Wednesday, December 24, 2014

One Same-Sex Unions, the KMT Belongs in a Museum

The KMT-led administration’s antediluvian stance on same-sex marriage is symptomatic of an apparatus that continues to reject modernity 

By once again tackling this subject I fear that I may beating a dead horse, but the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration’s position on same-sex marriage, so abhorrently expressed at the legislature earlier this week, is so symptomatic of everything that is wrong with his government and the party that he led until recently that I fell compelled to comment anew. 

To put it succinctly, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) doesn’t seem that have learned any of the lessons that were taught it this year. Neither the Sunflower Movement occupation of the Legislative Yuan nor the resounding defeat it suffered in the Nov. 29 nine-in-one elections seem to have affected how the executive and legislative branches under its control regard society. 

Yes, Cabinet ministers on both occasions opined that the administration had heard the voice of the people, that it needed to consult society and youth, and must do better at explaining its (invariably sound) policies to the public. But those were platitudes uttered by politicians who remain wed to an institution that has failed to move into the 21st century. 

My editorial, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by the author)

Monday, December 22, 2014

Arms Sales to Taiwan: Ending the ‘Brutal Interference’

China is successfully cracking down on the means by which the U.S. provides military assistance to Taiwan. It’s time to change the rules of the game... or to play a new game altogether 

Beijing’s reaction on Dec. 19 to U.S. President Barack Obama’s signing into law of an act of Congress authorizing the sale of four decommissioned Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates to Taiwan — saying the move “brutally interferes in China’s domestic affairs and undermines China’s sovereignty and security interests” — was, by standards of Chinese anger over previous arms sales to the island, a bit overdone. The outburst, over what is arguably a minor transfer of defense articles, can only mean one thing: After years of successfully deterring Washington from selling weapons to Taiwan, Beijing is redefining what constitutes “acceptable” arms transfers to Taiwan and what isn’t. 

Up until recently, China’s ire over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan was usually sparked by the announcement of billion-dollar arms packages to Taiwan, which furthermore consisted of modern defense articles (PAC-3 air defense systems, F-16 combat aircraft, submarines) that would ostensibly directly affect the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait. In those cases, Beijing would file an official complaint, threaten sanctions against the U.S. firms involved in the sale, and would temporarily suspend military-to-military exchanges with the U.S. 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by the author)

Friday, December 19, 2014

President Ma’s Honeymoon With Beijing Is Over: Implications for Taiwan

Ma Ying-jeou’s fall from grace may lead Beijing to focus more of its efforts on grooming allies at the grassroots level 

The vagaries of democracy being what they are, it was almost inevitable that President Ma Ying-jeou’s honeymoon with Beijing would come to an end at some point. While it may be tempting to pinpoint the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) disastrous showing in the November 29 nine-in-one elections as the day when the Taiwanese president fell out of favor with Beijing, in reality that process began several months ago. 11-29 only sealed Ma’s fate — and possibly that of the party he no longer chairs. 

That it would come to this shouldn’t surprise us. In 2008, when Ma assumed the presidency, a majority of Taiwanese supported — or did not actively oppose — his efforts to normalize relations with China, the world’s second-largest economy. Most Taiwanese understood that the export-dependent nation of 23 million people couldn’t afford to ignore the elephant next door. 

Less acknowledged was the fact that thawing relations across the Taiwan Strait, mostly in the economic sphere, was made possible by the consolidation of Taiwanese identity, an identity that, once Ma went to far, made sure he could not cross certain lines. 

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

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Were Taiwan’s nine-in-one elections a referendum on Ma’s China policy?

What was foremost on voters’ minds on Nov. 29 was the need to elect officials who can govern with accountability and who are capable of striking a balance between development, people’s rights, the environment — and yes, Chinese capital 

The dust from the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) routing in the Nov. 29 local elections had yet to settle when analysts within the green camp started arguing that the results constituted a referendum on President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) “pro-China” polices. Some held to this belief religiously, and in an unusual instance of disagreement, even turned on the victorious Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) envoy to the U.S. for daring to argue while on a visit to Washington, D.C. that a “China” referendum it wasn’t. 

So who’s right, and what does the outcome of the “nine-in-one” elections tell us about Taiwanese attitudes? Did the Taiwanese public say “no” to China, or did other factors weigh more heavily on their voting decisions? 

My assessment is that Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), the DPP’s envoy to Washington who, as if he wasn’t busy enough already, doubles as party secretary general, was absolutely right in his briefing to U.S. officials that the elections were not a referendum on the KMT’s cross-Strait policy, and partly right when he argued that “cross-Strait relations were not debated as part of this election.” 

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

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Taiwan's 'black Saturday' election: A rebuke to China

The Nov. 29 elections will likely make it far more difficult for President Ma to continue to deepen the relationship with China 

As millions of Taiwanese headed for the polling stations across the nation last weekend, there was a general sense that change was at hand. And as the results of the vote started trickling in during the evening, it soon became clear that the political scene in Taiwan was about to become a much different place. 

My article, published today on CNN, continues here.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Much Deserved Slaughter

The KMT has grown complacent, distant from the public, and unwilling to negotiate with civil society. It paid a hefty price on Nov. 29 

This political junkie couldn’t possibly be in a worse position: An hour hence, he will be boarding a transcontinental flight about 90 minutes before the official results of the nine-in-one elections are released to the public. In other words, he will have to wait an excruciating 14 hours before he can find out how the election went. However, if the trends at this time of writing are any indication, Taiwan could be a markedly different place by the time his plane lands in the Americas. 

My op-ed, published on Nov. 30 in Taiwan News (p. 6), continues here. (Photo by the author.)

