Thursday, September 07, 2017

Did something happen in Taiwan? It must be about China....

At Anping Fort, the cannons are silent, but the shooting goes on.

This week's appointment of William Lai to the post of premier was widely reported in the international media. This is indicative not of the importance of the appointment on the global stage (it has zero foreign policy ramifications), but of the laudable lack of news out of the classy, low key Tsai Administration. Once again the international media displayed a variegated collection of hit pieces and flatpetered news reports

To get an idea of the ideal line on Lai from Beijing's point of view, one need only review the editorial commentary news report of Lawrence Chung in SCMP, whose political loyalties will need no introduction to my readers. Chung warbles in the opening paragraph:
The appointment of William Lai Chin-te as Taiwan’s new premier has raised concerns over the future of cross-strait relations, given his tough, pro-independence stance and strong man image.

Analysts said that although President Tsai Ing-wen has the final say on all policies regarding the mainland, Lai, who could challenge her for the top job in 2020, might not let her have all her own way on cross-strait relation
Chung is forced to admit that actually, the premier has almost no influence on cross-strait relations since that is controlled by the President, who has real experience in both cross-strait policymaking and international trade negotiations (Lai has zero experience, by contrast) and who appoints and controls all the policymaking bodies. Chung's piece then consists of a long discussion of Lai's pro-independence views and his possible challenge to Tsai as a presidential contender in 2020. Only toward the end do we get a distorted view of what Lai's job will actually be: running domestic policy.

Chung then finally hits the second major point of his piece: Tsai's slumping popularity....
Over the past year, the president has seen her approval rating slump to 28 per cent from a high of 70 per cent a year ago.
It is now conventional in the media to announce that TSAI GIVES TAIWAN THE SADZ and that ZOMG CHINA! is the proper context for her every decision. In the international media Tsai is forever looking in the mirror in the morning as she chooses her lipstick, wondering whether Beijing likes Creamy Matte.

Does Tsai give Taiwan the sadz? Not really: a poll just released shows wide public support for the policies of the DPP, whatever her approval ratings. Given the unreliability of local polls, your mileage may vary... and lets not forget, the last reliable poll, from TISR, had her at 34.6% in October of 2016, perfectly normal for a Taiwan president. That means that she's been stable for almost the last year in the high twenties to mid thirties, again normal.

But of course, you can't write that fact in the international media. Next thing you know, you'll be saying that the economy is doing ok, her relations with Japan and the US are good, her southbound policy is moving forward, and her policies have good public support. No clickbait there.

Hence, in the media, Tsai's popularity is always like this:

So we got these two markers -- ZOMG CHINA and TSAI GIVES TAIWAN THE SADZ. Here's AP with the headline Taiwan appoints new premier amid tense China relations:
Taiwan’s president on Tuesday appointed a new premier seen as willing to reach out to rival China amid ongoing tense relations between the two sides.
... relations are always tense here in Taiwan. Usually when I bike through the mountains I have to brush the tensions aside, like cobwebs. Does Tsai give Taiwan the sadz? You betcha....
Over the past year, China has persuaded two of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies to switch sides as it ratchets up its diplomatic and economic pressure on Tsai’s administration, causing her job approval rating to plummet to just 33 percent.
....yes, her ratings plummeted from 34.6% in October of 2016 to 33% in September of 2017. At that rate, she might break 32% sometime late next summer.

But in the end AP is forced to concede:
Neither Tsai nor the new premier mentioned China at Tuesday’s news conference, focusing instead on domestic issues such as tax reform and energy supplies. Taiwan’s premier functions as head of all government ministries and commissions. Traditionally, the president rather than the premier sets policies on China and foreign affairs, Huang said.
What? How could the president and the premier both not know that this is about China? They must be stupid. No wonder they had to replace the whole government....

Reuters meanwhile lead with the sadz instead of China, headlining Taiwan premier resigns to help shore up president's falling popularity. It didn't get down to China until at last it mentions "frozen relations with China" as a reason for her "low" popularity, which according to Reuters is at 29.8% (or 33% or 28%, you choose). The Reuters pieces quotes only pro-KMT types, cherrypicks its poll, and like the AP piece, fails to properly contextualize Lai in a domestic politics frame. The hopeful tone of "falling popularity" is almost tangible.

Poor Xinhua, with such strong competition from Reuters they will probably have to shut down. Xi Jin-ping no doubt calls Putin every couple of weeks to laugh at him: "You idiot! I can't believe you have to pay to get your propaganda in the international newspapers!"

Ralph Jennings has a fuller piece at AP which again hits ZOMG CHINA and TSAI GIVES TAIWAN THE SADZ. A complete waste of time, though at the bottom at least he cites Raymond Wu who correctly identifies the Lin government as transitional all along.

