Saturday, March 13, 2010

Theology vs Reality: Rigger on Taiwan

Some days being a father offers rewards that no material compensation can match. We bought the kids a stand-alone basketball net that came in a box for them to assemble. This morning they called me over for some help. "Dad, look at this," said my DIY intern son in frustration. "When we put in these spacers, the bolt becomes too short to go all the way through the support pipes. We can't put this nut on. What do we do?"

Tears came to my eyes, as they always do when the opportunity to be Dad involves hand tools. "Son," I said, "let me teach you the proper use of a wrench." Firmly gripping the wrench in my strong yet gentle fatherly right hand, I gave the head of the offending bolt a strong bash. Suddenly the threads poked through the other side of the pipe. My children looked on, gaping, obviously drawing important life lessons. "Wow," exclaimed my daughter, "I am so bored."

I don't know what this story has to do with Shelly Rigger's latest piece over at Brookings out this week entitled Ma’s Puzzling Midterm Malaise, so I am counting on the creativity of my readers to make the connection. A longtime Taiwan watcher, Rigger interprets events in Taiwan for the Beltway Establishment, using well-worn Beltway Establishment frames. I had a bad Popperian Conjectures and Refutations moment perusing it, but took some Modernity leave to recover.

Sometimes not too bad, sometimes completely wrong, Rigger mostly sounds like a colonialist missionary trying to explain to the audience at home, in a fair and open-minded manner, the beliefs of the local heathens, which he understands in terms of his own Christianity. As many of the people who shot this piece off to me observed, Rigger does not appear anywhere to get the complexities of local politics. The whole piece is framed in the best Establishment style by the cross-strait relationship, as if Rigger were simply squinting through a telescope on the banks of the Potomac at Taiwan, and was not a trained scholar who has spent many years studying the island.

Rigger opens with a summary of Ma's "accomplishments":
It is two years this month since Ma Ying-jeou was elected president of Taiwan. As he approaches the mid-term milestone, President Ma’s record is puzzling. On the one hand, he has made significant progress toward his most important goals. First, he’s stabilized cross-Strait relations. The tension that gripped Taiwan and China during the Chen years has abated, high-level visits have become routine and the two sides are engaged in energetic negotiations on a wide range of issues.
There are multiple problems with this use of the word stabilized, which appears to be a code term for relations moving in the direction we want in the way that pragmatic in this type of discourse functions as a synonym for utterly lacking in principle. We're not in a period of stability here -- as I noted two years ago, before the current President was elected, Ma's refusal to stand fast on sovereignty means that there is literally no limit to what he can concede except -- as Rigger correctly notes further down in the piece -- what the public is willing to tolerate. The public here sees relations that are non-transparent, have no defined limits, and no clear goals. That is the very picture of uncertainty and instability. It seems the telescopes they use in Washington to peer across the Beltway at the Pacific simply lack the resolution to clearly discern the reality out here.

Note that the passive voice is used to good effect: it is the "tension that grips" during the Chen years. You know, that turbulent, causeless tension that comes like a poltergeist in the night to upset everyone's dreams. The reality is that tension in the Straits is not caused by Chen or by Taiwan, but by China's desire to annex Taiwan. It's fascinating how in every other case of Chinese expansionism, "tension causing" is forthrightly assigned to Chinese expansion. But in the case of Taiwan......

Stabilized? But -- and in every discussion of what Washington puts out we always come back to this but -- there remains the Chinese military build up. Naturally, since China's enormous, destabilizing, and totally unnecessary military build up is a gigantic problem for anyone claiming that Ma has "stabilized" relations, it disappears. Yes, that's right. In this piece there is no concrete reference to China's missiles or military build up, just a vague nod to Taiwan's declining relative power vis-a-vis the PRC. Gee, it sure is hard to figure out why these pagans don't worship at our Establishment altars.

