Saturday, 24 May 2014

Taiwan Hyperbole, Again.

Taiwan observer J. Michael Cole has a new post over at The Diplomat that plumbs a new low in the annals of the willingness of some in the Taiwan expat commentariat to talk up the state of crisis in Taiwan, and accuse the democratically-elected Kuomintang government of essentially being a illegitimate dictatorship. This part is representative of the whole: 

". . . soon after Ma began his second (and last) term in 2012 and Chinese President Xi Jinping stepped into Zhongnanhai, the domestic pressures in Taiwan and growing apprehensions regarding the impact of China on the lives of the nation’s 23 million people became more apparent. Protests — against pro-China media, land expropriation, revisionism in school material, layoffs, and a services trade agreement with China, among others — became standard fare. In many cases, the negative influence of China on the quality of Taiwan’s democracy, which was quickly losing its abstract quality, was among the factors behind the demonstrations (the first major one occurred in November 2008 during the visit by Chinese negotiator Chen Yunlin).But despite the daily protests (sometimes several ones in a single day), the signs of emerging “soft authoritarianism” in the government’s reaction to civil society, or a not-unrelated desperate act of anger in which a man crashed a 35-tonne truck into the Presidential Office, the world didn’t pay attention."

 Let's gloss over the fact that Xi Jinping has been at Zhongnanhai since 2008 at least, and just look at Cole's claim that protests have become "standard fare" - perhaps, but is this really anything unusual in Taiwanese politics?

It seems that Cole has forgotten Chen Shui-bian's last term and the various mass protests that occurred in that time, including a march by a claimed 300,000 people (or 90,000, but there's a nasty habit of people taking which ever estimate best fits their argument in Taiwanese politics). It seems J. Michael Cole has forgotten the massive demonstrations of the first Ma term, especially the Economic Common Framework Agreement. In fact, the only thing that is really new in all this was the invasion of the Legislative Yuan by students, to which the KMT government responded much as you would expect - with heavy-handed riot police. Even the crash does not seem so unusual (or so excusable as a "desperate act of anger") when you consider things like the attempted assassination of Chen Shui-bian and Annette Lu by an equally-crazed man in 2004.

Let's also look at Cole's claim that there have been "emerging signs of "soft authoritarianism"" in Taiwan. Trying to pin down what exactly this means seems to uncover little more than claims that the students who occupied the Legislative Yuan had to put up with the air-conditioning being turned off on them and were evicted from the government buildings and public spaces they had occupied. The KMT's main crime seems to be that in implementing the services agreement with mainland China they did exactly what the constitution and their democratically-conferred majority allows them to do, but broke a non-binding agreement by doing so. Everything else seems to fall into the normal bag of ridiculous hype, gossip, rumour, and conspiracy theories that has swirled around in Taiwan since at least the advent of the democratic era, and probably before then too.

Even the "big news" from Taiwan, the emergence of the Sunflower Movement, is reminiscent of nothing so much as the various Occupy movements around the world over the past 3-4 years or so. This is particularly reflected in the disparate nature of what their banners proclaim them as being in favour of, and in their essential lack of any specific goal.  Demanding that a law not be passed, that the president resign, accusing the ruling party of being corrupt - this has been the common fare of Taiwanese politics going back ten years at least.

And let's not forget the various hyperbole-laden warnings that have come forth from Taiwan over the years. Back in 2002 "Father of the Nation" and ex-President Lee Teng-Hui warned of a likely Chinese invasion happening in 2008. Indeed, Cole, who in his latest article warns that Taiwan is "at the eleventh hour" and that "the day of reckoning in the Taiwan Strait is fast approaching", has himself been guilty of making warnings that, especially in retrospect, appear more than a little bit misguided - particularly his warning before the 2012 election that there would be a forced annexation of Taiwan by China facilitated by the KMT that year. 

Looked at this way, simply regarding affairs in Taiwan as business as usual, and ignoring the never-ending flow of hype coming from the various side of the Taiwan debate in the abscence of real indications of change, is nothing but good common sense.


Anonymous said...

His articles are nothing compared to what he's saying on his Facebook page... I guess he's surrounded by people who always not to whatever he says or writes

Ben said...

Well, are you even living in Taiwan? Cole has access to stuff you and me probably have not. It's easy to judge from one's armchair.

Gilman Grundy said...

@Ben -
"are you even living in Taiwan"

Right now? No. Nut I did live there in the past and continue to visit and follow up on issues

"Cole has access to stuff you and me probably have not"

Judging by Cole's latest posts, Cole has access to dubious documents given to him by demonstrators, and to internet rumours, and is relaying them as essentially factual.

@Anonymous - I'm not going to judge his character, but you would expect someone who has made such catastrophically wrong predictions in the past, predictions that can only be arrived at by swallowing the worst of the propaganda produced by one side of the debate in Taiwan whole, to be a bit more circumspect about making similar predictions in future.

Gilman Grundy said...

Urghh . . . Nut=But, obviously. Curse my podgy, armchair-dwelling fingers!

TG said...

