Saturday, November 30, 2013

A feast of hatred (updated with video links + 中文 links)

Once again, opponents of same-sex marriage demonstrated that bigotry and intolerance, lies and hatred, are the foundations of their beliefs

After several weeks of buildup, the groups who oppose same sex-marriage in Taiwan descended by the busload on Taipei today for a large protest as the government mulls legal revisions that would make same-sex unions possible. Based on the language that had been used to date, I expected bigotry — and they certainly delivered. In fact, in terms of the magnitude of their intolerance, they showed their true colors.

Opponents of same-sex marriage gather on Ketagalan
According to the organizers, as many as 350,000 people (though probably less) turned up for the event, which was intended as a means to pressure the legislature not to amend Article 972 of the Civil Code, which would open the door to same-sex marriage. Pink was the color theme for the event. There was a variety of placards, many reading “Made in Mommy and Daddy” or “All Kids Need Daddy and Mommy,” among others (I have one dad and three moms, and they all love me; how about that, lady?). Apparently the organizers failed to realize that pink was the very color used by the Nazis — the infamous “pink triangle” — to identify homosexuals. (According to the Holocaust Encyclopedia, the Gestapo arrested as many as 100,000 men as homosexuals between 1933 and 1945. About 50,000 men were sent to regular prison, while between 5,000 and 15,000 were interned in concentration camps.) One of the protesters even turned up wearing a complete Nazi uniform. “I don’t care if people don’t like it,” he said. “I will fight back.” To be fair to the Nazis (I can’t believe I’m saying this!), I would say that many of the haters who came out today were more a mix of Nazis and the KKK.

Not all the protesters who participated at the event were Nazis, of course, but a great many of them were Christians. Even though organizers had called upon their followers to avoid showing any sign that would identity them as members of the Church, the choice of songs left little doubt about their affiliations.

Blocking efforts
Interestingly, in my more than seven years working as a journalist in Taiwan, this was the first time that civilians approached me and told me I was not allowed to take pictures. The site of the protest on Ketagalan Boulevard, they told us as we approached, was a “closed area.” Only after I insisted that I was a journalist, and Ketty told them she was an academic here to study social movements in Taiwan, were we allowed to enter the site. All “security” staff wore special red armbands. There were several hundreds of them, and they kept close tabs on whoever walked around, in a manner that was reminiscent of, but that surpassed in its aggressiveness, the staff of Citizen 1985 who got on my nerves when I tried to cover their protests. Sometimes they would ask people who approached whether they were “for” or “against” same-sex marriage. Those who answered that they were for were barred access. So much for dialogue...

Surrounded by intolerance
This was also one of the rare times when civilians arrogated upon themselves rights and duties that are normally the remit of law-enforcement officers. Groups of protesters repeatedly locked arms, encircled, and blocked people who carried placards supporting gay marriage (see videos here and here and here). Not even the betel nut-chewing thugs hired by the German wind power firm InfraVest to protest their sites in Yuanli, Miaoli County, were this bad. On many occasions, they also prevented me from walking around freely and left me little choice but to collide with them. More than once I asked what right they had to prevent people from moving freely in a public space. I never received an answer.

As the anti-same-sex marriage group formed a tightening circle around members of the United Church (which tolerates homosexuality), a woman berated Ketty for speaking English. “We’re in China, and we speak Chinese here,” she said. Needless to say, if the discriminatory and utterly unnecessary remarks against language weren’t sufficient to anger Ketty, the reference to China did the trick.

Praying to 'heal' a young gay man?
At one point, two men locked arms around a young man who had fallen to the ground while they were pursuing him. I got on my knees next to him and snapped pictures, as several dozens of protesters with their pink placards and banners looked on. They nearly suffocated the poor thing, so closely were they holding him. I looked up and saw a group of Southeast Asian women praying out loud, their arms extended towards the young man. I went over and asked them what they were doing. “We are praying,” one of them said. This much I could tell. “Are you praying so that you will heal him?” I asked, echoing a belief, held by many religious people, that somehow homosexuality is a disease that can be healed. “Why are you asking?” one of them replied with palpable contempt. I told them I was a journalist and that I was curious as to why they were extending their arms in his direction while praying. “We’re just praying,” she said, whereupon they made it clear that his questions — his presence, in fact — were unwelcome. I had my answer: they were indeed trying to heal him.

For people who claim to know about love, the mobilization today was one of pure hatred and discrimination. Group dynamics were evidently at play and confirmed what I have long suspected, that a large number of those who turn to religion do so out of a need to follow, to be told how to think. Many of them are perfectly suited to meet the needs of the authoritarian Church and follow it like sheep, even if this leads them down the road of bigotry. Individually they are cowards, but as a group, they impose their beliefs on others in a way that contradicts what the Book tells them. Challenged with fact, they quickly run out of ideas and run away.

