Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Journalist via ESWN

ESWN posted an article from The Journalist in translation today. I wonder why ESWN, who is obviously talented and intelligent, wastes his time on such drivel. Is there no intelligent analysis in the Chinese-language media at all? I'll take a moment to look at it -- fortunately this garbage is pro forma and can be deconstructed with minimal effort while focusing on the more important stuff I have to be doing. ESWN's translation follows in blue, my comments in red.

The Democratic Progressive Party believes religiously that "a big number is a good number." No matter what they do, they always talk big: 50 billion in five years, 800 billion in eight years, one million demonstrators in the street ... all their numbers are stunningly impressive to people, as if lower numbers would not be political accomplishments. For the constitutional reform that may or may not happen in a few years, the Democratic Progressive Party is boasting that they will hold 10,000 discussion forums in the 7,800 plus villages of Taiwan!

[Note first how the article appears to cite real statements of the DPP, but actually no reference or context is given. It is typical Taiwan journalism "analysis", low on clear thinking, poorly-introduced and supported, and lacking in balanced perspective. No wonder my students churn out crap. Look at what the so-called "professionals" write!]

They are going to hold 10,000 discussion forums! This figure is unprecedented in the history of mankind, above and beyond the fact that these forums will be on one and only one single topic. In the next 10,000 years, nobody else would have the vision and ambition to come up with such a grand idea for such a grand project.

What do I say that this is a grand project? All you have to do is some simple arithmetic to know the answer:

Starting this very moment until the day when Chen Shui-bian's term ends in May, 2008, this government has 33 months left. If they intend to hold 10,000 discussion forums starting this very day, they will have to hold an average of 303 discussion forums every month, or about 10 discussion forums per day. Isn't that a grand project?

[The writer of this piece for the Journalist is not a very adept or knowledgeable thinker, nor did he bother to do much research. Had he done so, he would have found a couple of salient facts. First, such citizen's forums, organized by private, public, and government groups, are very common in democracies, not "unprecedented in the history of mankind." For example, in Brazil some 350 local governments now hold participatory budgeting, with citizen input into the budgeting process. in very complex and rich ways, involving everything from meetings to theatrical presentations (go here for one description of the process.) In one month in November of 1981, the Union of Concerned Scientists and other citizens groups organized 151 teach-ins on nuclear war in over 40 states of the US. Clearly there is nothing unprecedented about holding a large number of public forums on issues of vital interest. Anyone interested in the dynamic, evolving, and multivariate world of participatory democracy can type that term and related terms like "citizens forums" or "teach-ins" in the web and become enlightened. But that was just too much work for our heroic writer. The impassioned contempt revealed by The Journalist's writer here is matched by his amazing ignorance of democratic realities around the world.

He has also withheld a very salient fact, a common tactic in political hatchet jobs. The DPP's suggestion was to mobilize 200 academics to carry out this task. Think a pool of 200 people can't manage to hold 303 forums per month, or 1.5 per person per month? Now it doesn't sound so impossible -- 3 forums every 2 months! (Most people normally do that in their working life: in the two months of Aug and Sept I have/will participate in approximately 15 meetings at my university of at least 10 and up to several hundred participants, at least three of which I will lead). I suspect even a hopelessly lazy and intemperate anti-democracy writer could drag his sorry pro-authoritarian ass out of bed for a mere 1.5 forums a month.

And yes, it is a grand project, a lot grander than the wasteful high speed railway, or the scores of useless pork projects approved every year by the legislature. I suspect our writer fears not the project's failure, but its success.]

Looking at it from another perspective, a discussion forum must surely cost some money to run. Even if a single discussion forum costs only NT$40,000 or NT$50,000, then the 10,000 forums will lead to an expenditure of NT$400 million or NT$500 million. Besides, does the President's Office want not only to "hold discussion forums at the village level", but they also want the "propaganda to reach the household level"? According to the Ministry of the Interior, there are 7.26 million households in Taiwan. If we add the costs of printing and delivering promotional material to those households, these 10,000 forums will probably run up to more than NT$1 billion plus!

[Typical "analysis" in which numbers are tossed around, without support. Where does the $NT 1 billion figure come from? The imagination of the author, of course, which is quite lively. NT$500 million is about US$15 million -- apparently the author thinks $15 million spent on democracy is "squandering" it. The Brazilians spend more than 20 times that on their participatory budgeting processes.]

Does Taiwan have that much money to squander away? Is there something more important than spending it on 10,000 discussion forums? Maybe the President's Office will say that the various levels of the government can budget for these expenditures gradually over the years, but why would the various levels of legislatures provide for a Democratic Progressive Party project? Backing up one step, even if the President's Office wants to raise those funds on its own, where are the sources of funding? Chen Shui-bian is already a lame-duck. On top of this, the constitutional reform is an uninteresting and unrewarding proposal. So which big-shot corporate boss is going to be interested in donating big money?

