Thursday, November 17, 2005

POTS on Human Rights and the Chen Administration

Steve F, a friend of mine, pointed me to this piece at POTS where Michael Fahey comments on human rights and the Chen Administration:

Is the Miaoli Mask Festival or the Healthy Power Building luring tourists to have their hearts touched in Taiwan or to coo 'Nauruan' with diverse inhabitants of this ocean-going, silicon green nation? Of course not. But does that mean the government's tourism policy isn't working? No, because the money spent on tourism was never seriously intended to be used that way. Basically, it's a giant barrel of pork, so that Taiwan's all-powerful construction businesses can pour more concrete for Healthy Power Buildings that will never house anything worthwhile. Or so that politicians can have their relatives and friends cater the Mask Festival and the Administration can spend the travel budget for the politicos and their hangers-on to visit similar festivals overseas.

Hard to disagree with this. Of course, it should be noted that the Miaoli Mask festival and similar are important parts of a larger and welcome human rights trend that Fahey elides: decentralization of government power in Taiwan. Also it should be noted that Fahey is simply wrong: the Miaoli Mask festival began in 1999 and is not a Chen Administration project. Do they not have Google in Taipei, or what? UPDATE: The building in Gaoshu does not appear to be a tourism information center either, but a center for promoting local products, one of five model centers distributed throughout the island erected by the MOEA. It is called the "Power Land of Pingtung" in English (at least, I think we're talking about the same building; see pic below). It is part of the larger Challenge 2008 Plan first proffered in 2002, and builds on projects and ideas already current. I suspect if one went back into the 1990s and looked at RDEC planning one would already find this proposal -- the digital government programs all date from RDEC initiatives back in the 1990s. I hope Fahey checks his facts a little better next time, because unless I've bollixed up two buildings, he has no clue what he's talking about. Here's a pic:


UPDATE: Fahey DOES have a clue and my apologies to Michael F. He writes (comments below):
As for the building in Gaoshu--I've actually been there. I believe the name is what I saw written on the sign outside although I now wish that I had called the building to doublecheck. Wouldn't be great if a blogger in Gaoshu could check this for us? But I can confirm that there is a 'tourist information center' occupying most of the public area of the first floot. that the rest of the building is largely empty, and that they have no useful tourist information.

Some of Fahey's analysis is a bit one-sided:

But Chen's rights agenda serves primarily to shore up his administration's legitimacy in two ways. First, it primarily enshrines members of his administration and the Taiwanese majority as victims of past injustice and abuse. In other words, the Administration's human rights program is in many ways specifically focused on commemorating human rights abuses that occurred in the past as if somehow Taiwan's human rights problems magically vanished in 2000 when Chen was elected to his first term. Secondly, it connects the Chen Administration to the legacy of the White Terror in the 1950s and the 228 incident in 1947 through the same obsessive memorializing.

Actually, I don't see how (1) and (2) are all that different, as (2) is simply a subset of (1). The use of the word "obsessive" is always striking -- it indicates rhetoric rather than analysis at work. The Chen Administration does not act as though human rights problems magically disappeared in 2000. One need only look at the recent recognitions of new aboriginal tribes, or the increased clarity and accessibility of government. It's easy to hack on the Chen Administration, but let's not forget the progress has been real in many areas..

Still, it's a interesting perspective.

One final way in which Administration's human right policy is working is one that I've always had difficulty articulating precisely. It goes something like this-if the government is seen to be talking about doing something it can be perceived as actually doing it. This not only goes for human rights, but many other touchstones or declared goals including tourism, 'internationalization,' and environmental protection. To be sure, there are often large amounts of money involved, but on the ground, results are usually symbolic at best.

This isn't just the Administration's human rights policy -- it is an aspect of neo-Confucian authoritarianism all over Asia. Appearance is more important than reality (see the excellent work Dogs and Demons for how this plays out in Japan), one of the many authoritarian habits of thought that local democracy has yet to break, or even discover in itself.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Michael, thanks for your comments and fact-checking.

I compared the tourism industry with the Administration's human rights program to show how there is a disjunction between what outsiders assume are the objectives of the programs and how they actually work. I'm not suggesting that either the Gaoshu building or the Miaoli Mask Festival are specifically Chen administration initiatives.

The main point is that money is being poured into these misguided projects which are useful not because they attract tourists or promote local products, but because they yield fat contracts that local politicians can pass out. I've come to believe that the Chen Administration's human rights policy works much the same way. I don't mean that people are using it to line their pockets, but I do think that it works to raise political capital, as it were, for the Chen administration.

I agree in principle with your comments about decentralization although I've been very disheartened about how it has worked out in practice.

As for the building in Gaoshu--I've actually been there. I believe the name is what I saw written on the sign outside
although I now wish that I had called the building to doublecheck. Wouldn't be great if a blogger in Gaoshu could check this for us? But I can confirm that there is a 'tourist information center' occupying most of the public area of the first floot. that the rest of the building is largely empty, and that they have no useful tourist information.

I stand by my contention that the Administration is far too focused on past human rights violations. I have defended them in the past by saying that the lack of something like a Truth and Reconciliation Commission means that there needs to be more of a focus on the past, but I think we need to be honest and admit that they are also using the past as a source of power in the present. That's of course something any political movement will do, but it is distracting them from doing anything about human rights problems now.

Your commments about appearance and reality capture exactly what I was trying to say. I'll be interested to see if this actually can be linked to 'Neo-Confucianism' directly in the book you recommended. Whatever its historical roots, the triumph of appearance over reality is very, well, real. And I think that's the problem with the Chen Administration's human rights policy.

