Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Those who would turn back the clock in Taiwan (中文 link at bottom)

The religious leader of an alliance opposing same-sex marriage brushes elbows with a pro-unification gangster; The Catholic Church distances itself from the extremists

Just when you thought that the revelations about the wonderful people behind the Taiwan Interreligious Coalition for Cherishing the Family couldn’t get any more damaging, things still get weirder. As if associating with ChristianEvangelical zealots and espousing their reprobate ideology in their opposition to same-sex marriage were not enough, we now learn that the spokesperson for the Alliance is socializing with another man whose vision for Taiwan’s involves turning back the clock — Chang An-le (張安樂). Yes, the gangster and former leader of the Bamboo Union Triad-turned “politician.”

We already know that the Taiwan Interreligious Coalition for Cherishing the Family is closely associated with the Happiness of the Next Generation Alliance, the umbrella organization behind the deplorable rally on Nov. 30 against amendments to the Civil Code that would legalize same-sex marriage in Taiwan. In December I shared a panel with Chang Chuan-fong (張全鋒), the spokesman for the Coalition, whose discourse on the nefariousness of homosexuality and the social/moral harms of gay marriage was a perfect echo of what the Alliance and Coalition have been saying for months.

What struck me then was the extent to which the argument against amendments to Article 972 relied on (lies aside) antiquated views about science, morals, philosophy, sexuality and the family. In other words, their case had validity only if we turned back the clock, and turning back the clock is exactly the outcome in store for us should they prevail in their endeavors to insinuate themselves into other people’s bedrooms.

Now, this is an event I’m happy I missed: 「多元文化與儒家倫理綱常研討會」(“Multicultural Seminar on Confucianism and Moral Order,” held on Jan. 19. Chang the Moonist (Unification Church) and head of the Coalition delivered the keynote speech on “marriage and family ethics,” while Chang the gangster was no less than the special guest. Topics under discussion during the daylong event (which could just as well have been called a conference on medievalism) included “civic morality and Confucian ethics,” “Confucian values for high-school textbooks” and “the family is the school of love.”

By no means to I mean to imply that Chang An-le’s participation at the seminar indicates his support for the actions of the Alliance and Coalition against same-sex marriage, and in fact I do not know what he thinks of the matter. However, it is interesting to note that a link to the conference schedule is provided on the Taiwan Family website, which serves as the rallying point for the campaign against 972. What we also know about the man is that during his sixteen years in exile in China he cultivated ties with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and created the Unification Party in Taiwan, whose ultimate aim is to foster “peaceful reunification.” Following his return to Taiwan and release on bail in late June 2013, Chang An-le distributed pamphlets, opened campaign headquarters, and appeared on various talk shows. In the process, Chang repeatedly showcased his poor understanding of the progress that Taiwan has made as a democracy, and often his solutions for social problems — “what would the CCP do?” — would force Taiwan to turn back the clock and undo much of the liberalization that has occurred in the past thirty years or so.

In that sense, the two Changs, who must have exchanged business cards, are of the same mind. Whether this further discredits the Alliance and Coalition remains to be seen, but it certainly adds yet another disreputable figure to the long list of individuals who gravitate around its ultraconservative core.

But it’s not all bad news. A split seems to be emerging between Taiwan’s moderate Catholic Church and the more extremist elements that have spearheaded efforts to block amendments to Article 972. Chao Hsin-pin (趙欣品), a representative of the Catholic Church, last week opined that the Alliance and Coalition had gone too far and apologized for some of the rhetoric and methods adopted to counter the movement in favor of same-sex unions, including references to the spread of AIDS. While Chao didn’t immediately call for a break with the Alliance (or the abandonment of efforts to block 972 for that matter) — she in fact encouraged more Catholics to join, presumably to dilute the radicalism — she also warned that if dialogue failed, some elements within the Catholic Church would break their ties with the movement.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out as the Alliance prepares for the next phase of activities sometime in March. 

New! A Chinese-language version of this article is available here.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Why China’s aircraft carrier program makes (some) sense

China’s interest in aircraft carriers is a strategic calculation based in the psychology of modern warfare

The reactions to what appeared to be theconfirmation last week that China has embarked on a program to build its own aircraft carrier were as varied as they were expected, ranging from alarmism to the usual dismissal of the large platforms as little more than hugely expensive boats for enemy target practice. While carriers do indeed have severe vulnerabilities, they are not without their uses, though those are a function of the role(s) they are expected to play. 

The first role is more psychological than utilitarian. There is no doubt that China’s domestic program is directly related to the country’s desire to be regarded as a major power, of which aircraft carriers, warts notwithstanding, serve as an undeniable symbol. Although the acquisition of the ex-Varyag, its eventual refurbishment, and its rechristening as the Liaoning following its entry into service, provided a major boost to China’s self-image, the platform nevertheless served as reminder of China’s reliance on external assistance. For that reason alone, a domestic carrier will help China cross a very important psychological barrier and signal to the world that it is now a major and, perhaps more importantly, self-sufficient power. 

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

Sunday, January 26, 2014

A rude awakening for Taiwan’s Presidential Office

While walls can be erected to ensure better protection, they will do nothing to resolve the widening chasm between those in power and the growing number of ordinary Taiwanese who have lost faith in the ability of their government to rule their country 

Chang Ter-cheng (張德正), a 41-year-old truck driver and former Air Force officer, had serious grievances against the government. As he explained in a letter he sent to various Taiwanese media prior to his act, he did not expect to come out alive in the early hours of Jan. 25 after he crashed his 35-tonne truck into the Presidential Office in Taipei.