Rigger continues:
What is puzzling is that these successes have failed to endear President Ma to his constituents. On the contrary, his popularity has plummeted since the election, and today his personal approval ratings hover below 30 percent. [evidence skipped] .... Hence the conundrum: Why are Ma’s successes in areas believed to be important to voters – reducing cross-Strait tension and reviving the economy – not boosting his approval ratings or his party’s political fortunes?
Note that both these claims of "success" - reducing cross-strait tensions, and reviving the economy -- are not successes here in Taiwan. From Washington's perspective, perhaps "tensions" have been "reduced", but to make an argument about "tensions" is to confuse Washington's agenda with that of local voters (note how "believed to be important" is a passive construction). There are a million Taiwanese in China working daily. How much "tension" do they experience day to day? None, of course. For most Taiwanese, "tension" as Washington understands it is something that occurs far from their daily lives in the international media, and involves Washington and Beijing, especially now that Beijing is ruthlessly attempting to transfer its anger and anxiety over Taiwan to the Washington-Taipei and Washington-Beijing relationships.

Turning to the economy, voter unhappiness with Chen Shui-bian was driven largely by the relentless propaganda that Taiwan's economy had gone bad, and by the corruption cases. Taiwan's voters want good relations with China but not at the island's expense.

As for "reviving the economy" that is primarily the result of policies put in place under the DPP and under Lee Teng-hui, the results of China's current growth, and the marginal improvement in the US economy. The Ma Administration is not responsible for any of that. Indeed, it has simply seized upon the crash as an excuse to push the ECFA agreements as rapidly as possible while failing to take firm action on the domestic economic front. Rigger missed a golden opportunity to inform her readers that throughout the economic crisis the Ma Administration has appeared almost completely indifferent to the plight of ordinary Taiwanese, something that has profoundly harmed its standing among voters.

The Establishment presentation is not necessarily a factually inept one, but instead, it proposes a slant on events that sanitizes them. For example, Rigger follows the familiar pattern of sanitizing attacks on the headlong rush of the Ma Administration into China's arms as a criticism of the DPP that "might" be true:
A number of factors contributed to the public’s waning trust in Ma. The lack of transparency in decision-making has been a particular concern. DPP leaders suggest high-ranking KMT cross-Strait specialists might be willing to compromise Taiwan’s autonomy in order to reach an agreement with Beijing. They argue that the government’s closed cross-Strait decision-making – including on the proposed Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) – is dangerous, because these specialists, whether out of perfidy or naïveté, might fail to protect Taiwan’s interests.
But as anyone who spends time talking to locals knows, the sudden swerve toward Beijing has caused widespread public anger across the Green and Blue political spectrum. The criticism that Ma is too close to Beijing is not limited just to the pan-Greens. To get elected, Ma promised that he would not impair Taiwan's sovereignty, but he has utterly reneged on that promise. The criticism that Ma is too close to China is not just a DPP criticism -- most KMTers also do not want to become politically closer to the PRC.

It might be nice if Rigger had mentioned that the KMT's own theology is based on annexing the island to China, thus providing a meaningful context for the DPP's analysis of KMT elite behavior. Oh well....

Sometimes Rigger goes badly wrong....
Several of the KMT’s recent electoral set-backs resulted from local politicians rebelling against Ma’s attempts to clean up local politics, a development that further reinforces this impression.
It's 2010 folks, not 1990. Sorry Dr. Rigger, but it is delusional to imagine Ma, a longtime opponent of democracy in Taiwan, is a reformist attempting to clean up local KMT politics. In fact Ma has taken huge hits even in the KMT papers for his inexplicable and often unnecessary support of candidates widely perceived as corrupt (Green version). Another strange moment occurs in paragraph 2:
In Taiwan’s domestic politics, “normal” is a highly-competitive democracy in which the executive is forced to accommodate an active and activist legislature while defending its positions from an energetic – and politically viable – opposition.
Perhaps in some alternate reality Taiwan has an activist legislature, but in this universe Taiwan's legislative performance is widely acknowledged to be awful. Taiwan News reported in the last year of the Chen Administration:
As the Citizen Congress Watch noted in its evaluation of the Legislative Yuan's performance last July, "there is nothing good to say."
In case you think things have changed under Ma, just google public opinion about the legislature in Taiwan; it usually has lower approval ratings than Ma himself (example). I have no idea how anyone who knew anything about Taiwan's politics could write that the legislature is active and activist. Rigger also takes seriously Legislative Speaker Wang's protestations that he would lead the legislature in oversight of ECFA; as far as I know, she is the only person who does.

