Monthly Archives: August 2005

A dream dwindles – in the Western press

Either Western journalists do not have the most basic understanding of Taiwan, or they think it is too complex to explain to their readers. That is my conclusion after having read the latest article about Taiwan which fails completely to dig beneath the surface and get any more nuanced than describing a battle between absolute independence and absolute unification.

This article by Associated Press which boldly states that the dream of Taiwan independence is dead is actually much better than most, but is still pretty woeful (it’s also analysed by Michael here). I can almost imagine the article writer started out with the assumption that Taiwan has always been filled with millions of fire-breathing “independence at all costs” extremists – and is a bit shocked to find out that pragmatism is alive and well on the island.

Taiwan’s ruling party has dreamed of making this self-governing island a sovereign state, but analysts say it’s unlikely that it will ever gain independence from China due to threats from Beijing and a lack of support from the island’s main protector, the United States.

Taiwan split from China amid civil war in 1949 and has since achieved de facto independence, forming its own government, issuing its own currency and developing modern armed forces.

Pro-independence activists are planning to hold a rally early next month.

But successive governments have stopped short of declaring formal independence because China, which still insists the island is part of its territory, has threatened to take Taiwan by force if it ever tries to formally break from the mainland.

But here’s a problem – the implication that a sequence of governments have secretly wished for independence but failed to provide it is false. There have only been 4 leaders of the ROC on Taiwan: The first (Chiang Kai Shek) spent all his time trying to plot the destruction of the PRC, the second (Chiang Ching-Kuo) gave up on his fathers dreams of retaking the mainland but retained the ideal of a unified China, the third (Lee Teng-Hui) had such little support for Taiwanese independence within his government that he kept all thoughts of it to himself until he retired, and the forth (Chen Shui-Bian) ran on a platform where he promised not to declare independence. So none of these governments stopped short of declaring independence – it wasn’t even on their radar (with the possible exception of the last one).

While being careful not to provoke his giant neighbor into attacking, Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian has pushed the envelope more than previous leaders.

Chen is the standard-bearer of the Democratic Progressive Party, which since 1991 has enshrined the goal of Taiwanese independence in its charter.

The DPP is also the party that in 1999 decided that Taiwan is already an independent and sovereign nation – thus making any formal declaration pointless.

But Chen, who took office in 2000, has been unable to translate the independence dream into anything reflecting real sovereignty, engaging instead in largely superficial gestures like toying with the words on the island’s passports.

What on earth is meant here by ‘real sovereignty’? Is he lamenting Chen’s failure to give Taiwan its own army, currency, government, economy, education system, border controls and so on? Taiwan has never lacked for ‘real’ sovereignty – it’s the ‘officially recognised’ sovereignty that’s been missing.

Even partial actions like creating a new flag or changing the name “Republic of China” into something more Taiwanese have proved too ambitious for him.

Hardly surprising – given the fact that Chen explicitly promised not to take either of these actions while president.

The result is a growing public sense that that the independence bandwagon — launched as an underground movement in the 1960s — has reached the end of its line.

This is the core premise of the whole article – and it is fundamentally flawed. The underground movement that is being talked about always had two goals: full democracy and independence. Of these two, democracy was always the more pressing (and universally accepted) issue; there were plenty of activists who were at best lukewarm to the idea of independence (and some, like Li Ao, violently opposed to it). While formal independence has always been popular with a number of idealists (and of course a high percentage of those activists were idealists), it has never had much more than theoretical support from the population of Taiwan.

The DPP included their independence clause into their constitution in 1991 a couple of months before some important National Assembly elections. The result of those elections was a resounding failure for the DPP. If you consider this the first public vote where independence was an issue, then the outcome was a clear ‘No’ by the people 14 years ago.

In contrast, since the DPP backed away from formal independence in 1999 they have won two presidential elections and become the biggest party (and made gains) in two consecutive legislative elections (the 2nd of those legislative election was considered a failure due to the lack of success of their pro-formal independence TSU partner).

“I think it’s the reality, and the general perception of the public that independence isn’t plausible anymore,” says Emile Sheng of Taipei’s Soochow University. “It’s not a viable option.”

Sheng and other analysts of Taiwanese politics point to recent polls indicating that only about 15 percent of island residents now describe themselves as enthusiastic independence advocates.

