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Chinese Python Swallowing the Taiwan Frog

The NY Times editorial, “To Save Our Economy, Ditch Taiwan”, has raised my hackles – I always warned Taiwanese independence advocates that the US would sell them out, and here it is literal.

I have not been following the pre-election campaigns, but rather rely on my Taiwanese friends to give their boiled-down version of what’s in the news. More significant than public statements, I think, is the glimpses I have gotten on under-the-table long-term developments, by way of friends and acquaintances in government and business. Recently some Australian visitors to Taiwan asked my opinion, and I hit upon the analogy that Taiwan is a frog that is already in the jaws of a large python, but the python may find it hard to swallow. The “status quo” is of course not static, and has been moving predictably in China’s favor since the mid-1990’s.

At the present moment, several factors may be salient. First, Taiwan’s retired military and security officers have been going to China for at least the last two decades, and some even serve as consultants to China. A while back the Taipei Times made a count of over 400. I believe that China has thorough intelligence on Taiwan independence forces and others in Taiwan, and is poised to crack down when needed. For example, last month local newspapers revealed that a professor at the policy academy had copied personal information on Taiwan citizens criticizing China from police files and handed the information over to China. I have also run into numerous Chinese academics coming to Taiwan to “study” the Taiwan independence movement, but what they write generally reports the Kuomintang (KMT) line. As for Taiwan’s capacity for self-defense, to quote a private presentation by one of the correspondents for Jane’s Defence Weekly, Taiwan pays out for the fanciest and shiniest fire engines, but neglects to purchase the hoses. I’d guess that Taiwan’s purchases from the US are in effect protection money, only applicable for the current year.

Second, although China may depend largely on the KMT as its proxy to keep Taiwanese in line, it has been directly influencing KMT and even some current and former Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) elected officials with monetary rewards delivered through intermediaries. One of my sources on this is a member of the Kaohsiung City Council. For example, Chen Chu, mayor of Kaohsiung, was quickly punished for showing “The Ten Conditions of Love” about the heroine of Xinjiang, Rebiya Kadeer, by such a mechanism. It is likely that China, not merely the KMT, was ultimately behind the 2006 blitz to remove Chen Shui-bian.

Third, freedom of speech has markedly contracted. China has been reportedly buying into more and more Taiwan media. It can easily be observed that Taiwan TV news no longer addresses anything more significant than suicides, traffic accidents, and where to buy the best beef noodles (the reporters get convenient payouts from restaurants reported on). As in Singapore, and as in the new policy enacted by the security agencies and the Government Information Office in 1983 after the 1980 Kaohsiung Incident trials for sedition put egg on their faces in international press, political opponents can be crippled through libel charges. The courts have recently been fining those charged with libel $NT5-6 million, e.g. the fine for a commentator calling Shih Ming-deh (now aligned with Blues and Reds) a “political gigolo”. Within academia, universities have at the request of government officials removed from positions of authority professors who have criticized Ma Ying-jeou’s policies; and academics in general have shifted to self-censorship and avoidance of sensitive social and political topics.

Fourth, the rapid economic development of China has pushed past a tipping point: Native Taiwanese capitalists have in past decades understandably been eager to be free from the predatory KMT government and state corporations, and strongly supported the cause of democracy and Taiwan independence as well. But in the 1990’s they moved labor-intensive activities to China and elsewhere by the necessity of international competition, and now the Chinese market looms large as well. China has both increasingly accommodated the Taiwanese businessmen (e.g. allowing them international schools for their children) and enmeshed and controlled them (selective tax audits, with fines open to negotiation). This is the underlying dynamic, I believe, that even Tsai Ing-wen cannot undo, assuming she is elected.

Many Greens think that Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP has a 50-50 chance of being elected, and I hope that she is, but I would not hold my breath. If so, we might have a new lease on the progress of democracy in Taiwan, at least for the time being. It will also be a crucial test of whether we do in fact have a democratic process in voting; but the long economic strength and patronage network of the KMT, intimidation from China, and intentional idiocy of the media inveigh against putting too much trust in real democratic process.

Linda Gail Arrigo is Assistant Professor at Taipei Medical University. Professor Arrigo has been visiting Taiwan since the 1960s, where she was closely linked to the opposition movement, being deported for her role in the Kaohsiung Incident. Prof Arrigo is an authority on human rights in Taiwan.

Published inInternational RelationsTaiwan 2012

12 Comments

  1. Steve Tsang Steve Tsang

    I found the comments of Professor Arrigo less than responsible. Her observation about Mr Paul Kane’s op-ed at the New York Times is misleading. It was not, as she asserts, an editorial of the NYT, and it has attracted mostly mocking comments for being naive and uninformed. It hardly represents US opionion in general and even less of a policy of the US Government.

    She also makes strong allegations but does not bother to cite evidence to support them. One such notable reference is ‘Within academia, universities have at the request of government officials removed from positions of authority professors who have criticized Ma Ying-jeou’s policies.’ If this were true, surely she could and, indeed, should have cited the specific cases. Such an act would be unforgivable for any University president to have committed.