Of course, no Establishment piece is complete without that Establishment shibboleth, the provocative Mad Chen© who is Anti-China:
Many Taiwanese found Chen’s Sino-phobic policies unnecessarily provocative, but that did not mean they were ready to support blindly whatever policy the next administration proposed. As the pace of elite-level interactions accelerated, the focus of the domestic political debated shifted from restraining Chen’s provocations to scrutinizing Ma’s performance.
Did the domestic political debate "focus" on "Chen's provocations?" I was here for all four years of that in the second term, and in Taiwan, we focused on the economy and on the corruption issue. "Chen's provocations" was a purely Washington concern; in the local arena, the "provocations" such as UN entry -- widely supported by locals -- appeared as part of the debate over Taiwan identity. Once again Rigger is confusing Washington's agenda with that of Taiwanese voters.

As for "Sino-phobic" there is no need to list the large number of accomplishments in cross-strait relations under the DPP. But -- and here is a crucial point -- by using this pejorative rhetorical frame, Rigger paints herself into a corner -- she cannot then explain that Ma has angered Taiwanese by moving too close to China without vindicating Chen's position. That is an inherent problem of using this Washington Establishment frame -- Chen the Mad Provoker juxtaposed with Ma the Tension Reducer -- to explain Taiwan's local politics. That is why there is no clear, concrete mention of a real issue with Ma for locals: too close to China. The best she can do is mention criticisms of the transparency of the process. To say that Ma is "too close to China" is to utter what is currently a heresy in the Establishment theology.

Also missing in this piece purporting to explain Ma's puzzling drop in approval is any mention of the competence issue. Everyone in Taiwan knows that Ma is the Chairman of the KMT (no mention of that in Rigger's piece UPDATE: Yes, it is buried in there.). He's both President and head of the party. The electoral problems thus also stem from Ma's mishandling of local elections and the installation of an unpopular close associate as Sec-Gen of the KMT, King Pu-tsung, whose nickname, "little knife", alludes to his role as Ma's hatchetman. But since the whole piece is premised in the opening two paragraphs on the purely Washington belief that Ma is a competent leader, none of his numerous political failings -- appointing academics with little experience of politics to high office or mishandling the last couple of elections -- can appear here. Yet so widespread in Taiwan is the belief that Ma is utterly incompetent that if you type his name in Chinese in Google Taiwan the first prompt Google offers you is 無能 -- "incompetent." The reader will search in vain for this little nugget of reality in Rigger's piece, however, since Establishment Theology is premised on Ma Inerrancy.