In the end, a bulletproof gate pulled down in extremis by security staff stopped the speeding vehicle in its tracks, but not after it had rammed through a series of light protective barriers and careened up the steps leading to the main building. Chang suffered serious injuries, including a collapsed lung, but didn’t die and remains in intensive care.

Still signs of damage two days later
As more details emerge, we can slowly piece together the factors that pushed Chang over the edge. Some media, as well as police authorities, have sought to downplay the political aspects of the attack — Chang had recently lost a legal case following a troubled marriage — but his aforementioned letter and blog entries tell a much more complex story.

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

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Status Quo: Taiwanese continue to prefer what they have

Taiwanese identification and desire for independence has increased just as cross-strait exchanges have deepened and as the Ma Administration has emphasized the Chinese roots of Taiwanese society

“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future,” a famous Danish physicist once wrote. Any attempt to forecast where a country will be 20 or 30 years down the road is an educated guess at best. Doing so for a country like Taiwan is especially onerous, as the country’s future is contingent on the vagaries of a highly complex international system, chief among them China, which claims the self-ruled, democratic island of 23 million people as a breakaway province.

Despite the observable rapprochement between Taiwan and China seen in recent years — it has accelerated since the election of the Beijing-friendly Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang (KMT) in 2008 — a majority of Taiwanese continue to prefer the “status quo” of no de jure independence and no unification.

The landmark Economic Co-operation Framework Agreement (ECFA) of 2010 and a slew of pacts notwithstanding, growing economic, cultural, and tourism exchanges have failed to translate into favourable conditions for what Beijing terms “peaceful re-unification.” In fact, as various polls have demonstrated, Taiwanese identification and desire for independence has increased just as cross-strait exchanges have deepened and as the Ma Administration has emphasized the Chinese roots of Taiwanese society.

Excluding a sudden shift in domestic trends, and barring external intervention (for example, a Chinese invasion), we can expect that Taiwan two or three decades hence will be even more assured of its identity. By then, Chinese spouses aside — and assuming that Taiwan does not open its doors to Chinese immigration — perhaps only a handful of people living in Taiwan will have been born in China, as the generation that fled Taiwan following the Communists’ defeat of the KMT in the Civil War will have died out.

The impact of this phenomenon on identity is certainly not negligible, as will be the rapid graying of its population and one of the world’s lowest birth rates, which could create incentives for further opening up to immigration.

Another impediment to unification is the difference in the political systems that exist in the two countries. China’s authoritarianism has very little appeal to Taiwanese, and represents a barrier, even to those who support eventual unification.

According to Bruce Jacobs, Director of the Taiwan Research Unit at Monash University in Melbourne, the rise of what he terms an “aggressive, authoritarian China” in recent years has given rise to a “new anti-China bloc among democratic nations and Asian countries,” which will inevitably have an impact on Taiwan. “In the coming two or three decades, the Taiwanese majority on Taiwan, working in an international anti-China environment, will finally gain their true Taiwanese nationhood,” Jacobs says.

Undoubtedly, a more liberal, if not democratic, China would be far more appealing to Taiwanese who might be amenable to a federal-type union, but even then, it is doubtful that Taiwanese would regard themselves as Chinese. One need only think of Australia and Canada vis-à-vis the UK to realize that similar political systems, traditions, and languages are insufficient, in and of themselves, to transcend nationalism.

That is not to say, however, that consolidating identification as Taiwanese will necessarily lead to unwillingness to deal with China. In fact, given the size of China’s economy, as well as linguistic and geographical proximities, Taiwanese will come to regard China as an increasingly appealing destination for work, investment, and education. Already, despite the political hurdles that continue to haunt relations between Taiwan and China, more than one million Taiwanese work and live in China on a semi-permanent basis, a number that will very likely grow over the next decades as China plays a more prominent role within the global economy.

Here, we must by necessity assume that China maintains its present course and that its rise does not dislocate the regional and international system. We must also set aside predictions of a collapse, a fate that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has so far successfully avoided, despite predictions of its imminence.

With the China variable kept constant, ties between the two sides will almost inevitably increase, especially in the economic sector, says Chao Chien-min, Distinguished Chair Professor in the Graduate Institute for Sun Yat-sen Thoughts and Mainland China Studies at Chinese Culture University in Taipei.

“We’ll see more Chinese investment in Taiwan as well as tourists. Millions of travelers will cross the Strait, making the area one of the most lively in the world.”

“The two economies will be more integrated as many financial and other economic institutions will work more closely,” he predicts, just as Taiwan’s legislature evaluates a not uncontroversial Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement that would play a major role in making that a reality. “With China as its market,” he writes, “Taiwan can be a leading country in the high-tech sector as more of its companies might gain recognition.”

Despite closer ties with China, Chao sees Taiwan by then as having become much more integrated with the outside world, especially in the economic sector.

“I think we’ll have FTAs with all major economies and will be an active member of economic integration in the East Asia region,” says an optimistic Chao, a former Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) Deputy Minister under the Ma administration. We should add that Taiwan’s ability to sign FTAs with other countries will be largely dependent on Beijing’s acquiescence and the willingness of Taiwan’s prospective agreement partners to stand up to Beijing should the latter threaten retaliatory measures.