Missing from this article is any information about the percentage of enthusiastic independence supporters 5,10 or 20 years ago … I would be very surprised (and suspicious of the poll) if the figures were much different to today’s 15%.

[Taiwan specialist Shelley Rigger]”For a time in the 90s it was possible to imagine that China was not serious about blocking Taiwanese independence,” she says. “But that is no longer tenable. The message has gotten through.”

Shelly Rigger is usually one of the best (Western) commentators on Taiwan – but this quote is just bizarre. The 90s started with China having just proven (via the Tiananmen Square massacre) that they were quite happy to kill innocents and didn’t care about their image in the West, it continued with a series of ‘missile tests’/threats to Taiwan whenever the president sneezed (or visited his old university), and ended with a bunch of blood-curdling rhetoric which helped Chen (and ‘scum of the earth’ Annette Lu) to power.

So, what’s the real situation?

The ‘dream’ that this article assumes quite frankly has never been anything more than a dream for most Taiwanese. While the idea of full independence is popular (and is arguably more popular now than ever), the vast majority of the Taiwanese public have always been well aware of the risks associated with it. Given that the benefits are fairly nebulous (What is the point of a piece of paper which tells you something you already know?), most people are quite happy for it to remain an idea – and will happily vote against any politician who gets overexcited and starts talking about putting that idea into practise.

This AP article seems surprised that very few people are talking about complete independence as a realistic short-term possibility. I suspect the article writer would have been just as surprised if they had visited Taiwan 10 years ago. In the land of “cha bu duo” (差不多), most people have been pretty content with Taiwan’s “cha bu duo independence” for quite some time – but that doesn’t mean they don’t still dream.

On the edge of the 3rd world

Taiwan is rightly proud of its progress over the last few decades out of third-world poverty to something approaching first-world status. However, there are still areas where you have to wonder if Taiwan has made any progress at all – it’s treatment of overseas workers is one of the main ones.

Last weeks riot by Thai workers in Kaohsiung highlighted the plight of about 300,000 legal overseas workers (mainly from Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam). Some of the things the workers in Kaohsiung had to put up with was Taiwanese bosses using electric cattle prods to ‘control’ them, a wage lower than the minimal wage, not getting paid properly for their overtime, dormitories with individual space less than prison cells, bans on use of mobile phones, ridiculous fines for trivial offenses (NT$3000 fine for ‘riding a bicycle’!) and being paid in ‘tokens’ instead of cash (only useable in the overpriced company stores).

Although it remains to be seen whether anything will be done about the overall problem of overseas workers rights, the issue does seem to be getting a fair amount of play in the local press. Today, the Taipei Times (a paper which has often been criticized for shying away from negative stories about Taiwan) has a series of reports which highlight the numerous problems:

Note that all the problems above are ones for legal overseas workers. Some people estimate there are another 300,000 workers here illegally. One shudders to imagine the conditions they have to put up with.

There are a range of obvious actions which could and should be taken by the Taiwanese government if they want to improve the situation (a complete reform of the way workers are hired from overseas, basic protection for all workers under the Basic Labor Law, legal support for workers in disputes). However, does the government have the stomach for real change (which will affect all those companies who rely on this plentiful cheap labour)?

Chen Shui-bian has been publicly asking for input for his next round of constitutional reform. Perhaps someone should mention to him that basic human rights should be protected for all people – not just citizens.

After the Tsunami

The latest display of inefficiency and incompetence by the government was this weeks revelation that none of the NT$407 million raised by the Government Information Office for Tsunami relief charities has yet been handed over:

The Government Information Office (GIO) will dole out cash donations for tsunami relief to charity groups late this month or early next month, GIO Minister Pasuya Yao said Monday.

Yao made the remarks in response to press reports that several months after a charity campaign initiated by the GIO to collect cash donations to help sponsor children after last December’s disastrous tsunami in Southeast Asia, the money still has yet to reach the hands of charity groups, including the World Vision International, the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation, and the Taiwan Fund for Children and Families. These groups were commissioned by the government to handle tsunami relief. Tsai Sung-lin, a national policy adviser to President Chen Shui bian, criticized the long-stalled program, saying that it will tarnish the government’s image, the reports also said.