The Beltway Establishment view is concerned -- and quite justly -- with What Beijing Will do, and Rigger spends the last three muscular and generally sound paragraphs reviewing this. While this is nice, it is simply three paragraphs of missed opportunities to more fully sketch the utter failure of the Ma Administration to make forward progress despite having a large public mandate, total control of the legislature, and the ardent support of Washington. This failure can only be explained in terms of the Ma Administration's own pervasive incompetence, and thus, cannot be explained within the framework Rigger has chosen.
Daily Links:
  • State Department Human Rights Report out on Taiwan. Alas, until the US cleans up its own torture and detention apparatus and puts its architects and propagandizers behind bars, the impact of its human rights reports will be....impaired.
  • J Michael Cole says China is showing worrying signs of fascism. Let's see... concentration camps and prisons for political prisoners? check Suppression of dissent and control of communications networks? check A racially-driven belief in cultural supremacy inherited from discredited 19th century European racial theorists? check Apparent economic success amid global economic meltdown? check Territorial claims on most its neighbors? check Previous conquests providing rationale for current expansions? check A one-party state? check Deluded admirers in western democracies thinking its authoritarianism is more efficient than democracy? check An obsessive focus with the followers of a harmless religion, including controversial claims of state-run murder programs? check A historical mythology driven by an artificial sense of victimhood? check Rapid military build up? check A state-centered authoritarian ideology? check A long history of centralized monarchy with little democratic experience? check Whew! Aren't we lucky that China is nothing like the fascist states of the 1930s, especially Nazi Germany?
  • Michella with a really wonderful post on the reporter as stalker: "As a TV reporter and sometimes-anchor, I get a stalker here and there once in a while. But as a reporter, I also become the stalker sometimes too." My opinion of the outgoing Health Minister just rose again.
  • Taiwanese-American Org interviews child actress Crystal Chiu of the film Children of Invention.
  • Wings Taiwan finds that a bridge near my house sheds light on the construction-industrial state.
Don't miss the comments below! And check out my blog and its sidebars for events, links to previous posts and picture posts, and scores of links to other Taiwan blogs and forums!


Anonymous said...

Michael. Some observations:
1. Ma was elected on an ECFA platform. You keep on calling it some kind of "sellout" opposed by the Taiwanese masses. Actually he made very clear what his policy was before the election. Most voters still support closer economic cooperation with China.
2. Ma actually hasn't surrendered any part of Taiwan's sovereignty. ECFA will also not surrender any national sovereignty.
3. Rigger is right- tensions have indeed reduced with the new regime. Chen's "一邊一國" policy was seen as "provocation" in both Beijing and Washington because it violated the "one China" principle that both sides adhere to. Of course it probably only damaged the independence movement by irritating Taiwan's key benefactor. He did it for domestic political reasons.
4. Ma is unpopular for a number of reasons. One significant factor I think is the KMT factions at the local level that refuse support unless they get their own way. Ma has tried to deal with this by promoting clean candidates from the centre, like Ye Jinchuan in Hualian. He has also used "hatchet men" like King to help him to this. This normally leads to accusations that he is "dictatorial". But when something goes wrong with corrupt local factions he also has to take the blame for tolerating criminal elements in the party! Tough job running the KMT..
Still I think he will probably win again in 2012, things haven't got as bad as the Chen presidency yet..
btw why aren't you blogging on the resignations of Ministers Yang and Wang? You seem to be missing the main issues/ controversies driving TW politics at the moment..

Dixteel said...

This is a very good and interesting analysis. Thanks, Michael.

SY said...

Very good analysis, indeed. The most I admire about you, Michael, is your patience; with those "China experts".

If my accountant came to tell me that she was "puzzled" by a hole of one million dollars in the book she keeps, I'd fire her and sue her.

This Rigger lady basically recited news entries everybody can find on the internet, salt-and-peppered with colorful adjectives that are currently "correct" in Washington. She then told the world that she is an expert on Taiwan but Taiwan is "puzzling" and she cannot explain the events and social-political phenomena in Taiwan. And, .... she still has a job as professor of East Asian Politics?

A real scholar would try and find the answer to a question she's identified.

Her sheer incompetence shows in her shouting at patients: "You guys are supposed to be cured by my super-antibiotic Mayingjeou-sillyn©, why are you still so sick!?!"..."This is puzzling and I have no intention of finding out why....meanwhile, the darling germ Chinanella© is tolerating the measured groan of the patients."..."Yes, I am the best scientist in this field, just listen to me."

Washington is full of such wash-hand-tons.

Ever wonder why the US is in its current shape?

Anonymous said...

Seems very close parallel to Obama...just because voters put you into power to get rid of the previous "bad party" does not necessarily mean that all of the planks you ran on are really that popular.

