempt for student activism should disqualify him for so key a position, said students had a right to protest, but that they should not throw shoes at anyone. 

Yet being “rational” apparently is no guarantee that the authorities will not come after you: Three female university students who brandished banners and shouted slogans during a function attended by President Ma earlier today in Greater Taichung will reportedly be charged with causing disturbances (and endangering the president!) under the Social Order Maintenance Act. Several others in recent months — and this includes university professors — have received police summons, been charged for various violations, or been held at police stations for hours, their only crime being to “violate” the Assembly and Parade Act by participating in non-violent protests. No eggs thrown, no shoes flying; just being there.

The indiscriminate use of incommensurate legal means against protesters is already a problem, and one that has resulted in a petition signed by about 1,000 lawyers, about one fifth of the nation’s total. The other problem is a more semantic one: It is not up to the government that is under fire, or the individuals who symbiotically benefit from their ties with the administration, to set the parameters of what constitutes “proper” and “rational” forms of protest. Especially not when the government itself has broken its contract with the public. How is holding mock public hearings, where the potential victims of a policy proposal are ignored or not even invited; or the breaking of promises by a top government official (Wu Den-yih) not to have people’s homes demolished, only for those homes to be razed down three years later; or the exhaustion of all legal processes with an outcome already predetermined in favor of big business; or the government’s disinterested reaction when people lose their lives in the process; or the threatened involvement of notorious gangsters, not to mention rumors that armed police could be deployed at the event, in protecting Ma and the Cabinet during a KMT meeting in Taichung next month — how is all of this “rational”?

What’s also left unsaid by those self-serving minions is the fact that the so-called “irrational” and “violent” protesters have upped the ante after all their pleas, all legal appeals, were ignored by the government. Content with criticizing youth for throwing shoes and “undermining social stability,” such individuals — Nan Shan Life Insurance vice chairman Du Ying-tzyong (杜英宗) did that during a forum last week, as did, if perhaps more obliquely, National Central University professor Daisy Hung (洪蘭) with her crass Confucian emphasis on “politeness,” or self-hating China Times editorial writers who compare protests in Taiwan with those that occur in “third world” countries — also ignore the sundry other things that the youth movements have done in the past year, which includes holding workshops, information sessions, nation-wide lectures, and several attempts (often denied by the government, which relied on police to keep them at bay) to attend government-sponsored public forums (for example, on the controversial cross-strait services trade agreement). 

The majority of the student protesters involved in the movements, whose numbers are steadily growing, are graduate students from the nation’s top universities, and are supported by eminent academics. Many of the younger, high-school-age ones, meanwhile, tend to be precocious and have been berated by their educators for, say, reading Machiavelli or Western philosophy, or engaging in political activities. In all cases, the activists have been highly informed about the subjects they are protesting against, and much more aware of the laws and their rights than the police officers and government officials who have confronted them with shields, notices, or opprobrium. The “violent” aspects of their protests are but one aspect of their mobilization, and a very small one at that.

There is no moral equivalence, nor can we let those who abuse their position in government or the corporate world get away with besmirching groups of individuals who are, more often than not, in the right. In fact, the reason why the authorities have cracked down so forcefully on the dissidents, and why they are now trying to damage their reputation by characterizing them as “violent” and “irrational,” is because they know they could not win an argument with the protesters and those who support them. Unable to meet them as equals, they strike. (Photo by the author)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

InfraVest’s thugs strike again

None of what happened this morning was unavoidable, if only the firm and the government agencies that have facilitated its operations had abided by democratic rules and treated the collateral to green energy with respect and humanity

Well, it was bound to happen. Early this morning, a male protester was smashed in the face with a stone by a private security officer during an altercation at the site of a wind turbine under construction. The resident of Yuanli, Miaoli County, whose cheekbones were crushed by the hit, was hospitalized and will require facial reconstruction. Another protester sustained a broken ankle.

I’d paid a personal visit to the site in early June following reports of earlier incidents. Sure enough, we were greeted at the site by a group of ruffians who not only followed us wherever we went, but also made it amply evident that our presence there was not wanted. A good number of them — hired from kung fu schools, one of them informed me, via a Taipei-based firm known as Hai Tian (海天保全) — were evidently high on a mix of nicotine and betel nut, and I thought to myself then that in the event of an altercation, such guards were bound to lose control and cause serious damage on the local youth and elderly farmers who have mobilized against the project. Already, we had seen photos and film of protesters being surrounded by thugs, dragged, and kicked while on the ground, with local police looking on. The thugs, who have no power of authority, also behaved as if they were law-enforcement officers and blocked protesters (and journalists) access to sites that are public property. This morning’s incident was but a logical continuation of the problem.