Although a substantial amount of work needs to be done to adjust its economy, Taiwan has signaled its commitment to joining the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade bloc. Joseph Wu, a former MAC Minister in the Administration of President Chen Shui-bian of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), also sees more regional integration for Taiwan in coming decades.

“Economically, Taiwan will be transformed into a much more modern economy with more open trade relations with major economies,” says Wu, now the DPP’s Director of the Department of International Affairs and the Party’s envoy to the US.

In his view, Taiwan’s economy will also shift further away from manufacturing ICT products  the country’s mainstay in recent decades — toward the service industry. Wu, a strong proponent of a more cautious approach to economic exchanges with China, nevertheless regards future prospects in the Taiwan Strait with optimism. Like Jacobs, he contends that Taiwan’s democracy will be further consolidated, with the KMT ceasing to be a dominant political force in Taiwan.

Across the Strait, the CCP will relinquish its power to a more open political system, and, as a result, Taiwan’s relations with China will improve and tensions across the Taiwan Strait diminish, Wu says, echoing the belief, disputed by some, that a more liberal, or even democratic, China would be more “rational” on matters of territorial claims. Taiwan and China will form “special relations” with each other, he says, without elaborating.

For good or ill, Taiwan’s future is inextricably tied to what happens in China. Based on current trends, the above scenario is entirely plausible, but is greatly contingent on stability in China. A sudden collapse of the CCP, as some have long predicted, would cast much doubt on the likelihood that the situation described will obtain. Whether the CCP manages to maintain its control over the more hardline elements within the People’s Liberation Army is another important variable that will determine what Taiwan’s situation will be, two, or three decades hence.

My article appeared in the October/November issue of Asia Today International. (Photo by the author) 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


A video retrospective using photographs taken by me and Edd Jhong of PNN. How was your year 2013? What will 2014 bring?

Monday, January 20, 2014

The National Police Administration’s Heidao friends

It doesn’t look too good when the head of the National Police Administration is caught at a banquet with a Triad member

One of the many things I’ve found difficult to explain since vising the construction site of a controversial InfraVest wind turbine project in Yuanli, Miaoli County, in June last year was how the private security firm hired by the German company — a motley crew of brigands high on nicotine and betel nut — got away with terrorizing local residents opposed to the construction.

I have written at length about my encounter with the guards, and spoke with one of their members, who soon afterwards quit his job and went back to Kaohsiung. As one of the high-strung guards, his eyes bloodshot, walked around the site mumbling that if it were up to him, he’d get into a truck and run over the protesters, “Jerry” told me that the crew were recruited at Kung-Fu schools. Over several months, the private security goons clashed with local residents and did things that went well beyond what was allowable by the law. As expected, people got injured, but local police looked on and never intervened. When they did act, they sided with InfraVest and, by default, the hired thugs. Things came to a head in summer 2013 when the head of the National Police Administration (NPA), Wang Cho-chiun (王卓鈞), was grilled by legislators in Taipei. But theatrics aside, nothing happened.

In late October that same year, following an incident in the middle of the night when a mid-aged local was hit in the face by the same security officer who’d expressed his desire to flatten the residents with a truck, I looked deeper into the matter and found that the firm in question was the Taipei-based Hai Tian (海天保全), a successful private security firm that did jobs in China and provided personal security for a number of high-profile dignitaries, politicians (Sean Lien among them), and corporate leaders. Its founder had played a key role training special police units during the Martial Law period.  

Sources also hinted at the possibility of connections between the firm and organized crime — the Four Seas Gang more specifically, one of the main Triads in Taiwan. During a protest outside the Executive Yuan the following day, where Yuanli residents displayed pictures of the injuries sustained by farmers who had had the misfortune of dealing with Hai Tian, I pointed out to other journalists at the scene that none of this would avail to much if there indeed were high-level connections between the firm and the NPA, adding that Yuanli was only one of many cases where locals would be beaten into submission while police choose to look the other way. In other words, that it bode ill for society if organized crime had succeeded in infiltrating the NPA.

It’s too soon to determine whether any of this is related, but a story that is developing just now puts NPA Director-General Wang, who is alleged to have a special fondness for hostess bars, at a banquet table recently with … you guessed it, a member of the Four Seas.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Taiwan unveils ‘Wan Chien’ missile, upgraded IDF aircraft

All 71 IDFs in the 443rd Tactical Fighter Wing in Tainan have been upgraded, and all can carry to air-to-ground cruise missile

The Taiwanese Air Force on January 16 unveiled a new air-to-ground cruise missile that could play a major role in any military confrontation with China.

Known as the Wan Chien, or “Ten Thousands Swords,” the cruise missile was developed by the military-run Chung Shan Institute of Science and Technology (CSIST). Although serial production is not expected to begin until 2015, the missile is believed to have entered service on Aerospace Industrial Development Corp’s (AIDC) F-CK-1 Indigenous Defense Fighter (IDF) following a mid-life upgrade program.

The Wan Chien cruise missile
Thursday’s ceremony, held at Tainan Air Force Base in Southern Taiwan, marked the completion of the Hsiang-Chan Project — a mid-life upgrade for the 71 IDFs in the 443rd Tactical Fighter Wing, based in Tainan. Another 56 IDFs, part of the 427th Tactical Fighter Wing in Taichung, are also expected to undergo upgrades starting this year, a project that is scheduled for completion in 2017. By then, all 127 IDFs will be Wan Chien-capable.

