TDB Vol. 1 No. 18: China’s Expanding Influence in Democracies Around the World

TDB Vol. 1 No. 18: China’s Expanding Influence in Democracies Around the World

China is using its power to undermine democratic institutions and free expression in democracies worldwide. From the harassment of journalists to the removal of thousands of articles in prestigious academic journals, the CCP is rapidly eroding freedoms that we have long taken for granted. Olivia Yang reports.

 

During his three-and-a-half-hour address to the 19th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress on Oct. 18, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to make his party more responsive to calls for democracy and justice. But tight security around the congress — human rights lawyers, rights defenders, petitioners and dissidents were arrested nationwide — suggested otherwise. And increasingly, China watchers are warning of Beijing’s accelerating efforts to reinforce and export its anti-democracy beliefs abroad.

One day before the closely watched Party Congress, a press conference was held in Taipei to draw attention to China’s spreading influence in democracies around the world.

Titled “Made in China: Democracy Oscillated and Human Rights Wrecked,” the media event was convened by 17 Taiwanese non-government organizations, including the Taiwan Association for Human Rights, Covenants Watch, Taiwan Support China Human Rights Lawyers Network, Human Rights Network for Tibet and Taiwan, International Tibet Network, and Tibetan Youth Congress.

Beijing has been increasing pressure on international events and organizers to either not extend an invitation to Taiwan or force the island-nation to attend under the name “Chinese Taipei.” Taiwan delegations, research teams, journalists and NGOs have also been barred from entering international meetings and assemblies despite having gained access in the past. These events have included the World Health Assembly (WHA), the Interpol general assembly, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the International Labor Organization conference, and others.

Other than interfering with Taiwan’s international affairs, China has been tampering with local events through more direct means. This includes the kidnapping of Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che in March, influence in Taiwanese media, threats against journalists, and longstanding reliance on pro-unification groups to intimidate civilians, such as the violent assault on student protesters who rallied against the “Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival” which was scheduled to be held at National Taiwan University last month.

Growing international threat

China’s interference is not limited to Taiwan. In August, Chinese authorities demanded Cambridge University Press (CUP) remove 315 articles in China Quarterly, CUP’s China-focused journal, when accessed in China. Around 1,000 e-books were also asked to be taken off from CUP’s Chinese websites. The writings covered issues ranging from the Tiananmen Square protests and the Cultural Revolution to Taiwan and Tibet.

The U.S.-based Association for Asian Studies (AAS) also confirmed the same month that China had requested the censorship of around 100 articles in its Journal of Asian Studies — also published by CUP. It was also learned in early November that Germany-based Springer Nature, the world’s largest academic book publisher, had removed at least 1,000 articles in the Journal of Chinese Political Science and International Politics. The articles in question also contained the keywords “Taiwan,” “Tibet,” and “Cultural Revolution.”

U.K-based CUP reversed its decision to comply with Beijing’s request after receiving widespread criticism, while AAS refused to adhere to Chinese authorities.

Visa denial is an alternative approach China is taking to curb discussion of democracy and human rights.

Canadian Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen in August was denied a visa upon planning to raise questions on human rights on a Canada-China Legislative Association trip. Prominent British human rights activist Benedict Rogers this month was also barred from entering Hong Kong, despite Rogers saying he was making a private trip.

In a more extreme case, leader of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Berit Reiss-Andersen, was not even allowed to apply for a China visa when she sought to attend the funeral of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo in July.

China has long used visa denials to also rid itself of foreign journalists and academics who are too critical of its repressive policies. In recent years, several foreign journalists have also been denied access to certain sites or regions, and a number of them worldwide have been threatened with legal action for writing about sensitive issues in China. In August this year, Nathan Vanderklippe, the Beijing bureau chief for Canada’s Globe & Mail, was briefly detained by police and his computer was seized while reporting in Xinjiang. For updates on how China meddles and censors media worldwide, see Freedom House’s “China Media Bulletin.”

In recent years, several foreign journalists have also been denied access to certain sites or regions, and a number of them worldwide have been threatened with legal action for writing about sensitive issues in China.

While Beijing authorities had a direct hand in the above occurrences, the Chinese Communist Party is also infiltrating democratic countries through “soft power.”

In May, the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, which has chapters in universities across the U.S., condemned one university for inviting the Dalai Lama to deliver a speech. A few days later, it accused a Chinese student of “not loving China” because she praised U.S. freedom and liberty in her graduation speech.

The following month, Chinese students at Australian universities were reported to be monitoring fellow nationals and keeping the Chinese embassy informed of activities such as human rights protests. Political parties in Australia have also been accused of taking donations from Chinese property developers in recent years, while Chinese state-controlled media giants have sought to influence mainstream Australian media by pushing cooperation deals.

Interference by Chinese officials has also been reported in Canada, such as during a state visit by then-president Hu Jintao, when, according for a former Canadian intelligence officer, a Chinese diplomatic mission mobilized Chinese counter-protesters. Keen on securing a free-trade deal with China, the Liberal Trudeau government has been reluctant to openly criticize Beijing for its human rights violations or activities that undermine Canada’s democracy.