Fighting back with love
For example, ask them to explain how allowing same-sex marriage would lead to bestiality, or how preventing gay unions would eventually solve the problem (homosexuals would disappear over time), and they don’t have a clue how to respond. They’ll have that inevitable smug look on their face, and they will condescend, tell you that they are enlightened by their religion, et cetera. But in the end, their minds are hollow. (The repeated references to bestiality are especially worrying, as this points to a process of dehumanization, whereby the “other” isn’t exactly human and is therefore fair game for all kinds of discriminations. Somehow if one’s partner is of the same sex, he or she is less than human; once we allow that, the next step is presumably having intercourse with animals.) 

Oh, and there was xenophobia, too. A huge sign blamed homosexuality on foreigners. 

Many of the protesters were children and hired helps who obviously didn’t have a clue about the issue. Some children were doing their homework on the ground. One mother firmly held up the arm of her little girl, who obviously didn’t want to be there, for half an hour so that the homosexuals and their supporters who faced them could see the pink placard she was holding. Organizers wanted a large turnout, and they got one. Still, numbers alone don’t mean much unless they are put in a context. There were far, far more people today who expressed their opposition to same-sex marriage, but in the end, they remain the minority. Taiwan, a predominantly Buddhist country, has about 500,000 Christians. Even if every single one of them opposed same-sex marriage and showed up at the protest (not all religious persons are homophobic, but most homophobes happen to be religious), they would still only constitute 1/46th of the total population of about 23 million. That a relatively much smaller number of people turned up to support gay marriage, or didn’t show up altogether, is a sign that for them, this is a non issue and none of their business. We should also add that the LGBT Pride parade held last month, which attracted approximately 65,000 people, had already advocated for the marriage rights of same-sex couples.

The face of pain
Still, as the several thousands of people poured onto the scene, I could not help but try to imagine what it must feel like to be one of the small number of courageous homosexuals who were holding their placards a few meters away, near the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I would be devastated at the idea that so many people would come out, with hatred in their hearts, to deny my very existence, to resent me for something I was born with. No wonder some of them shed tears.

As I mingled with the crowd, I thought about all the other protests I had been to in the past 18 months, all the suffering that I had experienced. Where were those people — people with supposed religious ideals, a conscience, love, compassion — when the government was demolishing the homes of vulnerable individuals? When people who had lost all hope were ending their lives? None of them were familiar faces (the only familiar faces today were on the side of the angels). 

There are so many problems in society, so much injustice that need remedying. And yet, the only cause that prompted those people to mobilize today was one that seeks to deny other people the right to form a family. 

UPDATE: Lawyers have gotten involved, and the victims are planning to file civil lawsuits for slander, false imprisonment, and infringement on personal freedom. They are also considering criminal charges. (All photos by the author)

NEW! Chinese-language translations available here and here.

Friday, November 29, 2013

China’s dangerous gamble

How comfortable we are with this new situation depends on whether we can trust Chinese leaders, air controllers, radar systems, and relatively inexperienced combat pilots to make the right decision 100% of the time

The announcement by China on November 23 that it had established and would enforce an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea is the latest in a series of worrying developments under the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping, and one that unnecessarily increases the risks of miscalculation and war.

Under international law, countries are fully entitled to create ADIZs (not to be confused with “no-fly zones”) near their territories. In fact, several countries, including Canada, have one. However, the zone set up by China last week is somewhat problematic, as it overlaps with ADIZs already established by Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. More controversially, it includes the Senkaku/Diaoyu/Diaoyutai islets in the East China Sea, which are claimed by Tokyo, Beijing, and Taipei, and which have been the source of dangerous tensions between Japan and China.

Consequently, rather than serving the legitimate purpose of helping China protect itself against potentially hostile intrusions into its airspace, Saturday’s move has every appearance of a gambit meant to consolidate China’s sovereignty claims over the contested islands (admittedly, Japan’s own extension of its ADIZ in 2010 served a similar aim).

Given the context and the timing of the decisions, it is difficult to regard the move as other than escalatory. Beijing’s critics didn’t wait long to express their alarm. Hours after the announcement, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called the move “a destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region and “unilateral action [that] increases the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations.” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called it a “dangerous act,” while on November 26 Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs summoned the Chinese ambassador to convey Canberra’s concerns. Taipei has also expressed worries, saying the move undermined President Ma Ying-jeou’s “East China Sea Peace initiative.”

My article, published today on the China Policy Institute Blog at the University of Nottingham, continues here.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

China's ADIZ: Taiwan's Dilemma

If Taiwan ever wants to be an equal participant in regional security, it must stand up to China over the new ADIZ

Like other countries in Northeast Asia, Taiwan reacted with alarm to Beijing’s November 23 announcement that it had established, and would enforce, an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) that extends into the East China Sea and incorporates the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islets. However, Taipei’s precarious situation vis-à-vis China, with which it is seeking to improve relations, seems to have constrained the administration’s ability to react appropriately to China’s unexpected move. 

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

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Lies and hatred are the tools of the desperate

There is no debate or dialogue over same-sex marriage. Its opponents’ totalitarian view of the world makes sure of that

As I’ve written before, ongoing efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in Taiwan is a positive development, and one that points to the modernity of its people. But as seen elsewhere in societies that are moving in that direction, its opponents, aware that they don’t have a case, are resorting to the basest of means to defend their cause — an unholy mix of lies, pseudoscience, and outright hatred.

