Friday, March 28, 2014

Discourse and Ideology in the Media and the Taiwan Student Protests

Charles grabs a photo on our coast ride the other day.

One thing that's really great about the recent student protest is that it is being covered in the international media. For example, the WSJ had an article on the student leaders' rejection of Ma's offer for talks this week. Yet.... and one thing that's really terrible is the coverage in the international media. Well, actually, that's not true. When you flip through lefty media sites, this protest against a neoliberal trade pact by students and the common people, against a pact opposed by the majority of the people, including occupation of the legislature and massive international coverage, what sound do you hear?


Way to go, fierce defenders of the people!

Today I read Banyan at The Economist. You can't expect too much from The Economist of course, since it is basically a helpless prisoner of its pro-corporate ideologies. But the interesting thing to me about the Banyan piece is how much the positioning of Ma and the students in the discourses swirling around the occupation of the legislature is guided by Establishment economic and social tropes and above all, by outright concealment of Ma's actual position. This has two complementary results: it makes Ma look more middle of the road than he really is, and it makes the students look more radical than they are. The reality is that the middle of the road democrats are the students, and the right-wing radical is Ma Ying-jeou. One way the Economist accomplishes this is by framing:
Mr Ma sees the pact as a reward for the more conciliatory approach to China that he has adopted since he became president. The students occupying the legislature, as well as opposition parties who back them, claim that the trade deal....
Ms "sees" but the students "claim". No bias there! Think of all the other words that could be used: Ma argues and the students contend. Etc. Uncorrected is Ma's error that the police don't think it worthwhile to clear out the legislature. They don't have the authority to do that, only the Speaker of the legislature can.

Naturally Banyan (and other mainstream media writers) will never make clear that Ma is a right-wing Chinese nationalist expansionist who did his thesis on how China owns the Senkakus and appears to believe China owns Okinawa -- note that the underlying issue of the political-annexation aspects of the treaty, so important in many discussions of it, doesn't appear in this article, which presents the whole affair from his position and treats him as a sympathetic character, while focusing solely on economics. The students understand this political context, but Banyan removes it from the reader's purview. This helps make the students appear more radical than they are. In fact in another piece sympathetic to poor put-upon Mr Ma, Banyan argues that Ma is -- no, really -- defending Taiwan:
But as Mr Ma sees it, cross-strait “rapprochement” is a first line of defence against Chinese aggression, since “a unilateral move by the mainland to change the status quo by non-peaceful means would come at a dear price”.
In a way that piece is even worse...awesomely, it accuses the students of resorting to undemocratic means (because protests are undemocratic?) but fails to take note of the KMT's behavior. Space is lacking. Anyway...

The Economist piece also unloads all the neoliberal tropes that are taken up in a piece by J Spangler over at The Diplomat. First, Banyan describes:
Three days after the students began their occupation, Mr Ma argued that failure by the legislature to approve the agreement “could have serious consequences” (see Banyan). Going back on the deal, he said, could result in Taiwan being “regarded as an unreliable trade partner” by China as well other countries with which the island wants to negotiate free-trade pacts.
This trope is really common, I've been hearing it from people who both support and oppose that dog of a services pact. It's the kind of zombie insight people come out with when their brains are on media autopilot. Jonathon Spangler over at The Diplomat today squeezed a whole piece out of it. Judging from the contents of my inbox, many who read it assumed that Spangler was a pro-KMT foreigner. So did I, the first time I read it.

But on second reading I realized that Spangler's alignment with the KMT's position on the treaty, right down to repeating its rhetoric, isn't the result of him cheerleading for the KMT (it's unlikely that someone who obviously cares so much about ordinary people could be pro-KMT) but rather, is a consequence of the way Ma and the KMT have deployed neoliberal trade rhetoric as a front for their annexation of Taiwan to China by slow economic strangulation. Spangler writes:
Yet the deleterious effects of failure to implement the CSSTA would not only be domestic or bilateral; the international implications would be equally grave. Taiwanese history over the past decades has represented an arduous struggle for diplomatic recognition. Indeed, it is the foundation upon which almost all of the island’s foreign policy depends. Reneging on a bilateral agreement, such as the CSSTA, would serve as a clear indication to the international community that the local government lacks the capacity to effectively engage in international relations. The logic runs like this: If Taipei cannot succeed in fulfilling an already signed trade agreement with its closest neighbor and most significant trading partner, the risks involved for other countries in deepening economic ties with Taiwan may outweigh the potential benefits. For better or worse, international image and reputation are key to diplomatic relations. Should Taiwanese lawmakers fail to push through the agreement at this late a stage in negotiations, they are shooting themselves in the foot.
Three issues here. First, Ma and the KMT have cloaked their sellout in neoliberal trade and political science rhetoric. By doing so, they can get others to forward their propaganda for them, since these ideas are widely subscribed to in the media and academia. Second, has anyone ever examined this idea to see whether it is in fact true by looking at the way countries behave in the real world? Finally, the logic of this argument runs like this: let's f@ck the 99% so that Taiwan can look "credible" when its 1% sits down and makes big business sellout trade deals with the 1% of other countries. That's neoliberal logic at its finest: the world's nations are so many game preserves and ATMs for the 1%... Aware of this, Spangler argues that Taiwan's ordinary people can and should be protected. Good luck getting any of that done....