Seriously, of all of the Ma campaign promises, I suspect unification-lite with China would be the least popular. Oh, maybe some vague lessening of tensions, direct flights, etc., but negotiated from a firm Taiwan position - that is probably popular. But then they take it to the next level, and it loses popularity big time.

Michael Turton said...

1. Ma was elected on an ECFA platform. You keep on calling it some kind of "sellout" opposed by the Taiwanese masses. Actually he made very clear what his policy was before the election. Most voters still support closer economic cooperation with China.

Ma was elected -- as I have stated many times -- to fix the economy which he said he would do by moving closer to China and preserving Taiwan's sovereignty. He has done neither.

2. Ma actually hasn't surrendered any part of Taiwan's sovereignty. ECFA will also not surrender any national sovereignty.

Here you are completely wrong. Ma has proclaimed that relations with China are region to region. The Administration accepted agreements on shipping and flights that essentially make the island a "domestic" route(s) of China. Etc.

Of course ECFA will surrender more sovereignty -- that is what China has repeatedly said it will do, and that is what the Lien Chan-led brain trust wants, and that is what Ma wants as well. Everyone in Taiwan knows that, which is why polls show that the public does not support it, and why there is widespread disgust with Ma for being too close to China.

3. Rigger is right- tensions have indeed reduced with the new regime. Chen's "一邊一國" policy was seen as "provocation" in both Beijing and Washington because it violated the "one China" principle that both sides adhere to. Of course it probably only damaged the independence movement by irritating Taiwan's key benefactor. He did it for domestic political reasons.

Hahahahahahahahaha. No seriously. Hahahahahahaha. (a) Washington and Beijing adhere to different One China principles. (b) If Lee Teng-hui's "一邊一國" is provocative please explain why the missile build up is not (c) Beijing chooses what is "provocative" as a matter of policy, hence your position simply hands over control of your analysis and policy to the CCP. Tensions are "reduced" because Beijing has said they are, period. Not because there has been any concrete change in the cross strait equation -- note continuing military build up and military threats. If tensions are "reduced" why are Chinese hardliners threatening the US?

Ma is unpopular for a number of reasons. One significant factor I think is the KMT factions at the local level that refuse support unless they get their own way. Ma has tried to deal with this by promoting clean candidates from the centre, like Ye Jinchuan in Hualian.

Ye was not promoted because he was "clean" but because he was Ma's friend. Ma has consistently supported corrupt candidates at the local level, and it is hard to argue that Ma himself, looking at his trial, and his lifelong opposition to democratic government, is not corrupt himself. Although I agree that KMT factionalism is a problem for managing the party, but it is a problem of the party's own making.

Another issue I didn't cover is the structural weakness of the ROC presidency.

I wrote a post on the resignations last night, actually, but I am trying to stay to one post a day or below. Also, I have a paid gig for writing in which I will comment on that. :)


Don said...

Good analysis of Dr Rigger's article, Michael.

Those wise men and women inside the beltway appear to be suffering collective cognitive dissonance. On some deep level they know they have been played for dupes by the CCP-KMT tag team and that they will carry the stain of that for the rest of their careers. After all they did everything in their power to leverage the toxic KMT back into power, just as Beijing required. But of course they can't acknowledge that. Hence their supposed bafflement (acute embarrassment) that Beijing continues acting like the rogue regime that it is, determined to terminate freedom and democracy in Taiwan as soon as the US is sufficiently cowed to keep out of the fight. And further bafflement that Taiwan voters have finally cottoned on to Ma and his Quisling agenda.

Foreign policy circles in Washington DC seem to be blinded by their we're-so-savvy realpolitik. They think they know the "national interest", which in this case requires pussyfooting around anything that China defines as a "core interest", propagating a non-factual alternative reality in which victim becomes provocateur etc, meanwhile backtracking the hell out of that vexing old commitment to Taiwan's defense. Never mind the fact that the only thing the CCP respects is strength and all it fears is truth.

