Thursday, May 29, 2014

Taiwanese Academics Are Playing with Fire

Three experts involved in the study of territorial disputes in the South China Sea have reportedly been working part-time for a think tank with ties to the Chinese government 

No sooner had the defection of remote-sensing expert Chen Kun-shan (陳錕山) to China been made public last week than a new scandal — this time involving Taiwanese experts on regional security — made the headlines this week, once again raising questions about what, if anything, can be done to prevent a brain drain and potential security breaches. 

During an interpellation with National Security Bureau Director-General Lee Hsiang-chou (李翔宙) on May 28, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) revealed that three political scientists affiliated with state academic institutions had taken up part-time jobs as “distinguished research fellows” with the National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS, 中國南海研究院). The academics in question, all well-respected researchers in their fields, were Song Yann-huei (宋燕輝), an expert on territorial sea disputes at Academia Sinica, Liu Fu-kuo (劉復國), a research fellow in the Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University (NCCU), and Michael Gau (高聖惕), a professor at the Institute of the Law of the Sea at National Taiwan Ocean University (NTOU). 

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

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Reconciling Activism with Politics

Civil society must come to terms with the fact that their good ideas will only become policies if they are adopted and voted in by legislators 

Very few events in Taiwan’s recent history have re-energized the political scene as much as the Sunflower Movement’s occupation of the Legislative Yuan in March. Besides shaking the very foundations of a system that had been on cruise control for far too long, the movement succeeded in mobilizing a large segment of the young population that had hitherto seemed uninterested in politics and social issues. 

But while this development is certainly encouraging, it is largely insufficient. If the movement is to have any long-lasting impact on Taiwan’s future, its philosophy, however noble, will have to translate into policy — and for this, whether activists like it or not they will need politicians and legislators. 

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

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Countering China with Hong Kong’s Help

The forced exile of a well-known Hong Kong actor over his support for the Sunflower Movement highlights Beijing’s fear of cooperation between Taiwan and the territory 

In a surprise announcement on May 26, Hong Kong actor Chapman To (杜汶澤), a rising star in Chinese cinema, said that he and his family were “temporarily” taking leave of the territory and moving abroad. The decision by the 41-year-old, perhaps best known for his role in the classic Infernal Affairs (無間道), followed several weeks of online harassment by Chinese Netizens for his open support of Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and its occupation of the Legislative Yuan in March. 

Other Hong Kong entertainers had joined To in expressing their solidarity for the Sunflowers, among them Anthony Wong (黃秋生) — who also starred in Infernal Affairs — and singer Denise Ho (何韻詩). But To, who had a regular column in the Apple Daily, a publication that is banned from the Chinese market due to its criticism of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), was the main target of Chinese anger. In response to the severe attacks over the past two months, To, who stated that he was leaving for “personal reasons,” said he would never let money buy his principles. This was beyond doubt a reference to the problems that artists who are too vocal in their support for democracy tend to encounter in accessing the highly lucrative Chinese market. In fact, To’s critics have called for a boycott of the movies in which he features, and film projects he was involved with appear to have suddenly found it difficult to secure financing. (We do not know at this point whether To was threatened with physical violence.) 

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

Sunday, May 25, 2014

What We Can Learn From Mass Murderers

Some would like to see the young man who killed four people on the MRT last week put to death as quickly as possible, but doing so would be a mistake 

“Nothing made me happen. I happened.” Thus spoke Hannibal Lecter is Thomas Harris’ masterly psychological thriller The Silence of the Lambs. This was perhaps Hannibal the Cannibal at his most disingenuous, or at his weakest, as he refused to discuss what made him into the psychopath that he was. The seemingly inexplicable act by the 21-year-old Cheng Chieh (鄭捷) on the Taipei MRT last week, which left four people dead and 22 injured, raises the same question that Hannibal Lecter wanted to avoid answering: What made him happen? 

Such inquiry is more than sheer intellectual curiosity. Identifying the factors that shape and motivate individuals like Cheng to commit random acts of violence is a necessary endeavor that can help us prevent future atrocities. That is why we should avoid yielding to vengeful impulses or political expediency and not seek a swift trial and execution for Cheng, however tempting doing so might be as society recoils from his actions. 

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

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Wake Up, Washington: All's Not Well in Taiwan

Unless Washington quickly modernizes its views on current realities in the Taiwan Strait, it will be caught unprepared 

A few months ago I was approached by someone who asked if I would be interested in giving a talk at the Asia Society in Houston on “Taiwan in the 21st Century.” I readily accepted the offer, but for a long time wondered what I could talk about. After all, the subject was extraordinarily vague and we were not given any guidelines. Then the Sunflower Movement burst onto the scene, and I had my angle. 