What always strikes me about the debate between supporters of same-sex marriage and its detractors is that there is no such thing as a debate. Instead, opponents come up with alarmist slogans, campaigns, and literature that are so outlandish as to make rational discussion all but impossible. How can one possibly counter the outlandish claims that allowing same-sex marriage will destroy society, spread AIDS, encourage rape, bestiality, promiscuity, confuse children about their sexuality, or lead nearly half of the population to be homosexual a few decades hence?

How does one reason with individuals who, confronted with scientific evidence demonstrating that homosexuality is genetically determined and not a mental disease, discard such information in the same fashion as creationists deny the very existence of evolution?

Above all, the opponents’ refusal to see reality for what it is — usually for religious reasons — repeatedly contradict the values that the scriptures seek to cultivate in them. On the one side we have a minority group of people (homosexuals) and their supporters, who seek to extend fundamental human rights to a larger group of people; or rather, this group seeks to end the ability of the majority to deny rights to which a minority are fully entitled (marriage). Theirs is a message of love, of equality, and non-denial. There is nobody in that camp who seeks to deny others rights that they already have, or to impose a way of life that does not fit them. Ultimately, their side of the argument simply seeks to expand the sphere of tolerance.

The other side (opponents) turns to hatred and adopts language that is often analogous to that used by the Nazis on the eve of World War II. Everything that has come of from that corner is negative, destructive, and divisive. For organizations that purportedly know about love (or “true love,” as they condescendingly refer to it) through their religion, their discourse is one of hatred and of close mindedness. It repeatedly (and conveniently) ignores the many positive stories, such as that of my family, that have surrounded the coming out of homosexuals, where the sky didn’t fall, the world didn’t end, children weren’t screwed up for life, and everybody involved in fact ended up happier, for all could finally live in truth.

And rather than tolerance, it seeks to impose a narrow understanding of love on every single member of society. Theirs is a totalitarian view, one that brooks no dissent, no argument, and which does not hesitate to use lies, fabrications, and what can only be called alarmist fantasy to scare everybody into submission.

This latter group will hold a street protest on Nov. 30. The colors of the rainbow were theme of the LGBT Pride parade last month, a symbol of acceptance and diversity. Given their hateful views, I can only think of one fitting outfit for those who will protest on Nov. 30 — brown shirts. (Photo by the author)

Friday, November 22, 2013

Exit stage: Leaving the ‘Taipei Times’

After more than seven years, it’s time to move on…

It’s been a little more than seven years since I began work with the Taipei Times, arguably Taiwan’s top English-language newspaper. Seven years, or seven-eighth of my entire time in the country, which has become my second home.

During that period I was a copy editor, editorial and op-ed writer, book reviewer, journalist, and since June 2010, deputy news editor, which is about as high as a foreigner can get within the organization. Over the years, the Times ran about 300 of my unsigned editorials, about just as many op-eds, and close to 200 news articles and features. Several of those articles were quoted or referenced in various works, such as the annual U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission report or the latest book by Richard Bush of the Brookings Institution.

With a bit of luck, my work at the paper may have had a modicum of influence, or at a minimum left its mark. Without doubt, my articles in the Time led to greater things by helping me build enough brand recognition that I could start contributing to larger and more influential publications, such as the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, Jane’s Defence Weekly, The Diplomat, and the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Global Military Balance report, among others. For that alone, I owe a lot to the Times, even if senior management didn’t exactly always appreciate how hard I had to work.

In the past year or so, however, things got from bad to worse with the managers, as we clearly had major differences over what the newspaper should be and the direction it should take. Soon it became apparent that my views were simply not welcome and that what was expected of me as a deputy news editor differed markedly from my understanding of the responsibilities that came with the title (tellingly, whoever replaces me will now have the grand title of “news desk rewriter”).

Furthermore, for reasons that are far too complex to detail here — read my upcoming book Officially Unofficial if you’re interested in finding out what happened — my relations with my supervisors became poisoned in the past 10 months, so much so that it was impossible for me to continue doing my job as a reporter. It appears that I had grown too “big” for them, which made them uncomfortable and insecure. While I regarded my fame, if we can call it that, as a good thing for the newspaper, management chose to see it as a threat. I wanted to be out there, and repeatedly asked to be made a full-time reporter; they blocked me, sought to kill my access, and wanted to keep me locked in a cubicle.

So after fighting for months and going nowhere, it’s time to leave. Today, Nov. 22, is my last day with the paper. Many people have told me that seven years was already too long. I feel no anger at this point, no regrets, and no sadness. Only relief.

Thank you to everybody who supported my work over the years by simply reading my work, or by encouraging me to get better at it. Many people have told me I was the only reason they were still reading the paper. I think it’s far too generous of them, but I humbly accept the compliment.

I’m moving on, but I’m not disappearing. I will seek new challenges while continuing to tell Taiwan’s fascinating story to the world to the best of my abilities, as are many others in the often-frustrating trade of journalism.