[Here we have another set of nastily-stated but totally unsupported opinions. Spending money on participatory forums is 'squandering'. Constitutional reform is "uninteresting" and "unrewarding." To whom, and why? Our trusty author does not say. The author maintains that obtaining funding will be impossible, although no serious argument is given for this. His own elitist thinking is revealed in the nice syllogism constructed there: no bigshot will donate to a lame duck President. That donations from the general public might help defray the costs of such events is never contemplated -- the little people do not exist in this writer's political imagination, save as an abstraction to be preserved from the horrors of direct democracy.]

Let us not even talk about the money figures. If the President's Offices wants to hold 10,000 discussion forums in order to formulate the policy philosophy, then this is absurd and in fact quite anti-democratic.

The Democratic Progressive Party has been in power for several years. In the representative style of indirect democracy, it has opened the door to direct democracy. However, the referendum that they proposed was a laughing stock. The consultative style of democracy is still in the experimental stage, but the Democratic Progressive Party may be considered to be successful in taking the first step towards direct democracy.

[The referendum was hardly a laughingstock, as both China and its servant in Taiwan, the KMT, worked hard to keep down the number of people voting for it. Many precincts reported specious tricks by the KMT to prevent people from voting on it. The fact that it struck fear into the hearts of the authoritarian class is a testimony to its power. But of course, never mind that, the writer provides no evidence that the referendum was a laughingstock. He just says it, and we must believe it.]

Yet, a policy such as "ten thousand discussion forums", "forums at the village level" and "propaganda to the household level" (or such slogans) is completely antithetical to consultative democracy and totally unconnected to participatory democracy. Rather, it resembles the top-down political education campaigns in totalitarian governments: each person in each neighborhood in each district in each village shall be mobilized to study the documents delivered by the central government under the supervision of the local officials with the approval of the intellectuals and the applause of the friendly political parties. These circumstances are no longer even seen on mainland China anymore, so why would Taiwan want to go through these power-grabbing and false democratic (and even anti-democratic) steps now.

Let us retreat another ten thousand steps just for argument's sake. Let us suppose that this project somehow has to be done. But there is not even a hint about what the constitutional reforms might be at this time. Where are the "educational texts" to be used for those ten thousand discussion forums? Will this be the version of the Democratic Progressive Party? Or the versions of the various other parties? Who is going to interpret and communicate the specialized constitutional knowledge to the masses? Are there that many constitutional scholars in Taiwan? Or maybe should we ask whether the Democratic Progressive Party has that many of its own partisan 'constitutional scholars'? If they don't have enough numbers, then the ten thousand discussion forums may overwork them to death!

It has taken a few years for Taiwan to achieve an embryonic form of civil society. But these ten thousand discussion forums are used in the name of civil society in order to seize power. Those people in the President's Office had better put a stop to this, or else they will create a huge joke in the history of constitutions around the world. Besides, aren't there more important things for you people to do in Taiwan?

[The author finally has to resort to arguing that holding citizen's forums is undemocratic and an attempt to "seize power". He's quite correct to note that nothing has been proposed about texts, but apparently doesn't realize that this point undermines his own case -- he knows nothing about what will be said or how the forums will be conducted, but is nevertheless quite sure that it will be undemocratic. How's that again? Failing that, he then veers into the kind of bombast that passes for "analysis" in Taiwan, claiming that we should be worried that there are so few constitutional scholars that they'd be overworked to death! (Do we not have editors in Taiwan?) The author again reveals his own elitist biases -- it must be done by constitutional scholars, and communication must run all in one direction, from the top down. But the DPP has not begun to lay out the details of the project, so the author is simply objecting to his own elitist understanding of how things will be run. Nor has the writer yet forthrightly stated that the DPP has proposed that 200 scholars (no word on what kind) conduct the forums, and factored that into his numbers from above. In other words, this is mere foaming at the mouth.

In his next translation, I hope ESWN can track down some thoughtful, well-written commentary for a change. Is there none in the Chinese-language press?]


Chaon said...

There you go again with the 'wasteful' HSR. Why is the HSR not just another infrastructure improvement? How else would you improve transportation up and down the country, more highways?

Michael Turton said...

Because it will have to be subsidized, but it isn't mass transportation -- instead, the subsidies go to the class of people who can afford expensive train tickets. AFAIK all of the private investors have pulled out. Nobody thinks it will make money. AFAIK the bullet trains in Japan have never recouped their initial investment.

Look at Taichung -- WTF is the train station doing in Wu Er?