Very few incidents in the past six years have highlighted the level of incomprehension about developments Taiwan more than foreign reactions to the nearly three-week occupation of the Legislative Yuan in Taipei. Since President Ma Ying-jeou initiated his rapprochement initiative with Beijing following his election in 2008, Taiwan, once regarded as a tinderbox that could spark armed conflict between a rising China and the U.S., appeared to have been neutralized. It no longer was a subject of interest, except among security experts and those whose principal interest in life is to inflate their investment portfolio. It didn’t help that international media companies were going through a rough period, which made it easy for foreign bureaus to freeze hiring, slash positions, or close up shop altogether. Taiwan was democratic, and the once-hostile relations with China were a thing of the past — at least superficially, and superficiality was as far as most media were willing to go when it came to the island’s politics. 

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

Friday, May 23, 2014

A Defection to China and the Threat to National Security

A leading expert on remote sensing technology from Taiwan now works for an institute in Beijing with possible ties to the People’s Liberation Army 

More bad news for Taiwan’s intelligence community today, with confirmation that an expert on remote-sensing technology has defected to China. This latest in a long series of leaks highlights the immense challenge this nation faces in keeping secrets from China, and is a reminder that despite rapprochement, Beijing’s efforts to recruit individuals with access to sensitive information are continuing. 

According to reports published on May 23, Chen Kun-shan (陳錕山), the head of the Center for Space and Remote Sensing Research (CSRSR) at National Central University (NCU) since 2001 and one of the nation’s top researchers, went missing sometime in September 2013. Chen attracted the notice of the Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau (MJIB) in September after it was discovered that his passport had an exit stamp but did not have one for re-entry, leading to suspicions that he may have been traveling on a foreign passport. The previous month, Chen had sent wife and children to the U.S. NCU suspended him in November, a decision that awaits final approval by the Ministry of Education. 

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

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Blaming the Sunflower Movement for the 521 Massacre

Pro-government pundits are accusing young activists of warping social values and creating an environment in which extreme acts of violence are possible 

Ever since the Sunflower Movement burst into the chambers of the Legislative Yuan on March 18, their detractors in government and the media have done their very best to discredit the activists’ efforts. Some accused the protesters of violence, of drunkenness, or even of engaging in orgies. Others more incredibly compared them to Nazis, even to al-Qaeda, the international terrorist organization. To this list of absurdities we can now add remarks by a few individuals in the wake of the terrible subway knife attack on May 21, which left four passengers dead and 22 injured, some of them critically. 

The accusations during the occupation of the legislature were more than simple false analogies by legislators and hyperbolically inclined talking heads (KMT Legislator Chiang Hui-chen [江惠貞] made the reference to al-Qaeda). For one thing, they were disrespectful to the countless of people who fell victim to the abuses of Nazi expansionism and the Wahhabist ideology that convinced Osama bin Laden and his cohorts of the virtues of crashing commercial aircraft into skyscrapers. Given that the body count resulting from the occupation of the legislature was exactly zero, the comparisons were in fact nothing short of libelous and were clearly intended to cast a pall on the motivations and accomplishments of the student-led movement. 

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

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Yes, Homophobia Kills

Three days after an annual event was held to raise awareness on discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgenders, a young homosexual man jumped to his death in Taichung 

On Saturday May 17, a section of Ketagalan Blvd that is usually reserved for small protests was turned into a rather unusual scene: a graveyard. Throughout the day, activists, artists, politicians and ordinary people delivered emotional speeches in commemoration of the many gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals who have lost their lives as a result of discrimination over the years. Very sadly, a mere three days after the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT), the scourge claimed yet another victim, this time in Taichung. 

This is the case of a young homosexual man surnamed Chang (張) who had recently enrolled in a divinity class at the National Chung Hsing University in Taichung. According to his account, the professor’s lectures went well beyond the scriptures and often devolved into outright gender discrimination. On several occasions, the professor was said to have argued that marriage is only possible between a man and a woman. 

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

Ma's inadvertent gift to Taiwan

To mark the sixth anniversary of President Ma’s inauguration, Taiwan News invited me to share my views on his legacy in 300 words 

Six years into his presidency, it is difficult to foresee how history will judge Ma Ying-jeou’s two terms in office. Will he be regarded as the president who, to some extent, succeeded in normalizing relations with China and fostered a “new era of stability in the Taiwan Strait” during his first term, or will he be remembered as a highly unpopular leader who descended into soft authoritarianism during what could only be qualified as a disastrous second term? 

Unless we experience dramatic change during Ma’s last two years in office, it is highly likely that whatever good President Ma has achieved will be overshadowed by the ill that befell his presidency following his re-election in 2012. To be fair, his government has indeed made progress with China, for which he has been more than ready to take full credit. However, had Beijing been willing to interact with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) after it came to power in 2000 (it was not), there is every reason to believe that most of what was achieved under Ma could have been within the reach of the DPP. 

Sadly for President Ma, rapprochement with China has failed to yield dividends for the majority of the public, and none of his electoral promises were met. Cross-strait liberalization may have enriched a select and politically connected few, but it has also widened the wealth gap within society. 