By coincidence, my friend Edd Jhong of PNN very deservedly won the Award for Excellence in Journalism today. Everything is in balance... (Photo by the author)

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Failing to connect the dots

Traditional news outlets in Taiwan are irresponsibly ignoring many important stories and thereby preventing foreign audiences from seeing the larger picture — and the blows coming

Seven years working in the media sector in Taiwan have convinced me that traditional news outlets are failing in their duty to report news that really matter. With their obstinate focus on the main political parties and government agencies, news organizations, especially English-language media — including my soon-to-be-former employer — have done foreign audiences a great disservice by excluding other, equally important actors in Taiwan, and thereby prevented them from seeing the bigger picture.

By ignoring or under-reporting civil society, traditional media (foreign wire agencies, top newspapers and main news channels) have disconnected government from the people and thereby created a news environment that can only superficially enlighten the public and the government officials abroad who depend on information to flesh out their Taiwan policies. Not only the editors of top international news outlets, but also those at local media companies often argue that civil society is too “granular” or “insider baseball” a subject to be of interest to foreign audiences.

While this problem probably exists elsewhere, especially among countries regarded as “on the periphery of things,” China’s heavy propaganda machine, which has relentlessly sought to marginalize Taiwan, has without doubt compounded the problem. As has the fact that Taiwan is now a democracy, where human rights violations are not as severe as elsewhere within the region.

Consequently, people and academics who seek to understand Taiwan’s political scene at the street level must turn to non-traditional, non-market-driven and Internet-based media outlets, arguably the last remaining bastions of investigative journalism in Taiwan. As those publications are exclusively in Chinese, non-speakers are for the most part unable to tap into this rich and oftentimes timelier source of information, as are those who, for one reason or another, limit themselves to English media.

Most foreign consumers of news therefore only have an incomplete view of the situation in Taiwan, a situation that is akin to a tourist who is driven around the glitzy neighborhoods of a metropolis but is kept away from the slums.

If newspapers like the Taipei Times, which a good number of people in Washington, D.C., rely on almost exclusively for their information, were more serious about reporting news that matter, much greater effort would be made to plug the many gaps that exist in their reporting. Only then would we avoid situations where Taiwan “experts” cannot understand why a delegation led by Chen Deming (陳德銘), the new chairman of China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS), plans to visit the Taoyuan Aerotropolis next week.

Had the Times and other publications like the Central News Agency been more responsible organizations, they would have reported a lot more on the build-up to the mega-project in Taoyuan, including the expedited hearings which did not meet the standard protocols set by the Executive Yuan for such projects (e.g., the number of public officials in attendance) and where self-help organizations were told that whatever the outcome of the hearings, if the government decided to demolish people’s homes for the project, they could do nothing about it.

The government wants all hearings to be completed by the end of the year, with bidding to start next year.

Responsible news outlets would also focus a lot more on the protests that are brewing over the issue, press releases by the Taiwan Rural Front and other groups, and the suicide earlier this month of a farmer who stood to be among the thousands of victims of the Aerotropolis project. They would also point out that former vice president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮), a native of Taoyuan and former county commissioner there, has been hired as a “consultant” for the project and is now seeking foreign investment.

Of the US$15 billion-plus, 4,700-hectare mega-project, more than 3,200 hectares will involve land expropriation, affecting as many as 12,000 households and several dozen schools, which will all be destroyed if the project is allowed to proceed.

Responsible news organizations would have connected the dots earlier by reporting on the growing instances of government-sanctioned land grabs, the role of land developers and investors, and the manner in which the government has sided with those against the victims. They would have placed more emphasis on those developments, and they certainly would not have buried the few articles they had on the subject in the little-read inside pages, as the Times often does.

And lastly, news outlets worth their salt would have emphasized the fact that under regulations passed last year, China can now participate in infrastructure projects and act as contractors. As CommonWealth magazine reported in late 2012, “Chinese investors are zeroing in on four sectors [of Taiwan’s economy following the new regulation] – landmark infrastructure projects, the high-tech industry, commercial real estate, and logistics and transportation.”

If they were serious about their mandate, traditional outlets like the Times would by now have made clear to foreign readers why ARATS Chairman Chen’s delegation is keenly interested in visiting Taoyuan next week. They would have connected the dots, or helped their readers do so: Thanks to new regulations and more to come, China intends to inject large sums of investment money into Taiwan’s major infrastructure projects, which is a major, non-military component of its plans to gradually take over the island. Not only are there national security angles to this story, but in Taoyuan and elsewhere, hundreds, thousands of Taiwanese are facing the specter of forced evictions and the dislocation that will result from their relocation.

The more the government in Taipei is pressured by Beijing or by corporate interests which stand to benefit from Chinese investment, the more victims there will be, which will in turn exacerbate social instability. So far, foreign readers who rely on traditional media, including individuals in a position to influence U.S. policy, do not seem to be getting this at all, which means that their understanding of the scope and relevance of activist civil society in the country, which has been most responsive to the problem, remains extremely limited.

