Monday, July 28, 2014

‘You’re Not Taiwanese … You Cannot Possibly Understand Us’

On the preposterous claim that cultural knowledge and true comprehension cannot be acquired by the ‘other’ 

Lang Lang’s fingers came to a rest as the last notes of Mozart’s C minor No. 24, K491 bounced off the walls of the sumptuous concert hall. For a brief instant there was only silence, followed by loud applause as the concertgoers emerged to their feet. Lang’s performance was stunning technically; the agility of his seemingly bewitched fingers was truly something to behold.

As the enchanted crowd dissipated, I used my journalist credentials to access the backstage. I walked past the violinists, cellists, flutists and the rest of the ensemble as they loosened strings, scrubbed their exhausted brass instruments to a shine, and packed their various sundries for the night. I reached a door at the back and rapped it musically with my knuckles. “Come in,” a slightly accented voice answered. 

There I was, alone at last with the great Lang Lang. He was beaming. The performance, as the next day’s newspapers would attest, had been out of this world, one of his greatest. After brief exchanges of pleasantries and business cards (yes, the great pianist has one), I went straight down to business. 

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

Friday, July 25, 2014

Global Indifference and Why Taiwan Needs a Strong Deterrent

The best insurance against Taipei turning into the next Gaza is for Taiwan to invest in proper military deterrence, and not to count on international goodwill 

As I write this, as many as 775 Palestinians, most of them civilians and many of them children, have been slain by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the 17-day campaign in Gaza. The war, which has sparked international condemnation, has also resulted in the death of two Israeli civilians and 32 soldiers. As a fellow journalist and occasional contributor to Thinking Taiwan who is now covering the latest conflagration in the Middle East wrote a few days ago, the place is “hopeless.” Both sides, embittered by decades of pain, broken promises and hatred, seem condemned to eternal cycles of violence. Both sides have legitimate claims, and both are equally wrong. Both peoples, their welfare held hostage by politicians and the seemingly invincible forces of “history,” have a right to security, dignity, and to a state. 

Yet, as with many wars waged by the IDF since 1948, the death ratio has been largely in Israel’s favor. In the Six Day War of June 1967, the casualty ratio was 25 to 1; about 800 Israelis died, against approximately 15,000 Egyptians, 700 Jordanians, and 450 Syrians. One thing that has gradually changed since that war, during which Israel often found itself at loggerheads with the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, is the number of civilian casualties. More and more, Palestinian (and Lebanese) civilians are killed in IDF operations against Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other radical organizations, not to mention the demolition of entire neighborhoods, which has created new generations of displaced individuals and refugees, and thus new cycles of hatred and violence. 

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

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

To Freeze or Not to Freeze: The DPP’s ‘Independence Clause’

The Democratic Progressive Party’s independence clause is a non-issue and should be treated as such 

Judging from the attention it has received in recent weeks, one would think that the matter was a major policy issue, a pivotal moment in the history of Taiwan’s main opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The object in question was the “independence clause” in the party’s charter and whether, as some have argued, it should be “frozen.” And yet, during the national party congress on July 20, chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (full disclosure: I'm a Senior Member at the Thinking Taiwan Foundation, a think tank founded by Tsai in 2012) dodged the controversial bullet — and rightly so, as it is, for all intents and purposes, a non-issue. 

The clause, inserted into the charter in 1991, five years after the party’s creation in 1986, as Taiwan was emerging from decades of authoritarian rule, sets a de jure independent country, ideally known as the Republic of Taiwan, as a core objective for the party. For reasons that have very much to do with pressure from the U.S. and the military threat from China, which in 2005 “legalized” the use of force by passing the Anti-Secession Law, the clause has remained unrealized. In its place, despite growing public self-recognition as ethnically Taiwanese and rising support for independence, Taiwan — officially known as the Republic of China (ROC) — has settled for a relatively comfortable and uncontroversial “status quo,” which supports neither unification with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) nor formal independence, but allows for the functioning of the state as an independent country. 

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

Monday, July 21, 2014

Will They Ever Learn to Trust Taiwan’s Youth?

Unless youth are given the space and responsibilities they are entitled to, Taiwan’s political parties will die of old age, and soon after them, so will the country 

Judging from the growing number of unrelentingly cheerful young people who surround party officials at press conferences or who appear in political adverts nowadays, it would be tempting to conclude that the nation’s politicians, shaken from their longstanding slumber by the Sunflower Movement’s eruption earlier this year, have finally realized that youth have a role — an important role — to play in politics. Sadly, there is less to this phenomenon than meets the eye, and the dinosaurs are to blame. 

There is no doubt that the youth-led Sunflower Movement, which occupied the Legislative Yuan for 21 days in March and April, led to an acknowledgement by both the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) that the parties had failed to propose a viable future for the nation’s young people. With policies that seemed entirely disconnected from the dreams and fears of the current generation of young people, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) KMT succeeded in politicizing a sizeable segment of society that otherwise didn’t seem to have the least interest in public affairs. For its part, the DPP, which should have been the natural go-to party for the disenfranchised youth, appeared unwilling to engage and work with civil society to counter the authorities. 