While lack of success could be blamed on the vagaries of global economics or lack of time, Ma’s shift toward unaccountability during his second term, which is inseparably related to the emergence of the Sunflower Movement, was of his own making and will probably be his undoing. By failing to take public fears into account and forging ahead with China policies that were seen to be compromising Taiwan’s way of life, Ma precipitated a crisis that will forever tarnish his image as a leader who claims to have upheld democratic values. With Beijing running out of patience on unification, such a reckoning was probably inevitable; Ma only succeeded in making it happen sooner than expected. 

Ironically, future generations will perhaps remember President Ma as the leader who, because of his disdain for public sentiment and unyielding ruling style, inadvertently sparked a nationalistic awakening among Taiwanese. By accident rather than by design, President Ma released the genie of a new civic identity, a spirit that is rooted in the idiosyncratic experiences of Taiwan and which, unless brute force is applied, will refuse to be bottled up again. 

My op-ed, published on May 20 in Taiwan News, can be read here (select May 20 issue, then go to page 3).

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Party Like It’s 1984 Again

Preemption is a power that the state should only exercise under extraordinary circumstances; left unchecked, it risks unleashing the ‘thought police’ 

Taipei police would have made Big Brother proud earlier this month when it acted on the government’s new “preemptive” policy and brought individuals in for questioning before they could have done anything. 

By definition, preemptive action implies that the state has the ability to read people’s intentions and the authority, when necessary, to take action to prevent something bad from happening. Generally speaking, the intelligence branches of state organs are responsible for collecting information before a crime is committed, while law enforcement authorities normally act after the fact, with arrests made using evidence of a crime and supported by intelligence collected prior to the act. 

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

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

China Misbehaves, Taiwan Suffers: The Vietnam Riots

Recent riots in Vietnam in response to a territorial dispute between Hanoi and Beijing highlight the risks to Taiwanese who may be mistaken for Chinese 

It was only a matter of time before things exploded in the region. And explode they did on Tuesday as thousands of rioters ransacked dozens of foreign-run factories in southern Vietnam in anger at the recent installation by China of an oil rig in waters claimed by Hanoi. Unfortunately for many Taiwanese, they fell victim to the violence. 

As many as fifteen factories were set ablaze and several more were vandalized by angry mobs as protests went out of control from Tuesday to Wednesday. In many cases, the protesters attacked factories they believed were operated by Chinese but were in fact run by Taiwanese or South Koreans, according to Vietnamese media. 

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

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The War Over the CSSTA Enters a New Phase

In an eerily familiar move in the legislature, the KMT may have rekindled the crisis over a controversial services pact with China 

As the members of the Sunflower Movement exited the Legislative Yuan on April 10 after nearly three weeks of occupation, a number of people among the tens of thousands who’d assembled to give them a triumphal welcome must have wondered just exactly what it was that the occupiers had accomplished. While the jury is still out on the extent of their success, recent developments make it clear that the battle is far from over. In fact, it may be about to get a lot nastier. 

Those who regarded the Sunflowers’ exit with optimism did so largely because of the awakening that the extraordinary occupation had generated within society, as well as the concession that the movement had extracted from Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) — and ostensibly the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) — on the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA). The activists’ decision to vacate the legislative chambers stemmed from Wang’s promise, on April 6, that he would not allow a legislative review of the controversial pact with China before an oversight mechanism on cross-strait deals had been implemented, thus meeting one of the activists’ key demands. 

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

Monday, May 12, 2014

Preparing Taiwan for Unification

China hopes it can avoid having to use force against Taiwan to realize its political ambitions; an easier target is Taiwan’s democratic institutions 

Up until the beginning of March this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and the members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Standing Committee must have felt very pleased with the way things were going in the Taiwan Strait. Their plan to win the hearts and minds of Taiwanese through economic largesse seemed to be on track, and Taipei’s ability to reciprocate by further opening up Taiwan to Chinese investment appeared to be unassailable. Then the Sunflower Movement took over the legislature and shook things up. 

Before we turn to this unprecedented event in Taiwan’s modern history, it is important that we first discuss China’s Taiwan strategy under Xi and his predecessor, Hu Jintao (胡錦濤). Despite China’s impressive military buildup in the past decade, it is clear that the option of resorting to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to force unification on Taiwan is regarded as a last, and costly, resort, at least among the civilian leadership in Beijing. Along the spectrum of options available to Beijing to facilitate the process of unification with Taiwan, economic incentives, and the cultivation of social ties to foster a sense of family among people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, are the preferred and least costly options. It goes without saying that the economic card goes well beyond increasing Taiwan’s reliance on China for its economic survival and also involves the possibility of blackmail as well as the development of influential business tycoons who can lean on Taipei to adopt certain policies that are favorable to the process of unification or that will help accelerate that momentum. 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by Ketty W. Chen)

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Launching ‘Thinking Taiwan’ and other surprises

Were it not for Dr. Tsai Ing-wen’s vision and trust in my ability to help tell Taiwan’s story to the world, I would not be in Taiwan today

What an extraordinary week this has been! And what an unexpected journey! Had life taken its expected course, things would have been a lot different. It’s been a very busy week, and only now, by this late Saturday afternoon, do I finally have a few moments to put my thoughts into writing. Bear with me.