Back in January the GIO, in association with the charities listed above, held a successful fund-raising event; they set up a trust in a bank to handle the money, along with a committee to oversee allocation of funds. The charities went ahead and started their aid programmes, while the committee … sat on the money doing nothing. Nothing that is until the Control Yuan’s Ministry of Audit noticed, and pointed out that the GIO shouldn’t be setting up trusts outside normal governmental channels, and that the money should be transferred to the GIOs account before it could be spent.

So, the head of the GIO set up a body incorrectly (illegally?), and a committee who seem to have done nothing at all – and as a result nothing has happened seven months later. Apart from the obvious questions about general competence levels in the GIO, the role of the Control Yuan raises an interesting question …

Who controls the Control Yuan?

The Control Yuan doesn’t exist. Although it is one of the 5 branches of government defined by the constitution in Taiwan, it hasn’t existed since February – when the term of office of its previous members finished. Since then, the Legislature has refused to even review (let alone ratify) the proposed list of new members. In normal societies this would be called a 7-month long ‘Constitutional Crisis’; in Taiwan it seems it’s business as usual.

So, how does a non-existent Control Yuan work then? The [non-existent] Control Yuan has the answer:

In its press release, the Control Yuan stressed that although the new-term members of the yuan have yet to be sworn in, the yuan has been dealing with petition cases from the public in accordance with a set of provisional guidelines on how to settle the petition cases before the new members take office.

Accordingly, “we have to make such a clarification less the image of the Control Yuan should be damaged,” the press statement said.

The Control Yuan also noted that the right of the Ministry of Audit to perform the auditing job legally should be well respected.

So there you have it: who needs members defined in accordance with the constitution when you can use ‘provisional guidelines’ in their place? It must be said though that the Control Yuan (which doesn’t exist) seems to be a damn sight more competent than the GIO (which, although many people wish it didn’t exist, does)!

Participating in the WHO

One of the areas where Taiwan is constantly search for international recognition is in the World Health Organisation. Given the lack of success Taiwan has had in becoming a full member, it has also tried some alternative approaches to participating

Four communities will become part of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) “Safe Communities Network” in an accreditation ceremony later this year.

Leif Svanstrom, head of the WHO’s Collaborating Center on Community Safety Promotion, will come to Taiwan in October to present certificates to representatives from Neihu (內湖), Tungshih (東勢), Alishan (阿里山) and Fengbin (豐濱), which have been granted membership of the network.

The Safe Communities initiative is a joint project by the WHO and the Karolinska Institute, Sweden. Most of the information about it is hosted on the Karolinska website which explains why it can get away with such outrageously subversive information as this one for Neihu:

Safe Community Neihu
Country: Taiwan
Number of inhabitants: 261,201

My current office is in Neihu, so it’s nice to know I’m working in a ‘safe community’ (although I do wonder how safe the raging fires outside almost every building today are).

This gift has teeth

PandaWhen Lien Chan visited China back in April he was offered a gift of two panda bears. Well, it seems that the pandas have beenare being selected, but they’re already getting a bit tired of the media circus:

A process of Beijing officials selecting a pair of pandas to be proffered as a gift for rival Taiwan — normally a scene of Chinese pomp and glory — quickly deteriorated into pandemonium when one of the pandas bit a female journalist in the hand.

The mainland Chinese journalist, who was not named by press reports, stuck her hand in a panda cage as she attempted to photograph one of the rare black-and-white animals at Sichuan Province Wolong Nature reserve.

The five-year old Panda “Ximei”, was pregnant, which affected her normally docile mood and made her grumpy, causing her to take a bite at the press, experts said.

I hate to think what the pandas will make of Taiwan’s famously aggressive media.