Initiated in 2006, the Hsiang-Chan Project IDFs underwent modernization in three principal areas, namely the aviation operating system, which now runs on a 32-bit platform, up from 16; in-air electronic equipment; and radar systems. A new tri-color multi-function heads-up display will enhance ease of navigation, while a software update for its radar system, developed by Han Shiang Corp, enables the tracking of multiple targets simultaneously and provides countermeasures against electronic jamming.

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

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Pro-democracy hero? No thank you (中文 link at bottom)

Administrators at NCKU in central Taiwan are betraying the democratic principles and foundations that are necessary for a well-rounded education 

When, late last year, Tainan’s National Cheng Kung University (NCKU) invited students to help decide the name of a square at the campus through a vote, the supposedly apolitical and “brainwashed” youth came up with a delightful surprise: Deng Nylon (鄭南榕, or Deng Nan-jung), the editor in chief of Freedom Era Weekly whose self-immolation on April 7, 1989, played a seminal role in the nation’s democratization.

With their choice of an icon of democracy (coincidentally, Deng also went to NCKU), the students were making it clear that, unlike what contemporary critics of Taiwanese youth often claim, they know their history and cherish the sacrifices that people before them made to ensure a better future for all Taiwanese.

A total of 971 students voted for 南榕廣場 (“Nan-jung Square,” or “South Banyan Square”), out of a total of approximately 3,000, putting it squarely at the top of the list. The choice of such a national hero for the name of the square must have been heartwarming to NCKU administrators who, we assume, are keen to cultivate strong values among their students. Er, no. The very next day, the school’s secretariat decided that the name was improper. It was too ... political, and politics should say out of campus.

Retrocession is out
Unsurprisingly, the decision didn’t go down too well with the students, who organized a series of protests in late December and early this month. Among other actions, protesters removed the characters 「光復」(“Kuang-Fu”) from the NCKU Kuang-Fu Campus plaque, arguing that “Retrocession” — the term used by the KMT to describe the “return” of Taiwan to Chinese rule after World War II — is itself filled with political undertones.

Unhappy with what the students proposed in the poll, administrative committee members decided on Jan. 8 that they would instead propose a list of alternative names, which completely defeats the initial purpose of encouraging students to come up with their own, and is reminiscent more of Beijing’s pre-selection of the candidates for elections in Hong Kong than the truly democratic mechanisms one would expect to see at work in Taiwan. Among the names proposed by the administrators were 「吳京」(“Wu Jing”) and「丁肇中」(“Samuel Ting”), a former president of the university (and Minister of Education for the KMT in the 1990s) and a Nobel prize-wining American physicist of Chinese descent who once studied at NCKU, respectively.

At another meeting held on Jan. 15 to discuss the matter, 70 committee members supported the decision to drop Deng outright, while 21 opposed it. So Nylon Deng is out, at least when it comes to the international democracy at work among the school administrators. It gets worse. During the meeting, NCKU history professor Wang Wen-hsia (王文霞) raised doubts about Deng’s contributions to freedom of expression and even likened his self-immolation to the act of a suicide bomber or terrorist. (Deng’s office where he committed the ultimate sacrifice is located on Freedom Lane in Taipei. I encourage readers to visit it and to judge for themselves whether Deng falls in the same category as an al-Qaeda operative or Hamas suicide bomber.)

The idea that politics have no place on campus is bogus. Universities must serve as incubators for political ideas and future leaders. Only in authoritarian countries does the notion that politics should be barred from schools have any validity. And last time we checked, Taiwan was not part of the latter group. With their handling of the affair, NCKU administrators are betraying the very foundations of what constitutes a solid education, and make a travesty of the principles upon which modern Taiwan was founded. 

New! A Chinese-language version of this article is available here.

Of orgies, activism, and poor journalism (中文 link at bottom)

Merely sensationalistic or politically motivated, a recent UDN article about social movements goes a long way in trying to discredit activists who have become a source of headaches for the Ma administration

I’ve said it before, and I’m going to say it again: Traditional media in Taiwan are doing a great disservice to the nation with sloppy journalism, sensationalism, lack of prioritization, and oftentimes little more than pure fabrication. We often read about the threat of China’s influence in Taiwanese media, which is indeed a worrying matter. But there is plenty of awful stuff going on here without China having to extend its nefarious tentacles.

Take, for example, a recent piece about social movements in the Chinese-language United Daily News, which shows just how far (or low) media here will go. The article, titled 燃燒吧!熱情社運圈不能說的秘密」 (“Burning desire — the secret no one wants you to know about social movements”), claims that the civic mobilizations that we have experienced in the past 18 months are little more than a matchmaking service, where young women become sexually involved with charismatic male leaders. In fact, the author, herself a young woman, claims that on some occasions, when the sun goes down, gatherings tend to descend into orgies. She then writes that “good, clean girls who love themselves” have warned each other to stay away from the protests. In other words, young women who participate in the protests are without free will, mere (pardon the term) “sluts” who cannot control their urges, who are defenseless against the extraordinary attraction of male leaders who (presumably) are protesting for the sole purpose of scoring with dozens of girls. The sexist undertones are rather hard to miss.

This is not a Christian fundamentalist describing what will happen if Taiwan passes same-sex marriage regulations, but a supposedly credible, trustworthy journalist working for one of the nation’s top newspapers.