Where to start? In November last year, I guess, when after a seven-and-a-half-year stint with the Taipei Times I decided to call it quits. I’d worked as a copy editor, deputy news chief, journalist, editorial writer, photographer for the paper, and during that period I had also succeeded in branching out to other publications, among them the Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, The Diplomat, National Interest, Ottawa Citizen, Jane’s Defence Weekly and others. Over time, this also gave rise to invitations to write for academic publications and to give conferences. This was all well and good, but I was stuck. The Times felt increasingly like a prison, and for various reasons its management would not allow me to fulfill my ambitions and decided instead to punish me for trying to accomplish what I firmly believed were my responsibilities as deputy news editor. (I remember reading somewhere a comment to the effect that I’d had to leave because I refused to do my job, which was downright silly. Two months prior to my resignation, I’d received the highest possible annual bonus, which was based on performance. Had I not done my job, it’s hard to imagine that management would have done so.) Anyway, that is all behind me, and despite my highly frustrating and disappointing last year at the Times, I would not be where I am today had they not hired me and given me a chance to make myself known.

I won’t hide that since late 2012 I had been actively looking for work alternatives in Taiwan. But there simply wasn’t anything, especially not for someone like me who wanted to write about politics. Facing budget cuts, international wire agencies, which would have been a natural outlet for someone with my ambition to tell Taiwan’s story to a global audience, either had a hiring freeze or, more frequently, were slashing jobs or pulling out of the country altogether. Equally aware of the limited opportunities here, the few international journalists who remained naturally chose not to leave. There were no think tanks to speak of that would hire foreigners. A few opportunities did come my way, but unfortunately my non-U.S. citizenship got in the way of that (the jobs required a security clearance granted by the U.S. government, which cannot be conferred upon non-U.S. citizens). By the time of my resignation, I had concluded that it was time to leave the country and to continue to fight for Taiwan somewhere else.

After quitting my job, I extended my Alien Resident Certificate for 90 days — the Taiwanese government did a poor job advertising it, but it’s true; extensions for white-collar workers are not 90 days rather than 15 as in the past — and planned to rest a little while preparing for a return to North America (we were looking for work in Washington, D.C.). I also intended to get married, which I did in January, and to finish editing Officially Unofficial, an autobiographical work about my experiences as a foreign journalist in Taiwan, and putting together Black Island, a collection of my writing about civil society. I continued to write articles for The Diplomat and to post articles on The Far-Eastern Sweet Potato, which was receiving good traffic. My articles were increasingly being translated into Chinese, which earned me an entirely new audience, especially when The News Lens made me one of their contributors.

After nearly nine years in Taiwan, I’d accumulated a lot of stuff and spent days sifting through, throwing out, and packing my belongings. Safely packing my 1,600-plus book collection was no minor challenge. I tried to remain upbeat and to convince myself that a move back home was the right thing to do, at least in terms of my career. But I was doing so begrudgingly, and deep inside I knew that I wasn’t ready yet to leave what had become my home. A few good things came my way, including being made an associate researcher at the French Center fort Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) and senior non-resident fellow at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute (CPI), for which I’d been writing for a while.

One day in mid-January, my partner asked if I would be interested in joining her giving a talk to the Thinking Taiwan Foundation, the think tank that former DPP chairperson and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen had established after her unsuccessful election bid. I said yes, thinking that what I regarded as a post mortem would give me the opportunity to talk about what I regarded as Taiwan’s — and the DPP’s — shortcomings.

I had nothing to lose, as we were leaving. So I was very blunt in my presentation. Tsai, along with some of her board members, listened attentively and didn’t seem the least offended by my remarks (among other things, I spoke about some of the problems that I had identified in her presidential campaign, the dinosaurs in the DPP and among overseas supporters, and Taiwan’s general inability to connect with the rest of the world). On the latter point, I also mentioned that what Taiwan needed was a new publication, in English, to tell Taiwan’s story to the world, unfiltered by the many ideological biases and restrictions that far too often handicapped existing media here. Above all, that publication should strive to engage foreign media and officials who more often than not were lazy about Taiwan and inattentive to its travails.

After our presentation was over, Tsai asked that we join her in her office for further discussion. There and then, she offered me a job with her foundation. As far as I know, I am the first foreigner to join her think tank. One of my chief responsibilities is to run, as editor in chief, Thinking Taiwan (, a platform created to accomplish exactly what I told Dr. Tsai during my presentation.