It is still unclear whether the pandas will ever make it into Taiwan – back in May the official line was that they would only be accepted if all the permits from the ‘Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species’ were in place (a problem, as the donors don’t believe it is an international trade). Now the Mainland Affairs Council seems to have softened its stance a bit, saying that ‘major international conservation groups would have to have a say on whether Taiwan is able to take care of the animals’. So maybe the penguins and koalas will be getting worried about losing their top billing at Taipei Zoo …

Travelling officer class

Last Sunday afternoon, I took the train back from Hualien to Taipei. As usual it was packed, with many more passengers than seats, so how did I get a seat? You can book a seat two weeks in advance – but the online system for booking regularly goes into meltdown as everyone tries to book seats as soon as they are available. Having failed to get through before all these seats were snapped up, we were forced to go for the second option …

Every train has a large percentage of the seats reserved for army officers – of course hardly any of these seats are actually used by the intended recipients. This means that if you know someone who knows someone whose third cousin once used to be in the army, then you might be able to get a reserved seat that way. Although it’s quite surprising that such an odd rule is still in existence, it goes to show how slow Taiwan has been in reforming away the priveledges of the ruling class. It’s also an example of how old rules and customs mean that it can still be a question of who you know, and how much ‘guanxi’ you have that decides how easily you can get something done.

Regulating TV in Taiwan

Last night, 7 cable TV channels were forced to stop broadcasting as the goverment had refused to renew their licenses:

The government has decided to suspend seven cable TV channels, including one news station and a movie channel, beginning tomorrow, citing the irresponsibility of the electronic media. But the move is expected to ignite new political confrontation soon.

The background to this is that the Government Information Office (the GIO – the body responsible for regulating the media) has been reviewing the licenses for the majority of TV channels over the last few months. It released a preliminary report a few weeks ago which failed 21 of the 70 channels; after further review this number was whittled down to 7 failures – who were forced to close almost immediately.

I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t think the quality of TV in Taiwan is terrible, and so there was plenty of support in principle for something to be done (a survey done just before the review showed that 73% of people thought the current news channels had a negative impact on the country). Elton John famously called Taiwanese reporters “rude, vile pigs” within half an hour of landing in Taiwan, so he’d probably agree that more control is needed of the media.

The one news channel which has been closed, ETTV-S, could hardly claim to be a high quality news organisation. Recently, it’s claim to fame was as the channel which broadcast a fake news report by a PFP councillor on reuse of food from funerals (along with the suspicion that many other ‘news reports’ from that show were also faked). It is also the 2nd news channel owned by ETTV, which means that anything of any quality can easily be transferred to its sister channel. Given these fact, if any news channel was to be closed, ETTV-S was always going to be favourite.

After the closure of ETTV-S there are still 7 24-hour news channels left in Taiwan, so the problem is still one of too much quantity, too litle quality.

The other channels that have been axed have one thing in common: smut. Taiwanese TV has always had pretty puritanical standards for what can be shown (watching an episode of ‘Sex & the City’ in Taiwan will be several minutes quicker than watching the original), and it seems that 6 channels have failed to live up to the regulators views on decency.

Political motivation

Of course, several opposition legislators are crying foul and claiming that the government is shutting down dissenting voices; first prize for hyperbole goes to PFP Legislator Lee Yung-ping who said “If political force is to intervene again in how the media should work, we’ll be returning to the days of ‘white terror'” (a farcical comparison – especially given the way that her boss, James Soong, controlled the media with an iron grip at the tail-end of the white-terror days).

Practically speaking, the only evidence of any bias is the fact that the GIO is a government appointed body. In response to these claims the GIO is pointing out that only a quarter of the review committee were government representatives, and also trying to make the review process as transparent as possible:

The whole five-hour reviewing process as well as discussion and debates of the 12 panelists were recorded and can be made public to dispel the speculation that the GIO had made any intervention, he [GIO head Yao Wen-chih] explained.

However, in the current political climate, anything that could be construed as censorship is immediately pounced on by the opposition.

Scrap the GIO

One issue that has been raised by this is the role of the GIO: During the martial law years it was responsible for all the propaganda of the government, and suppression of any dissenting voices. It was only in the 90s that its grip was relaxed, and the current free-for-all in Taiwanese media resulted. There is general agreement that the powers of the GIO should be reduced (and even that it should be disbanded completely). However, as always the deadlock in the government in Taiwan means that this hasn’t happened … both the ruling DPP and the opposition KMT/PFP agree that a seperate body should be created to handle media regulation (like the FCC in the US), but they can’t agree on the details.

One final point: The question about whether these actions will improve the quality of Taiwanese TV was emphatically answered for me in the positive when I found out that most cable TV operators had replaced the banned channels with BBC World.