Friday, November 28, 2014

Worrying Trends in Taiwan’s Law Enforcement Practices

The incidents that occurred during a protest on Nov. 27 are part of a gradual deterioration observed in the past 48 months, made worse in the wake of the Sunflower occupation

I’ve heard it all before, and it goes something like this: Yes, Taiwanese law enforcement sometimes uses excessive force, and yes, journalists are sometimes prevented from doing their work, but overall, the situation in Taiwan is a lot better than in many other countries. All undoubtedly true, especially in light of the recent developments in the U.S. and the continued assault on press freedoms worldwide, from Poland to next-door China. But should we settle for “less bad”? Should not infractions, when they do occur in Taiwan, result in outcry, and calls for improvement?

The latest incident occurred on Nov. 27 outside the Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC) in Taipei, where a group of supporters of laid-off tollbooth workers were protesting. The “e-Tag” issue has been with us since January, when the electronic system resulted in the layoff of hundreds of workers who had manned the poll collection stations for several years.

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by the author.)

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Crass electoral politics and the role of a militant civil society

The principal legacy of the Sunflower Movement is that more and more Taiwanese are now paying attention to the quality of the leadership between elections and are willing to take action if quality is found to be lacking 

Merely 48 hours to go before Taiwanese across the nation cast their votes in the nine-in-one local elections. With regulations barring the release of polling data ten days prior to the election, one can only now speculate about how each party, along with independent candidates, will fare on Nov. 29. What is known, however, is that facing the prospects of a major setback, the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has begun to sound desperate and taken eleventh-hour measures that, while possibly giving its candidates an edge over their opponents, could backfire by further discrediting them in the eyes of a watchful—and battle hardened—civil society. 

My article, published today on the CPI Blog, University of Nottingham, continues here.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Musings on the Taipei Elections: Why It’s Hard to be ‘Neutral’

If I’ve struggled to find positive things to report on about the Lien camp, it’s because the latter hasn’t provided much to work with 

I’ve already written a number of articles about the ongoing nine-in-one elections, and it therefore isn’t my intention here to engage in a deep analysis of their proceedings and impact. My aim here simply consists of jotting down a few impressions of what’s happened to date, and to briefly discuss the challenges — especially in the race for Taipei, where I have resided for nine years — in remaining a “neutral,” though interested, observer. 

The first thing that comes to mind is what a Taiwanese couple in their 50s told me when we briefly chatted during the “Hug for Taipei” walk in support of independent candidate Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) on Sunday. As we approached the Zhongxiao-Fuxing intersection, the husband approached me and asked the usual questions — where I was from and what I did in Taiwan. Having dispensed with those, we then moved to the pith: Could I vote? Did I have a favorite candidate? Was my reporting on the election neutral? And had I, as a journalist, attended other rallies, especially the one held the previous day by Sean Lien (連勝文), the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) candidate? The answers were no, yes, no, and no, though I did watch the Lien rally on TV. 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by the author)

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Lien Supporters Turn Violent, Attack Protesters

Police inaction during a political event where unidentified individuals assaulted peaceful activists raises questions about possible complicity with gangsters 

The deplorable scene just outside the campaign rally for KMT mayoral candidate Sean Lien (連勝文) was bound to happen. Following weeks of vile attacks and fabrications against Mr. Lien’s opponent Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), and realizing that such tactics have failed to turn public against the surgeon-turned-independent-candidate, tempers in the pan-blue camp have understandably flared. 

The anger boiled over on Friday (Nov. 21) when a group of supporters of laid-off tollbooth workers (who lost their jobs because of the e-Tag) turned up at a pro-Lien rally in Taipei, where President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), for months the target of their activism, was expected to stomp for his party’s candidate. What happened next was an embarrassment for both the KMT and law enforcement at the scene. 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here.

Friday, November 21, 2014

He Also Drank the Blood of His Patients

Everything having failed, the KMT now wants us to believe that Taipei mayoral candidate Ko Wen-je is Dr. Frankenstein 

I’ve written two articles in the past week detailing the series of scandalous attacks that the desperate Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has launched against Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), the independent mayoral candidate for Taipei City in the Nov. 29 elections. Had I waited another day, I would have had yet another example. And this latest one, which broke on Thursday, tops it all, both in terms of the defamatory nature of the accusations and in the dullness of the accusers. 

So here it is. Since launching his campaign for the capital, Ko has been accused of: misusing hospital funds; bullying nurses; harvesting organs taken from Falun Gong victims in China; unduly taking credit for an operation on his opponent Sean Lien (連勝文) in 2010 after the latter was shot in the face, being a Japanese colonial subject; launching the “worst slander campaign in the nation’s history” against Lien; being a closet “splittist”; and having a “secret contract” with the opposition DPP. 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here.

Attack of the KMT Dinosaurs

To survive in Taiwan, the KMT needs to let go of the past, and its new leaders must intervene when old hands engage in rhetoric that has no place in modern Taiwanese society 

It’s election season in Taiwan once again, as millions of its citizens prepare to elect an astounding 11,300 local officials nationwide on Nov. 29, in what will be the largest election in the country’s history. With the prospects for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) of retaining control of the historically “blue” capital of Taipei looking grimmer by the week, familiar voices in the pan-blue camp have resorted to inflammatory rhetoric that, besides damaging their candidate’s chances, has shown just how out of touch they are with contemporary Taiwan. 