Our small team worked very hard to put the product together. Twice, events beyond our control — the Sunflower Movement’s occupation of the legislature and Lin I-hsiung’s hunger striker over the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant — forced us to delay the official launch and press conference. Finally, on May 6, we were able to do so. And while I’d gotten used to giving TV and radio interviews over the years, this was my first press conference. As I said in my opening remarks, this was highly usual, as I was used to being on the other side with the members of the press.

Our line-up for the launch issue was varied and reflected what I sought to accomplish with the site. Jerome Cohen, an internationally recognized lawyer and China expert (and a former professor of President Ma Ying-jeou’s), graciously agreed to write the pièce de résistance. Other writers included Mark Stokes of the Project 2049 Institute and Stéphane Corcuff of the CEFC. We also had new voices, including Aphrodite Hung, one of the spokespersons for the Black Island Youth Alliance, and Jonathan Lee, who heads the FAPA-YPG chapter in Northern California. I felt we had succeeded in striking an ideological and generational balance. Above all, I wanted to ensure that despite its association with Dr. Tsai’s foundation, Thinking Taiwan was regarded as a neutral publication that provides a plurality of views and voices.

I’d made that clear to Dr. Tsai when we sat in her office on that fateful day: I saw no need in having yet another publication that played sides or served as a mouthpiece for any political party. I did not want to be seen as a propagandist for the DPP, and by then it should have been obvious to anyone who followed my work that I had grown highly critical of the green camp and never hesitated to do so. That Dr. Tsai hired me despite this is a sign that she understands the need for a new and impartial voice for Taiwan. The editorial is as simple as it is a departure from the norm; the baseline is what is good for Taiwan, not for any political party.

The platform has received a warmed reception, for which I am extremely grateful. However, some people have already pointed out that our publication will be “tainted” by its association with Dr. Tsai and the high likelihood that she will once again be DPP chairperson. On anonymous commentator on Michael Turton’s View From Taiwan opined that “a bit surprising to see J. Michael Cole has ‘pinned his flag to the mast’ of the DPP so publicly, as it will tend to affect how his work is received.” My answer to this is to ask readers to give us a chance to prove ourselves, and evaluate our worth by the quality and independence of our product. Dr. Tsai’s foundation is not the DPP (the party already has its own think tank, the New Frontier Foundation), and she has made it clear to us that Thinking Taiwan will be regarded as a separate institution free of her political ambitions. I can already tell readers that Dr. Tsai is way too busy with meetings and politics to involve herself in the running of an online publication. I have never been a propagandist, and I will never agree to become one, which is why I got into so much trouble with the Taipei Times in 2013. I don’t think Jerome Cohen or Mark Stokes would have agreed to write for us if they believed that they were writing for the propaganda arm of the green camp. If you’re not convinced yet, wait until you see some of the commentators we have lined up or reached out to for Thinking Taiwan. I’ve long called for a fresh and honest take on this important part of the world, and I’m not about to miss that opportunity.

The same anonymous writer then added, “The site and quality of articles posted so far is impressive, so it is a shame that is could not have been produced under a truly independent and nonpartisan banner.” Nobody else had the vision — and just as importantly the financial means — to do so. Dr. Tsai understood the need to reach out to the international community, and she trusted me to run the platform that would help us do so. Had she not done so, I wouldn’t be in Taiwan today. (Photo by Ketty W. Chen)

Friday, May 09, 2014

Terry Gou’s Diatribe Against Democracy

Hon Hai’s chairman says that democracy doesn’t put food on the table. That may be so, but democracy gives people the freedom to decide what to eat 

Oh boy, you know there is something deeply rotten when business tycoons get involved in politics, especially when their ability to build fortunes depends on one’s close relationship with an authoritarian regime. 

Taiwan has had its share of ultra-rich entrepreneurs who, for the sake of their business interests, have willingly cozied up to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and chosen to look the other way when it comes to, say, the Chinese government’s human rights abuses. Some individuals, such as Want Want China Times Group chairman Tsai Eng-meng (蔡衍明), are notorious for putting their business interests in China before trivial things like freedom of information, and it is no surprise that when the Yilan native sought to acquire Next Media’s Taiwan operations (including Apple Daily) in 2012, media watchdogs and civil society mobilized to ensure that the deal was properly scrutinized by the government. 

Mr. Tsai’s efforts were frustrated, but despite his many faults — editorial pressure on his reporters, self-censorship on sensitive issues in China, bullying behavior — he rarely, if ever, acted as if he were anything other than as a businessman. 

Not so much Terry Gou (郭台銘), chairman of Hon Hai Precision Technology Co, whose tremendous successes as a businessman seem to have cultivated a distorted view of his position within society and influence on government policy. 

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

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Lax Security Undermines MND’s Image at Home and Abroad

There is no way to ensure 100% protection against espionage, but many security breaches are avoidable  

It’s often said of the Taiwanese military that it leaks like a sieve, and that it is incapable of keeping secrets from whomever wants to access them. Although this characterization is perhaps a little unfair, security breaches in recent years have drawn attention to the nation’s poor safeguarding of classified information and undermined confidence in the Ministry of National Defense (MND). An embarrassing mishap exposed by a legislator earlier this week won’t do much to reassure. 

