Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Ma indictment Media Follies

If there is anything that the last six years of the Bush Administration has taught us, it is that what passes for analysis in the mainstream media consists largely of repetition of conventional establishment bromides, and that the traditional media is ill-equipped to grapple with things that lie outside those categories.

The latest presentation from the Emerging Markets Report on the Ma Ying-jeou indictments brilliantly displays how the media and its information suppliers continue to function within an accepted framework into which Taiwan is fit, rather than studying the island to produce important and useful information about it.

The story begins by noting that shares fell on learning that Ma had been indicted:

NEW YORK (MarketWatch) - Shares of U.S.-listed Taiwanese companies fell Tuesday, after the chairman of the island's main opposition party resigned after being indicted for alleged misuse of funds, in the latest development in a deepening political crisis.

The news sent the benchmark Taipei weighted index down 0.5% to 7,736.83 overnight. The index has lost 1.1% in the year to date and has given back about 3% from a six-year high hit in January.
The Bank of New York Taiwan ADR Index was last down 1% at 191.79. The iShares MSCI Taiwan Index Fund (EWT: EWT14.10, -0.01, -0.1% ) , an exchange-traded fund that tracks the performance of the local market, was down 0.6% at $14.03.

Ma Ying-jeou, the leader of the Chinese Nationalist Party, known by its acronym KMT, was indicted for embezzlement of about $333,000 during his tenure as mayor of the capital Taipei, Taiwan's High Prosecutor's Office said Tuesday.

Shortly after the charges were announced, Ma resigned as chairman of KMT, the leading opposition party, but declared he'd run in the 2008 presidential election. Ma has so far been leading in the polls.

The narrative begins with drama, the "deepening" political crisis. Actually, it is ongoing normal politics here.
There is one departure from conventionalist norms: the KMT is correctly identified as the Chinese Nationalist Party. Kudos.

After this attention-grabbing opening, we then get to hear from an obviously pro-KMT analyst:

"Ma was very much favored by the markets, because he was advocating a pragmatic approach to cross-strait relations," said Sijin Cheng, an analyst at the Eurasia Group. "His indictment has shown people that the race is no longer Ma's to lose."

Cross-strait relations, or relations across the Taiwan Strait, refer to the complicated interaction between mainland China and Taiwan.

Although Taiwan, an island nation in the Pacific, has been governed separately since the end of a civil war with China in 1949, the Chinese government considers Taiwan a province of mainland China and has threatened to use military action if Taiwan declares independence.

"The [presidential] race is much more open than we had thought, but this doesn't necessarily mean that we're going to see continued restrictions on investment and trade with the mainland," Cheng said. "Front-running DPP [Democratic Progressive Party] candidates are more moderate than the incumbent president."

Note first the conventional presentation of Ma. Ma is "pragmatic" while Chen is a "radical." The governing trope is of course, the familiar Mad Chen the Crazed Independence Radical. Chen's approach is very pragmatic, seeking to safeguard Taiwan's economic future from being gutted by China, which wants to hollow out the island's economy. Poor "analyst" Sinjin Cheng then is forced to concede....

"The [presidential] race is much more open than we had thought, but this doesn't necessarily mean that we're going to see continued restrictions on investment and trade with the mainland," Cheng said. "Front-running DPP [Democratic Progressive Party] candidates are more moderate than the incumbent president."

The Presidential race was always open, and Ma's changes were only so-so. As I have argued incessantly, the DPP has tremendous structural advantages at the national level -- Ma's frontrunner status is the result of media anointment, not serious analysis. Ironically, Cheng goes on to argue that Chen is more radical than Su or Hsieh (the three were lawyers together for the Kaohsiung 8 so many years ago) -- when Chen was first put into office as a moderate, and has never been anything but a moderate. What will these people do when Su or Hsieh or Yu or Lu get in and do exactly the same thing as Chen does now?

The article then goes on in the conventional mode:

Recent moves of Chen's administration to assert Taiwanese identity have angered China. This week, five Taiwanese companies that are fully or partly owned by the state dropped references to China from their names. The post office, for example, has changed its name to Taiwan Post from Chunghwa Post. The Chinese Petroleum Corporation was renamed CPC Corporation, Taiwan. Chen's administration has also overseen a revision of high school textbooks to carve out a Taiwanese history separate from that of mainland China.