For me the biggest problem is that he's the only Western reporter who regularly covers these local political stories with in-depth commentary and lots of photos, so if you want to be informed in English, it's quite difficult to not come across his articles and reports, the downside is that he's heavily pro-one side. An alternative is Austin Ramzy, who was forced to come to our side, but his focus is Greater China, and he doesn't seem to be that well connected or involved in local affairs. Other than that I don't know any Taiwan reporter, who would be really focused to report, write and comment on local affairs in-depth. Most popular and focused Taiwan-centric English language websites/blogs are green (View from Taiwan, Letters From Taiwan, China Policy Institute Blog, the new Thinking Taiwan), and their existence is perfectly fine with me, I read them often, but we do lack something in the middle, something of similar size and influence. Do you know of anyone that could meet this criteria?

Maybe the main problem is that being a foreign journalist in Taiwan is not really a career path that will make you rich. Stories from Taiwan in English are a niche product, mostly circling around the local expats, the expats who left, ABTs/ABCs, Taiwanese abroad, and generally those who have some connections with Taiwan (marriage, business, politics). The total number of weekly articles on Taiwan, and readers who consume them must be very small in comparison with other countries in the region. Most of my blog's traffic is made of people who are looking for information related to travel to Taiwan (and they are mostly from foreign countries), posts related to politics, society and current events are mostly attracting traffic from within Taiwan. I'm not sure how much is this actually representative of anything, but I do think it could be applicable to a broader sense. With that said, I don't really write that much about local politics (not much time for that), I mostly update on my Facebook page, which has become a blog replacement for shorter posts, mostly reactions to something someone wrote or did. Blogging has changed in general, well written long reads are not as attractive anymore as shorter pointy pieces with a click-baiting headline (partially we can thank Twitter for that), the general attention span seems to be low, people have no patience, if the main point isn't made in the first paragraph. It's quite sad actually.

How do you see all that?

Gilman Grundy said...

@MKL - I've got no problem with people who are strongly pro-Taiwanese independence covering Taiwan. People (including you and me) wouldn't write about Taiwan if we didn't care about the place, and for many people caring about Taiwan is indistinguishable from believing it should be an independent country.

I'm not such a huge fan, though, of hyping domestic disputes that, whilst certainly meaningful, do not presage the start of a war or threaten the end of Taiwan as a free society. There is something deeply irresponsible about predicting the outbreak of war, possible with the deaths of thousands of people,repeatedly, on the basis of flimsy or non-existent evidence. There is also something irresponsible about labeling a democratically-elected government essentially a dictatorship on the basis of internet rumours and dubious documents.

Anyone out there who are better? I know there's people who could do better, but they are tied up editing ESL material or other things that are more reliable as sources of income that reporting for Taiwan's remaining cash-starved English-language outlets.

RE: blogging. Part of the reason why I've been posting a lot recently (other than waiting for a new job to start)is just to see whether I could get back to the glory days of this blog in 2008-9, and so far it seems to be working. I think there's still appetite out there for blogging, it's just that no-one believes it's going to make them famous any more!

TG said...

I have definitely missed your updates, I'm really glad to see you writing on a frequent basis again. I too have been lately quite affected by the green doom sayers, so much is happening this year in Taiwan, especially in recent weeks, it was hard to always keep a neutral stance, and not get carried away (been guilty of that from time to time). It's really refreshing to read your piece, and self-reflect a little. I hope you'll write some more posts on Taiwan, it's good to have various opinions. I'm starting to put the focus back on my blog, which I redesigned today.

I found your closing thought interesting. Did bloggers really wanted to be famous? I never did, even though I had lots of opportunities, I was offered to work with the Travel Channel, and local TV, but I declined, I wanted to stay anonymous, and continue to earn my money in a Taiwanese multinational corporation. I don't like to mix my blogger person and the real person, so far it worked out ok. I guess you had a similar approach until someone published your real name?

Gilman Grundy said...

@MKL - Well, firstly I'm just as subject to a panic as anyone. My first response to the annexation of the Crimea was exactly the same as that of many - "if Russia can get away with this, then China could do the same to Taiwan".

Then I asked myself how exactly the Ukraine ever got to the stage where a substantial portion of the Crimean population were willing to accept (apathetically or otherwise) an invasion by Russian forces, and amongst the other factors (most notably ethnic nationalism) it is clear that they were living in a propaganda-induced make-believe world where many genuinely appear to have believed that a Russian invasion was necessary to save them from changes in Kiev that had been spun as a "CIA coup" imposing a "fascist government".

Ask yourself - where does this kind atmosphere of panic come from? What kind of developments are most likely to result in a society becoming so deceived? I'd say that it's exactly the kind of relaying of conspiracy theories as fact, and endless demonisation of the opposition, that we see extremists of both sides of the Taiwan debate engaging in at the present time.

The answer to pan-blue conspiracy theories is not pan-green conspiracy theories. It is the truth, and skepticism where reasonable doubt exists.

RE: blogging - yeah that last bit was (mostly) a joke, though there were people who started blogs with that kind of idea, especially back in the early days. For me this has always been more of a diary of "what I thought at that time".