Of course the blue camp has only itself to blame for the situation in Taipei. Sean Lien, the KMT candidate, has run a lackluster campaign in which blunders have been far more frequent than policy proposals and where personal attacks against his principal opponent, independent Ko Wen-je, have set the tone for the entire exercise. With a little more than a week left before the elections, Lien, the son of former KMT chairman Lien Chan, is trailing Ko, a surgeon-turned-politician, by about 13 points. Over several weeks of intense campaigning, every form of attack against Ko — wiretaps, accusations of corruption, of transplanting organs taken from Falun Gong practitioners, of abusing hospital staff, of having a secret contract with the opposition Democratic Progressive Party — has failed. Using wit, humor and, most importantly, evidence, Ko has deflected the volleys and succeeded in keeping the moral high ground, which has had great appeal among young voters and the 20 percent or so of voters who fall in the “undecided” category. 

Ko’s most formidable weapon is also what has the KMT in a panic: a complete novice, he is not the sort of typical politician who will fight the KMT symmetrically. 

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

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Elections in a time of democratic malaise

Taiwanese voters have good reasons to be disillusioned with much of the campaigning ahead of the nine-in-one elections on Nov. 29. But there is still hope for a democratic rejuvenation

On Nov. 29 millions of Taiwanese will once again exert their hard-earned right to choose the men and women who will represent them at the local level for the next four years in nationwide elections of unprecedented scope. Known as the nine-in-one elections, this democratic exercise involves mayors, chiefs, councilors, commissioners, lizhang and other local titles for a total of 11,130 seats. Though there is much to celebrate in holding such elections, several incidents that have occurred during the campaign period serve as a reminder that Taiwan’s young democracy isn’t in very good shape. 

While mudslinging is not unusual in Taiwan’s ebullient democracy (or in any democracy, for that matter, including more “mature” ones), the practice of character assassination, insinuation, and trial by media has reached levels hitherto unseen in the island-nation, casting a pall on the ideals that, on paper at least, are the pride of its 23 million people, “blue” or “green.” 

Arguably, one of the principal reasons why negative campaigning has been so prominent in the elections is that many of the candidates simply didn’t have cogent platforms to start with. In fact, with the exception of a few municipalities, the campaigns have been overwhelmingly lacking in substance and imagination, with candidates banking on the traditionally secure votes along party lines (“greens” voting DPP and “blues” voting KMT, with smaller parties accounting for a small percentage of the ballots). 

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

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Wanted: Taiwan’s National Capital

Up until recently, a brochure released annually by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated Taipei as the capital of Taiwan. Not anymore 

Taiwan is one of those places that simply sells itself, blessed as it is with natural splendor and a lovely, dynamic, and welcoming people. It is little wonder, then, that just about anyone who visits it becomes one of its unofficial ambassadors, flag bearers for the protection of a nation that is unique and precious. 

But as you invite family members or friends over for a visit, you might want to make sure they do not turn to The Republic of China (Taiwan) at a Glance, a brochure produced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) for information about, say, things like the nation’s capital — at least not the current version. 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by the author)

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Nightmare in Taipei: A fiction

In my years as an aspiring novelist, I have written several tales (most of them unfinished) in which a hapless protagonist would run into difficulties at the airport due to extraordinary circumstances, in which the laws of logic that tenuously hold our world together, as J. G. Ballard would surely have put it, suddenly ceased to apply. In one, the main character, on his first visit to the People’s Republic of China, was swallowed by a Kafkaesque security system and only set free (or sent packing, that is) after he agreed, following weeks of resistance, to tell the lie that the authorities wanted to hear. 

Little did I expect, then, that I myself would become involved in such a fantasy when I returned to Taiwan from an overseas trip earlier this month. I write this from a dank hovel in one of the remoter corners of the city, hiding in the shadows for fear that the sunlight will again expose me as the fraud that I am not. As long as the Other is still out there, I cannot be myself. It’s simply too dangerous.

I got off the plane bleary eyed and my joints hurting after spending nearly 24 hours at various airports and crammed in economy class. Ours was the first landing of the day, and so I could expect a quick resolution of the necessary hurdles at the immigration desk. Upon reaching the dimly lit immigration area, I discovered that I was alone there. Only two kiosks were open, and I sauntered towards the one under “Resident Card Holders.”

It’s hard to explain, but in recent years I have come to enjoy the immigration process; it’s the lining up that annoys me. Where most passengers tighten up upon presenting their passport to the agent, I can say that I am genuinely relaxed and good humored. The predictability of routine events, I suppose, has something to do with it.

I crossed the red line and with a smile handed my passport and residency card. The agent, a woman, swiped my passport and hit a few keys on her keyboard. The usual. She asked me to look into the little orb-shaped camera on the desk, something that travelers are asked to do on occasion. Again, there was nothing unusual in this, so I complied. Sometimes they took your picture. Sometimes they didn’t. The standard random little things that airports did to people.

The first signal that something was wrong was when the woman’s brows knitted quizzically. She rose her head to stare at me, pulled up her reading glasses, and brought my passport, open to the picture page, to within a few inches of her face. She looked up at me again.

“Is this really you, Mr. C—?” she asked.

My only reaction was to laugh. “Yes,” I said. “I can assure you that this is me.”

The woman seemed unconvinced and again repeated the motions of staring into my passport and comparing the picture there with the man who was standing before her on the other side of the booth.

“I don’t think it is.”

“I’ve admittedly put on a few pounds,” I replied, still amused and convinced that the agent had decided to have a bit of fun. “And my beard is longer than it was three weeks ago. But that is definitely me. I am I.”


Motioning me to stay put, she took hold of a telephone and without dialing delivered a short barrage in Mandarin. A minute or so later, a male officer arrived and the pair exchanged a few words while the man stared intently at the computer screen. She handed him my passport, which he inspected before staring at me with narrowed eyes. By this point, I was no longer amused. I suddenly became keenly aware that I needed a shower.