In addition to not contextualizing Lai's appointment in domestic politics, Reuters and the two AP pieces never mention that Lai is an up and coming politician, likely a presidential candidate. Apparently Lai has no importance on his own, just as a prop for ZOMG CHINA!

Thanks guys! With reporting like that, this blog will always have an audience of people hungry to understand what is actually going on.

The one bright light was Bloomberg, whose Taiwan reporting is constantly improving. Note this excellent headline....

Taiwan’s Tsai Names Rising Star as Premier to Boost Support.

.... Tsai is still giving Taiwan the sadz, but at least Bloomberg correctly identifies Lai's rising status and immediately places him in the context of domestic politics and the upcoming election. ZOMG CHINA! doesn't happen until halfway through the piece and then it is muted.

If you want to understand the local context, the local news is a good place to start. There is a sympathetic backgrounder in the formerly pro-KMT China Post (now entirely online and operated by a single employee, I've heard) as well as the news report in the China Post. Somehow both reports forgot to mention the word "China". The Taipei Times has had extensive analyses of the appointment as befits a pro-ruling party paper: the appointment is aimed at the mid-term election. This Taipei Times backgrounder also fails to frame the appointment in a China context. The local newspapers are clearly dumb as rocks. How could they miss that all-important China context?

The fascinating thing is why this is reported at all. It has zero international ramifications. In Taiwan premiers come and go in an endless parade like models on a catwalk. Lai too will likely step down in 14-18 months to be replaced by someone else the party wants to develop. Chen Shui-bian had six premiers in two terms, and Ma Ying-jeou had six premiers in the same span, yet none of those appointments provoked negatively contextualized international news reporting (Can you imagine the headline: Ma Ying-jeou appoints Mao Chi-guo Premier amid China tensions?). And when Jiang Yi-huah resigned after the 2014 election, somehow international news organizations connected it to the election loss and not China. But let Tsai appoint a new premier...

I was able to find this Ed Wong piece in the NYTimes on the appointment of Wu Den-yih to the Premiership after the Ma government's catastrophically inept response to Morakot in 2009, which correctly regards it as a purely domestic affair with domestic ramifications. Or this FT piece on the appointment of Frank Hsieh by Chen Shui-bian, again, a purely domestic affair with domestic ramifications (I can't find any international news on the appointment of pro-independence firebrand Yu Shyi-Kun to the premiership in 2002). But the FT piece is by Kathrin Hille, who knew her shit and was not afraid to battle her editors to get it out there.

How I miss her.
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Anonymous said...

I don't think Lai will challenge Tsai for the presidency in 2020; the DPP is for all its flaws more disciplined than that. If Tsai is really so incompetent that she's trailing badly before the 2020 cycle, I hope she will be wise enough to voluntarily let someone else run for president instead. He should definitely be the shoo-in frontrunner in 2024, though.

Maybe Eric Chu will become the William Jennings Bryan of Taiwanese KMT politics. He might lose to Tsai in 2016, 2020, and Lai in 2024.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Michael.

Again, you do a tremendous service to everyone who is inquisitive about Taiwan affairs and searching for a balanced and informed perspective on Taiwan.

It saves me, at least, a lot of time and frustration to see your assessments and links of international media coverage. Then I can be more quickly notice the built-in biases and China influence infiltrating media coverage on Taiwan subjects, and identify reports and authors who are more worthy of attention.

The expanding direct and indirect influence of China coloring the representation of all matters Taiwan in international media and, now, even in international academia is very concerning.

The same intentional international push of China's propaganda can be seen in news coverage of Hong Kong and the South China Sea, and beyond that to the Korean Peninsula.

For the Hong Kong version, just look at the recent censorship and removals - just in the past few weeks - of Shirley Yam at SCMP and Anders Corr at Forbes. Yam wrote a remarkable expose on Xi's right-hand man's daughter laundering billions in Hong Kong via Singapore; and Corr exposed pro-China tycoon Ronnie Chan's bias in influencing the US Asia Society and Harvard. Both reports were removed after one day, and both authors subsequently lost their jobs. All in a remarkable 2 week span.

Taiwan's situation is so important, on so many levels socially, politically, diplomatically, militarily, and socially, and the Chinese bias pushing into the media is potentially so existential in its implications for international support of Taiwan, that it is more important than ever for folks like you (and all of us) to be vigilant, active, and persistent in monitoring coverage, calling bullshit on misrepresentations, and identifying quality work worthy of support.

Thank you and keep it up!

Anonymous said...


Thanks for including the link to the Vancouver TaiwanFest article about the personal story of Taiwanese identity vis a vis Taiwan, Japan, China, and Canada.