No, I'd spend the money on strengthening the existing road network (expanding the Chung Shan Hwy south of KM 211 into three lanes) and expanding the rail network, repairing the roads in the mountains that have never really recovered from 9/21, on additional bridges across Taiwan's many rivers and expressways for its cities -- where is the rapid way down the east side of Taichung? (but there are TWO on the west side)....yet the factory and warehouse district is in Taipei, Dali, and Wufeng.

I'd also increase tolls on the highways, which are pitifully low, change the tax system so that small engined cars don't subsidize big ones, and a thousand other things. Like take all the fossil fuel public transportation and convert it to electric and gas.....if we're going to pay out subsidies, for pete's sake let's at least pay for ones that are good for the environment.

And of course, build beautiful stands for betel nut girls along all stretches of roadway in Taiwan ...build it, and they will come....


Chaon said...

"Strengthening the existing road network" is just a subsidy that goes to the class of people who can afford cars. Highways do not "recoup their initial investment" in the amount of money they return- you get it back in other economic growth. The HSR will return similar economic benefits, while reducing congestion on the existing highways.

Any plan for Taiwan that involves 'Let's just keep putting more cars on the road' is going to be problematic for fuel prices, pollution, and amount of land used.

Anonymous said...

Is there no intelligent analysis in the Chinese-language media at all?

I tend to think the answer is in the negative. I've been translating opinion articles for one of the English-language dailies here in Taiwan for the past four years, and only on occassion will you find a thought-through article that offers some incisive analysis, or even makes sense.

One of the more recent I remember was a professor in biomedicine who offered his analysis of the current political situation, and he came to the conclusion that the deomcratic understanding of the Taiwanese people is too low, something that led them to make the wrong choice in the last couple of elections. Now, if I wrote an article on biomedicine, I'm sure he would discard it as nonsense, and rightly so. He, however, still felt qualified to comment on something far outside his own field of expertise.

One of the problems as I see it is that being an intellectual here in Taiwan -- which means no more than having a PhD of some kind, any kind -- is enough for your opinion to matter. The fact that you are an intellectual (i.e. hold a PhD) means that you by definition know what you're talking about, and therefore do not have to provide such trivial things as fact and references. You're job is to educate the people who don't know better.

That in itself, I think, is partly a vestige of the (not so far) past authoritarian dictatorship, when no one had the chance, or rather dared, to try to find the facts because that would just land you in jail. Instead, people chose to believe what they were told or ignored it all together.

You have to remember that it's not too long ago (less than a generation, in fact) that people were thrown in jail for their political opinions or fell off university buildings in the dead of night, with no witnesses, and that seems to still wield an influence over how people think and approach these matters.

"In his next translation, I hope ESWN can track down some thoughtful, well-written commentary for a change. Is there none in the Chinese-language press?"

You have to look long and hard to find it. Huang Tien-lin, an advisor to the president sometimes makes astute comments on the economic situation and the relationship with China, but I can think of no one else off the top of my head. Asia Times sometimes has good English/language analysis, though (http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China.html). Yes, they list Taiwan under China.

Michael Turton said...


Michael Turton said...

"Strengthening the existing road network" is just a subsidy that goes to the class of people who can afford cars.

No, cars, motorcycles, scooters and bicycles. Roads benefit everyone.

Highways do not "recoup their initial investment" in the amount of money they return- you get it back in other economic growth. The HSR will return similar economic benefits, while reducing congestion on the existing highways.

Roads permit the movement of every kind of good, the opening of new lands, and numerous other benefits, and can be used by individuals of all economic classes. The HSR confers none of these and can only be used by members of an already privileged class. Kaohsiung and Taipei are already connected by private airlines, and private and public transportation. For what reason to we want still more publicly-subsized transportation to compete with them?

Any plan for Taiwan that involves 'Let's just keep putting more cars on the road' is going to be problematic for fuel prices, pollution, and amount of land used.

Who said anything about gas burners? *g*. And the issue with land use isn't roads but Taiwan's absolutely insane land use laws that distort land values in favor of developers and lower everyone's standard of living.


Chaon said...

"No, cars, motorcycles, scooters and bicycles. Roads benefit everyone."

Hold up. I am talking about the ability to move people up and down the East coast of this country. When you say you would improve the roads, I think we have to eliminate motorcycles, scooters and bicycles. Only Malv thinks its reasonable to ride a motorcycle from Taipei to Kaohsiung. So the roads we are talking about have to be highways. And building and maintaining highways for this purpose is not an efficient way to move people.

Anyone who owns a car that is capable of driving from Taipei to Kaohsiung is already in a privileged class. And they are driving on highways that are subsidized by bike, scooter and subway riders.