“I’m sorry, but you are not him,” the man said, holding the open passport up so its inside faced in my direction. The picture of me stared defiantly back at me, and for a second it seemed like I was in fact starting at a stranger. “This is not Mr. C—.”

“Of course this is me,” I said, my voice rising. I turned around, fearing that a line of impatient travelers had by then formed behind me, but was shocked to see that I was still alone. “How can you say this is not me!”

The man emitted a laugh, but his eyes contained no humor.

“Because,” he said, his head shaking contemptuously, “the real Mr. C— entered Taiwan the day before yesterday using a legal passport.”

The room started to spin. Very slowly it spun, but enough to make me feel like I was about to throw up. It was one of those moments when the fabric of reality seemed to have unraveled, like the split second before a terrible car accident shatters the normalcy of routine life. In that brief but eternal instant, one finds himself seized by overwhelming doubt: Was I wrong all along?

No, surely it wasn’t so.

“What is this,” I asked, laughing. “Operation Shylock?”

“Now don’t be silly,” the female agent retorted, evidently not amused by my reference to American literature. “That was a work of fiction.”

With that, powerful hands grabbed me from behind and I was dragged away from the immigration area and deposited into a small detention room.

Hours went by, during which I was visited by a number of agents who asked me a series of questions about my true identity and the reasons why I was trying to enter the country illegally. Was I a terrorist? A secret agent? Did I traffic drugs? Firearms? Round and round it went, with no apparent issue. I didn’t know what to do. It was as if gravity had ceased to exist, and try as I might I could not bring back the Newtonian forces that would make everything normal again. Someone brought food, but I didn’t touch it.

I may or may not have dozed off for a while. When I came back to my senses, a new agent was standing above me. He was smiling broadly.

“Good news,” he said as he helped me get off the little couch I’d been slouching on. “They’ve cleared the whole thing up. An unfortunate mix-up, really. You are free to go, Mr. C—.”

My two pieces of luggage, which I had not been able to claim since my arrival, stood by the door. I seemed I was indeed a free man. I walked right by him without saying a word, grabbed my suitcases, and exited the room.

“Wait!” the man came running after me. “Your passport.” I took it sullenly and walked away. I dragged myself over to the taxi area, grabbed a cab, and gave the driver the address of my apartment in Taipei, where I lived alone. The world was normal again, everything was as it should be. The industries, houses and temples, all grayish blue against the verdant mountains in the early morning, zipped by outside the window, all in their proper place. Even my passport had been stamped.

The cab dropped me off just outside the four-story apartment complex I’d lived in for several years. I was home, finally, looking forward to the grounding that home provides us after extended travel overseas, not to mention the nightmare at the airport that I had just awakened from.

Grabbing one suitcase by the side handle, I unlocked the front door and began ascending the four flights of stairs (mine was one of those 1950s-era buildings that didn’t have elevators). I reached my floor, panting. I’d drop off the first suitcase in and go back downstairs to bring up the second after a bit of rest and a glass of water.

Then just as I was about to insert the key into the lock, I heard it, which sent cold chill down my spine. The unmistakable sound of the TV playing inside my apartment. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Xi Jinping Turns the Screws on Taiwan

Beijing’s recent hardening on Taiwan, from its insistence on 'one country, two systems' to accusations of espionage using Chinese students, stems from a mix of paranoia and cold political calculation 

Not unlike other authoritarian and totalitarian regimes throughout history, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has always had a paranoid streak, whose stridency has ebbed and flowed according to the times. In periods of high instability, such as during the Cultural Revolution, the CCP leadership went to extraordinary lengths to eliminate its enemies — real and imagined. Unrest in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and signs that Taiwan may be “slipping away” after half a decade of cautious rapprochement, seem to have engendered a new phase of paranoia in Beijing, as evidenced by the detentions of and travel restrictions imposed against dozens of Chinese individuals in recent months. 

Those measures have been accompanied by an increasingly xenophobic line in Zhongnanhai. President Xi Jinping, the hoped-for reformer who, as it turns out, is very much the strongman, has repeatedly warned against “pollution” by Western values and has directed the implementation of policies to counter such nefarious influences. Chinese agencies and propaganda outlets, meanwhile, claim to have uncovered “evidence” of several plots hatched abroad to destabilize China. 

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

Monday, October 27, 2014

LGBT Rights v. the Anti-Rational Passions of the Right

Opponents of same-sex marriage in Taiwan might not be aware of it, but much of the rhetoric they use comes from ultra-conservatives on the American right, climate change deniers and white supremacists 

One thing that can be said of the organizations that have mobilized in recent years to oppose same-sex marriage in Taiwan and elsewhere is that they are tenacious. Over and over again, they have repeated the same rhetoric with the expectation that, by dint of insistence, they will obtain what they want — or in this particular case, prevent others from obtaining what they want. Two strategies, religious texts and pseudo-science, are at the bottom of those efforts. Knowing where the language comes from can help Taiwanese society make enlightened decisions on the ongoing controversy. 