Does having to renegotiate treaties and other treaty issues make one less credible on the international scene? Hmmm... how many times in your life have you ever heard anyone say "China tore up the 17 point agreement with Tibet! I'm not doing a trade agreement with them!" Or how about the SALT/START talks. Salt II never ratified by US, which withdrew in 1986 (wiki). Nevertheless, Russia and the US went on to negotiate the START pacts. In fact US non-ratification of treaties is normal, other countries still seek it out to do business with. If you think renegotiating, withdrawing, and unilaterally tearing up treaties and agreements means that other countries will stop negotiating pacts with you, I suggest you type the phrase "withdrew from the pact" in Google, or a similar phrase, and start reading. It's totally normal for nations to engage in such behavior and then to move on to cut deals in the future. Either humans have the memories of pocket calculators or maybe, just maybe, nations make deals with other nations based on current and future expected issues, and not on what such and such a state did with some other state at some time in the past. Can you imagine:
AIDE: Mr President, Chile promised Peru to hold a plebiscite in 1893, but failed to do so.
PRESIDENT: Scratch Chile. We obviously can't do business with them. What about Italy?
AIDE: Sir, after they changed governments in WWII, they left the Axis.
PRESIDENT: Who can trust them now? What about Thailand?
AIDE: It took them twenty years to negotiate a mere extradition treaty with India.
PRESIDENT: Is there anyone we can do business with?
Reality? Everyone knows that Taiwan's relations with China are special and no one is going to say: "Wow! Taiwan renegotiated a pact with China! OMG WE CAN'T DEAL WITH THEM!" The US isn't going to stop trying to include Taiwan in the TPP. N Zealand and Singapore aren't going to tear up their trade pacts. Other nations aren't going to stop sitting down to talk with Taiwan, unless Beijing puts pressure on them (did we get a promise in this pact for Beijing to stop that? Hahaha).

So, to cut to the chase because I know you are tired of reading, what is the function of the "sign the pact or else no credibility?" It's mere rhetoric to bully small nations into signing those unequal pacts with larger states. It's a form of shock doctrine designed to get the population to go along with a sell out by creating fear of being weeded out (another favorite trope of Ma's). It's a club wielded by Ma Ying-jeou to bash Taiwan's people into submission.

It's not inevitable that China will swallow Taiwan (in fact I am coming to the conclusion that China's rising power is making that ever less probable), but it will certainly become inevitable if academics keep forwarding these zombie insights exploited by the KMT that are completely untrue yet cannot be killed.
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Anonymous said...

With regard to the Spangler piece: Both KMT & CCP don't see their relations as "international" relations between to "countries", at all. WTO is not involved as well.
Why should other countries care (tradewise) if and how Taiwan deals with China on a rather domestic level? Moreover the more Taiwan is involved with China economically the more difficult it will be to "deepen economic ties" with other countries without China's consent.

StefanMuc said...

I don't think non-ratification of treaties by the US is a good example, though. It's something the US can get away with, other countries wouldn't be able to benefit from international frameworks they haven't agreed to be bound to.

That said: it's part of the legislature's job to ratify or reject treaties. They have to reject agreements which do not benefit their country. Dictatorships might have problems understanding this but other countries don't.

Daniel from Tainan said...

I'm interesting with the saying that you mentioned in the last paragraph. Why China's rising power is making Taiwan being swallowed less probable? Have you ever mentioned in the previous articles?

Michael Turton said...

"'It's something the US can get away with, other countries wouldn't be able to benefit from international frameworks they haven't agreed to be bound to.""

Yeah, but try that with any country, randomly pick the diplomatic history of some lesser power.. Treaties are regularly broken, modified, renegotiated, ignored, and not just by the US.