The residents of Yuanli argue that InfraVest, the German firm, and the government, have not treated them fairly. While the majority of them do not oppose wind power per se, they and their lawyers have made a strong case about the fact that the wind turbines are being erected far too close to their homes — much closer, in fact, than seen elsewhere worldwide. It’s also pretty clear that there have been serious procedural deficiencies in how the Bureau of Energy, the Ministry of Economic Affairs, and other agencies have handled the “public hearings” held to resolve the matter. Among other infractions, “experimental hearings” have, post facto, been made official, and on more than one instance, the residents were informed at the last minute about a hearing, or were prevented from attending. In one instance, police officers surrounded the room in which a hearing was being held and turned their camcorders on the residents, academics and activists whenever they spoke up or asked questions.

I’d long wanted to ask InfraVest whether they thought it was appropriate for the firm to hire thugs ensure security at the site. This morning’s incident provided the perfect justification for doing so. My conversation with one of the senior employees from the main office in Taipei was on background, and the firm will issue a press release on the incident later today (pasted below, which basically claims that the residents surrounded the equipment and refused to leave after being told to do so). I can nevertheless reproduce the gist of our exchange.

I first asked if they understood that the behavior of the private security firm was undermining the company’s reputation. The company source replied that the firm had no choice, as it cannot ask local police to provide such services. She nevertheless admitted that the series of incidents earlier this had given InfraVest a bad reputation and that they had subsequently ordered that the guards henceforth refrain from engaging in verbal or physical clashes with protesters. Since then, she said, there had been not reports of incidents. This morning’s clash, she added, had come as a surprise to them. The source said InfraVest had requested a formal report from the security firm, adding that while it was difficult for them to know exactly what had happened, some protesters had reportedly uttered “bad words” at the security guards.

When I shared with her my impressions of the guards, especially the fact that some of them showed all the symptoms of being high on betel nut — including the guard who this morning used a stone to smash the protester in the fact — the company source expressed surprise and thanked me for the information.

None of this was unavoidable, if only the firm and the government agencies that have facilitated its operations had abided by democratic rules and treated the collateral to green energy with respect and humanity. Instead, the parties harden, and individuals get hurt. Sometimes, as in next-door Dapu, the outcome isn’t crushed cheekbones, but rather lives lost. (Photos by the author).

InfraVest press release:







Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Truly worrying signs in Taiwan

Student are hounded by police. Peaceful protesters are thrown in jail for throwing eggs. Meanwhile, a wanted criminal with a violent past offers to mobilize his followers to protect a highly unpopular, and increasingly authoritarian, president

There was a time during Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) first administration where it was easier, even for critics like this author, to give it the benefit of the doubt, when we could believe that the government could be trusted with working for, and protecting, the nation’s interest. Since the beginning of his second (and thankfully last) term, trend lines — from a hardening of government policies, and an increasingly authoritarian reaction to dissent amid very low popular support — have made it nearly impossible to continue doing so. Recent developments should dispel any notion that the Ma cabinet can continue unchecked.

One of the most worrying events in the past six months has been the return to Taiwan of the wanted fugitive Chang An-le (張安樂), also known as “White Wolf,” whose leadership of the Bamboo United criminal syndicate forced him to flee Taiwan in 1996. Immediately after being released on NT$1 million bail on the day of his return to Taiwan, Chang embarked on a campaign to promote his “peaceful unification” ideology through TV appearances and the opening of a campaign office in, of all places, Tainan. I have written extensively about the significance of his return to Taiwan and of the government failing to keep him busy preparing his defense in court, and will not repeat what I have said here.

But one thing bears repeating: As I pointed out soon after his return, Chang’s return to Taiwan creates a high likelihood that intimidation and violence will once again be part of Taiwan’s politics. Although Chang has been portrayed as a former, if not “reformed,” gangster-turned-politician, there is every indication that the man, who served prison time in the U.S. for drug trafficking and is believed to have played a role in the 1984 assassination of Henry Liu (劉宜良) in California, remains involved in criminal activities. Panelists who had the misfortune of appearing on TV talk shows with him earlier this summer could not help but notice Chang’s entourage of “friends,” which some were not shy of describing as “bodyguards” or “thugs.” This author ran into the White Wolf just last week at a bar very popular with foreign crowds in Taipei. In fact, Chang sat at the very next table, and was accompanied by a dozen bodyguards who positioned themselves at various strategic points to create a virtual box round their leader.