Dr. Anne-Marie Brady of the University of Canterbury, also a prominent expert on Chinese affairs, in September published a research paper examining how China’s soft power is becoming a growing concern for New Zealand and how its effects could be mitigated.

In the executive summary of her study, Brady writes, “The focus of media attention has been on Australia, but the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) attempts to guide, buy, or coerce political influence abroad are widespread. China’s foreign influence activities are part of a global strategy with almost identical, longstanding approaches, adapted to fit current government policies. They are a core task of China’s united front work; one of the CCP’s famed ‘magic weapons’ that helped bring it to power.”

China’s influence, and by default its nefarious influence on democratic institutions, is also growing through its “One Belt, One Road” initiative and in places like Africa, where it has been cooperating with local media organizations.

Safeguarding democracies

The Australian government is preparing to introduce next month a series of laws covering espionage and foreign political interference. The U.K.’s Foreign Office also summoned China’s ambassador to the U.K. after Rogers was denied entry in Hong Kong. The activist said on Oct. 17 that he will start an NGO to monitor the city’s democracy and human rights.

However, in Canadian MP Bergen’s case, she said Liberal MPs that were also traveling to China for the Canada-China Legislative Association trip did not reply when she asked what measures they would take in response to her visa denial. The group proceeded with the trip without her. Senator Joseph Day, co-chair of the Canada-China Legislative Association, said the group was told by Canadian and Chinese officials it had no choice if it still wanted to go.

When Montreal-based ICAO last year refused to invite Taiwan and blocked Taiwanese reporters from a triennial air safety assembly, Paraguay’s ambassador to Canada, Julio Cesar Arriola Ramirez, told reporters that the ICAO Secretary General, Fang Liu of China, had warned them their microphones would be muted if they tried to speak on behalf of Taiwan.

“The government must make the utmost effort to safeguard Taiwan’s values of democracy and freedom, as well as our way of life.”

In addition to his vow to respond to calls for democracy, Xi also mentioned cross-Strait relations during his report at the 19th CCP Congress, saying China has “a firm will, sufficient faith, and adequate capacity to defeat any intention of ‘Taiwan independence’ in any form.”

“[We will] never allow any person, organization or political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China,” he said.

In response to Xi’s remarks, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said in a statement that the unilateral construction of a “one China” on Taiwan was unlikely to gain support from the Taiwanese. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in her National Day address on Oct. 10 also dedicated a passage reminding that the island-nation’s democracy and freedom “only came following the joint efforts of all Taiwanese people.”

“As a result, the government must make the utmost effort to safeguard Taiwan’s values of democracy and freedom, as well as our way of life,” Tsai said.

The president also reiterated that she and Taiwan would not “bow to pressure” from China regarding cross-Strait relations.

TDB Vol. 1 No. 17: An Interview with AFAD Secretary General Mary Aileen Bacalso

TDB Vol. 1 No. 17: An Interview with AFAD Secretary General Mary Aileen Bacalso

As Taiwan marks the 30th anniversary of the lifting of Martial Law, the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy’s Alison Hsiao sat down with Mary Aileen D. Bacalso, Secretary General of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances, winner of the 2016 Asian Democracy and Human Rights Award, to talk about memory, justice, and government crimes against ordinary citizens. 

 

On Dec. 10, 2016, the eve of the 30th anniversary of the lifting of Martial Law in Taiwan, the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy awarded the 2016 Asian Democracy and Human Rights Award, a prize established and sponsored by TFD to honor individuals and organizations that have demonstrated a strong commitment to advancing democracy and human rights through peaceful means across Asia, to the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD).

In her acceptance speech, AFAD Secretary General Mary Aileen D. Bacalso said that Taiwan is a country that “ha[d] a common experience of enforced disappearances during [its] authoritarian rule,” adding that receiving the award from such a place was a “noble expression of friendship and solidarity.”

For the Philippines, where AFAD is based and Ms. Bacalso is from, the award probably also came at a propitious time, as the country was marking the 20th anniversary of Ferdinand Marcos’ overthrow in the wake of the People’s Power Revolution in 1986. Marcos was accused of killing, abducting and torturing his opponents and activists under Martial Law, which he had declared in 1972 and did not lift until 1981.

Asked in a separate interview earlier this year what has changed since the lifting of Martial Law in her country and the dictator’s ouster, Bacalso responded with pessimism.

Besides the loss of “the best and the brightest,” who could have been the pillars of present-day Philippines had they not been killed or disappeared, it is also “unfortunate that not many people have been educated [about] what happened in the past,” she said.

While it was “encouraging that many young people took to the streets when [the incumbent Philippine government] moved Marcos’ remains to the country’s heroes’ resting place [last November], unfortunately the protest was not sustained” as it should have, she said.

“There can be no genuine reconciliation without justice. While there is monetary compensation, taken from the Marcos’ wealth, that does not give justice. No amount of money could compensate for the lives lost and disappeared.”