Michael Fahey

Michael Turton said...

Thanks, Michael F.

I just called the building in Gaoshu after I realized you hadn't gotten the Miaoli thing right, and found out all this. They of course knew nothing about the history of their own project, so I had to hunt everything up. *sigh*

I stand by my contention that the Administration is far too focused on past human rights violations. I have defended them in the past by saying that the lack of something like a Truth and Reconciliation Commission means that there needs to be more of a focus on the past, but I think we need to be honest and admit that they are also using the past as a source of power in the present.

Let me begin by agreeing with you that the DPP attitude toward the past is one of the great problems it has. Many years ago when I worked for one of the factions of the independence movement, I raised this issue repeatedly -- Taiwan has to have a Truth and Reconcialiation Commission. And they just blew it off, again and again. I was told that Taiwan has to move forward, that people don't want to deal with that. There also seems to be a feeling that arrested people lost face, and many keep that secret. The result is that the past has been lost, and replaced by legitimatizing myth. None of the perps have been punished, and there has been no healing. The economic wrongs have not been redressed -- even the focus on the KMT's ill-gotten gains is only one aspect of the much larger problem of economic exploitation of Taiwan by mainlanders, from water prices in mainlander-heavy Taipei that are 20% lower than the rest of the island, to mainlanders acquiring free title to government built homes, like some of my mainlander relatives. And there is so much hatred still lingering out there.

I think we'd both like to see a Truth and Reconciliation Comission. I think it is natural for the DPP to call on its formative experiences as legitimizing its rule.

The main point is that money is being poured into these misguided projects which are useful not because they attract tourists or promote local products, but because they yield fat contracts that local politicians can pass out. I've come to believe that the Chen Administration's human rights policy works much the same way. I don't mean that people are using it to line their pockets, but I do think that it works to raise political capital, as it were, for the Chen administration.

I agree with this, but you can't stop with this observation.

The DPP faces a severe problem -- namely, the local level is thoroughly corrupt and responds to the central government only when lubricated by flows of funding. Taiwan is not a nation not only because its ethnic identity is so impaired by that idealized Chinese stratum deposited over the local multicltural substrate, but also because the parts of Taiwan don't recognize themselves as belonging to a whole. The system of local-level money politics was started under the KMT as a way of pacifying the populace and co-opting opposition, and Taiwan is basically addicted to its construction state the way the US is addicted to military spending. How is the DPP to break that? Well, one strategy is to play the same game, but with new players, foster new locals loyal to money flows from the DPP government. The decentralization program is part of that, too. But on the whole this strategy won't work, for the new money networks will simply re-orient themselves to whoever is the party in power, creating further corruption and public debt.

The DPP's real problem is that while the goals have changed, the mentality and tactics have failed to keep pace (witness Pasuya Yao, who true to this programming, thought of the law as leverage rather than as normative). I think the real problem with the DPP approach is that it's as if "human rights" are simply another policy goal, like green silicon island or 6,000,000 broadband users by 2008, and not a set of values that reflexively and unconditionally informs policymaking on the Beautiful Island. Like they know what the rules of the human rights game are, they could pass a test on human rights if you gave them one, but have not yet internalized the values, much as my Econ students can ably answer questions about supply and demand, but are hopeless in applying those ideas to real-world events they deal with every day.

Yet I do see a lot of hope. Just promulgating this idea is important, because future generations will internalize it and make it theirs. And people really enjoy and appreciate the new government openness and efficiency.

And further, let's suppose that the DPP was a fully rights oriented party with a complete and robust understanding and internalization of democratic values. It would still follow the same strategy of exploiting the rightness of democracy and human rights. In other words, you want on one hand to affirm that human rights are wonderful but on the other, to deny that it is legitimate to use that understanding to further partisan political goals. My attitude is that when what is right dovetails with what the Party needs we ought to stand up and cheer and push hard for that. Just as we do when the anti-Bush forces hit Bush for the Iraq war. The pan-Blues are anti-democracy and if concepts of human rights and democracy can be leveraged against them, so much the better.

I realize that there is the danger that the end (rights) will merely become a means to power, but I do not see that as much of a threat here. The main issue from my POV is failure: that continued DPP electoral and administrative foul-ups will cast democracy in Taiwan into disrepute. Indeed, the anti-democracy forces are already exploiting that to convince voters to fei pyau, to not vote, as a "signal" to the ruling party. I get lectures on that from the people I interact with all the time.

I will update with your comments in a second.

Michael

Feiren said...

Two stories in the TT today show some progress (1) the death penalty has been made discretionary in piracy cases and (2) parents may choose whether their children take the mother's last name or the father's.It's nice to see some progress being made. Let's see if the Blues can cooperate.

And it should also be noted that the Legislature has been holding up Taiwan's Freedom of Information Act, which would make all government information available to the public by default.

Anonymous said...

Michael, glad you found the article worth analyzing. Actually I thought you'd be a little harder on it. First, pork barrel politics is nothing new. Second, while I can't recite a list of Chen's human rights initiatives, in general all his legislation is being blocked by the Blues, so it seems potentially biased to lay blame at his feet. The angle that human rights projects are a new flavor of pork is interesting, but likely not unique to the ROC. -Steve

amida said...

A minor quibble--these (admittedly ridiculous) festivals popping up all over are aimed at domestic tourists rather than the international crowd, and some of them are big money-makers if you believe the stats they put out. But then again, what do I know--as a translator, I am a direct beneficiary of said pork!