Saturday, May 07, 2005

Chalmers Johnson on Taiwan and China

In March on Chalmers Johnson has an article on the US, China and Taiwan called Coming to Terms With China . This article is fairly clueless about Taiwan. It uncritically accepts China's claims, and defends Chinese positions while attacking Taiwan for wanting freedom and independence. The authors also seems to accept the KMT's spin on Taiwan politics. I'd like to take a moment and go over its multitude of misunderstandings.

Johnson began his article with the following observations:
Japan may talk a lot about the dangers of North Korea, but the real objective of its rearmament is China. This has become clear from the ways in which Japan has recently injected itself into the single most delicate and dangerous issue of East Asian international relations – the problem of Taiwan. Japan invaded China in 1931 and was its wartime tormentor thereafter as well as Taiwan's colonial overlord. Even then, however, Taiwan was viewed as a part of China, as the United States has long recognized. What remains to be resolved are the terms and timing of Taiwan's reintegration with the Chinese mainland.
Johnson's article starts out by accepting that the claims of the Chinese side are true, while ignoring history almost completely. The US had no objection to Japanese colonial occupation of Taiwan and never claimed that Formosa was part of China until after Pearl Harbor. As George Kerr points out in Formosa, it was Roosevelt alone who made this decision uncritically, while the military and strategic advisors recognized that the island was going to be a complex problem with profound strategic implications. The problem of the postwar status of Taiwan is a postwar problem, and the reason that China is not named as the recipient of Taiwan's sovereignty in the San Francisco Peace Treaty is precisely because US leaders realized that the Formosans did not want to be part of China. Both US and British leaders repudiated Cairo as simply a wartime statement of aims that had no binding force. The growing strength of independence sentiment throughout the 1960s is recognized in key US reports, such as the Conlon Report (which points out that it would be immoral to permit China to annex Taiwan without the locals approving) and in academic work on the island at the time (Mendel's The Politics of Formosan Nationalism, for example). In other words, the US position on Taiwan is complex, cognizant of many angles, and nowhere near as clear-cut as Johnson appears to claim here.

Johnson's ignorance of the realities of Taiwanese nationalism are clear in the last sentence of the abovementioned paragraph:
Taiwan has since matured into a vibrant democracy and the Taiwanese are now starting to display their own mixed opinions about their future.
Perhaps Johnson could catch up to the 1940s, when Taiwanese were already discussing their open aspirations for independence with foreigners. Certainly by the 1960s desire for self-rule was widespread. Had the government not ruthlessly suppressed it during the period known as the White Terror, perhaps Johnson might have realized that it is not a product of the current era of freedom in Taiwan.

Note how Johnson's rhetoric obscures the realities of KMT and PFP desires:
A native Taiwanese (as distinct from the large contingent of mainlanders who came to Taiwan in the baggage train of Chiang's defeated armies), Chen stands for an independent Taiwan, as does his party. By contrast, the Nationalists, together with a powerful mainlander splinter party, the People First Party headed by James Soong (Song Chuyu), hope to see an eventual peaceful unification of Taiwan with China.
See the keywords peaceful, eventual, and unification? They are all nonsense intended to slant the reader's sympathy in the direction of the Nationalists. Taiwan was never part of any imperial Chinese state and no ethnic Chinese emperor ever ruled the island. China wants to annex, not unify, Taiwan. And to imagine that the KMT and PFP are peace parties is to profoundly misunderstand two corrupt, power-hungry political agglomerations whose most recent actions involve sending Lien Chan to China to sell out Taiwan, and hiring gangsters to cause a riot at the airport when he left, attacking peaceful DPP protestors. Either Johnson's understanding of Taiwan is incompetent, or Johnson is serving KMT interests. The reader is invited to choose.