Now that very same Chang, who at the weekend said that Taiwanese were downright stupid for refusing to acknowledge that they are Chinese, showed his cards on Monday by revealing that he planned to create an “action alliance” to protect the highly unpopular President Ma ahead of a planned protest in Taichung on Nov. 10, when the KMT holds its long-delayed party congress. According to some reports, Chang said he would mobilize as many as 2,000 of his followers to counter protesters at the venue and ensure Ma’s safety amid a campaign to shadow the president and, at its most “violent,” lob shoes at him. Chang further singled out laid-off workers who have led a series of protest against the administration in recent months and who are expected to spearhead the Nov. 10 demonstrations.

Most conveniently, by not prosecuting Chang, the Ma government has now found an ally who is willing to ensure his safety — in other words, in addition to police, gangsters — not simple gangsters, but gangsters that are very much Beijing’s extension in Taiwan — will now play a role in shielding Ma from a public that has had enough of his poor governance and who, as citizens of a democracy, have every right to protest. Such role for the underworld in politics hadn’t been seen in Taiwan since the early 1990s, before president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) launched a nationwide crackdown on organized crime. While still a fugitive in China, Chang was reportedly behind the dispatch of thugs to protest against the Dalai Lama during a visit to Taiwan in 2009 and to pick up his hateful ally Kuo Kuan-ying (郭冠英) at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport after the latter, an official at Taiwan’s representative office in Toronto, was recalled (and then fired) over a controversy surrounding the publication of several of his anti-Taiwan articles under a pen name. Now that he is back in Taiwan, the threat that Chang represents for society is all the more worrying. Already, some prominent student leaders such as the charismatic Chen Wei-ting (陳為廷) have been warned that criminal organizations were on them. We can only speculate as to how his followers will behave when they encounter protesters in Taichung or at any other venue. Will they simply seek to intimidate, or will they use force against the protesting youth and the academics and lawyers who support them, the journalists who gather to cover the events? How will police react — if it reacts at all? And what does this presage for the future, for the safety of anyone who opposes Ma or the KMT or “peaceful unification”?

Unless the National Police Administration quickly intervenes and prevents Chang’s followers from involving themselves, we will have no alternative but to conclude that Ma, who now has every reason to fear the public, is resorting to gangster politics to maintain his grip on power, the same kind of thing that the KMT did well before it was expelled from China in 1949. This speaks volumes about the current state of Taiwan’s democracy. Surely all of this isn’t about Chang’s freedom of expression, which might very well be the administration’s stated reason for its inaction!

All of this occurs against a backdrop in which police and law enforcement are cracking down hard on protesters. While wanted criminals roam free and threaten society, Lin Tzu-wen (林子文) and Taoyuan County Confederation of Trade Unions chairman Mao Chen-fei (毛振飛, pictured above), two men involved in the protest by the aforementioned group of laid-off factory workers will on Nov. 1 begin serving 20-day and 50-day prison sentences for breaking the Assembly and Parade Act (集會遊行法) during a protest in front of the Presidential Office in October 2012. Their crime? Throwing eggs. The timing of their detention (the two refused to pay the fine) is also noteworthy, as it means they will not be able to participate at the Nov. 10 protest. Many others in recent months have been charged with obstruction of justice, or endangering public safety, for similarly minor “crimes” — misdemeanor, in fact — for throwing eggs, shoes, affixing stickers at various venues, or spray-painting government buildings. In many cases, the sentences have been as heavy as those imposed on armed individuals fleeing from the authorities in a stolen car. In other words, and as a number of lawyer friends have told me, the courts have been disproportionate in the sentences issued against protesters who, unlike what the KMT and some pan-blue media have averred, have been overwhelmingly peaceful.

Also last week, reports emerged that students who were conducting surveys of residents in Miaoli — a county at the very center of various protests against forced evictions and government-sanctioned demolitions that led to the death, ostensibly by suicide, of one of the residents last month — were being shadowed by camcorder-toting police officers. While it is true that some of the students involved in the door-to-door survey have been involved in the protests against county commissioner Liu Cheng-hung (劉政鴻) and Cabinet officials, nothing justifies hounding them as if they were criminals. It is known, though, that the local police force, by and large, serves as Liu’s personal force.