The extraordinary story goes as follows. At about 5pm on May 6, a woman surnamed Liang (梁), who identified herself as a contract worker for MND, approached the driver of a shuttle bus for military personnel on Changsha Street in Taipei and asked if she could be taken back to MND headquarters because her legs were sore from walking. According to Ministry spokesperson David Lo (羅紹和), the driver failed to ask the middle-aged woman to present any identification and drove her, along with other military personnel, inside the compound. 

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

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Keeping Legislators Honest – LGBT Style

A new web site keeps tabs on what government officials, legislators, and religious leaders do and say about LGBT issues and same-sex marriage 

As Taiwan’s civil society pushes back against what many regard as increasingly unaccountable executive and legislative branches of the government, a new organization is seeking to counter the influence of conservative elements who, for ideological or religious reasons, are blocking a bill to legalize same-sex unions and bring Taiwan in-line with the spirit of the two U.N covenants it signed in 2009. 

The Lobby Alliance for LGBT Human Rights, an organization formed in March 2014, held a press conference in Taipei on May 7 to unveil PrideWatch (, a new effort that will monitor what lawmakers, political figures, electoral candidates, civil servants and religious leaders do and say about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues. Special attention will be paid to social activities and political statements that discriminate against the group. 

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

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

A Clash of Civilizations

The strong reactions to police violence during the occupation of the Executive Yuan tell us many things about Taiwanese society 

One refrain that was often heard after the police crackdown at the Executive Yuan during the night of March 23-24 was that the activists who occupied the building were “lucky” they were in Taiwan, and that police in other countries — even in Western democracies — would have handled the situation with far less restraint. Implicit in those comments was the view that the protesters who were roughed up, and the dozens who sustained injuries, deserved the medicine. But did they? 

As some critics of the Sunflower Movement, which orchestrated the occupation, have argued, the measures taken by police forces, even those in mature Western democracies, to evict activists engaged in similar action would likely have been much more severe. Of course we can only imagine how authoritarian regimes such as that in China would have reacted. 

But the argument only goes so far. While those who support the police’s handling of the situation at the Executive Yuan often contrast their behavior with the expected response by law enforcement in the U.S., we should also note that police brutality in that country is a highly controversial matter, and not a norm that is acceptable to the American public. 

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

Conflict and Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific

A review of Bernard D. Cole’s ‘Asian Maritime Strategies’ 

Few regions around the world today seem as ready to descend into armed conflict than the Indo-Pacific, an immense body of water with critical sea lines of communication (SLOC), “choke points” and natural resources. More than 40 percent of global naval trade occurs in this area, which is also plagued by piracy, a rising China, bitter territorial disputes, and unsettled historical grievances. 

In a new book, Bernard D. Cole, a professor at the National War College in Washington, D.C., walks us through this gigantic region, which extends from the Sea of Okhotsk in the northeast all the way to the Red Sea, an area that accounts for nearly half the earth’s surface. 

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

Monday, May 05, 2014

Troubling police action as Ma seeks to silence activists

Law-enforcement authorities are using measures that raise serious questions about the intentions of the Ma government

Well, it looks like the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) government is making good on its threat to turn the full weight of the law, and then some, against the activists who have defied its authority in recent months.

No sooner had the Ministry of the Interior announced last week that the National Police Agency (NPA) had been granted new powers of “preventive arrest” against repeat offenders in an enlarged and vague list of “crimes” — which unsurprisingly apply to the activities of the Sunflower and the anti-nuclear movements, among others — than young Taiwanese were complaining of being harassed by police officers who pulled them aside, asked to look into their backpacks, and requested they show their I.D. This happened at various locations, including in the MRT, where a young man with a DSLR was asked by security why he was “loitering,” to an employee at NTU Hospital who was quizzed by police after exiting, and then going back inside, a 7-Eleven convenience store. Their theory was that he had spotted them and sought to hide inside; his more mundane explanation was that he had forgotten to buy something. Just to be safe he was not lying about his profession, the police officers escorted him all the way to the hospital. In some instances, police were reported to have turned their video cameras on the young individuals. In most cases, the people who were targeted happened to wear T-shirts or paraphernalia associated with protest movements, such as sunflowers and various ensigns. Needless to say, such actions were highly intrusive, and in most cases downright unnecessary. And they have the very bad smell of a police state.