It goes without saying that the reporter’s entire article fails to mention a single source. All we’re given are rumors, hearsay (“one student said...”), speculation, and a good dose of editorializing. For all we know, the whole thing could be the product of her imagination. But that apparently was good enough for the editors at UDN, a pan-blue publication that generally supports President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) KMT.

I have been following, documenting, photographing, and writing about those social movements for the past 18 months, and I can tell you that it is not one big happy love boat. The young activists have faced the elements, sacrificed weekends (and sometimes their grades) fighting for the future of their country, and faced everything from court summons to police shields. Are there “groupies”? Do romances develop occasionally? Of course they do. But it happens in the workplace, at school, in government, and even among journalists. Moreover, if there were orgies, I, along with the many academics and lawyers who often accompany then, must have missed them, busy as we were focusing on young Taiwanese who were singing songs, shouting slogans, distributing pamphlets, or being pummeled by riot police. 

The image created by the UDN article simply does not reflect the culture and seriousness of the student movement.

Of course this could all be the result of inexperience, of a young journalist’s eagerness to produce a scoop. If that were the case, then it would have been the responsibility of her older and more experienced editors to force her to further develop her article, or, more sensibly, to kill it altogether. Obviously they didn’t, which leads us to speculate as to whether the whole article was politically motivated to discredit a civic movement that has been haunting the Ma government, or that it was too juicy to let pass, and to hell with the facts.

After the article was published, a young female protester contacted the author to express her disagreement with her claims, whereupon the UDN reporter shared the private message — not exactly professional on her part, I might add! — with her friends, who then ganged up on the activist.

Facing a backlash by activists who accused her of smearing the movement, the reporter then claimed that her editors had changed her article several times (the title was itself changed three times, she says, even though journalists rarely have any input on headlines), perhaps insinuating that in the process her piece may have become, uh, distorted. In this case, any self-respecting journalist would have requested that her byline be removed from the article, though I would perhaps add that we should understand the dynamics at play here, with a young female journalist having to deal with older editors. She later wrote, somewhat self-deprecatingly, that her article should be treated as no different than articles about the baby panda, the ill-fated yellow duck, or the boy from Brazil, as if those were of equal importance. She also denies that the UDN is cooperating with the KMT in smearing the activists.

Whatever the reason, the journalist has since earned herself a very bad reputation with the social movement, and her credibility will suffer as a result — as will that of the UDN, which once again showed us that traditional media in Taiwan are, more often than not, part of the problem. (Photo by the author)

New! A Chinese-language version of this article is available here at The News Lens.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Times They Are A-Changin': A year in pictures

A retrospective of some of the major events in Taiwan in 2013, with photos by Edd Jhong of PNN/PTS and me

The full selection of pictures can be accessed here. The companion set, titled The Good, the Bad, the BUMBLER, can be seen here.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

The Dapu ruling and Taiwan’s ‘moral wealth’

A court last week ruled that the government had wrongfully demolished four homes in Miaoli County. Fearing that this would set an inconvenient precedent, the authorities will likely appeal

There were four of them, fangs protruding upwards, with garishly painted visages and eyes flashing a deep rage. We looked on in silence as they performed a Taoist ritual dance, flashing halberds, swords, and banners upon which were inscribed Chinese characters indicating that an injustice had not been righted.

We were in Dapu, Miaoli County, on the morning of Sept. 28, for the funeral of Mr. Chang Sen-wen (張森文), whose lifeless body had been found in a drainage ditch on Sept. 18 less than 200 meters from the ruins of his home and pharmacy, which had been demolished by the government exactly two months prior.

A Taoist demon performs a ritual
It was hard not to be moved by the demons of the underworld, or by the hundreds of people who came from all over Taiwan to pay their respect to the man and his family, whose simple, contented lives were forever torn asunder by the forces of “progress,” propelling them (against their will, I am sure) onto the national stage.

Former vice president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮), on her way to a DPP meeting in Taichung, made a brief unwelcome appearance, a publicity stunt by someone who, along with her party, had not lifted a finger to help prevent the catastrophe and was now sucking on the blood of suffering for her own political gain (she would later become an adviser to the Taoyuan Aerotropolis project, which will likely result in hundredfold suffering).

The last time I’d seen Mr. Chang, whose portrait greeted us at the entrance of the blue tent, was during a protest in front of the Executive Yuan. His home was still standing at the time, but already his mental state had deteriorated. The night before, he had descended into unconsciousness, and after he woke up he was never the same man again. I’d had more interactions with his wife, Ms. Peng Hsiu-chun (彭秀春), who throughout her family’s ordeal remained the strong figure. I was right next to her when she burst into the crowd on July 18 during yet another protest, this one in front of the Presidential Office, and screamed in a voice that I will never forget before being hit by a police shield and collapsing to the ground. She’d just learned that her home had been demolished.

The administration’s callous response to the calumny that befell the Chang family, the loss of their home and pharmacy after they had been promised that such a fate was not in store for them, Mr. Chang’s mental destruction and death, was utterly shocking. Nobody, not President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), not Miaoli County Commissioner Liu Cheng-hung (劉政鴻), and not Vice President Wu Den-yi (吳敦義), who had himself delivered that promise (which he denies making), ever uttered a single word to bring comfort to the grieving family.

There was reason to rejoice, therefore, when on Jan. 4 the Taichung High Administrative Court ruled that the Miaoli County Government had illegally destroyed the Changs’ homes and those of three other families on July 18, and added that the Ministry of the Interior (MOI) had for its part failed to properly review the cases. Of course, the ruling did nothing to undo the damage that was already done, and will not resurrect the life that was needlessly lost in the process. But it was hoped that the acknowledgement that the government had wronged an innocent family would somehow bring a bit of solace to the widow and now fatherless children.