The fact that people in Washington and elsewhere are asking why Taoyuan will be part of the ARATS delegation’s itinerary next week is a clear indication that traditional news organizations like the Times are failing in their mandate (I am not singling out journalists here; management is often the problem). Of course ARATS will want to visit Taoyuan! (Photo by the author)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What China doesn’t get: A response to Wang Kung-yi

Helping Beijing understand the complexity of Taiwanese society, rather than reinforcing its flawed assumptions, would go a long way in avoiding the kind of reckoning that could prompt China to use force against the island

One of the principal reasons why I fear Beijing will eventually lose patience with the government in Taipei on the “reunification” issue, and therefore likely embark on a more hardline course, is that even after five years of cross-strait rapprochement, Chinese expectations continue to be based on a terribly flawed understanding of the highly complex political dynamics that exist within Taiwanese society.

We should state from the outset that this lack of understanding has nothing to do with the intelligence of Chinese officials and academics. Instead, the blind spot stems from a tendency to regard Taiwan in zero-sum terms, under which only two political forces — the pro-unification and pro-independence camps — are allowed to exist. This world view does not allow for a gray zone: everybody who supports Ma Ying-jeou’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) is in the “good” camp; those who oppose its policies are from the pro-independence Democratic progressive Party (DPP), the “bad” camp, whose supporters Beijing regards as “the minority.”

Of course there are probably thinkers and officials in China who have a more refined understanding of the political environment in Taiwan. But if they exist, their views have not become mainstream to the extent that they are influencing official policy. This is made evident by the inability of the Chinese policymakers who are involved in cross-strait negotiations, and of the academics who participate in cross-strait conferences, to propose anything about unification that isn’t immediately a non-starter, even among the “safe” pan-blue envoys and academics that were selected by the blue camp to represent Taiwan.

What makes Taiwanese politics so complex, and likelihood that the Taiwanese public will be willing to enter into political talks with China so slim, is exactly that gray area in Taiwan, which encompasses swing voters — “colorless,” “light-green” and “light blue” — civic movements, NGOs, and a growing number of mostly young voters who have become disenchanted with the main political parties. This not insubstantial segment of the population is driven more by what could be called civic nationalism (as opposed to ethnic nationalism) than by the “green” versus “blue” politics of independence and unification. What this means, therefore, is that opposition to KMT policies is not necessarily related to independence versus unification or party affiliation.

Domestic matters that directly touch in values, mores, and the ideational characteristics of Taiwanese society, are the main drivers of activism in the gray zone. As a result, civic movements that, for example, oppose the Ma administration’s controversial cross-strait services trade agreement are not necessarily pro-independence or even pro-DPP (many are not). In fact, the forces that have led to the emergence of an activist civil society in the past 18 months are the direct result of the aforementioned disillusionment with “blue” and “green” politics and their ethnicity-based component.

So it does everybody a great disservice when Taiwanese academics publish articles in China-based magazines and newspapers that reinforce Beijing’s dichotomous, and therefore myopic, understanding of Taiwan.

In an op-ed titled “Why be afraid of small protest groups in Taiwan?” (台灣警方為何怕小型團體抗爭?) published in the Hong Kong-based ChinaReview on November 18, Wang Kung-yi (王崑義), a professor of international affairs and strategic studies at Tamkang University, commits such an infraction. Using the protests that surrounded the KMT’s 19th party congress held in Greater Taichung on November 10 as the entry into his subject, Wang, perhaps for the sake of his audience, papers over and therefore oversimplifies the major distinctions that exist between the more than 10 civic organizations that protested on that day. In fact, he places disparate groups such as the 908 Taiwan Republic Campaign, the Referendum Alliance, the Black Island Youth Front and the laid-off factory workers under the umbrella of “pro-independence.”

Anyone who has followed those groups, as I have, will immediately recognize the error in Wang’s position, as the aims of organizations like the Black Island Youth Front and the laid-off factory workers are not related to the independence question, but rather focus on very precise legislative goals. Anyone who has attended the many protests organized by those groups will moreover have been struck by the absence of politicians and legislators from the DPP, not to mention the white-and-green flag associated with the party or with independence.

The DPP’s inability to reach out to those organizations, or to assist them in translating their protests into action items in the Legislative Yuan, has led to a conscious decision among the leadership of those groups to keep the DPP at arm’s length. The composition of the activist groups is also evidence of that, as they comprise “blue” and “green” voters, “Taiwanese,” “Mainlanders,” Aborigines, Hakka, and so on. No single party identification or “ethnic” group has primacy over the others.

This reality also counters Wang’s conspiracy claim that the DPP, having decided to no longer directly involve itself with mass protests, is using the smaller and “more radical” groups of activists as proxies to pressure the Ma administration. No such understanding exists. As a matter of fact, the DPP has repeatedly been criticized for ignoring the efforts of civic organizations, or the value of civil society as a whole.