We now have a situation where students are intimidated by police and peaceful protesters thrown in jail, while wanted criminals with a violent past are free to do as they please, to run businesses, and to enter politics. None of this has yet to capture the attention of people abroad, who remain busy showering Ma with praise for creating a very false peace in the Taiwan Strait. Unless we start seeing external pressure on the government to mend its ways and change course, the recent trends mentioned above bode extremely ill for the future of Taiwan as a free, distinct, and democratic society. (Photo by the author)

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Tourism Bureau’s assault on Falun Gong ... and our intelligence

A nationwide directive targeting the Falun Gong backfires, and the government’s explanation shows that the administration believes we are all imbeciles

One characteristic of the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration that has manifested itself time and again is its tendency to issue a directive, assess the public reaction and, if the latter is negative and it becomes apparent that the government won’t be able to get away with it, attribute the matter entirely to “administrative errors” or “junior” officials. By doing so, the government itself is never to blame for bad policies, and senior officials — President Ma himself — never have to face the consequences.

The latest incident (the whole wiretap mess aside) involves the Tourism Bureau, which on September 26 issues a directive to local governments nationwide to help remove the placards, banners and posters of the Falun Gong spiritual movement that have sprouted at the main tourist attractions where Chinese tourists tend to flock, such as Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in Taipei and the Chikan Tower in Tainan. According to the directive, the signs — which usually contain pictures of past and present Chinese officials accused of crimes against followers of the movement, as well as bloody images of the victims of such repression — are “unsightly” and undermine “Taiwan’s international image.” The bureau allegedly took action after receiving complaints from individuals who are unnamed, but whose political stance (or origin) we can easily guess.

As should be expected in a democracy, the Falun Gong, along with representatives of human rights organizations and legislators, pointed out that the directive was an affront to Taiwan’s democracy and individuals’ freedom of expression. With a small dose of hyperbole, National Taiwan University professor Chang Chin-hwa (張錦華) went as far as to call the measure “fascist.”

Facing the backlash, the Tourism Bureau adopted the Ma administration’s usual formula, explaining that the directive was a mistake by a “rookie official” who had been on the job for a little more than a month. A revised directive would be issued within a week, it said.

This was straight out of the Ma administration playbook: A new policy, this one evidently intended to please the tourism industry as well as the Chinese by removing an inconvenient reminder of CCP repression, backfired, and once it attracted criticism, the whole thing was blamed on a low-ranking scapegoat. And as always, the government hopes that the public will swallow its facile explanations and forgive it the administrative error. Unfortunately for Ma and his friends, people are less and less inclined to believe what it says, especially when the government obviously takes the public for idiots.

Are we really to believe that a rookie official, with less than two months experience at the bureau, had the power, the permission, and the ability to issue a nationwide directive to local governments, one that has repercussions both in terms of politics and freedom of speech? Really? Anyone who has worked in government knows the extent to which the system is weighed down by red tape, forms, and endless chains of approval before anything can happen. This writer experienced this firsthand when he worked for the Canadian government: Even three years into the job, he still required the approval of his immediate supervisor in writing before he could order coffee and donuts for the next day’s meetings with FBI officials, let alone before interacting with municipal or provincial governments.

And yet we are supposed to accept the story that a rookie was capable of singlehandedly issuing a binding directive to governments round the nation, something that clearly requires the approval of senior officials not only within the bureau — which has turned into one of Beijing’s favorite prostitutes in Taiwan — but quite possibly above it as well.    

This government has once again demonstrated its contempt for the public, which it evidently takes for imbeciles. (Photo by the author, Anping Fort, Tainan)

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Bug off: Wiretapping isn’t normal practice

Taiwan’s justice minister says she’d have no problem with the government intercepting her phone communications because she has nothing to hide. When the top judicial official says such things, you know you should be very concerned

When caught doing something wrong, first deny any wrongdoing, and when that fails, downplay the significance of the infraction. This has been the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration’s strategy to deal with the scandal over the Special Investigation Division’s (SID) wiretapping of the Legislative Yuan’s exchange line, which has seriously undermined the government’s reputation and brought public approval rates for Ma into the shameful single-digit category.