Despite the verdict, the government remained unapologetic. It was defiant, in fact. Wu, true to himself, disfigured language and blew a lot of smoke to rid himself of all responsibility in the matter. Moreover, the MOI has indicated it will likely appeal, as this would create a “bad” precedent for similar cases, more precisely the hundreds of evictions that will accompany the controversial Taoyuan Aerotropolis megaproject. Heaven forbid that justice and human life should stand in the way of “development,” as Liu, the principal perpetrator of injustice in Dapu, crassly warned after the High Administrative Court ruling. (Unless Liu knows something that we don’t about future investors in the Science Park and other projects that he has initiated across Miaoli, “development” promises to yield a slew of empty lots and vacant buildings, with little in terms of boosting the local economy — unless, of course, by “local economy” we mean Liu, his family members, and close associates.)   

To add insult to injury, someone in government has since suggested that it was those who stood by the Chang family, people like Hsu Shih-jung (徐世榮), Frida Tsai (蔡培慧), Taiwan Rural Front activists, lawyers — and this writer — who ultimately bear responsibility for Mr. Chang’s death, presumably for planting such silly ideas into his head as the belief that people have a right to say no when the government seeks to evict them, and that there is more than the two options given them by the authorities (meager compensation or capitulation) when the bulldozers and excavators come knocking at their door.

Not long ago I was discussing the Dapu case with a Taiwanese friend who currently works in the Philippines, and told her how the injustice and the death/suicide/murder of Mr. Chang had deeply affected me. Her reaction was a bit unusual. “That’s sad, but compared with the mass atrocities that occur in the Philippines, the rampant corruption that delays the delivery of aid during emergencies, it’s pretty minor.” I agree with her that in terms of scale, the Dapu case indeed seems trivial when weighed against the atrocities that are committed within this region alone. But Sam Harris, writing in The End of Faith, had a valid point when he said that not all societies “have the same degree of moral wealth.” In other words, some societies, thanks to variables such as education levels, wealth, development, stability, formative experiences and so on, have more rigorous moral standards than others. Taiwan, having gone through its own dark ages, is now at a point where the death of an individual and the forced eviction that directly led to it are defining issues requiring nationwide attention.

By threatening to appeal the verdict, the MOI risks inflicting even more pain on the Chang family, whose trials should serve as a warning to many others. The Dapu case is extremely important because it serves as a precedent for Taoyuan and other areas lined up for “development.” The government could do the right thing by not appealing and making the proper amendments to the Land Expropriation Act (土地徵收條例), but that seems unlikely. The money involved in future projects is simply too good to ignore. All we can hope, therefore, is that the higher court will do as the Taichung High Administrative Court and rule in the interest of the public against the hyenas. (Photos by the author)

Taiwanese intelligence accused of meddling in Hong Kong

Beijing accuses Taiwan of seeking to create “chaos” in the the territory to discredit the one country, two systems formula 

It’s probably too soon to ask, as Bloomberg did in an article on Jan. 6, whether China is in fact “losing” Hong Kong, where discontent with the way things have gone since Retrocession in 1997 seems to have reached new heights. Without a doubt, the former British colony is turning into a major headache for the Chinese leadership. What’s worse, Beijing now accuses Taiwan of seeking to create “chaos” in the territory to discredit the “one country, two systems” formula under which Hong Kong operates, and which China would like to replicate for a future “reunification” of Taiwan. 

Chief among Beijing’s worries is the Occupy Central movement, a pro-democracy organization that, among other goals, seeks universal suffrage and the curtailment of Beijing’s veto in the selection of candidates for leadership elections in the Special Administrative Region (SAR). Using civil disobedience and other tactics, the group has become an irritant for Beijing and its supporters in Hong Kong, who warn of possible “chaos” resulting from the campaign. 

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

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Same-sex marriage in Taiwan: A case for progress, modernity, and putting Taiwan on the map (中文 link at bottom)

Opponents of same-sex marriage simply don’t have a case. Share a panel with one of the leaders of the movement, and you’ll see why

As one of the very few journalists in the English language to have paid attention to the issue of same-sex marriage in Taiwan, I guess it was only natural that I be invited to be part of a panel on the issue, which National Taiwan Normal University held on Jan. 3.

I could hardly contain my surprise (and admittedly, excitement) when, upon receiving the agenda, I realized that I would be sharing the panel with Chang Chuan-fong (張全鋒), the spokesperson for the Taiwan Interreligious Coalition for Cherishing Family — and by family they mean strictly heterosexual families. Sean Pan (潘柏翰) of National Taiwan University and I were invited to make the case in favor of same-sex marriage; Chang, with a presentation titled “The Reasons We Oppose Legalizing [a] Same-Sex Marriage Act in Taiwan,” was evidently against, while Aline Tayar, a conference interpreter in the EU, made the not invalid argument against the validity of marriage as an institution (confession: This writer is getting married in 20 days).

