Friday, May 11, 2007

The Economist Giveth, and Taketh Away

The Economist, that bastion of conservative analysis and first-rate English prose, offers up two articles this week on Taiwan, one pretty good on the WHO issue, and one on Frank Hsieh's win in the DPP primary. Speaking on the WHO issue, the Economist notes:

Exclusion from the WHO does not mean that Taiwan is a no-go zone for the organisation. But a leaked memorandum of understanding that the WHO and China agreed on in 2005 shows appalling discrimination against it. According to Martin McKee and Rifat Atun of the London School of Hygiene, writing in the Lancet, the memorandum requires all possible WHO contacts with Taiwan to be cleared with China's delegation in Geneva (the WHO’s headquarters) at least five weeks in advance; China decides which Taiwanese individuals will be contacted; communications should identify not Taiwan, but just the city from which the expert to be contacted comes, etc.

This is dangerous as well as humiliating stuff. In mid-April Margaret Chan, the WHO's director-general, who is from Hong Kong, defended the organisation’s refusal to consider Taiwan’s membership by saying its policies are set by its 193 members who "hold on very strongly to the 'one-China' principle'.

But this argument does not make sense. Not only does it ignore the 25 (24 at the time) countries that recognise Taiwan, it also assumes that members could not be persuaded to make an exception for an issue so important as public health. Japan and America, for example, have in the past backed Taiwan’s bid for observer status. The European Union, in a rare instance of foreign-policy commonality, has not.

The Economist goes on to observe that Taiwan sometimes overstates the importance of the WHO entry, quite true, and one reason that Taiwan's agitation on the issue is sometimes a turnoff.

The article on Frank Hsieh's capture of the DPP nomination shows a number of the faults of the foreign media: China frames Taiwan again (with the Economist, it's been there, done that). The article also displays the increasingly common frame for Hsieh, one that reflects the effectiveness of Beijing in influencing the discourse on Taiwan. Here are the opening two paragraphs from the Hsieh piece:

POLITICAL developments in Taiwan rarely bring cheer for China. But the ruling party's surprising choice for its candidate to fight next year's presidential elections will at least provide a little comfort to the government in Beijing. It would be happier still if he were to lose.

Frank Hsieh, a former prime minister who wants better relations with China, won the nomination after a decisive victory in a ballot on May 6th among members of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). He got 45% of the vote, compared with 33% for his main rival, the incumbent prime minister, Su Tseng-chang. This was a blow to President Chen Shui-bian, who favoured Mr Su and a tougher stance towards China.

Who is Frank Hsieh? Here's the new media frame: he is the man "who wants better relations with China." As opposed to President Chen, who apparently prefers worse relations with China. Of course, Chen too wants better relations with China (every Taiwan politician does!), but you won't find that in the Western media. As a letter writer pointed out in the Washington Times the other day, Chen has proposed military confidence-building measures, loosened cross-strait investment regulations, and even liberalized tourism rules that will allow large numbers of Chinese tourists into Taiwan for the first time ever. I can't recall the last time anyone in the western media pointed out that it is China that has refused to talk to Chen Shui-bian, not the other way around. As I observed before, I'm curious to see how long it is before the "what a disappointment Frank Hsieh has been" articles come pouring out of the western media, when it discovers that he's no different than Chen when it comes to Taiwan's sovereignty.

Meanwhile the Ma Ying-jeou International Media Lovefest '08 continues...

In the presidential election next March, Mr Hsieh's chief opponent will be the man who defeated Mr Chen in 1998, Ma Ying-jeou, the charismatic nominee of the main opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT).

Poor Hsieh: no charisma. At least the AP article last week noted that he was witty and sharp-tongued. People seem to like and respect him (does anyone actually respect Ma Ying-jeou?).

The Economist then goes on to cram several misinterpretations into one short paragraph:

Mr Hsieh owes his victory partly to the frustration of DPP members with Mr Chen's lacklustre performance. But he faces a tough battle against Mr Ma. A poll released this week by the China Times, a pro-KMT newspaper, put Mr Ma nine points ahead of Mr Hsieh, although he led by 20 points before the primary.

The article had to get in a hack at the "lackluster" performance of Chen Shui-bian -- how about a mention of the opposition-dominated legislature that has blocked a dozen major bills and paralyzed at least three branches of our government? Naw. That would complexify things, and besides, it would not be a Beijing Approved Frame. Better, like a purse snatcher on a scooter, just to take a swipe at Chen and move on. Gotta love how the Economist references a Blue poll, which everyone knows are hopeless -- though at least it says it is from a pro-KMT paper.

Unfortunately for the Economist, they are forced to report that the good Mr. Hsieh has spoiled the nice neat "wants better relations with China" frame -- he wants Taiwan to be a "normal" country:

Like President Chen, Mr Hsieh is a former lawyer who in the past defended dissidents under the authoritarian rule of the KMT. Unlike Mr Chen, who takes an uncompromising stance towards China, Mr Hsieh has called for “coexistence and reconciliation”, though he has also called for constitutional revisions aimed at making Taiwan a "normal country"—a goal that has caused considerable anxiety in both Beijing and Washington, DC.

Imagine if the first thing the article mentioned about Hsieh was his defense of dissidents in the authoritarian era, not the last. Imagine if the article had run with the dissident frame and noted that Ma Ying-jeou had served the regime, allegedly as a student spy, then as secretary to the dictator and murderer Chiang Ching-kuo, and later as head of one of its policy-making bodies, the RDEC. You'll never see any of that history in the western media, however. Want the real measure of a man? It is what he does when faced with oppression. Hsieh fought it. Ma served it.

Try that frame, Economist.


Anonymous said...

Michael, about the WHO, did you note my earlier comment about how Taiwan should reflect the truth in its constitution or redefine itself (I hope) as Taiwan and not "ROC"?

Anyway good analysis and well- written as always Michael ^_^

BTW, I did pretty good in school (UAB, Alabama) here this past spring semester. Keep up the good work Michael.

Anonymous said...

'try that frame, economist' i love it!!!!!!!!! off the record- you better go and make up with poagao over at forumosa. i think you hurt his feelings. also, why not post advice for how poagao can avoid making those same mistakes in analysis in the future. what sources of info do you have that he does not? and i thought you thought brian k was the bomb. what's up with that?

Gary said...

That was really well said Michael. The Economist has been geting on my nerves for a long time. But I don't think the Economist constitutes "first-rate prose." Economist writers hide in an attractive, polished style, but when you look at what they're saying closely--as you have done--it often falls apart. Your commentary on Frank Hsieh has been very good. I would add that he is ambitious, and really wants to be president, which is a pre-condition to actually becoming president.

Michael Turton said...

I'll go see what's up with Poagao. Thanks, V. I haven't had a chance to check back there yet.


Michael Turton said...

Thanks, guys. Did you catch that the "defense of dissidents" frame was only used to describe Chen vs. Hsieh? LOL. I'm curious to see how the world media is going to handle Ma's long record of support for authoritarianism.


Jason said...

I say send a version of this post to the editor. The Economist likes the occasional cheeky Yank to put it in its place.

Eli said...

What do you think Su's resignation means? Could it mean that Hsieh has, after all, picked him to be his running mate? Or is he mad that he lost and that Hsieh is not picking him? Or is something else amiss? A new twist in the plot.

Michael Turton said...

Note to all:

I have no problem with disagreement, but the use of racial slurs will not be tolerated. Comments containing them will be rejected.


Michael Turton said...

Jason: done. But don't get your hopes up. They published none of my stuff.