After various SID and Ministry of Justice (MOJ) officials were paraded in front of the media and at the legislature, each providing different — and oftentimes contradictory — accounts of the matter, it soon became evident that the public wasn’t buying the rhetoric. A subsequent report by the MOJ, which found nothing more than irregularities and the “accidental” bugging of the legislature’s main telephone line, also failed to convincingly explain why the SID did what it did.

As skepticism mounted, government officials and some members of Ma’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) changed their tactic and endeavored to convince the public that wiretapping is not only a minor intrusion into people’s lives, but a “necessary evil” to combat graft and corruption. No less a figure than Minister of Justice Lo Ying-shay (羅瑩雪) said earlier this week that she wouldn’t mind it terribly if her telephone conversations were monitored, as she has nothing to hide.

That the top judiciary official in a democracy would make such pronouncements should make us pause, for there is nothing banal, routine, or ordinary about the intercept by government agencies of people’s private communications. It’s not OK for the authorities to intrude into other people’s lives, even if they have nothing to hide. Quite the contrary: Although electronic intercepts do play a role in combating corruption and various crimes, they are only permissible as a last resort, and should only be used when every other means — investigation, human sources, and surveillance — have been exhausted and have proven insufficient to accomplish the task.

As it turns out, this author wrote affidavits and federal court warrants for wiretaps in his previous work as an intelligence officer for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, spending countless hours with in-house lawyers drafting the documents, which then had to be presented to a panel and defended in court. Always, the case had to be made that other means of gathering intelligence on a target were insufficient or had failed to yield results, and furthermore the benefits of the material collected via wiretaps had to be weighed against the cost in terms of intrusiveness. Such powers were granted for a short duration and could only be extended through the renewal of a warrant. In other words, wiretapping was governed by, and only allowable under, rules of proportionality.

There therefore was little room for errors of the type enumerated by the Ma administration and in the MOJ report. One did not, for example, wiretap by accident, or bug a line without knowing exactly who the user was. In fact, affidavits had to detail every person, other than the target, who was likely to use the targeted line or whose conversations were likely to be monitored in the course of the execution. All collateral material gathered had to be deleted immediately. Unless Taiwan uses a much less rigorous system to issue warrants for wiretaps, it would have been impossible for the SID to receive a warrant without having listed all the collateral users of the line being wiretapped, which in this case meant every person working in the legislative building.

That such an outrage could occur in Taiwan today indicates that either the courts are negligent in their approval of warrants granting highly intrusive powers to enforcement agencies, or the SID is truly incompetent. Either way, this is unacceptable and must be remedied with utmost expediency.

Beyond that, such comments as those by Minister Lo, who trivialized the seriousness of government monitoring and missed the point altogether, must be countered with the full weight of the democratic principles that serve as the foundations for the nation’s legal system. In democratic societies, there is nothing banal about the wiretapping of ordinary citizens or government officials, whose right to privacy is enshrined in the law. But then again, this would not be the first time that this administration, especially law-enforcement agencies, sought to mislead Taiwanese about the full extent of their rights. (Photo by the author)

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Bigots, religion, and the case for same-sex unions

At the heart of Christian group’s opposition to same-sex marriage is the ingrained appetite for suffering and abnegation, and the desire to make it universal

Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice on Oct. 14 held its first public hearing on the matter of legalizing same-sex marriage, which we should regard as a welcome sign of progressiveness within Taiwanese society. As both supporters and opponents of homosexual unions were invited to participate, the event also highlighted the extent to which intolerance continues to animate certain (by no means all) religious organizations.

The pro side of the argument is pretty straightforward: love is love, and all humans, being equal, should be entitled to the same rights, which includes the right to form a family.

The con side, meanwhile, resorts to more convoluted arguments to deny extending that right universally, and usually conjures unquestioned religious doctrines, pseudo-science or outright bigotry to make its point. Once again, religious groups and organizations such as the Taiwan Union for True Love (台灣真愛聯盟) did not disappoint (apparently “true love” can only manifest itself between members of the opposite sex, everything else being fake or something less).

According to them, marriage can only occur between a man and a woman, and is the only form of union that is suitable for raising children. Purporting to speak for the rights of children, such prophets argue that same-sex partners are incapable of providing the love, stability, and guidance that are necessary for the healthy development of young people. Of dysfunctional families such people have little to say, which implies that a divided household, one that is marred by alcoholism, absenteeism, violence is still better than the alternative of one in which both parent figures are of the same sex. Moreover, their position implies that homosexuality is akin to a contagious disease, that by sheer exposure to homosexuals one is bound to “learn” or “develop” the trait, a view that has exactly no foundation in science (this author, who has a legally and happily married homosexual mother and who for years lived in the gay village in Montreal, never learned or acquired, or was “infected by” homosexuality and remains entirely confident of his sexual preferences).