    Equally, to compare Taiwan’s media scene with that in Singapore is highly disrepectful to the many good journalists in Taiwan who work hard to keep Taiwan’s media vibrant and free. It is a particularly odd observation from someone who describes herself as an authority on human rights in Taiwan.

    I can understand an activist saying such things to strike political points but for a university professor to do so seems, shall one say, conduct unbecoming.

    Steve Tsang

  2. J B J B

    Agree wit the above- this strikes me as largely hearsay and opinion, not scholarship based on evidence. Prof. Arrigo pretty much admits this when she says she is getting her informations from “friends and acquaintances”- hardly a neutral, uninterested source. Just because your source is on the Kaohsiung City Council doesn’t mean they’re telling you the unadulterated truth, and I’m guessing if that source was in the KMT rather than the DPP she would be less trusting. Furthermore, for a professor to equate a New York Times op-ed with US policy is as irresponsible as the NYT publishing Kane’s article.

  3. Linda Gail Arrigo Linda Gail Arrigo

    typo

    For example, last month local newspapers revealed that a professor at the POLICE academy had copied personal information on Taiwan citizens criticizing China from police files and handed the information over to China.

    police academy, not policy

  4. Michal Thim Michal Thim

    Quote: “I have not been following the pre-election campaigns, but rather rely on my Taiwanese friends to give their boiled-down version of what’s in the news.”

    This is really not always a good source. I like my Taiwanese friends and talk to them often about politics here but in a society so politically divided it cannot and should not be source of information we can rely on (e.g. a deep-green friend calls KMT government “colonial”). Neither is Taipei Times the only authoritative source on Taiwan.

  5. Gary Rawnsley Gary Rawnsley

    The author of this post does not present a picture of Taiwan that is familiar to me. In true Chomsky style, there is an assumption that if it is reported in the press, it must be true. Certainly having researched and written on Taiwan’s media for almost two decades, I have my concerns about developments in the media and communications landscape. However, my research demonstrates that these are internal problems due mainly to a commitment to market forces, structures of funding and a reluctance among the media to recognise the need for (at least self) regulation. I see no evidence of ‘self censorship’ at all, and none of the journalists I talk with suggest this. Moreover, the evidence of Chinese influence over Taiwan’s media is very unconvincing, and even lacking.

  6. Jason Kennedy Jason Kennedy

    “I can understand an activist saying such things to strike political points but for a university professor to do so seems, shall one say, conduct unbecoming.”

    Why should a professor not be an activist, also? I find this attempt to mark one sphere off from another to be a personal preference masquerading as a general rule. What is the alternative, Mr Tsang? To be ‘neutral’? to aspire to being inert?

    A brief search of Dr Tsang’s previous statements reveals his own pronouncements to be unrestrained by the historical facts. In Mr Tsang’s parallel universe, the many victims of the KMT would become, logically, the enemies of democracy. For what it’s worth, I particularly enjoyed this observation:

    “I don’t think the Chinese Communist Party has inherited the Three Principles from Sun Yat-sen,” adding, “Taiwan under Chiang Kai-shek did, and eventually developed, as required under the three principles, into a genuine democracy, where social inequality is relatively modest for a state at its stage of development, and its people proud of who they are.”

    38 years of military dictatorship, which, to be overthrown, required international pressure and the mobilisation of civil society and considerable personal sacrifices, on up to death, and yet, magically, the transition to democracy is not the work of those opposed to the rule of the KMT, but to the KMT itself. A magnificent conjuring trick, Dr. Bravo!

    ***

    “In true Chomsky style, there is an assumption that if it is reported in the press, it must be true.”

    Aren’t you completely reversing Prof Arrigo’s comment, that she hasn’t followed political developments through the Taiwanese media, but via her extensive networks of sources?

    You also appear to have missed the controversy over the decision not to renew the license of a broadcaster that appears to be guided from Beijing. No, nobody can give 100% incontrovertible proof that that is indeed the case, but the sequence of events and excuses proffered do point towards a political basis for the decision.

    http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2011/06/01/2003504684

    Jason Kennedy
    Graduate Student, Global Health and Development
    Taipei Medical University

  7. Michal Thim Michal Thim

    @Jason:

    “38 years of military dictatorship, which, to be overthrown, required international pressure and the mobilisation of civil society and considerable personal sacrifices, on up to death, and yet, magically, the transition to democracy is not the work of those opposed to the rule of the KMT, but to the KMT itself. A magnificent conjuring trick, Dr. Bravo!”

    Jason, I am afraid that you are exaggerating both the international pressure and mobilization of civil society but most of all KMT regime was not overthrown as you said but it transformed itself from dictatorship to democracy. The role of Tangwai movement was indeed important but so was the role of Chiang Chi-Kuo and Lee Teng-hui. Now I know that revolutionaries of the world like to see clear triumph of good over evil but empirical evidence says that the most stable and most successful transitions from dictatorship to democracy were either negotiated (Chile, Poland, Czechoslovakia as examples) or managed from above (e.g. Spain) which was case of Taiwan too. As international pressure is concerned, there was a general environment of ideological supremacy of democracy over communism that was on president Reagan’s agenda, yet, I am not aware of any particular pressure imposed by US on Taiwan on that matter (i.e. democratization). Enlighten me if i am wrong, please. I do not say it did not help Taiwan but not as a factor that caused collapse of the KMT regime (that did not happen) but as factor that moderated steps taken by KMT leaders. I am saying that as a person that grew up during transition to democracy from communist rule in Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic.