Things got a little more serious and worrying today when a handful of plainclothes police officers approached Hung Chung-yen (洪崇晏), a well-known figure among social activists, near Taipei Main Station, handcuffed him, and confiscated his cell phone. Hung, a NTU student who is also known as 八六 (“86”) because of his height (1.86m), protested the officers’ attempt to seize his phone (they claimed they wanted to “hold it for him”). He was quick witted enough to hit the speed dial so that the person at the other end could hear the entire conversation. A young passerby also filmed the incident. In the footage, Hung is heard asking the cops under which law they are entitled to seize his cell phone (in my own judgment, they would probably have used the occasion to scan his SIM card and get a snapshot of his phone contacts). Soon afterwards, the plainclothes shoved him into … a cab, which drove him to a police station.

As one of the leaders of a protest outside the Zhongzheng First Police Precinct on April 11, Hung had twice been summoned to appear before police to explain himself (he stands accused of a variety of crimes, most of which, such as “mob violence,” “public endangerment” and “intimidation,” are bogus). As he didn’t show up — like other suspects Lin Fei-fan (林飛帆) and Chen Wei-ting (陳為廷), Hung and his lawyer argue that they will only give statements to prosecutors, not to the police, which they say is not “neutral” given its role in the controversies — police issued an arrest warrant against him on May 2, and nabbed him on May 5.

Regardless of whether police had a right to seize Hung, their technique left a lot to be desired. Above all, it was highly improper — and very likely illegal — for police officers to rely on a taxi to conduct an individual to a police station. In most civilized countries, if a police vehicle isn’t readily available, police will call for one and wait with the suspect until it arrives. There is a reason why police vehicles bear clear identifications and distinct numbers. Among other things, this is to ensure that people are not kidnapped by criminals who pretend to be law enforcement officers (I would be especially wary of this given the connection between a taxi company in Taipei and a well-known gangster who, incidentally, showed up accompanied by two of President Ma’s sisters at a very blue, and in many ways red, rally on Sunday). (Photo by the author)

Sunday, May 04, 2014

New May Fourth Movement bares its few remaining teeth

Participants in a rally didn’t seem to see the irony in taking part in a pro-ROC event organized by individuals who want to unify Taiwan with authoritarian China

Today I saw Taiwan’s past. Strike that, today, I saw the Republic of China’s (ROC) past. Its minions gathered on Ketagalan Blvd to express their love for the ROC and their support for police officers who have been working extra long hours in the past six weeks amid a series of protests.

As I approached the scene, it quickly became clear to me that the people who’d heeded the call by the just-created New May Fourth Movement had travelled from the past. A great many of them looked like they’d fought the Japanese in World War II. A few looked like they may have been around when the original May Fourth movement was created in 1919 following the conclusion of the Great War. The contrast with the Sunflower Movement, against whose “violent” actions they were rallying, could not have been starker. The average age of the crowd was easily three times that of the student protesters. My partner was shocked when on stage, leading the crowd, materialized an elderly man who, in her youth and when Taiwan was still under authoritarian rule, had haunted their school lives by teaching them the exact same songs and dances that we were now hearing.

There was a large contingent of people — again in their 70s — wearing white T-shirts from pro-unification gangster Chang An-le’s Unification Party, with a big map of China (including Taiwan of course) printed in red at the back. Most of them were from out of town, primarily Longtan in Taoyuan County. From the looks on their faces, most of them didn’t seem to have a clue why they were there. They were probably offered a bit of money, a free lunch box, and a “tour” of Taipei.

As we got off the cab, we immediately came upon an elderly man sitting on the ground with a series of propaganda papers arranged in the shape of a cross. One that stood out compared Lin I-hsiung, the former Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairman whose family was massacred during Martial Law, to the devil. Apparently one of the devil’s many iterations is to launch a hunger strike against unsafe nuclear power in a bid to avoid millions of people being irradiated following a meltdown (silly me: I’d always thought that the devil wanted to roast people up!).

Giving away ROC flags. Note the donation box
I walked around the crowd, taking pictures of old faces. There were some young people, admittedly, among the 2,000 people or so (police farcically says 20,000) who’d gathered to wave the ROC flag and sing old songs. But the ratio of young-to-old was strikingly lower than that of the many protests against the government that I have observed over the past two years, not to mention the 350,000 to 500,000 people, mostly young families and students, who participated in the March 30 rally organized by the Sunflower Movement. A group of young female volunteers in a tent offered me flags, which I declined. Asked why they were donating their time, one of them said, “I oppose violent students.” When pressed to define “violent,” the young thing replied, “They broke windows.” Okay, and they also cleaned carpets at the legislature, but apparently she wasn’t aware of that.

An old man, half of his teeth missing, approached me as I was snapping pictures of the woman I believe is Chang An-le’s partner. “Do you support the police?” he asked me in English. Implicit in his question, of course, was that the student leaders whose protesting had led to a massive police mobilization weren’t. I could have answered in several ways, but I chose to be diplomatic. “Of course I support the police! Everybody does.” That seemed to satisfy him. He was friendly; many weren’t, as is often the case whenever I encounter deep “blue” or pro-unification groups, who somehow seem to sense my liberal and pro-democratic inclinations and accompanying disdain for authoritarian China.