At the heart of this doctrine is the masochistic Catholic hankering for abnegation and suffering, two conditions that deny reality for the sake of an undefined (and by no means guaranteed) afterlife. Not only does religion tell us that it is acceptable — desirable, in fact — to live a lie, to abnegate one’s true nature, and to be miserable, it instructs us that such personal tyranny should be imposed universally. Only then will one’s personal choices turn into a messianic campaign to meddle in the affairs of others and decide what is best for them by seeking to block amendments to regulations that would make same-sex unions possible and legal.

Every other argument used by the oppositionists is characterized by slander and lies, from the claim that legalizing same-sex unions would encourage promiscuity, incest — hell, bestiality — to warnings that doing so will expose the nation to AIDS, as if HIV/AIDS were solely a problem for homosexuals. Supporters of the oppositionists often counter that such arguments against same-sex unions are protected by their right to freedom of expression, a claim that immediately crumbles as such expressions are acted upon so as to deny other people’s rights (e.g., blocking legal amendments). And when their case is built on lies, intolerance, and a desire to repress others, its messengers must be called by their true name — they are bigots (and please, spare us the “I have nothing against homosexuals, but…”)

As one of the speakers at the hearing said, religion is and should remain a personal matter, not something that is imposed on others. Religious individuals have every right to live their lives as they see fit, even to the extent that some choose to be repressed and unfulfilled. But that’s where it ends; don’t cross the line into the affairs of others, and don’t assume that the Catholic appetite for suffering (and the redemption that supposedly follows) is a universal desire, or one that should be force fed upon individuals who choose to be whole, happy, and fulfilled in this world, in the immediate, rather than in a promised afterlife. (Photo by the author)

Friday, October 11, 2013

Citizen 1985: The real deal, or a false flag? (中文 link at bottom)

We know very little about the group behind three recent mass rallies, but its behavior raises questions about its raison d’etre, and possibly points to something more sinister

When it comes to encouraging Taiwanese to come out and protest or do something for their country, there is never too many people, and the more groups come together to fight for a common cause, the better. But what if some organizations were used not to increase pressure on the government by amplifying a movement, but rather to divide, isolate, and turn society against the elements that are the most threatening to the authorities?

Having attended all three mass rallies organized by Citizen 1985, I (as have many other journalists in recent days) cannot help but feel that the group may very well be intended as a means to prevent the emergence of a force large and united enough to compel the government to change its policies.

This might come across as counterintuitive: after all, no organization in recent years has been as successful as Citizen 1985 in bringing together hundreds of thousands of people at protests — the first two over the death of soldiers in the military, and the last one against poor governance in general during the Oct. 10 “National Day” celebrations. All three occasions were well-rehearsed and lavish affairs, what with the seas of white shirts and flags, large projector screens, emotional soundtracks, and so on. When we contrast those with the much smaller rallies organized by, say, laid-off workers or groups that advocate change in land-management regulations, the Citizen 1985 rallies win hands down, if only in their ability to generate media attention.

However, if we scratch below the surface of the hours-long Citizen 1985 protests, we quickly realize that they are vapid affairs — beyond the catchy slogans, there is little substance, the “ask” lacks focus, and there is little follow-up. This is markedly different from the protests organized by student movements, academics and NGOs that we have seen in the past year, which tend to be much more policy-oriented, well-informed, rigorous, sustained, and which, if successful, have a much better chance of effecting change in how the government manages those issues.

Students protest on National Day
Another important point is the fact that the academics and students who have been mobilizing are known commodities: we know who they are, where they met, which academic institution they are affiliated with, and so on. As for the people behind Citizen 1985, we know next to nothing: we know that they purportedly met in Internet chat rooms and that the group is named after the armed forces’ hotline. In fact, the masterminds have kept their identities obscure, claiming they are doing so to avoid shifting attention away from the object of the protests (an accusation, unfair in my view, leveled against charismatic student leaders like Chen Wei-ting and others). We also don’t know where they obtain the not insubstantial sums of money that are needed to organize such lavish events; surely the NT$100 bills that I saw in the collection boxes during the event on National Day aren’t enough.

