Saturday, November 25, 2006

Tom Plate, Media, and Taiwan

"I myself was to experience how easily one is taken in by a lying and censored press and radio in a totalitarian state..... It was surprising and sometimes consternating to find that notwithstanding the opportunities I had to learn the facts and despite one' s inherent distrust of what one learned from Nazi sources, a steady diet over the years of falsifications and distortions made a certain impression on one's mind and often misled it. -- William L. Shirer, US news correspondent in Berlin during the Hitler years.

A few days ago Tom Plate and Mike Chinoy hosted an event at UCLA on the media and Taiwan. I wrote several letters to AsiaMedia about the forum, but none were published -- probably because they were too long. It is a sad fact of life that it takes more space to correct error than to make it. I also wrote Tom Plate about Chinoy's errors and other concerns. Plate did not write me back directly, but his most recent column addresses some of the issues I raised in my letter about the foreign media, so I'd like to take a moment to commment on his column. Plate writes (my emphasis):

"At one point a guest speaker was asked how an American or Western correspondent or columnist could fairly report on China -- not to mention Taiwan -- without their reports reflecting cultural bias. The answer, of course, was that bias of some kind inevitably colors the reporting of events, whatever culture or country the correspondent hails from. But it's also the case -- we sometimes forget -- that bias colors the way in which that reportage is viewed and processed by media consumers as well."

I've corresponded with a number of foreign media representatives in Taiwan, and one pattern I've found is that when you point out factual errors in their presentations, they accuse you of being biased. Another example? You be the judge.

I had originally pointed out to Plate that Chinoy's remarks were both erroneous and biased. Here's the paragraph that sent several of us to our keyboards:

"Chinoy said that the contentious nature of politics in Taiwan hurts the country's progess. A reigning party will unlikely gain support from an opposing party for the sake of political power. An event such as U.S. president George Bush's acknowledgment of the Democrats' victory in last Tuesday's midterm election, for example, would never happen in Taiwan. Chinoy explained, "In Taiwan, such gestures would be almost inconceivable. It's one of the darker and more worrying signs [in Taiwan's democratic process]."
This remark...

An event such as U.S. president George Bush's acknowledgment of the Democrats' victory in last Tuesday's midterm election, for example, would never happen in Taiwan. clearly factually incorrect. Smooth concession is in fact the norm in Taiwan politics. In 1996 Lee Teng-hui beat three other candidates for the Presidency, without public disturbances, including the DPP's Peng Ming-min (bonus points for remembering who his running mate was). In 1998 Chen Shui-bian conceded gracefully after the Taipei mayoral loss, as did Lee Ying-yuan in 2002. Several legislative elections since 2000 saw only minor disturbances, at best, while the National Assembly Elections and the DPP's crushing loss at the county chief level in the recent 3 in 1 elections also failed to demonstrate Chinoy's point. In short, only in two instances, the 2000 and 2004 presidency elections, did the KMT and its allies cause relatively large-scale social disturbances instead of giving way gracefully. Chinoy is empirically incorrect, and he is comprehensively falsified by the recent history of elections in Taiwan. The question is not open to debate, and the conclusion is not a function of my pro-Taiwan bias, either. Chinoy does not know what he is talking about.

One of my common complaints about the foreign media is that not only does it not understand Taiwan, its misunderstandings tend to support the forces that seek to undermine local democracy. Here again Chinoy presents us with the double-whammy: first the error, and the ascription of that error to a problem that Taiwan generally has, rather than a problem that a specific side has. The pro-democracy side of Taiwan's politics has no trouble with smooth concession. That is entirely a problem of the Blues. I know it is a rhetorical question evolved from my pro-Taiwan bias, but which side in Taiwan's politics does Chinoy's error favor?

Ironically in his attempt to justify Chinoy's ignorance of the realities of Taiwanese life, in the most recent column Plate includes yet another error of Chinoy's.

"They listened raptly as Chinoy -- now on the staff of the influential Pacific Council on International Policy here in Los Angeles -- alternatively praised Taiwan for its achievements since the end of martial law in 1987, then criticized the current government for making a public fool of itself. The award-winning television correspondent especially lambasted Taiwan's leaders for their feral, crude and sometimes allegedly corrupt conduct. He worried that such obvious malpractice could wind up giving democracy a bad name and offer mainland Chinese cynics of democracy a reason to ask whether the democratic process, as practiced in Taiwan, is really what the mainland should want."

This remark....

He worried that such obvious malpractice could wind up giving democracy a bad name and offer mainland Chinese cynics of democracy a reason to ask whether the democratic process, as practiced in Taiwan, is really what the mainland should want." misguided. Chinoy appears to be unaware that the indictment of the Chen Family was seen as a positive thing in China in many ways, showing how far Taiwan has come by comparison with the mainland's doddering, corrupt, incompetent authoritarianism. In fact, just today, China Digital Times featured an article from a mainland scholar pointing this out:

"Law professor He Weifang of Beijing University (note: He's writings collected on line here) says that knowing that Taiwan can build a democracy is very important to mianland China. From Taiwan's experience, the people realize that Chinese people are not born with a saddle attached to their umbilical cord, they are not born for someone to get on them and ride, to be driven and whipped. Chinese people can create a democracy too".

He Weifang says that the orderly behavior of the demonstrators in Taiwan is very impressive – the crowds are acting rationally, showing that Taiwan is a rule by law society. Ever since He Weifang visited Taiwan in 1999, he has been telling Beijing University students "Taiwan's today is the mainland's tomorrow".

What is important is not just the result but also the process. Lecturer Teng Biao of Zhengfa Daxue said that over the past year when many mainland rights lawyers have defended the rights of the Christian house churches, they thought of the lawyers who defended the Meilidao ["rioters" of 1979 in Taiwan].