Needless to say, Chang, who is associated with the Unification Church — or the “Moonies,” as they are better known in the West — did not disappoint, if by that you mean the repetition of the same old platitudes as to why legalizing same-sex unions would be catastrophic for society. In case you’re unsure as to the Unification Church’s position on homosexuality, here is a quote from their Web site: “Satan is destroying the families of the world. He is using strategies such as homosexuality, free sex and the destruction of morality to ruin peoples’ lives.” Or the Rev. Moon himself, who founded the Church, describing homosexuals as “dirty dung-eating dogs” and “There will be a purge on God’s orders, and evil will be eliminated like shadows. Gays will be eliminated.” (The Unification Church has since claimed that Moon’s speeches were in Korean and therefore we cannot know the true meaning of his sayings. Luckily for us, other like-minded fanatical Christian organizations, like the International House of Prayer (IHOP), are less circumspect and their leaders are English-speaking Americans.)

Chang’s presentation was a rehashing of the old claims that we’ve heard far too often since the campaign against amendments to Article 972 was initiated: The spread of AIDS; the slippery slope leading to bestiality, incest and promiscuity; the destruction of moral values; infidelity (as if only homosexuals were fooling around); the “rights” of children; “absolute sex” versus “free sex” and so on. (Though he didn’t bother to define the term, we can only conclude that “absolute sex” involves the missionary position between a man and a woman, and never before 7pm!) At one point Chang prophesized that even though we don’t see the ills today, same-sex marriage would destroy Taiwan, much as the accumulation of various deficiencies ultimately destroyed the Soviet Union. How equal rights for all equates with bad economic policies, foreign wars and the corrosive effects of Totalitarianism he obviously would not explain.

A participant at LGBT Pride 2013
To seal his case, Chang also presented a video showing a very narrow selection from the latest LGBT Pride Parade, with scantily clad men and women dancing and clubbing. According to him, allowing same-sex marriage would lead to a society where such public (I almost wrote pubic) displays would become routine. Having observed the last two LGBT parades in Taipei, I can confirm that some people do dress up for the event, but they are (a) not the majority (b) they are making a point and (c) for the other 364 days of the year, they dress just like you and me and Mr. Chang. (In fact, during the parade, I ran into a man in drag who, as it turns out, I had been buying CDs from at Eslite for several years. It took me a while to recognize him, and I can assure you that when I buy my music from him at the store, he is wearing ordinary clothes and not showing any more skin than the other employees.) I was tempted to ask him if he’d ever been to a funeral in Taiwan, where it is the custom for scantily clad women to pole dance for the dead. Oh, and apparently (According to Chang) the parade also promoted the use of recreational drugs, which is, again, complete lies.

Chang also claimed that the many heterosexuals who support homosexual unions are doing so not because they care about justice, human rights and equality, but for more selfish reasons. People like me apparently side with homosexuals because we want “sexual liberation” and “free sex,” which is something that we allegedly crave and from which we would somehow benefit. In other words, homosexuals are mere means to an end, tools selfishly used to achieve something else.

Then came the perpetrator as victim, with Chang arguing that the Christians are being discriminated against because of efforts to pass anti-discrimination laws against gays. In other words, denying them the right to discriminate is … discrimination! (Poor things. They would no longer be able to spew lies about homosexuals without the risk of facing lawsuits.) Moreover, Chang said that unlike countries in the West, Taiwan doesn’t need laws to regulate such issues. God’s laws are sufficient. So there we have it, Chang flashing his Dominionism colors (look up the term, it’s truly scary stuff).

Our Moonist friend also argued that many people who oppose same-sex marriage — especially those who had not expressed an opinion when polled — were afraid to do so publicly for fear that they would be repressed, as if homosexuals and their supporters were the ones who were trying to deny them rights that they already enjoy.

The interesting thing about Chang and many other religious leaders who oppose same-sex marriage was his evident discomfort with all things of the flesh. He himself didn’t look at ease within his body, and his voice lowered to a mere mumble whenever he discussed sexual acts. We could barely hear him when he briefly touched on BDSM and other unorthodox forms of sexuality (oh, how thin the skin around the anus is!), which obviously are all bad, dangerous, and ultimately immoral. This unease with all things sexual is such a common phenomenon among homophobes and opponents of homosexual marriage that there must be something to it.

Of course, there was exactly nothing we could do to change his views. He had religious “truth” and a whole encyclopedia of unprovables on his side, and all he did when challenged as to repeat his bigoted claims like a broken record. (Perhaps if one repeats a lie often enough it can become the truth…) Given the composition of the people in attendance (the conference room was packed), I can’t imagine Mr. Chang succeeding in bringing anyone on his side, and on several occasions when he launched one of his diatribes, I saw people suppressing laughter, rolling their eyes or shaking their heads in disbelief. I had to behave, as I was on the panel and was seated next to him. But my eyes did roll on a few occasions. It did feel like I had traveled back in time and was finding myself in the Dark Ages.

The more they leave the insularity of their churches and show their colors to the world out there, the worst off they are, and the closer we get to finally seeing legalized same-sex unions in Taiwan and elsewhere.

* * *

Having dispensed with Mr. Chang, here is what I said during the 20 minutes allowed me, in a speech titled “Same-Sex Marriage in Taiwan: A Case for Progress, Modernity, and Putting Taiwan on the Map.”

Despite the claims by opponents of same-sex unions, homosexuality is not a disease, nor is it a choice or something that it “acquired” through environmental exposure. The keys to its existence are grounded in biology. Here’s a personal example: My mother grew up in St. Ludger, a very Catholic village south of Quebec City (most of the neighboring villages were also named after saints) in the years following the Duplessis regime, which had imposed a rigid Roman Catholic system on all aspects of society. From a very early age (she is on her sixties), the world told her that homosexuality was “bad,” “immoral,” a disease. As far as I know, she did not grow up alongside homosexuals, or if she did, nobody had dared to “come out.”