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

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Announcement: Officially Unofficial book launch in Taipei

Mark your calendars! Officially Unofficial: Confessions of a journalist in Taiwan, will be officially launched during a signing event at Café Philo in Taipei on July 31, from 7pm until 9pm. The author will give a short presentation on his journey as a journalist and the motivations for writing the book before signing copies. Coffee and tea will be served; alcoholic beverages will also be available for purchase.

This will be a great occasion to mingle with academics, journalists, activists, students, as well as members of the diplomatic community.

For more information about the event, including location, see the Facebook event page here, where you can also reserve a copy of the book if you are interested. Copies of Officially Unofficial will be on sale at the discounted price of NT$400 (retail price is US$16.95, or NT$510).

For people who are not in Taiwan, hard copies and the Kindle version are available on, and other global Amazon sites.

Where? Café Philo, 台北市紹興北街三號一樓
When? July 31 (Thursday), 19:00-21:00.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Why Defending Taiwan is Not Illegal

A response to Julian Ku’s interpretation of international law and history 

Whenever I come across facile — or worse, self-serving — justifications as to why the international community should just give up Taiwan and cede it to the authoritarian People’s Republic of China (PRC), I’m always tempted to quote good old Charles Dickens for rejoinder. “All I want is, facts.” 

Facts is what is lacking in a recent piece by Julian Ku, a law professor at Hofstra University, first published over at Opinio Juris, and then reproduced by The Diplomat. Ku, who is spending the summer in Taipei on a Taiwan Fellowship sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was responding to an earlier article in The Diplomat by Zachary Kech, in which the latter argued that the scenario of a PRC invasion of Taiwan figured largely in Tokyo’s “reinterpretation” of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution. As it is understood, the reinterpretation would allow Tokyo to legally come to the defense of allies if doing so could be tied directly to Japan’s defense. 

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

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Where Would Beijing Use External Distractions?

Should the CCP find itself in dire straits, could provoking external conflicts boost its legitimacy at home? And if so, where would it strike? 

Throughout history, embattled governments have often resorted to external distractions to tap into a restive population’s nationalist sentiment and thereby release, or redirect, pressures that otherwise could have been turned against those in power. Authoritarian regimes in particular, which deny their citizens the right to punish the authorities through retributive democracy — that is, elections — have used this device to ensure their survival during periods of domestic upheaval or financial crisis. Would the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), whose legitimacy is so contingent on social stability and economic growth, go down the same path if it felt that its hold on power were threatened by domestic instability? 

Building on the premise that the many contradictions that are inherent to the extraordinarily complex Chinese experiment, and rampant corruption that undermines stability, will eventually catch up with the CCP, we can legitimately ask how, and where, Beijing could manufacture external crises with opponents against whom nationalist fervor, a major characteristic of contemporary China, can be channeled. In past decades, the CCP has on several occasions tapped into public outrage to distract a disgruntled population, often by encouraging (and when necessary containing) protests against external opponents, namely Japan and the United States. 

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

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

All the King’s Persecutors

In a repeat of the lead-up to the 2012 elections, Ma and his trusted political manipulator seem to be harnessing the powers of the state to undermine their opponents 

There’s something going on in Taiwan at the moment that’s just not right. The source of that malaise, which has descended upon society like a dark cloud, is operating behind the scenes, threatening opponents of the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) regime with means that have little place in a democracy. Young activists, members of the opposition, and legislators from the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) all are fair game, vulnerable to forces that must be called by their proper name: authoritarianism. Lurking behind the scene and presumably pulling the strings is King Pu-tsung (金溥聰), Ma’s longtime aide and now secretary-general of the National Security Council (NSC). 

Regarded in Washington, D.C., circles as a less-than-stellar — and according to some, downright missing — envoy to the U.S., King returned to Ma’s side earlier this year at a time when it looked like the sky was about to fall on the unpopular president. Commenting on King’s expected return to the “corridors of power,” state-owned Focus Taiwan wrote in February, “With less than two years left in his final presidential term, a pressing issue for Ma is how to create a political legacy. King could be the one to help him achieve that goal.” 

One month after the commentary appeared, a group of students, mobilizing several dozen civil organizations and ordinary citizens, gave expression to mounting public discontent with failing administrative systems, cronyism, “black box” dealings with the undemocratic giant next door, and sundry other ills largely of Ma’s making by taking on the government. As the Sunflower Movement launched its occupation of the Legislative Yuan and broke the wall of indifference that for too long had insulated Taiwan from the rest of the world, Ma’s legacy seemed under threat. 