Wang is right when he argues that police and the government should be afraid of the small organizations. But he is right for the wrong reasons. The so-called “radicalism” of groups such as the Black Island or the Taiwan Rural Front, which he contrasts with the “orderly” Red Shirts and Citizen 1985, isn’t the issue. The unpredictability, connectedness, intelligence, and persistence of those organizations, and above all, the heterogeneous nature of its members, which at long last has succeeded in transcending the blue/green/ethnic divide that for far too long has kept Taiwan a house divided, is what the Ma administration is afraid of, hence the high security, barbed wire, and overuse of the legal system to deter the activists.

Ultimately it is such a force, animated by the dynamics of “colorless” civic nationalism, which will foil China’s designs on Taiwan by highlighting the irreconcilable divide that exists between the two societies. Consequently, helping Beijing understand the complexity of Taiwanese society and the nature of its civic activism, rather than reinforcing its flawed assumptions, would go a long way in avoiding the kind of reckoning that could prompt China to use force against the island. (Photo by the author)

Monday, November 18, 2013

Is the diplomatic truce over? The Gambia incident

President Ma greets Jammeh in Taipei, June 26, 2012
Banjul announced last week that it was cutting ties with Taiwan. Was China behind the move, or was the despot who rules the West African country gambling? 

An air of uncertainty descended upon Taipei on November 14 when he tricolor Gambian flag was pulled down at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, hours after rumors had emerged that Banjul had unilaterally severed ties with Taiwan. By day’s end, it was confirmed that Gambian President Yahya Jammeh had made the move to end nearly eighteen years of diplomatic relations. Taiwan reciprocated on November 18, leaving it with only three allies on the African continent, and 22 worldwide.

The setback — this was Taipei’s first loss of a diplomatic ally since Malawi cut ties in January 2008 and established relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) — immediately gave rise to speculation in Taipei as to whether the so-called “diplomatic truce” established between presidents Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan and Hu Jintao in China had come to an end. Under the informal truce, Taipei and Beijing had agreed to temporarily cease trying to steal each other’s diplomatic allies, often through “checkbook diplomacy,” as the two sides focused on improving bilateral ties.

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

Friday, November 15, 2013

Strait talking - China's military power grows in the Taiwan Strait

China is continuing to build up its military strength while increasing ties with Taiwan, as Beijing maintains its claims on the island. J Michael Cole examines how the shifting balance of forces raises the threat of blockade and armed conflict facing Taiwan

Government officials in Beijing, Taipei, and Washington, echoed by mainstream media, have hailed relations between the two countries across the Taiwan Strait as the most encouraging in more than 60 years. However, an annual report issued by Taiwan's Ministry of National Defence (MND) on 8 October offered an alternative outlook, claiming that China remains the greatest threat to the island's security and is acquiring capabilities to ensure a successful invasion and occupation by 2020. Beijing has never relinquished the military option to occupy Taiwan, which it regards as a province awaiting 'reunification', by force if necessary.

The National Defence Report 2013 was released at a time of growing exchanges between Taiwan - an island of 23 million people with a democratically elected government - and China. Since the election of President Ma Ying-jeou in 2008, representing the National People's Party (Kuomintang: KMT), and his re-election in January 2012 for a second and final four-year term, relations between the two sides across the Taiwan Strait have, on the surface, improved from previous years.

My feature article, published in the current issue of Jane's Intelligence Review, continues here (subscription required).

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Turning the tables: A2/AD against China

new report by the RAND Corporation proposes turning the tables on China by creating a regional A2/AD alliance, relying principally on anti-ship missiles to impose a “far blockade” on China should the latter threaten regional security
Most of the debate that has surrounded the emergence of China as a major military player in the Asia-Pacific has focused on the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) development of an anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) strategy and its potential impact on a U.S.-led regional security architecture that remains anchored to old concepts.
As China expands its military capabilities and, alongside those, its claims to various territories within the region, the PLA has developed and fielded a variety of platforms that are intended to deter and delay external intervention by U.S. forces in, say, an armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait. The much-discussed Dong Feng 21D (DF-21D) anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), which could theoretically threaten a U.S. carrier battle group on its way to the region, is at the core of such a strategy.
Far less discussed, however, is the fact that China’s A2/AD strategy, or the likelihood that it will directly affect the course of a conflict, is contingent on a U.S. or allied response along conventional lines. In other words, China’s deterrence/denial efforts assume two things: first, that outside forces would seek to deploy closer to China in order to conduct operations; and second, that such deployments would involve traditional warships, aircraft carriers, fighter aircraft and bombers — in other words, everything that the ill-defined Air-Sea Battle strategy promises to include.
This “asymmetrical” approach provides China with a relatively inexpensive way to counter an opponent’s superior platforms: the PLA can afford to build and deploy several DF-21D launchers, while the U.S. would be loath to risk losing modern surface combatants, let alone a multi-billion-dollar aircraft carrier.
My article, published today in The Diplomat, continues here.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

The White Wolf’s curveball

The famous (ex-) gangster is cunningly offering money to laid-off factory workers in return for a pledge to drop a planned protest against President Ma on Sunday

Immediately following his return to Taiwan in late June after 17 years of exile in China, former Bamboo Union leader Chang An-le (張安樂) embarked on a campaign to support his political party and the cause of “peaceful reunification” between Taiwan and China.