The principal actor in Taiwan is the Protect the Family Alliance, a group that has taken the lead in opposing proposed regulations to the Civil Code that would legally recognize unions between individuals of the same sex. Time and again the Alliance, which in no small part has been inspired by a rigid interpretation of Christianity, has resorted to what can only be referred to as fantasy to make its case against homosexual unions, with warnings of attendant social ills that have much in common with the fire and brimstone sermons of ancient times: social chaos, the spread of AIDS, bestiality, incest, polygamy, erosion of morals, assault on human rights and freedom of speech, and so on. 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by the author)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

From Gunboats to Nuts and Bolts

The age of major U.S. arms sales to Taiwan is probably over. But Washington can still play a key role as Taipei shifts to indigenous production 

Despite the recent optimism expressed by some of the participants at the 13th annual U.S.-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference held earlier this month in Williamsburg, Virginia, the days when the U.S. sold billion dollars of military platforms to Taiwan are probably over. It has been more than three years since the U.S. released a major arms package for the island, the longest period since the early 1990s. Barring a radical shift in Washington, we can expect that the U.S. government will maintain its current strategy of seeking to avoid angering Beijing with major sales of military equipment to Taiwan — and this despite a hardening stance in the U.S. vis-à-vis a China that, after years of cajoling, has become increasingly belligerent. 

For those in Taiwan who contend that China remains a major military threat (the authoritarianism of President Xi Jinping should dispel any belief to the contrary), Washington’s reluctance to directly sell to Taiwan the defense articles that it needs — submarines, 4.5/5th-generation aircraft, modern surface combatants and so on — can be alarming, as major arms sales have historically carried the important symbolic value of political support. A decision by Washington to no longer sell major weapons systems to Taipei could therefore be interpreted as a sign that the U.S. is ready to “abandon” Taiwan. 

But don’t throw in the towel just yet. An end to major arms sales — one of the lynchpins of U.S.-Taiwan relations since 1979 — doesn’t necessarily mean that Taipei has lost the support of its longstanding ally. Rather, this development reflects the current geopolitical situation, one in which China now ranks as the world’s second-largest economy in a global economic system where Beijing carries a lot more weight than it did just a decade ago. 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by the author)

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Are Chinese Exchange Students the Key to Reform in China?

Tens of thousands of young Chinese study abroad every year, including here in Taiwan. But doubts remain as to the impact that their exposure to Western liberal ideas can have on the future of China 

No matter what we think about President Ma Ying-jeou’s opening up of Taiwan to visitors from China, one indisputable outcome of that policy is that it has created opportunities for Chinese to learn about Taiwan. For the first time, Chinese tourists, students, and businesspeople can experience Taiwan for what it is without the filters — in the education system, the media, and the political discourse — that warp Chinese perceptions on life on the other side of the ideological divide. Since the policy was implemented, millions of Chinese have visited Taiwan, thousands of them students. While this gives us reason for hope, we much nevertheless ask whether the majority of the Chinese who cross the Taiwan Strait are here to learn. In some cases, they evidently aren’t. 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by the author.)

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Embracing Amnesia

A review of Louisa Lim’s ‘The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited’ 

It is often said that ignorance is bliss. But what are the consequences when ignorance, encouraged, imposed and enforced by an overly paranoid state apparatus, mixes with the volatile juices of xenophobia and nationalism? According to an engaging and all-too-human new book by journalist Louisa Lim, the results are a widening moral vacuum and loss of humanity — and very likely, a threat of unprecedented proportions to global peace. 

Using the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989, as her centerpiece, Lim’s The People’s Republic of Amnesia uses eight interlocking themes to demonstrate that while the policy of amnesia imposed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) following the bloodshed in Beijing has bought it time, such measures can only mean that the vicious circle of repression and corruption that has haunted China since time immemorial will never be broken. 

My book review, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here.

Is Xi Losing Control of China's ‘Peripheries’?

Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Taiwan — they’re all connected. And President Xi seems to be panicking. A look at the quick unraveling of Beijing’s previously calibrated approach to Taiwan 

As tens of thousands of activists continue to defy the authorities in Hong Kong by occupying entire city blocs in the heart of the city, and with weekly reports of escalating violence in restive Xinjiang, the central government in Beijing seems to be losing its grip on what the Chinese regard as the “peripheries.” Recent comments by President Xi Jinping about yet another piece in China’s puzzle of instability—Taiwan—suggest that the leadership may be panicking. 

Before we proceed, it’s important to point out that the two territories and Taiwan are different issues altogether: The first two are politically part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) while Taiwan is a self-ruled entity operating under its own set of rules and constitution, that of the Republic of China (ROC). Furthermore, Taiwan is democratic and was never part of the PRC, whereas Hong Kong was “returned” to the PRC in 1997 and can only aspire to a democratic system, a situation that is at the heart of the current impasse in the former British colony, while Xinjiang is ruled with a mix of intermarriage, displacement, and repressive policies under a veneer of economic development and “ethnic harmony.” 

Still, fundamental differences notwithstanding, Beijing has proposed—imposed, rather—a one-size-fits-all solution for Hong Kong and Taiwan, known as the “one country, two systems,” or 1C2S, model. Despite the model showing cracks in the one territory where it has been applied, as evidence by Hong Kong’s angry response to China’s White Paper on 1C2S in June, Beijing is adamant that it is equally viable as an instrument by which to bring about the “re-unification of China,” or, to put in terms that better reflect reality, the annexation of Taiwan. 

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

Monday, September 22, 2014

Where have the Sunflowers gone?

The Sunflower Movement scored a major success by putting Taiwan back on the map. But it has since split and new forces are seeking to prevent its re-emergence 

The question has been nagging at the edges of my mind ever since it was first thrown at me after I gave a presentation on social movements at a forum organized by SOAS in June: How do we define success in the context of civic activism? Furthermore, how do we evaluate success when the battle over an idea, a policy, continues to rage and has not come to a proper resolution? Having now been asked to share a few thoughts about the Sunflower Movement on the six-month anniversary of the occupation of the Legislative Yuan in Taipei, I would posit that while the dispute over the agreement which prompted the activists to do what they did remains unfinished business, the unprecedented occupation itself and the publicity it engendered were, in and of themselves, a great success. In fact, I would argue that the Sunflower Movement was the best thing that happened in and for Taiwan in the past decade. 