Honoring Marcos the dictator as a national hero by “burying him in the Heroes’ Cemetery causes a lot of shame in a country that underwent repressive rule and whose best and brightest men and women were disappeared, killed and executed,” Bacalso said.

Schools should have provided a platform where young people can obtain knowledge about the past, but “in some textbooks Marcos has continued to be portrayed as a hero,” she said. And the fact that Marcos was buried in the Heroes’ Cemetery also sent a misleading “message to the young people that we have forgiven him, that we should reconcile for the sake of the future.”

“There can be no genuine reconciliation without justice,” Bacalso emphasized. “While there is monetary compensation, taken from the Marcos’ wealth, that does not give justice. No amount of money could compensate for the lives lost and disappeared.”

“There must be admission of what happened in the past and public apology from the Marcoses and from those who were involved in human rights violations during the Martial Law period,” she continued.

Bacalso’s remarks had resonance with many people in Taiwan who have called for transitional justice, men and women for whom certain anachronistic — if not outrightly offensive — authoritarian-era icons are still featured prominently around the country. For them, such controversial figures should also be held accountable for what they did, and their crimes should not be whitewashed using superficial pretexts such as “other values” over justice.

Enforced Disappearances 

The award was AFAD’s first for its accomplishments, Bacalso said, adding that and it “recognizes the suffering of the victims of enforced disappearances” which at this very moment still occurs on the Asian continent.

And this strikes very close to home for Bacalso. The former AFAD chairperson, Munir Said, was allegedly assassinated during a flight from Indonesia to Amsterdam via Singapore in 2004; its present chairperson, Khurram Parvez, was arbitrarily detained for more than two months in India in 2016, while many others from AFAD’s partner organizations in the region have been arrested, attacked or threatened.

The era during which Taiwanese were arbitrarily arrested by the government has long ended, but democratization has not stopped the Chinese communist regime from kidnapping or arbitrarily detaining Taiwanese nationals such as Lee Ming-che in March this year (people from other nationalities have suffered a similar fate in China).

AFAD Secretary General Mary Aileen D. Bacalso, left, shares the organization’s stories and objectives at the 2017 Asia Young Leaders for Democracy program in Taipei in August (Photo: Taiwan Foundation for Democracy).

Bacalso’s organization is urging countries to sign the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (CPED), which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2006 and entered into force in 2010. But the political conundrum in this case is evident: While China is not expected to be a signatory anytime soon — not to mention that China was, according to Bacalso, “one of the most difficult states during the Convention-drafting negotiation process, invoking national security” — Taiwan as a non-UN member is not in a position to sign the Convention.

Notwithstanding the dilemma, she encouraged Taiwan to incorporate the contents of the Convention into its domestic laws, as it has done for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of Children (CRC) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

By doing so, Taiwan would be “a good example for those countries that are members of the UN, and I’m sure this will pressure China as well,” she said.

There is a reason why Taiwan has a role to play in advocating against the crime of enforced disappearance, Bacalso concluded. “It’s important for Taiwan to have a domestic laws against enforced disappearances because you had enforced disappearances during your four decades of Martial Law. It should be a lesson that could teach the present and future governments. It’s also an explicit admission that there were enforced disappearances in your [dark] period of history.”

The winner of the 2017 Asian Democracy and Human Rights Award will be announced on Nov 15.

TDB Vol. 1 No. 16: Taiwan’s LGBTQ Culture Thriving Despite Conservative Challenge

TDB Vol. 1 No. 16: Taiwan’s LGBTQ Culture Thriving Despite Conservative Challenge

Various NGOs and members of the artistic community are turning Taiwan into a leader on gender equality and gay rights, using activism, workshops and visual arts to raise awareness and reach out to a region where some backsliding has been observed. Olivia Yang reports.

 

Taiwan LGBT Pride, the largest gay pride parade in Asia, was held on Oct. 28, drawing a record 110,000 participants from around the region through the streets of Taipei for a day of concerts and festivities.

In its 15th year, the annual parade started out on Ketagalan Boulevard in front of the Presidential Office in Taipei. Three groups — including one led by the representative offices of 19 countries — marched through northern, western and southern Taipei before returning to the popular plaza for an evening concert.

Thousands march down Zhongshan Road on their way to Ketagalan Boulevard. An estimated 110,000 people took part in this year’s LGBT Pride Parade in Taipei on Oct. 28 (Photo: J. Michael Cole)

Representatives from foreign diplomatic missions in Taiwan took part in the LGBT Pride Parade in Taipei on Oct. 28. Many of them distributed flags and paraphernalia celebrating their country’s embrace of gay rights (Photo: J. Michael Cole)

Everyday people, young and old, as well as extravagant floats and revellers in flamboyant costumes and rainbow accessories of all kinds paraded to this year’s theme, “Make Love, Not War — Sex Ed is the Way to Go.” The focus on gender equality education was chosen in response to anti-gay marriage groups ramping up the pressure after Taiwan’s Council of Grand Justices on May 24 ruled in favor of same-sex marriage.