After showcasing his propaganda booklet and making a series of rather embarrassing appearances on TV talk shows in the summer, Chang, commonly known as the White Wolf, disappeared from radar screens and only re-emerged occasionally, such as when he opened a campaign office in Greater Tainan, a “green” stronghold. Although Chang, who was released on NT$1 million bail, should in theory be busy preparing his defense for an eventual court appearance, the former gangster has apparently been busy engaging in “philanthropy.”

The White Wolf made the news again last month — three days after I encountered him at a famous bar in downtown Taipei — when he called Taiwanese “stupid” for failing to regard themselves as Chinese, and the next day, when he threatened, or offered, to deploy as many as 2,000 of his followers to the KMT’s congress in Taichung this coming Sunday to “protect” President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) against thrown shoes and protesters. Although such a move would evidently put the authorities in a bind, the silence from the Presidential Office and the National Police Administration has been, well, deafening.

Now according to a report in the Chinese-language Apple Daily today, Chang appears to have changed his mind and will no longer extend his “help” to President Ma. Instead — and this is a rather cunning move — the White Wolf is offering to raise money from “friends” and the “business sector” to help the laid-off factory workers who are behind the shoe-throwing campaign repay a NT$30 million fine imposed on them by the Council of Labor Affairs.

This seems generous, and Chang will hold a press conference at 10am tomorrow (Friday) to further explain his plan, which he claims is for the sake of ensuring “harmony in society” (note the CCP terminology). But the workers should approach such offers with great caution, if only for the fact that one never gets a free lunch from gangsters. Through this move, Chang might be trying to buy goodwill from the laid-off workers ahead of next year’s elections, in which his party has expressed interest in fielding candidates; he may also truly be attempting to help the embattled Ma as the protests threaten to undermine his rule (ex-convict and debt collector Tung Nien-tai [董念台] has reportedly called one of the laid-off workers’ representatives several times to convince her to call off Sunday’s protest); finally, he may also expect something in return, and threaten consequences should the workers refuse to do as expected after receiving his financial assistance.

Another question, of course, is where the money would come from. Chang’s affiliations with the CCP are well known, as are his political views regarding the future of Taiwan, which tend to dovetail with Beijing’s (that is, unification).

Later today, the laid-off factory workers’ association issued a response to Chang’s offer, saying that while it was “very grateful,” other ways to pay the NT$30 million fine had already been explored (fund-raising by corporate donors) but dropped in favor of continued efforts to address other systemic deficiencies, including revisions to Article 28 of the Labor Standards Act. In other words, the workers cannot be bought off, and the protests will continue.

Your next move, Mr Chang? (Photo by the author)

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Does China Want a Cold War?

A new video by PLA generals suggests that some in the CCP are eager for a Cold War with Washington 

Time and again in recent years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has berated the West — and the U.S. more specifically — for having what it calls a Cold War mentality, a mindset that it said was detrimental to relations with China and undermined security in Asia. Fair enough, but according to a new video co-produced by China’s National Defense University (NDU) that was leaked late last month, a Cold War is exactly what the CCP needs, and contact with the West is a poison pill that must be avoided at all cost.

It’s admittedly hard to tell how many members of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the CCP adhere to such views, but there is little doubt that 较量无声, or Silent Contest, has some appeal among the more extremist elements within the party, which itself in recent months has warned against the harmful influence of Western values and culture, and passed new regulations to counter their supposedly deleterious effects on Chinese society.

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

Monday, November 04, 2013

Taiwanese Army receives first six of 30 AH-64E attack helicopters

Taiwan is the first foreign customer of the ‘Echo’ model, which is lighter and more nimble than its predecessor

In a long-awaited moment, Taiwan today received delivery of the first six of a total of 30 Boeing Co AH-64E Apache helicopters from the U.S. Another batch will arrive next month, with full delivery expected by the end of 2014, according to the Ministry of National Defense.

The Echo model — the most advanced in the Apache family — comes equipped with the AN/APG-78 “Longbow” Fire Control Radar and AGM-114L “Hellfire” missiles. As I reported last year, part of the “Echo” model’s advantages are its improved composite main rotor blades, which are 15cm longer than those used on older models, as well as a new tip design and General Electric T700-GE-701D engines, all of which give the aircraft improved aerodynamic performance. The AH-64Es’ new power-to-weight ratio also makes it safer for low-altitude operations and gives it a performance similar to that of the AH-64A, which was significantly lighter than the AH-64D Block II model.

Taiwanese Army pilots began undergoing training on the AH-64E at an Army base in the U.S. in November last year. The “Echo” will add to the Army’s 60+ AH-1W “Cobra” attack helicopters, which it acquired in 1990. Its principal role will be to counter an amphibious attack/landing by enemy forces.