Michael Turton said...

I'm interesting with the saying that you mentioned in the last paragraph. Why China's rising power is making Taiwan being swallowed less probable? Have you ever mentioned in the previous articles?

No. I want to save it for a longer piece.


Readin said...

It was rather jarring when you suddenly switched form talking about leftists to "fierce defenders of the people".

To be fair though, the conservative groups that usually can be called the true "defenders of the people" have been pretty quiet on the Taiwanese situation as well.

Readin said...

Actually, it would be better if you stopped using "left" and "right" in regard to Taiwan. Ma may fit the European definition of "the right" but neither party in Taiwan really fits with the "the right" as it is constituted in America. There is no free-market free-association government-should-treat-everyone-equally-regardless-of-race keep-a-strong-military wing in Taiwanese politics that I can see.

Readin said...

It is a simple fact of life that every country doing business with democracies understands that the mere signing of a treaty means very little until it is ratified. This isn't even a new concept that started with democracies. In the old days when travel was long there was always the chance that when the ambassador finished traveling for weeks or months to bring back a treaty to the king, the king would reject it.

Anyone making arguments that not ratifying the treaty is the same as not keeping a promise is clearly not interested in a rational discussion but is instead simply trying to do whatever it takes to get their way.

(This reminds me of the recent arguments in America that such-and-such a law is "settled law" and thus it would somehow be evil to repeal it. Yes this is a Taiwan blog, but I live in America so even as I follow Taiwan politics American politics are never far from my mind.)

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

This Banyan article is the stupidest piece of opinion BS passed off as objective journalism I've ever seen.


I want to say more but I am literally just astounded by the stupidity.

Readin said...

Michael Turton makes a comment about treaties being broken when countries change government (like Italy leaving the Axis in WWII). I find this an interesting topic. I've often wondered why we should expect a newly democratic country to pay back loans made by a previous corrupt regime. If my country were being run by someone like Mugabe and I managed to overthrow him and becomme the first democratically elected leader - I would be sorely tempted to tell any creditors that the deals they made were with Mugabe, the leader of a criminal organization that terrorized the people rather than a legitimate (because democratic) leader of a country. If they want their money back they should go to Mugabe, not to his victims.

Morally that seems right. Of course from the practical view the snag is that such an attitude from emerging democracies would make it harder for them to secure external support.

Anonymous said...

Great piece again. I find the Economist to be heavily bound by the "China double threat" so the articles are unsurprisingly biased. Double threat being: 1) I am a rising power, I am the future savior of the consumption world so you must hope I succeed or you will all suffer and 2) if you don't say nice things about my party, you won't be invited back er given visas.

It's saddening to see how much coercion the world accepts as long as the money is there. It's reality but since when was a communist country more of a friend than a democratic one? Oh, I forgot. 1.3billion consumers! Screw everything else. We have cars and KFC to sell. Unless Taiwan wants some apache helis.

Hey where are the China internet monitors? Taking day off?

Tommy said...

Um er cough cough ... Shimonoseki cough... Sorry... For a second there I was seized by a coughing fit. What was That all about?

Taiwan Echo said...

Thx for the article, Michael.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

Question. I am totally not clear from news coverage exactly what the "meet with Ma" status is with the students. I hear "he invited the leaders to talk with him", I hear "he offered to go to the legislative yuan but the students rebuffed him", I hear 'he refuses to even speak to them", I hear "the students' demands keep changing".

Which of these is actually true?

Unknown said...

I would seriously consider to subscirbe the economist in the future.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

The China internet monitors are alive and well on the Economist article, a few of them responded to my own comment about how ridiculously biased the whole thing is.

One didn't seem to understand the meaning of the word "specious".

Anonymous said...

Oh, I'm so touched by the counter demo. Will the KMT staunchly follow the Carnation Revolution model of Portugal ?

Diall said...

Michael, I wonder if you could recommend a good analysis of Taiwan's economic situation for one of my students. She has taken part in the student protests and been greatly affected by the whole matter. She is in her early 30s and wishes to get a better handle on the agreement and its context. Any suggestions would be appreciated, especially of a more accessible nature.


Michael Turton said...

Diall, for the trade pact the only thing I know offhand is this:
NTU Prof analysis.

For Taiwan's overall economic situation the editorial page of the commercial times (Chinese) and Commonwealth magazine often have really good articles.

Diall said...

Thanks Michael, I've already suggested the Commonwealth magazine and will pass on the others you mention. And modesty clearly prevented a mention of your own blog which has some excellent commentary and links.. :)