The landmark ruling has paved the way for Taiwan to become the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex unions. The Grand Justices said Taiwan’s Civil Code, which currently states that an agreement to marry can only be made between a man and a woman, “violates” the Constitution’s guarantees of freedom of marriage and people’s equality. It ordered the Taiwanese government amend the law within two years, adding that should it fail to do so, same-sex couples could get married regardless.

While Taiwan positions itself as one of the most progressive countries on LGBTQ issues in Asia, the region has hardly made any headway on the subject, with some countries even regressing in recent years. Laws and taboos that inhibit people from expressing their sexual orientation continue to exist in various Asian countries: Indonesia has imposed a nationwide crackdown on the community, and many in countries like the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia still face discrimination, sometimes even violence.

Despite the progress, Taiwan has also experienced pushback, primarily from conservative Christian groups.

In response to this phenomenon, the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association, a gay rights organization, held a workshop on Oct. 27 which brought together nearly 50 LGBTQ activists from Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea to discuss the influence of conservative groups on LGBTQ movements in those countries. The three nations have met resistance from conservative powers in implementing laws and regulations related to LGBTQ rights.

 

A number of Evangelical Christian churches and other conservative groups are behind the anti-gay rights and anti-sex ed movement in Taiwan. Their recent attempt to unseat New Power Party (NPP) Executive Chairman and legislator Huang Kuo-chang — an active supporter of same-sex marriage — is an example of the group’s efforts to pressure the government against implementing marriage equality.

Answering with art

Despite the conservative influences, Taiwan’s LGBTQ culture continues to flourish and to lead the discussions on LGBTQ rights in Asia.

Besides the annual pride parade, the Taipei Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) is currently featuring the first major survey of LGBTQ art in Asia. The group exhibition, “Spectrosynthesis: Asian LGBTQ Issues and Art Now,” is exhibiting 22 artists from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and China, as well as Chinese-American artists based in North America.

The show features 51 works created over the past century. The pieces range from interactive light boxes and videos to photography and paintings. The exhibition aims to generate more discussion about the diversity of human social values and further advance human rights in Taiwan and other Asian societies.

“Man Hole,” by Hou Ching-Ming (Photo: Olivia Yang)

Jun-Jieh Wang’s “Passion” (Photo: Olivia Yang)

In the past, public museums in Taiwan have also held exhibitions exploring gender identity, such as the “Your Closed Eyes My Extinction” exhibition at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts in 2015, and “SEE THROUGH, exhibition against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia” at the Huashan 1914 Creative Park earlier this year.

The local film industry has also been making waves on the international LGBTQ scene. In its fourth year, the Taiwan International Queer Film Festival (TIQFF) opened on Oct. 20, offering screenings of 53 films in Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung.

This year, Taiwanese film director Huang Hui-chen won Taiwan’s first Teddy Award at the Berlinale — an official award given by the Berlin-based festival for films with LGBTQ topics — for her documentary “Small Talk”; film director Wang Yu-lin just returned from the 30th Tokyo International Film Festival with his latest film “Alifu, The Prince/ss,” which explores the conflict between gender identity and local indigenous traditions; and film director Zero Chou is working on her latest project, Six Asian Cities Rainbow Project (亞洲六城彩虹計劃, unofficial English translation) — a series of six films about LGBTQ issues shot in six different cities across Asia.

TDB Vol. 1 No. 15: Taiwan Experiments with Participatory Budgeting for Migrant Workers

TDB Vol. 1 No. 15: Taiwan Experiments with Participatory Budgeting for Migrant Workers

As Taiwan gradually makes itself more hospitable to migrant workers, municipal governments are making it possible for new residents to have a say in how cities and counties spend their money. Chou Ya-wei and Alison Hsiao report on recent efforts.

 

In what is possibly the first participatory budgeting project in Asia involving migrant workers, people from Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam last month and earlier this month were invited by the Department of Labor in Taoyuan, where one in six of the country’s 600,000 migrant workers is based, to help plan their own leisure activities using the local government’s budget.

Hailed as one of the key practices of participatory democracy, participatory budgeting ensures that people have equal participation in the making of decisions pertaining to the allocation of public funds that influence important aspects of their lives. Such efforts occur at a time when traditional representational democracy is carried out behind closed-doors and often has descended into irrelevance for the general public.

Despite the practice’s more than two-decades history since it was pioneered in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989, Taiwan has not experimented with participatory budgeting, largely because, until 2014, it had little knowledge of its existence. This changed in the lead-up to the nine-in-one elections in November that year, when the campaign team of Ko Wen-je, the mayoral candidate for Taipei, introduced the idea, pledging to include the city’s residents in budget planning. That promise soon caught on around the nation, with the Ministry of Culture and the administrations in New Taipei City, Taichung and Kaohsiung taking experimental steps in carrying out this “new” model of democracy.

The Taoyuan City Government also joined the fray, and its department of labor went one step further by calling for the participation of non-citizens.