Taiwan is the first foreign client for the AH-64E (the initial contract was for the AH-64D Block III), which it procured as part of a US$6.4 billion arms package released in October 2008 (the Apaches account for about US$2.5 billion of the total). The US Army received its first model in 2011. (Photo: CNA)

Saturday, November 02, 2013

An uneasy peace between China and Taiwan

Yes, the world can learn a few things from Taiwan about how to engage China. But we should not ignore the idiosyncratic nature of the relationship

As Brian Lee Crowley recently argued in these pages, China’s rise has sent the international community scrambling for ways to deal with its implications, and no country has more at stake in getting the relationship right than Taiwan, the democratic nation of 23 million people that Beijing regards as part of its “indivisible” territory.

Yes, the world — and Canada — can and should learn a lot from Taiwan’s experience in dealing with the Asian giant, and Crowley, who recently visited the island, is absolutely right when he says that we should fully engage with China with our eyes wide open. That being said, there is a lot about Taiwan’s dealings with China that is idiosyncratic and which therefore makes its relationship an imperfect model for the rest of the world. And that, sadly, is airbrushed out in Crowley’s otherwise fine piece.

A lot of what is left unsaid stems from the common perception that relations between Taiwan and China have improved dramatically since President Ma Ying-jeou of the Chinese Nationalist Party, or KMT, came into office in 2008. Indeed, tourism, trade, cultural and educational exchanges have boomed in the past five years, and the two countries have signed no less than 19 agreements during that period. China is now Taiwan’s top source of tourists and, as Crowley points out, an increasingly important trade partner for the island.

But all of this has taken place literally under the gun. While academics, journalists, and heads of state have all hailed the rapprochement in the Taiwan Strait and never miss an occasion to argue that relations are the best they’ve been in the past 60 years, many experts have been baffled by the fact that détente hasn’t resulted in a drawdown of the immense military forces facing Taiwan.

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

Friday, November 01, 2013

Twenty-three million invisible men and women

Even well meaning and informed experts often ignore the single most important element in the cross-strait equation — the Taiwanese

Call it a coincidence. Today I revisited, after nearly 20 years, Ralph Ellison’s masterful novel Invisible Man. A few hours later I came upon an article in The Diplomat that, while making a solid case as to why peaceful unification between Taiwan and China is in unattainable dream, committed the same mistake that almost every journalist, government official and ordinary person almost invariably make when it comes to Taiwan: the author wrote off Taiwan’s 23 million people.

Far too often, experts, pundits and government officials treat Taiwan as a mere pawn on a chessboard (“Taiwan as a way to keep China within the first island chain”), a means to an end (“a gateway to China,” or “an example in democratization for China”), or simply something to be given away in exchange for something else (“hand Taiwan over to China so that Beijing will be a better partner on North Korea”). In all of this — and it happens often — Taiwanese are altogether ignored, as if they had no will of their own or say over their destiny.

Now Kerry Brown’s piece in The Diplomat today commits no such infraction and hits the nail on the head by arguing that the greatest obstacle to unification lies in Beijing (I would argue that this is the second-greatest obstacle, but more later), whose increasingly authoritarian system simply cannot work with Taiwan’s democracy (he likens the experiment to trying to mate horses with bears).

But then Brown stumbles when he attempts to project scenarios where, he asserts, unification would more likely come about. “A reformed polity in China that was more pluralistic, open, based on the rule of law and accountable, whether the Communist Party is at the heart of it or not, would pose much harder questions to opponents of unification in Taiwan,” he writes.

This is the author’s assumption and, if I may be so blunt, it is an unproven one. Similarity of political systems, values, languages, culture certainly facilitate exchanges, but by no means do they guarantee willingness for any form of political union. Based on this premise, we would immediately conclude that if the U.S. democratized (I couldn’t help it; after all, as the great Canadian bard Leonard Cohen once said, democracy is coming to the U.S.A.), somehow Canada would agree to become part of it. Nationalism is a river than runs far deeper, and after more than 100 years-plus of separate existence, we simply don’t know whether Taiwanese would agree to become part of China. My informed bet is that they wouldn’t, for reasons similar to those that differentiate Americans from British, New Zealanders from Australians, or Belgians from French. Hell, the Czechs and Slovaks dissolved Czechoslovakia in 1993 after the country had once again become democratic! 

Which leads me to my next point: Rather than make guesses, why don’t we ask the Taiwanese themselves? What opinion polls already tell us is that even among the small percentage who support unification, many only do so on the condition that China democratizes. This, however, doesn’t mean that those who favor independence would support it any less following a dramatic change in the nature of China’s political system.

I’m not entirely sure that Brown is interested in any of this, though, as he then concludes his article with the following: “If there is a genuine chance of Beijing winning the historic prize of unification it is on conditions of political reform along the lines of Taiwan. President Ma in Taipei,” he writes, “should simply look Beijing in the eye and say, ‘Come on, I dare you to change, and if you do, then the historic prize is in your grasp.’”

First of all, Taiwan isn’t a prize to be won by anyone. And secondly, even as president, Ma has no right to make such a decision on behalf of Taiwan’s 23 million souls. It is their country, and its destiny lies in their grasp, not in Ma’s, and certainly not in Beijing’s — unless, that is, they themselves decide to abandon that right. (Photo by the author)