I saw several donation boxes for the New May Fourth Movement, and could only shake my head at the idea of those donors being deceived into giving money to Chang An-le, the man who, along with the pro-unification New Party, was very likely behind this whole enterprise. As I have long feared, Chang, who returned to Taiwan in June 2013 after sixteen years on the run, is an instrument of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) who has no compunction in using Taiwan’s democracy against itself.

Elderly participants wear Chang An-le's party T-shirt
Somehow nobody seemed to see the irony in cooperating with a bandit whose aim is to destroy Taiwan’s liberties by making the island a part of authoritarian China. Many of the old people who gathered to wave the ROC flag had fought the same party that is now funding and using Chang for its unification dreams. My sense is that most people were unaware of the connection with Chang, who showed up — accompanied by two of President Ma Ying-jeou’s sisters and KMT Legislator Alex Tsai — at about 4pm. I wish I could have asked the same young volunteer whether she supported a man who has a long history of involvement in extortion, threats, drug trafficking, and murder. I’m sure she applauded when the gangster materialized. Or, since we’re on subject of broken windows, what she thought about the government demolishing people’s homes in Dapu, Shilin, Yuanli, and Taoyuan in recent years, state-sanctioned violence that, in a few cases, led to actual deaths.

Police estimates 20,000 people. Really?
Many people offered me stickers supporting “public order” and the police force. I could not help but wonder where those people — along with the KMT youth and Sean Lien at a separate rally earlier in the day — were last year when the families of overworked police held a small rally outside the legislature. Not a single KMT politician showed up then, and I felt bad for the small group of people who were calling for help and for the right of the police force to form a union. Ironically, some of the young people who supported them then were among those who occupied the legislature in March and April this year. In other words, the supposed “violent” students who stand accused of mistreating the police were supporting the creation of a union for the police. Those who came out to support the cops today couldn’t be bothered last year, and were siding with a man who has made a lifetime of criminal activity — the kind of activities that, were Taiwan normal, would be the target of the NPA today. Evidently, the whole point of the exercise today wasn’t to show support for the overworked police. It was, pure and simple, a political ploy, and the cops were little more than pawns in the government’s propaganda game.

I’m sure some of the people who gathered outside Taipei City Hall in the morning and on Ketagalan Blvd in the afternoon were well-intentioned and that they did want to support the police force. The problem is that because of the disinformation they have been fed by the government and its propaganda arms in the media, they were targeting the wrong group of people with their anger. They bought the line that the activists sowed “chaos” and instability, but could not be bothered to look for the actual root causes of that escalation, which were failing government mechanisms, lack of accountability and transparency, “black box” deals with authoritarian China, the vested interests of individuals in government, and the unhealthy influence of gigantic corporations on cross-strait policy making. Of course everybody desires social stability, and I am convinced that the Sunflower Movement leadership agrees with this view. But stability cannot serve as a reason for inaction when those who govern us are irresponsive to the public and adopt policies that are detrimental to the nation. Otherwise, why should we expect people to stand up to tyrants, or large business conglomerates that abuse their employees or poison the environment? Of course protests are destabilizing, but there are times when inconveniencing the public is the lesser of two evils. We’re all for stability and public order, but not at any cost.

Interestingly, very few police officers were deployed today, much less than the 150 that were supposed to ensure security at the rally. And most of the barbed wire and gates that had become a staple of the area surrounding the Presidential Office were removed overnight. (All photos by the author, except crowd shot, Yahoo)

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Taipei flirts with ‘authoritarianism lite’ amid political crisis

Based on policies announced in the past week, it looks like the government intends to respond to the challenge of civil society with a major propaganda campaign backed by a strengthened security apparatus 

As the political crisis pitting civil society against the Ma Ying-jeou administration deepens, Taiwanese authorities are adopting countermeasures that, to many observers, are unfit for a democratic system and evidence that the government is getting desperate. 

More than a month after the Sunflower Movement burst into the Legislative Yuan and launched a three-week occupation that shook the nation at its foundations, it is now clear that the political environment in Taiwan will never be the same. With this unprecedented action on March 18, the movement succeeded in channeling mounting discontent with government policies and elevated a nascent civic nationalism — and a desire among young Taiwanese to fight for what they believe in — to a point of no return. As the movement’s leadership vowed in front of tens of thousands of supporters as they vacated the legislature on April 10, the occupation has ended, but the battle goes on. 

And it has. Although the trigger for the Sunflower Movement was the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) and the manner in which the pact had been handled since its inception, the activists were (and are still) mobilizing for something that is much more fundamental. Their focus is government accountability in all matters pertaining to public policy and, increasingly, the government’s less-than-transparent dealings with authoritarian China. The snowballing movement — or rather, the constellation of movements that has flowered over the months — now targets a variety of interconnected issues ranging from lack of government oversight to the unholy nexus of high-level officials and big business, unsafe nuclear power plants to inappropriate law enforcement decisions. 

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