“It’s not that the government has never held leisure activities for foreign migrant workers, but in the past they passively took part as requested, sometimes by their employers or brokers,” said Lai Shih-zhe, senior executive officer of the Department of Labor and the brain behind the participatory budgeting event held in late September and early October.

What was lost in this passive participation was migrant workers’ agency and subjectivity, he said.

Lai Shih-zhe (right) with event staff at the second workshop on Oct. 1 (Photo courtesy of the Department of Labor, Taoyuan City Government)

The Participatory Budgeting for Migrant Workers in Taoyuan project was one of the key initiatives by the local government to turn things around. To this end, the department initially held two information sessions for potential participants, targeting both migrant workers and Taoyuan residents. The sessions were followed by a pair of workshops in which more than 120 participants took part.

The first workshop, held on Sept. 17, called on participants to make various proposal on how to spend municipal funds for leisure activities for migrant workers. In all, 21 proposals from more than 70 migrant workers were collected. The proposals were then discussed during a second workshop on Oct. 1, in which 47 representatives of different nationalities divided into six groups decided which ones were the most appealing.

The atmosphere during the discussions was encouraging and lively. “It is true that our implementation of participatory budgeting might not be perfect, but for this event, I would say the emphasis and the gains lie in participation,” Lai said.

The second workshop on Oct. 1 at the Yuyuan Plaza near Taoyuan Train Station

Norie Rosales, a liberal domestic caregiver from the Philippines who took part in the exercise, proposed a beauty pageant — a Filipino obsession — for members of the LGBTQI community.

Asked what motivated her to make such a proposal, she said the idea was in line with the free social environment enjoyed by her country. “In Philippines we have freedom to express our feelings about our gender. We don’t want discrimination,” she said.

Those efforts are what participatory democracy seeks to achieve: the exchange of values and the exchange of cultures, with participants thrashing out compromises to accommodate different, culturally imbued sports competitions, art exhibitions, culture tours, beauty pageants, cultural carnivals, and so on.

The 13 proposals that made the cut from the initial 21 will be put to a vote between Oct. 26 and early November. The voters will comprise residents of Taoyuan as well as migrant workers from around the nation, regardless of their place of work. They will be able to vote online or at ballot boxes set up at locations where migrant workers congregate during holidays, such as train stations, as well as in certain large factories in Taoyuan.

The three proposals that receive the highest number of votes will then each be allocated NT$500,000 (US$16,500) from the municipal budget for their implementation.

Building trust

But cultural exchanges should not — and are not — limited to those between migrant workers.

“The proposals have also highlighted the need and wish to make exchanges with the local Taiwanese people and culture,” Taoyuan Department of Labor Senior Executive Officer Lai Shih-che said.

“And what the [participatory budgeting] event has shown to the Taiwanese is that through transparency, mutual understanding, communication and participation, migrant workers — who have been ignored, to say the least, by the local people — can also create a common good,” he added.

Mutual trust can be built through exchanges, but also by making good on promises.

“Misgivings were expressed about the trustworthiness of the department which proclaimed that the migrant workers’ proposals would be carried out in accordance with their wishes,” Lai said. “But we’ve assured them that they will be invited to take part in the following preparatory meetings with the officials and the contractors for the events.”

Understandably, migrant workers were not the only ones who had concerns over the government’s role in funding the events.

“There were indeed doubts from local politicians about engaging non-citizens in deciding how to use public funds,” Lai acknowledged. “But I pointed out to them that the number of migrant workers in the city, which is 108,000, amounts to one-twentieth of the city’s dwellers and one-tenth of the city’s workforce, not to mention that they are also taxpayers.”

A role for NGOs

The Taoyuan participatory budgeting project was co-hosted by the Serve the People Association, Taoyuan with assistance from other NGOs across the nation, such as the SEA Migrant Inspired, which helped out on different fronts, from the provision of interpreting services to outreach among the local migrant worker population.

The Taiwan Reach-Out Association for Democracy (T-ROAD) and 1095 Studio are two Taichung-based organizations that played a critical role in the Taoyuan labor department’s project. (The number in the group’s name designates the days a migrant worker has to sign up for under a working visa contract, or the equivalent of three years. The story of the name does not stop there, as the official name is in fact “1095,” with a comma attached, which signifies that migrant workers would go on with their life journey after a short stint in Taiwan.)

At 1095 Studio, 1095, co-founder Annie Kuan (left) and T-ROAD member Hung Shih-yu

Composed of members who have worked closely with the Taichung City Government on the city’s participatory budgeting initiatives, T-ROAD was established on the understanding that PB-related training and assistance for government officials and citizen-proposers should be widely available.

“More often than not the proposers would find themselves at loss after tabling a proposal or having a proposal actually accepted — this is where we come in,” said Hong Shih-yu, a member of T-ROAD.

In Taoyuan’s case, the association trained those who were professionally equipped with Southeast Asian languages or familiar with Southeast Asian affairs, but had limited knowledge about PB, to be discussion facilitators.