People need an enlightenment experience in order to understand democracy, said Teng Biao who graduated from Beijing University. Teng said that listening to lectures by professors, reading and discussions, he little by little put aside the ideas he had learned in high school and formed his own thinking. Teng said he discovered by reading the early works of Long Yingtai and Li Ao that the motive force of democracy came from constant conflict between people in society and intellectuals with the power structure. He learned that more people in the mainland need to stand up and make their voices heard."(emphasis in original)

Look at that third paragraph. Taiwan's effects on the mainland surely deserve a more nuanced treatment than empty dismissal. Fact is, "the mainland Chinese cynics" Chinoy refers to will always hate Taiwan's democracy and seek any excuse to denigrate it, so Chinoy's remark is either tautological and empty of meaning ("cynics are cynics") or else it comprehensively misunderstands the complex effects of Taiwan's democracy on China. I invite the reader to choose, and must again point out, that empty, generalized, uninformed hacks on Taiwan's democracy serve only the forces that oppose that democracy. Thanks, Mike.

Meanwhile, as my friend the Levitator points out, the mainland government can hardly handle Taiwan's democracy in action.

"You can imagine the pro-China and pro-KMT media throughout the Chinese-speaking world going into high gear over the indictment, but what is the official response from Beijing's Taiwan Affairs Office? According to this China Times report, the office spokesman told reporters:


"We've seen the Taiwan media reports (about the indictment)." When asked if he had any more comment, Yang Yi said, "I've already commented, and that is "We've seen it."

Why not take a potshot at the "Taiwan leader," the incarnation of evil, for his corruption while you're at it?

I suspect such sniping doesn't reflect very well on most officials of the People's Republic, who are widely perceived to be having both hands in their taxpayers' chocolate cookie jars."

Reality again: the PRC hardly knows what to do with Taiwan's democracy. The transformative power of democracy and rule of law here is Taiwan's mightiest weapon against the thugs in Beijing.

Bottom line: there are many foreign journalists based here who know and understand the island and its politics -- names such as Lawrence Eyton or Wendell Minnick will be familiar to many readers of the local English media. There are many local journalists who know and understand the island and could comment in English. In one respect, though, Chinoy is a perfect panelist: he neatly illustrates the problems of the foreign media in dealing with Taiwan's complex politics. Regrettably, no one was on hand to point that out. And regrettably, in a forum on Taiwan, the island and its views went unrepresented. Instead, we were given an Asia media personality whose career has been spent in Hong Kong and Beijing, a problem typical of the foreign media (I am greatly cheered to note that both the BBC -- whatever its problems -- and Reuters have correspondents based here).

A second complaint of mine to Plate was that the foreign media incorporates pro-Biejing views into its writing. The report had said of Plate:
"With the return of Macau and Hong Kong some years ago, the major last piece of the puzzle [for China] is Taiwan," Plate explained.
This is, as Plate knows, a partisan pro-China view. No ethnic Chinese emperor ever ruled Taiwan, and that is a historical fact not open to debate. This explanation, which one hears quite bit, is the way the media turn the accidental expansions of the Manchu empire into the sacred national territory of the modern Chinese state (itself a post-1949 invention). Taiwan is not the "last piece of the puzzle" because there is no "puzzle." UPDATE: Plate just sent me a very kind email in which he stated that he was only presenting the China view as the China view. No doubt the summary nature of the article resulted in making his statement look stronger than it was. So I've rewritten the foregoing section in response.

Plate's second column offers an interesting comment:
"But for all that sympathy, [the people of the world] are not geopolitically naïve. They recognize the reality of the numbers game: If push comes to shove and the world had to choose, will it truly side against the 1.3 billion people on the mainland?"
If I had a nickel for every time some pro-China propagandist had come out with a line describing China's desire to annex Taiwan as the will of the "1.3 billion people," my collection of coins would be a magnetic anomaly detectable from orbit. Plate's well-meaning remark once again shows how the media discourse on Taiwan is actually peppered with China-centered catchphrases. Plate is correct about the geopolitics, but his framing of the sentiment is Beijing's.

Let's hope that the next forum on Taiwan's media offers us a more inclusive range of views, and more inclusive range of panelists. And some Taiwan-centered commentary to go with it.


Anonymous said...

Seriously? No opinion on the Taiwan issue?

Of couse China's 1.3 billion want Taiwan. All the grad students I know over in America agree on this subject, my relatives agree. I don't know a mainlander (or one who moved recently) who doesn't want Taiwan back. Conduct a poll for your own sake in China and ask around. I bet 99% will answer in the affirmative.

Michael Turton said...

Yes, that is my experience too. I know they all want to annex Taiwan. But I do not know of any credible opinion poll conducted in a non-coercive atmosphere, so my comment stands. I suspect that if there was more free flow of info, more democracy, then there would be a lot fewer Chinese wanting to maim and kill Taiwanese so they can feel powerful.


Anonymous said...

I am afraid you are mistaken. Chinese want to take Taiwan. Even a democratic China wants to take Taiwan. This is part of their ‘greater China’ myth. Generations of Chinese were educated that way. It would take many years to educate them to respect other people’s will. As you learned in Taiwan, that respect barely exists in Taiwan.

Michael Turton said...

I agree with you guys! But I still want to see credible poll data. You don't seem making claims about what Taiwanese believe -- even though my experience is the vast majority want independence -- precisely because I lack trustworthy poll data on that score.

Anyway, the sentence is not really needed, so I have removed it. Don't want to distract from the main point, which is the way the media discourse frames things Beijing style, and is denial about it.


Anonymous said...

I was in Plate's class last year at UCLA. He is now giving a talk and I googled him and found your site.