"It was all done to push China's buttons," Cheng said. "Chen has tried to assert Taiwan's identity. It has become a sticking point."

Note first the terminology -- :mainland China. China is nobody's mainland, except for some small islands off its coast (thanks DB!). Then note the Mad Chen trope again "It was all done to push China's buttons," Cheng said. "Chen has tried to assert Taiwan's identity. It has become a sticking point." It was all done to push China's buttons! Yes, that's right, Chen Shui-bian sits around all day thinking of ways to annoy China. He never thinks about the domestic political situation or right and wrong.....

Here the analyst is either lying or has no clue. Name rectification is an important redress for historical wrongs, and is largely aimed at Taiwan's domestic audience in the run-up to the legislative elections. Anyone who really knew local politics would observe Chen wasn't pushing China's buttons; he's pushing the buttons of his core supporters. But one of the conventionalist twists of the international media is that Taiwan's behavior always takes place in the context of its relations with China.

The reporter then goes to report the analyst's claims as fact:

In contrast, Ma has adopted a much more pragmatic approach to relations with China and has in the past advocated unification with the mainland. He has proposed to sign an interim peace agreement with China, and within that framework develop more ties with the mainland.

"It's a package which, if fully realized, would have a lot of upside to the business climate," Cheng said.

Note that in this discourse pragmatic means serving China while prioritizing Taiwan is radical. But Chen's policy has wide support, though not majority support on the island. You can argue, fairly, that his position on China is wrong. But you can't argue that it is radical or unpragmatic. That is politicized propaganda, not sober analysis. Note the continuing presentation of Ma as the pragmatic one -- according to this analysis, it is pragmatic to sell out the island to China, destroy any democratic future for it, and upset fifty years of security arrangements in the northeast pacific. Thank god Ma isn't a radical, eh? The analyst might also note that China has not agreed to any of Ma's proposals, that Ma himself has never offered anything concrete, that China and Taiwan are not at war (and do not need a peace agreement), and that Taiwan is currently developing the ties he advocates. At a slower and more pragmatic rate. Bottom line: Ma's plans are either redundant or vapor.

The article then goes on:

Economic and political realities will lead to breakthroughs in the liberalization of cross-strait economic restrictions in the next few years, Fung said. A DPP victory in 2008 could imply more difficult negotiations with Beijing on economic issues and might energize the more pro-independent faction within the party, Fung said. At the same time, the views of middle-ground voters on relations with China should be more of a deciding factor in the upcoming elections than in past elections, he said.

Another conventional media chimera, the middle-ground voter, plays a key role here. That there may not be any swing votes in Taiwan (and here too) is a potential reality that will never enter conventional discourse about the island.

Why does Taiwan have so much trouble communicating? It is because the island's communicators are talking to people whose answers come ready-made, and who don't want to hear about the messy and complex realities that define life here on the Beautiful Isle. And who are silly enough to think that a pro-China ideologue like Ma Ying-jeou is a "pragmatist."

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Although Taiwan, an island nation in the Pacific, has been governed separately since the end of a civil war with China in 1949,..."
Geez, unintentional I'm sure but it makes it sound like the civil war was between Taiwan and China....

Anonymous said...

Michael,

Thanks for writing this plus your other articles today. As someone without a grounding in the background of the characters involved in Taiwan's political drama, I find your articles informative.

The comment about shares falling in the article is hilarious from my perspective. What shares do and what happens in the real world are about as disconnected as anything could possibly be, and journalists usually only mention it to pretend they have some understanding of the world of finance.

For example, did you know that oil prices jumped $2 on Anna Nicole Smith's death? :) Check, you'll see :)

Mu.

Anonymous said...

Michael,

Thanks for writing this plus your other articles today. As someone without a grounding in the background of the characters involved in Taiwan's political drama, I find your articles informative.

The comment about shares falling in the article is hilarious from my perspective. What shares do and what happens in the real world are about as disconnected as anything could possibly be, and journalists usually only mention it to pretend they have some understanding of the world of finance.

For example, did you know that oil prices jumped $2 on Anna Nicole Smith's death? :) Check, you'll see :)

Mu.

js290 said...

Alternative sources of news, such as blogs, is a huge threat to the mainstream media. People are now more free to choose their sources of information, which is a huge threat to the media companies and the governments that support them. Ultimately, I'm not sure how much it matters to actually fight the good fight, but keep it up.