1095 Studio was one of those that signed up for the task. Since its founding in 2015, the group has dedicated its efforts to “building a bridge between diverse cultures,” and has launched various proposals in Taichung, among them a weekly “mobile library” at the Taichung Railway Station that offers books in different Southeast Asian languages which migrant workers can borrow from (the mobile library is modeled on the Brilliant Time’s initiative at Taipei Main Station. More information is available here); cross-culture cuisine events; guided tours around what has come to be known was “ASEAN Square” (or “piramid” in Bahasa Indonesia); and outdoor movie screenings. The most recent ones are a legal counseling service and a ASEAN Square revitalization project. (In 2015 Taichung Mayor Lin Chia-lung said he believed that the rechristening would reposition the commercial square near the station as a driving force promoting exchanges with Southeast Asian cultures and people.)

The ASEAN Square, or the “piramid” for migrant workers in Taichung

1095 Studio member Chen Han-tang, who was also one of the participants in the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy’s 2017 Asian Young Leaders for Democracy program, volunteered as a discussion facilitator in the Taoyuan PB project.

“Too many times we saw local authorities presented measures and projects to hitch the wagon to the central government’s New Southbound Policy but achieved little due to perfunctory implementation, lack of understanding or implicit discrimination,” he lamented. “But the Taoyuan PB team and its project overcame those barriers, and their effort and enthusiasm should definitely be taken as an example for future migrant worker policy planners.”

1095 Studio co-founder Annie Kuan said that while Taiwan can lead as a vibrant and functioning democracy in the region, “we also see what we as Taiwanese lack when we work with people from Southeast Asia.”

“We rely on the government to make decisions, and comment on or criticize them later. Our Southeast Asian friends, however, are used to being actively involved in group discussion about local issues,” she said. “Their sense of identity of being part of a local community is stronger.”

“In a sense there is this ‘mutual admiration.’ We praise their willingness to participate, they find our ‘big government’ taking care of various aspects of our life great,” Kuan added.

And that is precisely the point of the exchanges, she stressed, “which is to learn from each other.”

TDB Vol. 1 No. 14: Illiberal Forces Push Back in Taiwan

TDB Vol. 1 No. 14: Illiberal Forces Push Back in Taiwan

Movements that are driven by a conservative ideology are joining hands to block various progressive efforts by the government in Taiwan. Using threats, violence, disinformation and even democratic instruments, these groups seek to intimidate civilians and elected officials in the pursuit of their objectives. J. Michael Cole looks into the latest developments.

 

Violence-prone groups that advocate unification with China, a movement that opposes the Tsai Ing-wen government’s pension reform program and religious organizations that are dead set against the legalization of same-sex marriage (and homosexuality in general) have come together and formed a loose coalition in recent months, using tactics that go against the progressive momentum that has animated Taiwanese society in recent years.

Though more alliance of convenience than an actual structured organization, the three movements have joined ranks to push back against what many regard as progress, and have had no compunction in resorting to threats and violence to punish, intimidate and silence their ideological opponents. Left unchecked, these activities will contribute to greater social instability and undermine the nation’s democratic institutions.

Violence and threats

A handful of groups have resorted to physical violence, and the threat thereof, in recent months. Led by Chang An-le’s (aka “White Wolf”) China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP) and its ideological ally, the Concentric Patriot Association (CPA), these groups have repeatedly attacked protesters and students at various venues, most recently during the aborted “Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival.” The CUPP and CPA are believed to be working alongside Chinese triads, chief among them the Bamboo Union and the Four Seas Gang.

Besides their involvement in violent altercations during the Sunflower Movement in 2014, the groups have been linked to assaults targeting members of the Falun Gong and young pro-democracy activists from Hong Kong (interestingly, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte alleged recently that the Bamboo Union  is behind the proliferation of the drug trade in his country). Moreover, the CUPP has been present at protests against pension reform and has collaborated with the Blue Sky Alliance, a violence-prone organization that is suspected of involvement in physical assaults against elected officials outside the Legislative Yuan in Taipei earlier this year. Anti-pension reform groups were also behind the disruptions during the opening ceremonies of the 2017 Summer Universiade in Taipei last month. The Blue Sky Alliance also added its own threats against students after the concert incident.

Following the controversy surrounding the “Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival,” which has been regarded as a United Front effort by the Chinese, numerous Taiwanese activists have reported receiving threatening messages on social media. In at least one instance, a message made a direct reference to a knife attack. The spouse of Yao Li-ming, a vocal talk show personality, has also received threats, cautioning her to be “careful” next time she visits the market. Given precedent in China and Hong Kong, such threats should not be taken lightly and require proper investigation by the authorities, which in the past week have launched a series of raids against locations associated with the Bamboo Union (although he denies it, Chang, who served a decade in U.S. prison for drug trafficking, is widely suspected of being associated with the group).