How, then, could she had “caught” or “learned” homosexuality, which is something that is often claimed by homophobes? And how did she know, from a very young age, that she liked girls? Why is it that 16 years of heterosexual marriage to a wonderful man (my father), a lifetime of religious conviction and a B.A. in theology didn’t “heal” her, or change who/what she was? The answer is biology. Homosexuality is a naturally occurring phenomenon, and we are, whether we like it or not, the product of nature and evolution. We do not stand outside of it, which is another claim that is often made by the Church, especially among creationists and proponents of “intelligent design.”

There is not a shred of evidence to prove all the ills that would purportedly befall Taiwan should it adopt same-sex legislation (AIDS and other STDs, promiscuity, bestiality, incest, social confusion, &c). Unless, of course, the belief is akin to that of the American Reverend Michael Bray, who claims — and I quote from Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (p. 270) — that “innocent citizens are at risk of becoming collateral damage when God chooses to strike a town with a natural disaster because it houses sinners.”

The only instability that emerges from the question of same-sex unions comes from those who oppose it — hate campaigns, such as in Russia or Uganda, lies, religious extremism, and so on; or who react negatively when confronted to its reality (hatred, blackmail, family divisions, &c).

Someone could counter my claims with the “What if” argument: “What if same-sex marriage had already been legal during your parents’ generation? Your mother would have married another woman and so would your father. As a result, you would not have been born.” Indeed. Although I like to think that I am unique and that, as a journalist, I am making positive contributions to society, there is nothing irreplaceable or teleological about me. The child that would have issued from my father’s union with another woman could later have discovered the cure for cancer. (Conversely, he could have been the next Hitler, which some members of the anti-same-sex-unions alliance don’t seem to have much of a problem with.)

Your mother, having formed a union with another woman, could not have had a child. Wrong. Surrogacy, IVF, and adoption are options. And on the last option, adoption by same-sex parents is evidently preferable to traditional families in which children are abused, or to children growing up in orphanages. I don’t for a second buy the argument that children growing up in a homosexual household will be confused about who and what they are.

The argument advanced by opponents of same-sex marriage is purely along the lines of morality (“true love” versus “incomplete love”), which must — and cannot — be proven. It is also predicated on biblical dictates and the belief that one can only learn good morals from the Bible. What, then, of the billions of people who do not subscribe to Christianity? Are they all immoral, or amoral? Of course not, and there is ample evidence showing that morality develops independently of sacred texts, oftentimes despite religion.

The argument goes as follows: Same-sex marriage is immoral because the Bible says that it is; legalizing it through man-made laws would kill morality and lead to an epidemic of homosexuality and ultimately chaos. Following that logic, a country that legalizes murder would soon descend into an orgy of massacres. Why that isn’t the case is because we have an innate sense of morality. We know that murder is wrong, and don’t need a law (man-made or divine) to tell us that. The same applies to homosexuality. Legalizing it will not increase homosexuality, because heterosexuals know they are heterosexuals and have no inclination towards homosexuality.

Legalizing same-sex unions contributes to social stability by creating incentives for stable relationships.

The “low birthrate” argument: Taiwan already has the lowest birthrate on the face of the planet. Legalizing same-sex marriages would exacerbate the problem. This is false logic. Whether same-sex unions are allowed or not, homosexual couples will continue to exist and will not — cases of IVF and surrogacy excepted — produce children of their own, nor will heterosexual Taiwanese couples produce more or less children than they do now. However, legalizing same-sex unions would foster the stability that is required to ensure successful adoptions and upbringing. 

Canada began legalizing same-sex marriages a decade ago. There is no empirical evidence whatsoever to prove that legalization has undermined social stability. Canada was, and remains, one of the most stable countries politically and socially on the planet.

Taiwan can show leadership by becoming the first country in East Asia to legalize same-sex unions. This would send a very powerful message to international society that it is not China. Taiwanese society at large either supports same-sex unions (about 53%) or is indifferent (15-20%), meaning that there is no fundamental opposition.

As I have demonstrated in a series of articles published in the past month, opposition and mobilization to same-sex marriage has been overwhelmingly Christian-led, with strong leverage in government, and uses rhetoric that is imported from outside. I have yet to encounter a single indigenous rationale for opposing same-sex marriage in Taiwan. (Ironically, opponents claim that the very notion of gay unions is an import from the West.)

This is not just a matter of human rights; this is also an issue of reason, logic and the enlightenment versus obscurantism. Normalizing homosexuality and promoting equality would teach children the values of acceptance and tolerance, perhaps the single most important tool for progress as a society and something that religious groups, that people like Mr. Chang, should be promoting rather than stamp upon. (Photos by the author)

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

Friday, January 03, 2014

Senkaku Weirdness to Start Off the Year

The East China Sea has already seen a number of surprises in 2014 

No sooner had we bid farewell to a year of rising tensions in the East China Sea than 2014 was bringing us more action over the islets at the center of the dispute — only this time, things got a little strange. 

We begin with news that the controversial Air-Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) extension declared by Beijing on Nov. 23—which people who worry about such things worried would increase the likelihood of war with Japan—was actually declared … in 2010. 

My article, published today in The Diplomat, continues here, with some hot air balloon action.