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

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Ask the Departed, Ask the Living

Through a process of dehumanization of its people, some experts argue that Taiwan should be ‘given’ to China for the sake of global stability. They are wrong 

With a glint in the eye, the China “expert” has a solution to the many challenges that are associated with China’s growing assertiveness. Not without theatricals of regret, the expert admits being resigned to the idea that we inhabit an “imperfect world.” The world is unfair. But something must be done about China to avoid some cataclysmic conflict, they say, one that would presumably involve the U.S. Concessions must therefore be made to sate the hungry beast, for “peace.” Ask them what they mean by concessions, and nine times out of ten the answer will be, Taiwan. Hand over democratic Taiwan to authoritarian China, their argument goes, and all our troubles associated with the rise of a dangerous hegemon will go away. 

My point here isn’t that concessions — or appeasement, to call such proposals by their proper name — are misguided and would only encourage further Chinese expansionism. Nor shall we dwell on the fact that trading a democracy for the sake of pleasing a repressive regime would be an affront to the values that we in the “free world” purportedly stand for. What needs to be discussed is far more fundamental: Did anyone ask the 23 million Taiwanese? 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by Viola Kam/V’Z TWINKLE Photography)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Chinese Civil War Continues

Beijing’s revisionist interpretation of the roles played by the KMT and CCP during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression compounds the ideological gap that divides the two camps 

Much has been said in recent years about the visits to China by retired Taiwanese generals, and for those who worry about leaks of military secrets and propaganda coups, the commentariat has not looked too kindly upon the golf rounds and fraternization. However, as the old brass from the two sides get closer to each other, cracks are beginning to appear in the relationship. Caused largely by ideology and different interpretations of history, those differences raise one important question: If retired and seemingly like-minded generals can’t see eye to eye on their past, how could Taiwan and China ever succeed in reconciling their fundamental differences and build a unified future together? 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by the author.)

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

China Policy Institute Policy Paper 2014: No 3: Taiwan after the Sunflowers: Continuities and uncertainties

A China Policy Institute policy paper on the potential impact of the U.S., China, and the Sunflower Movement on the 9-in-1 municipal elections and the 2016 presidential elections 

Despite the unprecedented occupation of Parliament in March and April, Taiwanese politics have returned to ‘normal’, with little surprises expected in the year-end nine-in-one municipal elections. However, all the elements that brought about the political crisis in the spring are still in play, and those have the potential to shake up politics as the island heads for presidential and legislative elections in 2016. With President Ma scrambling to accomplish his objectives before he steps down in May that year, and amid signs that the pro-independence DPP could make significant gains in, if not win, the 2016 race, the next 18 months promise to be a period of volatility domestically, which in turn could impact Taiwan’s relations with China on several fronts. 

The full report, published today on the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, web site can be downloaded here. (Photo by the author.)

Friday, September 05, 2014

When Surveys Become Instruments of Pro-Beijing Propaganda

A recent poll shows unusually high self-identification as Chinese among Taiwanese respondents. Here’s why the results should not be taken seriously 

Forget the more-than-a-decade-long trend, supported by various polls, of rising identification among Taiwanese as “ethnically Taiwanese” and the attendant drop in identification as “Chinese.” A new poll released this week clearly demonstrates that those were all lies. Taiwanese and Chinese regard themselves as one big, happy, Chinese family. 

The Taiwan Competitiveness Forum (TCF, 台灣競爭力論壇) poll, whose results the state-run Central News Agency (CNA) reported, both in Chinese and English, shows that 87% of respondents considered themselves “of Chinese ethnicity.” More extraordinarily, the share of respondents who identify as “Chinese,” it said, rose to 53%. Based on those results, the polling firm concluded that the Sunflower Movement had failed and that the government should “seize on the growing amity toward China and continue its push to improve two-way ties” by signing the trade-in-services deal and a subsequent trade-in-goods agreement with China. 

Before supporters of a free, democratic Taiwan throw in the towel, there’s a few things they should know. 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by the author.)

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Inevitability and Possible Futures in the Taiwan Strait

Former premier Hau Pei-tsun argues that the Taiwanese cannot be in charge of their own destiny. He’s wrong 

Imagine a world in which national power and the ability to unleash the furies of brute force were the two single determinants of international order. A world in which a handful of Leviathans elevate the principles of the Realist school to an extreme, making alternative, and oftentimes gentler, forms of geopolitical management a thing of the past, wishful thinking for the naïve. In such a system (call it Hobbes on crack), the weak and the small however defined would forever be threatened by larger forces. Resistance would be futile, and pleas for justice in international forums would fall on ears dulled by defeatism and the inevitability of surrender. Hau Pei-tsun, a former premier and minister of national defense in Taiwan, imagines such a world — and he’s fine with it. 

Speaking at a seminar held to coincide with Armed Forces Day on September 3, the 95-year-old Hau told his audience that the future of Taiwan wasn’t for its 23 million people to decide, but rather to be determined by “the Chinese,” about 1.4 billion of them. Although conceding that in a fair world Taiwanese alone should determine their fate (this is the official position of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP), Hau maintained that Taiwanese were not given a choice when, 69 years ago, their land was handed over to the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and, by default, to the Republic of China (ROC). It didn’t matter that the undemocratic arrangement, as David Finkelstein makes amply clear in his book Taiwan’s Dilemma, was initially a bloody fiasco, prompting U.S. officials to debate various scenarios, including a U.N. intervention, a coup against Chiang Kai-shek, or the complete abandonment of the island to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). 