Chang An-le, aka “White Wolf,” speaks to reporters during a protest outside DPP headquarters in Taipei (Photo: J. Michael Cole)

Young activists, including former Sunflower Movement leader Chen Wei-ting (now a legislative aide), have also been threatened with lawsuits for exposing links between concert organizers and UFW groups back in China. “Lawfare,” as the tactic is sometimes referred to, has been used with greater frequency by Chinese companies and organizations in recent months to silence and intimidate investigative journalists and academics.

The atmosphere of fear that is generated by the use and threat of violence is anathema to the inherent liberties in a democratic system, where different opinions should be aired without fear of reprisal. Involvement by crime syndicates, which have access to weapons, adds a layer of apprehension among people who advocate for their country and a progressive, liberal-democratic way of life.

Although the tolerance of pro-unification parties like the CUPP is a clear manifestation of Taiwan’s political maturity and democratic openness, such permissiveness ought to have its limits. If a registered political party ceases to act like one; if it intermingles with organized crime; if it infiltrates and co-opts grassroots organizations (trade groups, temples); if its head is, as he claims, collaborating with the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (or one of its subsidiaries tasked with “turning” criminals and using them to further unificationist objectives); and if, as is suspected, it receives illegal funding (possibly from a foreign and hostile government), then its rights as a party should be annulled and the CUPP should be written off as an entity that operates outside the system. In other words, unless its leaders agree to abide by the democratic rules of the game that define Taiwanese politics, the CUPP should be barred from participating in elections or engaging in other forms of activities that are the remit of law-abiding political parties.

Using democracy against itself

Meanwhile, the Greater Taipei Stability Power Alliance, an alliance created to oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan, is reportedly within a hair’s breadth of collecting enough signatures — 25,119 — to launch a recall vote against Huang Kuo-chang, the executive chairman of the New Power Party (NPP). Huang, whose NPP emerged from the Sunflower Movement and is well regarded by young progressive Taiwanese, has openly supported same-sex marriage and pension reform. A count on Oct. 6 will determine whether all the signatures gathered are valid. Should the attempt succeed, Huang could be removed despite not having committed a crime or been involved in irregularities; his removal would be the result of conservative/religious groups who cannot countenance a society that operates outside the confines of a literal and often self-serving interpretation of a religious text that guides no more than 5% of the total population of Taiwan.

The Greater Taipei Stability Power Alliance, which has initiated the attempted recall campaign against Huang, is a close ally of the Faith and Hope League party, which itself serves as an umbrella for various highly conservative Evangelical churches across Taiwan that have actively opposed same-sex marriage and which are generally anti-gay and against sex ed in school. The groups are also known to have been collaborating with MassResistance, a U.S.-based organization that promotes conservative values and that has been described as a “hate group.” Using disinformation and a fear campaign on social media to win over adherents to their cause, other religious groups (including Presbyterians) have threatened similar punitive action against politicians who support same-sex marriage, including the Democratic Progressive Party’s Wang Ting-yu in Tainan.

Opponents of same-sex marriage in Taiwan predict doom and gloom during a rally outside the Legislative Yuan in Taipei on Nov. 17, 2016 (Photo: J. Michael Cole)

National Civil Servant Association president Harry Lee, who has spearheaded opposition to pension reform, has also thrown his support for the Greater Taipei Stability Power Alliance, thus merging opposition to same-sex marriage and pension reform, two issues that enjoy majority support with the Taiwanese public (more than 80% of young Taiwanese support the legalization of same-sex marriage). The CUPP’s Chang An-le is also known to have taken part in activities (including a panel) organized by anti-gay groups in Taiwan.

United in their opposition to progressive ideas, the alliance of convenience that has recently emerged in Taiwan threatens to serve as a force multiplier whereby the anti-liberal-democratic tactics used by one group exacerbate the efforts of other groups, however unrelated their causes. The involvement of pro-Chinese Communist Party, violence-prone and ostensibly triad-related groups in those movements adds a worrying variable to the mix and compounds the resulting instability.

TDB Vol. 1 No. 13: ‘Sing! China’ Controversy Sheds Light on China’s United Front Tactics

TDB Vol. 1 No. 13: ‘Sing! China’ Controversy Sheds Light on China’s United Front Tactics

A controversy over the “Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival” on Sept. 24 has laid bare some of the political tactics employed by Beijing in Taiwan for its united front work — so-called “soft power,” a propaganda system that champions China’s “innocence” and chastises those who “politicize” its “non-political” activities, local collaborators who capitalize on democracy and freedom of expression, and groups that are willing to resort to violence. Alison Hsiao reports.

 

Strong protests by National Taiwan University students on Sept. 24 led to the cancellation of a “Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival” scheduled to take place at the university’s sports field. Among other things, the students accused school administrators of lending the field without conducting a proper assessment, which according to them not only compromised the students’ right of access to the field but also damaged polyurethan running tracks that, earlier this year, had been revamped at the cost of US$1 million.

A change of the name of the university from “National Taiwan University” to “Taipei City Taiwan University” in the event’s promotional material was also deemed unacceptable by the students.