More malicious rhetoric than follows.
In May 2004, in a very close and contested election, Chen Shui-bian was reelected, and on May 20, the notorious right-wing Japanese politician Shintaro Ishihara attended his inauguration in Taipei. (Ishihara believes that Japan's 1937 Rape of Nanking was "a lie made up by the Chinese.") Though Chen won with only 50.1 percent of the vote, this was still a sizable increase over his 33.9 percent in 2000, when the opposition was divided. The Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately appointed Koh Se-kai as its informal ambassador to Japan. Koh has lived in Japan for some 33 years and maintains extensive ties to senior political and academic figures there. China responded that it would "completely annihilate" any moves toward Taiwanese independence – even if it meant scuttling the 2008 Beijing Olympics and good relations with the United States.
It's impossible to overestimate how vicious this construction is. First, Johnson notes that the election was quite close (very true). Then, in the very next clause, he happens to mention a nasty Japanese right-winger who attended Chen's inauguration. Many people of all political stripes attended Chen's inauguration, so the only reason Johnson mentioned Ishihara is to smear Chen. In case you missed that it was a smear, Johnson has helpfully supplied the fact that Ishihara is a right-wing revisionist. This has nothing to do with Taiwan; Johnson included it only to smear Chen. Johnson then goes on to refer to the KMT and PFP as "the opposition" as if Chen were some kind of imperial President -- another subtle smear, in two important ways. First, the two "opposition" parties have a majority in the legislature (and thus their "opposition" status is questionable). And second, Johnson ignores the fact that the KMT continues to hold the power throughout society, running key positions in the military, business, and academia. To the extent that Johnson's article fails to make it clear to the reader how pervasive KMT influence is, it is misrepresenting Taiwan.

Johnson moves on to once again leave out key facts and misrepresent reality:
Contrary to the machinations of American neocons and Japanese rightists, however, the Taiwanese people have revealed themselves to be open to negotiating with China over the timing and terms of reintegration. On Aug. 23, 2004, the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan's parliament) enacted changes in its voting rules to prevent Chen from amending the Constitution to favor independence, as he had promised to do in his reelection campaign. This action drastically lowered the risk of conflict with China.
The idea that Taiwanese independence is the result of the machinations of American Neocons and Japanese rightists is a laughable KMT fantasy that Johnson has reproduced here as if the entire struggle for democracy and independence from the 1960s to the 1990s had never taken place. Johnson then goes on to say that people of Taiwan are open to negotiating with China "over the timing and terms of reintegration". The first half of this is true, but the second is nonsense. Hardly anyone here, except for some diehard mainlanders, wants to annex the island to China. Nor are the negotiations about that, and nor do the people want them to be about that. They are touted by all simply because talk-talk beats fight-fight any day. Johnson's lack of understanding of the situation in Taiwan is appalling.

The situation of misrepresentation is worsened here because Johnson goes on to say: On Aug. 23, 2004, the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan's parliament) enacted changes in its voting rules to prevent Chen from amending the Constitution to favor independence as if this were something "the people" favored, rather than a move by the KMT and PFP, which have a majority in the legislature, in their ongoing struggle to suppress Taiwan independence.

What Johnson does not make clear in his essay is that Constitutional changes are notoriously necessary in Taiwan. The KMT-drafted Constitution was never meant for a modern democratic state. It was intended as a shell to show the world, with the real power being held by the Leninist KMT. The authority of the Chiangs and Lee Teng-hui stemmed from the position of power as head of the KMT, not from their authority as President. It was one of Lee Teng-hui's underappreciated achievements to move the Presidency from the highest post of a right-wing Leninist state toward that of a serious executive in a multiparty democracy. But formal change is needed. By freezing out such change, the KMT and PFP are throwing an anti-democratic monkey wrench into the machinery of reform. Johnson does not make it clear to his readers where a progressive's sympathy should lie, nor does he appear to understand the politics that underlie the decisions.

David corrects me in the comments below:
This [Johnson's remarks] is so wrong it's painful - but I don't think your explanation was correct either. This is a proposed change to the constitution (not just a change of 'voting rules') and was supported by ALL parties at the time and (if it goes through) will result in any proposed constitutional change being decided by a referendum - which was a core part of Chen's platform for constitutional reform. One of Chen's few successes in getting agreement between the Greens and the Blues.
Can't be right all the time? But at least I don't make up stuff, unlike some writers I could mention.