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

In Praise of Old Times Not So Long Ago

Electronic media and an obsession with instant gratification are denying us many of the pleasures that come with acquiring and experiencing creative arts

Call me a purist, an antiquity—I don’t care. I still buy real books made of paper, ink, and glue, and I continue to acquire CDs. Undoubtedly, the electronic age, what with its iPads, iPods, tablets, smartphones, Kindle, e-books and other devices, has brought wonders in terms of miniaturization, compression, and speed of delivery. But for all its benefits, I cannot help but miss the old days, the pre-1990s, when people still had to go to a store to buy their books and music.

The reason is rather simple. We have sacrificed our senses on the altar of instant gratification. In this day and age, everything must be immediately available. As long as one has access to an Internet connection, books, music, movies and other creative art is downloadable. Wait a few minutes for all those 0s and 1s to flow through the ether and voila! You are now the proud owner of 65 minutes of music, a full novel, or a feature-length movie.

What you’re not getting in the process is the experience of acquisition. For me, nothing beats the excitement of going to a bookstore and seeing what’s new on the shelves. Sometimes I already know what I want, but cannot be sure that the store has it in stock. Ironically, the small sense of frustration that comes when a store doesn’t have what I want reinforces the pleasure on those occasions when it does. Another inimitable experience for me is to come upon a book I wasn’t aware of. It’s a bit like meeting a stranger for the first time. An unexpected, but ultimately rewarding, encounter. None of this occurs when you log on to or other sites to download a book. Any book.

And of course, besides the small excitement of meeting a book in person (not to mention other real people) are all the pleasures that come with holding, weighing, and smelling a book. Moreover, I love the smell of bookstores. Visit, say, the Paragraphe bookstore near the McGill University campus in Montreal (where as an undergrad I spent countless hours and about as much money) or the London Review of Books bookstore in London, which I visited recently, and you’ll know what I mean about the smell. No computer will ever beat that.

Then there is music. Your scribe likes all kinds of music, from classical, jazz, electronic, to soundtracks, progressive rock, and metal (the Swedish death metal band Opeth accompanied me all afternoon as I drafted my latest article for The Diplomat). The same joy of discovery, of expectations, accompanies a trip to the store (I almost jumped when I saw Anathema’s latest offering on the shelves at the HMV store in London, an album that has yet to arrive in Taiwan). The smell mightn’t be there, but chances are that some music will be playing in the background, or someone who works at the store will help you discover something new (one vendor at the music store in the B2 basement of the Eslite bookstore on Dunhua Rd. knows of my interest in Japanese rock music—ACIDMAN among them—and has led me in interesting directions. The same vendor I met, as a drag queen, during the LGBT Pride parade last year. Again, try beating that experience if all you do is download from the iTunes store!). I’m one of those who still enjoys unwrapping a CD and going through the case and the booklets. Some labels still go out of their way to provide engrossing visuals (if you’re into metal, Nuclear Blast still does that, as does the British progressive rock label Kscope). And those, too, have a distinct smell, one that I truly enjoy and that sometimes (given the proximity of the olfactory and memory parts of the human brain) transports me back in time (for example, some booklet have the smell of Ozzy Osbourne’s No More Tears, which I acquired in 1991 when it came out).

Besides the olfactory and visual gratification of CDs or vinyls, which admittedly I do not collect, is the sound itself. I was raised by a father who took music very, very seriously. An engineer, my father designed, among other things, recording studios. I remember as a child spending hours sitting on the floor in an audio store, or at home, trying to hear the subtle changes in sound as my father calibrated amps and speakers. It’s a science and an art, and my father often taught vendors a few tricks in the process. Among them is the fact that the best way to prove the worth of an amplifier and a pair of speakers (or now five or even seven speaker, as we’re in the surround age) isn’t to blast the music, but rather to play it at low volume (and if your speakers are not properly aligned, they will cancel each other out and give you the odd feeling that the pressure has shifted inside your head).

But who does that nowadays, when almost everybody uses a computer, a smartphone, or an iPod to listen to music? The thing is, you’re losing a whole lot when you limit yourself to those devices. For one thing, .mp4 compression is awful (something’s got to give, and low and high frequencies are trimmed to make the files smaller). You probably won’t hear the difference if you limit yourself to the earphones that come with your cellphone. But compare playback on a proper sound system, and you’ll realize that you’d been looking at a world (if you’re not stuck zombie-like on the screen of your smartphone like most people nowadays) in which all the colors and contrasts are dimmed. Put that baby in the CD player and, if you’re lucky enough and, say, Steve Wilson (of Porcupine Tree fame) mixed the whole thing in 5.1 surround sound, an entire new universe will open up for you. You will never get the visceral experience of hearing the last note of Arvo Part’s In Principio (ECM) reverberating through the room and your innards if you’re listening to it on your iPod—this I can guarantee you. Music is physical, and depending on the room in which you listen to it, the experience will be a different one (sound bounces off walls).

You will therefore understand my sadness when, after completing my article this afternoon, I went for a walk and visited one of my favorite local music stores, Jason’s Records, which specializes in metal of all types, and received a so-so response when I asked him how he was doing. I’ve been going there for years. The owner knows me, and he also knows the kind of music that I like—so much so that he’ll often play something for me without saying anything until I go to the counter and, liking what I’ve been hearing, I ask him what’s playing. Thanks to him, I’ve made many a wonderful discovery over the years (Swedish doom/prog metal band Katatonia among them).  

“How’s business?” I asked him.

“Meh,” he answered, giving me back my change for Nightwish’s latest studio album (NT$370). “Everybody buys music online nowadays.”