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

Five Taiwanese Weapons of War China Should Fear

From armed UAVs to mid-range cruise missiles, Taiwan can creatively impose conditions such that a PLA invasion would promise too high a cost 

The initial response to an article titled “Five Taiwanese Weapons of War that China Should Fear” would be to ask why such weapons would be necessary in the first place. After all, relations between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait since 2008 have been, at some level at least, the best they’ve been since the conclusion of the Chinese civil war in 1949. Over that period, many agreements have been signed between Taipei and Beijing; millions of Chinese tourists flock to Taiwan every year; and interactions between Chinese and Taiwanese politicians—including the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party—have reach levels that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Why, then, should Taiwan seek to develop or acquire weapons that would strike fear in Beijing? 

The answer to that question lies in the extent to which rapprochement can continue, and the prospects that an end to this trend could result in a decision by China to resort to martial measures to resolve the “Taiwan question” once and for all. Recent developments in Taiwan, chief among them the Sunflower Movement’s 21-day occupation of the Legislative Yuan in March and April this year, have highlighted the formidable ideological divide that exists between the two societies and the deep fears that are felt by Taiwanese even as their country normalizes relations with China. To be succinct: the majority of Taiwanese are all for economic exchanges with China, and most understand the futility of ignoring the elephant in the room; but parallel to that realization is the deeply ingrained aversion to seeing a reversal of Taiwan’s liberal democracy and way of life. Ongoing events in Hong Kong, tensions that were in part exacerbated by Beijing’s release of its white paper on “one country, two systems,” have further awakened Taiwanese society to the huge costs that are to be paid in sovereignty transactions with China. 

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

Monday, July 07, 2014

Officially Unofficial: Confessions of a journalist in Taiwan, is finally out!

Eight years in the making, my semi-autobiographical work on media in Taiwan is finally available 

In this long-awaited memoir, journalist J. Michael Cole takes the reader on a journey of self-discovery as he explores the dreams, motivations, successes, failures, and frustrations of an idealistic foreign correspondent in Taiwan. This semi-autobiographical work will appeal to anyone who is interested in the practice of journalism and the politics of a democratic society that lives under the constant threat of authoritarian China. Although the external forces that seek to undermine Taiwan's democratic foundations have been well documented, much less has been written about the institutional failings - from the island's troubled media environment to the legacies of an authoritarian past - that far too often weaken the ability of the nation's 23 million people to resist aggression. By candidly detailing his personal experiences as an actor in Taiwan's media and placing those in their proper historical context, the author demonstrates that the island's enemies at home can often be just as nefarious as the machinations of outside forces. 

The book is available for order on and should be in bookstores within 3-6 weeks. I also plan on organizing an official book launch in Taiwan once I have received my copies. Stay tuned for announcements! For the time being, the book is available for order on CreateSpace and will soon be up in Kindle version. It is 260 pages, trade paperback.

Friday, July 04, 2014

An Orphan From the Beginning

A review of David M. Finkelstein’s 'Washington’s Taiwan Dilemma, 1949-1950' 

Taiwan’s fear of abandonment by the great powers that are seen as instrumental to the island’s ability to maintain its de facto sovereignty are deeply rooted. In the current context of China’s “rise” and the growing influence of lobbyists calling on Washington to drop perceived irritants in order to improve cooperation with Beijing, it may be tempting to conclude that Taiwan’s time as a sovereign democracy is up, that capitulating to Chinese irredentism is a decision that lies in an inevitable future. Although pessimism seems warranted, historical context helps us understand that the island’s prospects of surviving the People’s Republic of China (PRC) were bleak from the start. What is extraordinary is that nearly 65 years after the birth of the PRC, Taiwan is still here, still vulnerable but nevertheless blessed with a much stronger sense of entity. 

The Naval Institute Press’ reissue of David M. Finkelstein’s Washington’s Taiwan Dilemma, 1949-1950, first published in 1993, allows us to revisit a period in Taiwan’s early modern history — that is, following the end of hostilities in World War II and Japan’s relinquishing of what had been its most successful colony — when its survival seemed highly uncertain and a Communist takeover written in the stars. 

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

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Was Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement Successful?

Nearly three months after the end of the occupation of the legislature, it is time to assess what the Sunflower Movement has accomplished, and what will happen next 

The Sunflower Movement’s unprecedented occupation of Taiwan’s legislature in March and April this year made the headlines for a month, a feat almost unheard of in the island’s all-too-impatient media. It was the subject of heated debate on TV talk shows. It even became the object of attention overseas after supporters launched their own small protests. For a while, it looked like the occupation would change the face of politics, perhaps even dislodge President Ma Ying-jeou from his all-powerful position as chairman of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). Then the occupation ended, the headlines turned their sights toward new developments, and it looked like things had returned to their original state, the movement fated to little more than a mere footnote in the nation’s political history. Or was it? 

I recently had the pleasure of speaking at a conference on Taiwan’s social movements at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). The main argument of my talk was that small but persistent guerrilla-type protest groups had been more successful than larger movements with mass appeal, such as Citizen 1985. Over the next two days, my use of the term successful often came back to haunt me. Academics, being what they are, wanted — and rightly so — a proper definition. 

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