The article is surprisingly well written and thoroughly researched considering the publication - the Georgia Straight - is a local city newspaper in Vancouver typically available back in the day for free in cafes and bus stops. The reports kicks ass compared to the majority of writing about Taiwan in Reuters, BBC, and far too many much larger media outlets. Go Canada!

The personal stories are a touching reminder of the complex and sometimes traumatic history of Taiwan. In a way it is appropriate that a regional Canadian paper would highlight that each individual's search for his/her own Taiwanese identity is a complex mix of historical influences, where people came from, what society they grew up in, and what social values they hold.

Taiwan's identity story resonates in particular in Canada with Canadians' own search for their unique identity. Canada, like Taiwan (whether most Taiwanese realize it or not) is a mixed immigrant society built up via colonization as fellow members of the "New World".

Canadians are constantly attempting to define themselves and their values, usually in relation to the giant cousin next door - the US - with whom Canada shares much of its racial and immigration mix, much of its modern culture, and the vast majority of its trade.

All of this has parallels with Taiwan and China ... with the exception that unlike China vs Taiwan, the US doesn't have missiles pointed at Canada and the US (nor UK) browbeat Canadians to subject their sovereignty based on ethnicity or racial identification. Those are pretty important exceptions.

The Strait article has one debatable point about pre-Dutch Chinese numbers in Taiwan (e.g. Tonio Andrade estimated a transient population of fishermen and pirates of Chinese and Japanese descent of around 1500-2500 in 1624, 10x less than this article claims); but aside from that the report effectively covers the key history with remarkable clarity - far better than most of the major international media, note to Reuters, BBC, and others!.

Finally, it captures vignettes from real people's and artists' lives and experiences as Taiwanese coming through transitions (or being killed during those transitions). In one instance, the story of ultimately immigrating to Canada and coming to peace with a Taiwanese Canadian identity there was touching. For me, speaking as a Canadian, that is how our country is supposed to work.

Anonymous said...

So yer sayin premiers come and go like fashion models on catwalks and there's no international ramifications. Sounds good. But 6 days ago u write HUGE lai from Tainan to ey like this is a major story.
Peace Stephen zimmer

Michael Turton said...

LOL. Locally it is huge news, because of what it signals about Lai's future.

Anonymous said...

dazed and confuzed here. so its huge news, but the international media shouldn't talk about it cuz it happens all the time? is it huge news locally? my adult students dont seem to care

Michael Turton said...

dazed and confuzed here. so its huge news, but the international media shouldn't talk about it cuz it happens all the time? is it huge news locally? my adult students dont seem to care

I can't understand how you can teach English here, since you obviously can't read it.

Anonymous said...

Michael, a note in relation to the above comment (specifically the recent Hong Kong censorship versions) about China's active negative influence and direct & indirect censorship of Taiwan-related coverage in international media and academia: I don't know if you've read it already, or perhaps even linked to it previously somewhere, but the research of Glenn Tiffert is extremely worthwhile reading.

Tiffert (at U. Michigan at the time, although he also shows up as a UC Berkeley post-doc) compiled an extremely readable and illuminating summary of his research on China's censorship of digital academic databases. Specifically of academic databases with historical content that is politically sensitive to Chinese censors.

In essence, his research points to deliberate cleansing of the historical record by Chinese censors via academic databases ... and thereby indirectly censoring scholarship worldwide that relies on those databases.

Of course, we see the active Chinese propaganda and censorship of current affairs and news online constantly; the maintenance of China's "Virtual Great Wall" of domestic online censorship; the 50-cent brigade of online trolls; and the deliberate intrusions on academic freedom most recently on display in the Chinese attempt to censor the Cambridge Press publishing house.

But the potential to leverage digital, often automated techniques for censoring large academic databases and deliberately erasing sensitive texts - if not inserting new ones - highlights the need for the global community - and sensitive places like Taiwan in particular - to be vigilant to Chinese manipulation and censorship.

It's ironic that Taiwan itself lived through this sort of thing during the authoritarian period - note the disappeared and destroyed copies of censored books like "Formosa Betrayed" and "Pail of Oysters" from US libraries during the 1960s - but China now has access to much more formidable digital weapons to facilitate the same style of authoritarian censorship and international media manipulation.

The article noted is "Peering down the memory hole: history, censorship and the digital turn" by Glenn Tiffert, Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellow in Residence at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, August 21 2017. It's free in pdf online.

Anonymous said...

I can't understand how you can teach English here, since you obviously can't read it.

lol! just like most of the teachers here! it wasnt a requirement to get a job, aint taiwan great!

peace, luv & formosa

Michael Turton said...

Thanks for the great comment on Tiffert, anonymous.