Business hasn’t been very good. We really don’t want those small stores to close. Nor do we want to forget what it’s like to truly experience, to experience in the full, a book or an album. Some of you might be of a generation that never bought CDs, or never had a proper sound system at home. Give it a try. Life is much more generous than you’d think. (Photo by the author.)

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Synchronizing the Narratives: Chinese Political Warfare, Taiwan, and the South China Sea

Growing interaction between Chinese and Taiwanese academics risks sending the wrong signal to Washington 

Timing might not be everything, but it’s at least half of it. At a time when one hopes that tempers would cool down in the disputed South China Sea, a new exhibit, organized by the National Archives Administration in Taipei seeks to bolster the Republic of China’s territorial claims in the volatile region. Although the claims are longstanding, the timing of the「中華民國南疆史料特展」exhibit, coinciding as it did with a cross-strait conference in which academics from Taiwan and China discussed the need to join hands to “defend” the South China Sea from external enemies, sends the wrong signal to other claimants in the region, not to mention the U.S., Taiwan’s principal ally and guarantor of security. 

The exhibit itself, which runs through Oct. 31 at Academia Historica (a second one will open in Kaohsiung Oct. 9 and Taichung Nov. 17), is relatively insignificant. That isn’t to say that one should not be interested in the artifacts for their historical value. It is, rather, insignificant because other claimants also have the ability summon a wealth of documents, maps, photos, and notebooks to support their own claims to the disputed islets, features, and waters within the SCS. And it is insignificant because territorial expansionism and nationalism, not international law, and certainly not dusty documents, are what has been driving the dispute, which periodically threatens to plunge the region into terrible spasms of hostility. 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Chinese Surveillance Aircraft Enter Taiwan's ADIZ

On August 25, two separate Chinese surveillance aircraft passed through Taiwan’s ADIZ on their way to the South China Sea 

The Taiwanese Air Force scrambled combat aircraft to pursue Chinese surveillance aircraft that made four separate intrusions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) within less than 12 hours, a senior Taiwanese military official confirmed on August 26, one day after the standoff. 

According to information provided by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense, the first intrusion occurred at 8:33 a.m., when a single Y-8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft that had taken off from Chenghai, Guangdong Province, passed through the southwestern margin of Taiwan’s ADIZ. The aircraft cruised through the zone for approximately 10 minutes at an altitude of about 22,000 feet before exiting the zone and heading for the Philippines, one of China’s principal adversaries in escalating territorial disputes over areas of the South China Sea (Taiwan is also a claimant). The Y-8 passed through the same area at 10:56 am on its return journey to China, again spending about 10 minutes in the zone. 

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

Embedded With the Sunflowers

Hsiengo Huang’s ‘The 318 Mob Exhibit’ is an up-close and personal journey into the drama, the humor, and the artistry of an unprecedented event in Taiwan’s history 

I first met Hsiengo Huang (黃謙賢) on the streets of Taipei, during a protest outside the Legislative Yuan organized by the Alliance Against Media Monster, a movement that opposed the acquisition of Next Media’s Taiwan operations by a Beijing-friendly media mogul. This was sometime in the fall of 2012. Over time, we came to recognize each other; between shots of protesters, we’d say hello, shake hands briefly, and promise each other that we’d eventually grab a coffee. Hsiengo, who years earlier had studied in Toronto, Canada, was never without his “newsboy hat” — besides his great photography, that was his signature. 

The following year, what with the series of protests, large and small, that hit the capital, gave us plenty of opportunities to get to know one another. From an after-midnight protest in front of the Presidential Office, where activists were dragged away and shoved onto police buses, to a farewell ceremony for the now-demolished Huaguang Community, we constantly ran into each other. For Hsiengo, who ran a small photo studio, this was a side activity. He, like many others, was documenting the events out of a sense of duty. 

My book review, published Aug. 26 on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by the author; Huang is on the left.)

Friday, August 22, 2014

War in the Taiwan Strait: Would China (Still Try to) Invade Taiwan?

Carrier-killer missiles, anti-ship weapons, amphibious assaults. Asia's greatest fear—and the possibility of a great power war over Taiwan's future—is all still very possible

Beyond doubt, relations across the Taiwan Strait have improved substantially since 2008—so much so that some analysts have concluded that the course of the Taiwan “issue” will continue unimpeded and inexorably towards even greater stability, if not “reunification.” But this is all wishful thinking. 

Rapprochement has probably gone as far as it can, and whatever comes next will likely be hounded by complications, slow progress and growing opposition in Taiwan. Unable or unwilling to make any proposal for unification that has any chance of appealing to democratic Taiwan’s 23 million people, wrong footed by the rise of Taiwan’s combative civil society, and haunted by recent developments in Hong Kong, where “one country, two systems” is all but dead, China will have two options: give up on Taiwan, or use force to complete the job. Under the decisive President Xi Jinping, in the context of rising ultranationalism across China, and given the cost of “losing” Taiwan to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) credibility (at least according to Beijing’s rhetoric), it is difficult to imagine that Beijing would choose the former option. Use of force, therefore, would be the likely response, and hubristic China might well be tempted to try its luck.

The widening power imbalance in the Taiwan Strait, added to (mistaken) perceptions that Taiwanese have no will to fight, has led some Chinese officials and many members of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to conclude that the military option, which Beijing never abandoned even as relations improved, is not only a viable one, but one that could quickly resolve the issue. Granted, the ratio of annual defense expenditures reached about 12:1 in China’s favor this year (and that is only using China’s declared budget).

My article, published today in The National Interest, continues here.