Yet another worrying element, and what has been the most significant factor in my reluctance to regard Citizen 1985 as a serious force for change, is the organizers’ emphasis on non-violence and their repeated depiction of the other groups as “violent” and “irrational.” “We are not like them,” one of the leaders told the crowd on National Day as the 60,000 top 100,000 protesters headed for Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, referring to the other organizations that were holding rallies in the area. “We are high-class protesters,” as if the others were “low class” and “uneducated,” when in fact the majority of them are graduate students from the nation’s top universities. The organizers also tend to be control freaks, to the point where even journalists have limited freedom to walk around and do their work.

Why to constant attempts to portray other groups as violent, which isn’t only divisive but, based on my observation of several dozens of their protests in the past year, unfair and misleading? This could simply be the result of competition and jealousy; it could also be part of a more nefarious attempt top discredit the forces that are most likely to destabilize the government. It is interesting that such claims also echo what the government and police forces have been saying about the groups that have mobilized against forced demolitions, the cross-strait services trade agreement, and other issues.

Here it would be tempting to fall into conspiracy theories, but another point worth making — and this again comes from my observations at the scene — is the fact that the relatively small protests organized by the student groups inevitably attract large police forces, more often than not in riot gear. Yesterday morning near the East Gate on Ketagalan Boulevard, a group of no more than 100 students was surrounded by an equal amount of cops bearing shields. The same situation prevailed during the removal of students in front of the Presidential Office after midnight earlier this week. At most of their rallies, the cop-to-protester ratio has always been unusually high for a democracy, and the police has often been willing to forcefully remove the protesters.

But when Citizen 1985 gathers several tens of thousands of protesters, the police force almost evaporates. This was true during the first protest near the Ministry of National Defense on July 20, followed by the big one on Ketagalan Boulevard on August 4, and the one held near the Legislative Yuan and later at CKS Memorial Hall on National Day. How can we explain that? One possibility is that the organizers struck a deal with the authorities and assured them that nothing untoward or threatening would happen. This could very well account for my earlier remark about the control freaks among them, who were on the lookout for “troublemakers” in their midst on August 4. Especially on a day like National Day, where a highly unpopular president was hosting celebrations nearby, assurances that tens of thousands of protesters, who could very well have joined the students on Ketagalan Boulevard, would be redirected away from the scene, contained, and put to sleep with hours of speeches, must have come as a relief to the police force and the government that pays them.

With all this, it is possible to conclude that Citizen 1985 is meant to serve a number of functions, all of them beneficial to the government. It can serve to discredit the organizations that are more focused, more militant, and therefore the likeliest to compel the government to change policies that it does not want to change; it can turn public opinion against the students by depicting them as violent, disrespectful, irrational, and not “high class” enough; it can redirect resources that otherwise would have joined the student movements and thereby assist law enforcement when it faces overstretch; and lastly, it can serve as an opiate by giving society the impression that they are participating in something meaningful, when in fact they are all sheep (they do, after all, wear white) gathering for rallies that the government need not fear and which, in the end, will not lead to policy change. And if nothing happens after hundreds of thousands of people have rallied a number of times, the public could well give up and come to “accept” the inevitability of government policies, or the impossibility of change.

Taiwanese civil society cannot afford to turn down allies. But it must also make sure that those who claim to support their cause are in fact on their side. (Photos by the author)

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

Friday, October 04, 2013

Taiwan’s retired generals: A gold mine for China?

Much is often said about the risks that retired Taiwanese generals will share secrets with the Chinese during exchange visits. However, for China, the propaganda value of such contacts is just as important 

“From now on, we should no longer separate the Republic of China [ROC] Army and the People’s Liberation Army [PLA] — we are all China’s army.” There is nothing particularly shocking about such remarks, which are in line with Beijing’s position on Taiwan, a self-ruled, democratic island it regards as a breakaway province awaiting “reunification.”

But what if the individual who is said to have uttered them wasn’t a PLA officer, but rather a retired Taiwanese general while on a visit to China, during exchanges between purported foes that have become far more commonplace in recent years? Beyond that incident, what are the implications for Taiwan’s security when ex-generals cavort with their PLA opponents across the Strait, play golf with them, or participate in joint conferences?

My article, published today on the China Policy Institute Blog at the University of Nottingham, continues here. (Photo by the author)