Johnson then describes the legislative elections in December 2004.
The next important development was parliamentary elections on Dec. 11, 2004. President Chen called his campaign a referendum on his pro-independence policy and asked for a mandate to carry out his reforms. Instead he lost decisively. The opposition Nationalists and the People First Party won 114 seats in the 225-seat parliament, while Chen's DPP and its allies took only 101. (Ten seats went to independents.) The Nationalist leader, Lien Chan, whose party won 79 seats to the DPP's 89, said, "Today we saw extremely clearly that all the people want stability in this country."
Once again Johnson characterizes the KMT as "the opposition," a rhetorical move designed to garner sympathy for that pro-authoritarian party. The DPP lost for complex reasons. It was the democratic opposition until 1987, and still has not yet overcome KMT power at the local level. The KMT has tight links to organized crime, which serves its interests, both when muscle is needed, and during elections, in getting out the vote. Because the construction-industrial state is run by the KMT, it has fostered long-term loyalty among locals. It will be years before the DPP is able to break into this system and develop its own local networks. Note that Johnson closes the paragraph with a quote from Lien Chan that said the election was about "stability." Nothing could be further from the truth. It was actually about the ability of the KMT, and the continuing inability of the DPP, to deliver the votes on the local level. By quoting Lien Chan, Johnson is once again presenting a slanted version of reality for the unwitting reader.

Johnson then moves on.
Chen's failure to capture control of parliament also meant that a proposed purchase of $19.6 billion worth of arms from the United States was doomed. The deal included guided-missile destroyers, P-3 anti-submarine aircraft, diesel submarines, and advanced Patriot PAC-3 anti-missile systems. The Nationalists and James Soong's supporters regard the price as too high and mostly a financial sop to the Bush administration, which has been pushing the sale since 2001. They also believe the weapons would not improve Taiwan's security.
Since Johnson has withheld the KMT's political position from the reader, the reader cannot make judgments about this information. Recall that the KMT is anti-independence and pro-China, as is the PFP. Had Johnson made this clear from the start of the article, the reader could then make the informed judgment: the KMT opposes weapons purchases in principle because they tend to reinforcement Taiwan independence. It is quite true that the weapons are too expensive and are a sop to the US. But then, Taiwan needs the US, so a sop now and then is probably a good idea. Thus the reason that the KMT and PFP oppose the sales is not that they won't improve Taiwan's security, but rather, because they might. Another reason, rarely mentioned, is that because the KMT is out of power, no deal money will flow into Party pockets.

A following paragraph betrays the same slanted pattern of presentation.
It appears that this is also the way the Taiwanese read the message. On Feb. 24, 2005, President Chen Shui-bian met for the first time since October 2000 with Chairman James Soong of the People First Party. The two leaders, holding diametrically opposed views on relations with the mainland, nonetheless signed a joint statement outlining ten points of consensus. They pledged to try to open full transport and commercial links across the Taiwan Strait, increase trade, and ease the ban on investments in China by many Taiwanese business sectors. The mainland reacted favorably at once. Astonishingly, this led Chen Shui-bian to say that he "would not rule out Taiwan's eventual reunion with China, provided Taiwan's 23 million people accepted it."
Astonishingly? Chen has made similar statements before. Note that the key clause is the last one -- if the people of Taiwan would accept it. But of course, Chen, like everyone here, knows perfectly well that the majority of Taiwanese oppose joining the mainland. The Febuary agreement was purely for local legislative consumption. Chen needs Soong's PFP votes in the legislature, and agreements between Soong and Chen rebound to the detriment of Soong with his fellow mainlanders. In other words, it was a shrewd move by Chen, and to view it only in terms of its international repercussions (minimal) is to slant and misrepresent it.