Dr Rigger and co: you are babes in the wood. No-one plays statecraft with China without looking like an amateur.

Thomas said...

"Of course ECFA will surrender more sovereignty -- that is what China has repeatedly said it will do, and that is what the Lien Chan-led brain trust wants,"

Michael, I would like to add to what you said by referring everyone to the conclusion of the Mutan Village incident. Japan, to boldly defend the interests of the Okinawans, sent an excursionary army to Formosa. The Chinese, to get rid of them, released a document apologising for the Mutan Village incident. Although the document didn't say that Okinawa was a part of Japan, it did say that certain Japanese subjects had been slaughtered during the incident. Japan presented China's document to the world as proof that the Okinawans were Japanese and that the Chinese had recognized their position. The rest of the world went along with Japan, and China was in no position to argue when, soon after Okinawa was formally annexed by Japan.

The point of this is that the ECFA has been trumpeted by many Chinese politicians as a One China pact that has political aims and will lead to unification. It's impact on Taiwan's economic sovereignty aside, the ECFA can seriously harm Taiwan's sovereignty without mentioning One China. This is because the Chinese have loudly proclaimed that it is not a pact between independent parties. And Ma has done very little to contradict them. In fact, he has furthered the controversy by continuously standing behind this One China fallacy publicly.

So when the ECFA is signed, even if it has no political language, the world will interpret it as a One China document.

I personally feel that there should be more discussion in Taiwan on the negative economic impact of the ECFA, because that is what will increase oppostion the most. But we should not forget that the atmosphere that a treaty is signed in is often just as important if not more important than the wording of the treaty itself.

Michael Turton said...

Yeah, it is shocking, and scary, that a ranking Taiwan scholar could write an article purporting to explain why Ma's approval ratings have plummeted that premised on the idea that Ma is competent. No wonder Washington lives in another galaxy.


J. Michael said...

Anon: "Rigger is right- tensions have indeed reduced with the new regime. Chen's "一邊一國" policy was seen as "provocation" in both Beijing and Washington because it violated the "one China" principle that both sides adhere to." Washington does not "adhere" to the "one China principle," it acknowledges it. Just recently on its Web site, AIT clearly stated that the US does not recognize Chinese (that is, PRC) sovereignty over Taiwan. Other Western powers, including the UK, have also reaffirmed this recently (the US even filed an official complaint at the UN for language used at the international body that seemed to indicate that Taiwan was part of China).

While Ma was elected on an economic platform, ECFA did not exist back then and no one could have predicted that his opening up would lead to the hollowing out of Taiwan's manufacture/agricultural - and eventually high-tech - sector.

On many occasions, Ma and his administration have used language that, as I argued elsewhere, underscores the theory that for them, the Chinese civil war is still ongoing (ROC claim over all of China, CCP as illegitimate regime, etc). In such a war, the communists would win. That Ma & al want to keep fighting this war is selling out Taiwan - or irresponsibly compromising its security.

Many of the Taiwanese who voted for Ma also expected that better relations would be attended by a draw-down of PLA forces, which hasn't occurred.

Anonymous said...


I am grateful for your keen observation. It's a pity that Rigger regards Taiwanese as a object for her research rather than a friend, though I know she was well treated during her stay in Taiwan.

Anonymous said...

Michael and His disciples: It is painfully clear you did not even read Professor Rigger's entire piece. You claim there is "no mention" of the fact that Ma is also KMT chairman. The following sentence seems to make that pretty clear:

"President Ma chairs the KMT, so the lack of support for his policies within the party reinforces the sense that he and his inner circle..."

Would suggest a closer reading of the analysis before you lambaste one of the best-connected scholars of Taiwan and the PRC.

Michael Turton said...

Would suggest a closer reading of the analysis before you lambaste one of the best-connected scholars of Taiwan and the PRC.

Thanks, but I suggest you see how that changes my analysis. It doesn't.