    Academic vs. activist

    Call me inert but i mostly agree with Steve Tsang’s point. Not that person cannot be both but that while writing a piece he/she should choose which position to take because methodology differs considerably. But I am really afraid that you missed the central point of the above critique. Prof. Arrigo acknowledges that she was not following the issue and rather relied on “boiled-down” (really doubt that was the case) version of her contacts (be her network extensive or not). And that is the problematic part because given the nature of political division here in Taiwan this is definitelly not something one can rely upon. I have friends both blue and green and they say completely different versions of one story. Do you imply that supporters of KMT (btw you can actually find supporters of independence among them) always lie and supporters of DPP say nothing but a truth?

    Michal Thim
    Asia-Pacific Studies, NCCU

  8. Bob Luo Bob Luo

    Coming from a mere mortal who has lived in Taiwan and worked in the university system here for most of the last 28 years, I have to say that I agree with Professor Arrigo’s observations.

    First of all, there is and always has been a tremendous amount of self-censorship in journalism and academia in Taiwan, as there is in the US and I suspect every other country. Does anybody really think that a journalist or academic will publish anything without first considering the political-professional consequences? To think otherwise is to have one’s head so far in the sand that you must be looking at, well, the US.

    The economic and defense comments by Professor Arriog are clearly supported repeatedly even in the English media. She should have documented her piece better, yes, but her comments are not difficult to verify.

    Taiwan is indeed in the jaws of China. Graduates are going to China for jobs. Markets are opening and giving sweetheart deals to each other. Trade, tourism, and academic exchanges are booming. This is not just a happy coincidence, nor am I saying that it is good or bad; I’m simply stating the obvious, and these truths support much of Professor Arrigo’s positions.

    I agree with one of the comments by Steve Tsang that Professor Arrigo should absolutely have cited an instance in which an academic was removed from a position of authority for political reasons. But, having been in the same system for many years, I have no doubt that it is possible and has happened many, many times over the years for various reasons. Heck, when I first started teaching here I changed a failing student’s grade to a passing one on the behest of my boss, the department chair, because the boy’s mother worked at the university.

    Of course that has no bearing on the discussion at hand, and I’m not a researcher, specialist, or voice of authority, just a good observer.

  9. Bob Luo Bob Luo

    In response to Michal Thim, I agree that the transition from dictatorial KMT rule to democracy is oversimplified by from whatever political persuasion one is arguing, but I would call into question your assertion that, “Prof. Arrigo acknowledges that she was not following the issue and rather relied on 「boiled-down」 (really doubt that was the case) version of her contacts (be her network extensive or not). And that is the problematic part because given the nature of political division here in Taiwan this is definitelly not something one can rely upon.”

    By “this” you mean, I assume, Professor Arrigo’s “Taiwanese friends … boiled-down version of what’s in the news.”

    But what better source of information is there? Are you arguing that political analysis is actually a science? If so, I ask, where’s the proof.

    What should she rely on? Polls? The Media? Official government statistics? Just asking.

    • Jonathan Sullivan Jonathan Sullivan

      hi Bob, your rhetorical question (“Are you arguing that political analysis is actually a science?”) just made a million political scientists feel that much smaller! Jon

    • A minute saved is a minute earnde, and this saved hours!

  10. Bob Luo Bob Luo

    Also in response to Michal Thim’s comment that, “I have friends both blue and green and they say completely different versions of one story. Do you imply that supporters of KMT (btw you can actually find supporters of independence among them) always lie and supporters of DPP say nothing but a truth?”, in this comment you are implying that the author sympathizes with the DPP, which she may or may not; I don’t care. The point is that your phrasing lowers the level of discussion to that of partisan politics. I agree with your logic, just not your language.

    I have family on both sides of the conflict, because let’s not mince words, it is a conflict. All families have conflicts, no? I’ve heard it all and it all makes sense, from the mouth in which it comes.

    But let’s get back to the point of this posting, which is your use of the word, ‘truth’. There is none. There is only what people believe, think, and feel, in descending or ascending order, take your pick.

    Ultimately, in my humble opinion, people are going to follow the easiest path, and usually that ends up meaning they follow the money. China knows this, and so has been pumping loads of money into this island via jobs, contracts, tourism, and agricultural deals. They’re buying Taiwan off. But now the tap has been opened up. Again, this is not good or bad. It’s just the way it is.

    People are like water. They follow the easiest path. Prove me wrong. It would have been easier for Edmund Hillary not to climb Mt. Everest? Nonsense, just as it would have been easier for you not to write your comment.

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