Johnson then goes on to make a very conventional analysis of possible futures for China and Taiwan:
If the United States and Japan left China and Taiwan to their own devices, it seems possible that they would work out a modus vivendi. Taiwan has already invested some $150 billion in the mainland, and the two economies are becoming more closely integrated every day. There also seems to be a growing recognition in Taiwan that it would be very difficult to live as an independent Chinese-speaking nation alongside a country with 1.3 billion people, 3.7 million square miles of territory, a rapidly growing $1.4 trillion economy, and aspirations to regional leadership in East Asia. Rather than declaring its independence, Taiwan may try to seek a status somewhat like that of French Canada – a kind of looser version of a Chinese Quebec under nominal central government control but maintaining separate institutions, laws, and customs.
Let's make it clear. The difficulty with living next to China as an independent ethnic Han nation does not stem from anything about Taiwan. It stems from China's insatiable drive to annex Taiwan, to crush its democracy, and to suppress Taiwanese nationalism. The difficult is that China points 700 missiles at our island and has promised to destroy it should it move to full independent, democratic status. Johnson never makes this point clear for the reader. It is China, not Taiwan, that is the perp here. Johnson's article argues essentially that democracy and independence for Taiwan are wrong things. And that position is one no progressive should ever take.

He then concludes with a pathetic fantasy:
China fears that Taiwanese radicals want to declare independence a month or two before those Olympics, betting that China would not attack then because of its huge investment in the forthcoming games.
This scenario is absurd and will never occur. There are no 'radicals' who would support such a venture. Everyone knows that a declaration of independence would result in China attacking Taiwan, which is why Chen himself vowed not to do it when he was first elected (a fact ignored by Johnson in his slanted presentation). The reality is that the 'radicals' sit in offices in Beijing, point missiles at Taiwan, and threaten to sponge off the island's population with nuclear weapons, while allying themselves with right-wing mainlanders in Taiwan who constantly seek to thwart local democratic development. Coercion is not peace. That Johnson presents none of this to the reader is an indictment of Johnson, not of Taiwan.

Let me close with one final comment. was complaining about its fundraisers in an announcement on the website today:
It is now Day 5, and we've only raised a bit over $30,000 – which is only enough to get us through half the next quarter.

Quite frankly, this fundraiser has been a disaster so far. Unless the contributions start coming in, will start making radical – and I do mean very noticeable – cutbacks starting this coming Monday.

As relatively tiny as our staff is, we'll have to get rid of most of it. Our operating costs are $60,000 dollars a quarter. Without that, there will be no one to research hundreds of sites each day, no one to continuously update the news. No more regular columns – there won't be anybody to edit them, or to pay the writers and syndication costs.

In short, what this means is no more as the watchdog of peace – and the War Party will have good reason to celebrate.
It's easy to see why, folks, if this article is any indication. Good riddance, I say!


Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure that any article on is not 'fairly clueless' on Taiwan at all ... it generally holds a stronger view on unification than Xinhua, and massages the facts accordingly.

One point:
On Aug. 23, 2004, the Legislative Yuan enacted changes in its voting rules to prevent Chen from amending the Constitution to favor independence
This is so wrong it's painful - but I don't think your explanation was correct either. This is a proposed change to the constitution (not just a change of 'voting rules') and was supported by ALL parties at the time and (if it goes through) will result in any proposed constitutional change being decided by a referendum - which was a core part of Chen's platform for constitutional reform. One of Chen's few successes in getting agreement between the Greens and the Blues.

Unfortunately, the PFP & TSU are now against this change which could scupper it ...

Michael Turton said...

Here's an article from the TT

I think you are right and my discussion was wrong, but now I'm totally unclear on which vote was under discussion. Is the date right?

Anonymous said...

The Aug 23rd date is correct - it was when the Legislature voted to change the constitution.

However, there's a second step (which is I suspect what is causing the confusion): the National Assembly needs to ratify this change - and that will(may) happen after National Assembly elections next week. Originally everyone thought this would be a rubber stamp, but unfortunately the PFP & TSU have decided they no longer support this change, and so (if they get enough votes) they could scupper the whole thing.

There's a good summary here:

Michael Turton said...

Sheesh! No wonder I got confused. I'll just delete my comments, and put in yours.

Anonymous said...

Great analysis, Mike. Though be warned about my status: 10 years ago, Chalmers publicly referred to me as a "mental midget". (All that did was get my boss mad; since he maintained only he had the authority to refer to me in that way). Keep things like this coming, please!!

Dave Huntsman
Cleveland, Ohio USA

Michael Turton said...

Thanks -- and from a fellow Clevelander! Go Browns!

S Euclid man....