However, something far more troubling was afoot, namely NTU’s interactions with the organizers of the festival, who besides the Taipei City Government included the Shanghai City Cross-Strait Cultural Exchange Promotion Association, the Shanghai Cultural Association, Shanghai Canxing Trading Co., Ltd., and Shanghai Voice of Dream Media Co., the company that produces Sing! China, a Chinese reality TV singing competition.

As protesters gathered on the stage, the NTU administration negotiated with the organizers, who in the end agreed to cancel the event.

Protesters occupy the stage of the “Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival” on Sept. 24, forcing organizers to cancel the event.

While many questions over the signing of the agreement between the school and the event organizers remain unanswered, the fact that various cultural-exchange-cum-entertainment events, innocuous in name, hosted by Chinese groups and companies, are now used to try to gain ground on university campuses in Taiwan is a cause for alarm.

Since the Sunflower Movement in 2014, the Chinese government has shifted the emphasis of its united front work to Taiwanese youth. From the policy slogan “three middles and the youth” (三中一青) — residents of central and southern Taiwan, middle- and low-income families and small- and medium-sized enterprises — in early 2015 to “one generation and one stratum” (一代一線) — the young generation and the grassroots — unveiled by Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Chairman Yu Zhengsheng in March 2017, Beijing has been eager to influence what is regarded as the “naturally independence-leaning” generation.

Only after the cancellation of the “Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival” at NTU did it come to public attention that NTU was only the last stop in the festival’s series of events held on university campuses over the previous week. Moreover, in 2015 and 2016, the show had toured across Taiwan to “hold musical exchanges” at high schools and colleges.

In a press statement the same day, Shanghai Voice of Dream accused critics of “politicizing a music event that is public-welfare-oriented.” Some in Taiwan echoed the sentiment.

In reality, this ostensibly “cultural” event was very much political. For one thing, the Shanghai City Cross-Strait Exchange Promotion Association clearly calls on its website for the “peaceful unification of the motherland.” And Li Wenhui, the “honorary chairman” of the association who came to Taiwan for the musical event, is the Taiwan Affairs Office’s director of the Shanghai Municipal People’s Government.

The willingness of Beijing’s proxies in Taiwan to use physical violence against their ideological opponents was also on full display during the crisis. Members of the China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP), including party chairman Chang An-le’s (“White Wolf”) son, Chang Wei, allegedly attacked the protesting students. At least two of them have since been arrested. One assailant used an expandable baton (which he claimed he “happened to find on the ground”) in his attack, resulting in at least three injured protesters.

Violent assaults by pro-unification groups since the pension reform rallies earlier this year are the result of more than a rush of adrenaline in the heat of the moment. These acts of violence, and the fierce debates that follow, are meant to spread fear, distrust and division within society, and to undermine democratic institutions.

As Arch Puddington, a distinguished fellow for Democracy Studies at Freedom House in the U.S., said recently, China as a “threat to democracy” has been underestimated or intentionally ignored by the international community. Thankfully, democratic societies in the region, such as Australia and New Zealand, have started to raise the alarm, and New York University Professor of Law Jerome A. Cohen has referred to Australia “the canary in our coalmine.” But much more needs to be done to identify China’s united front activities and their detrimental impact on our democratic institutions.

Democratic Taiwan is and should be open to various kinds of cultural exchanges, but we should never forget that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” As a target of Beijing’s unification efforts, Taiwan cannot afford to be naïve when facing seemingly innocuous initiatives sponsored by the Chinese government.

Photos by Chou Ya-wei

TDB Vol. 1 No. 12: Young Activists Fight for Democracy in Asia

TDB Vol. 1 No. 12: Young Activists Fight for Democracy in Asia

Following a nine-day workshop in Taipei, a group of young democracy activists from around Asia elaborated various strategies to tighten regional cooperation and facilitate information-sharing in times of democratic recession. Alison Hsiao reports.

 

At the conclusion of a nine-day Asia Young Leaders for Democracy (AYLD) program hosted by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD) in Taipei earlier this month, young participants from around Asia issued a document that is known as the AYLD Declaration. Covering a wide range of issues, the declaration was drafted by the 20 participants, most of whom come from countries that face many challenges in achieving or sustaining democracy.

In itself, the fact that a declaration was issued by a group of young people with different national backgrounds can be hailed as an accomplishment. As many of us know, consensus is rarely the outcome of official region-wide conferences.

Still, adopting a declaration that could be approved by all through a democratic process nevertheless proved challenging, which the young democracy advocates knew all too well from their own experiences back home, where efforts to discredit democracy have been gaining momentum. As the democracy-skeptic camp often argues, efficiency, ostensibly key for development, often suffers from long democratic procedures; so if a trade-off at the expense of democracy is the inevitable cost, then so be it.

Consensus-building isn’t easy, even among ardent supporters of democracy.

“Democracy needs time,” the participants admitted. And as if to prove this, they requested more time to arrive at a final draft of their declaration. Notwithstanding the delays, the young participants were keenly aware that the case for an alternative model to democracy — autocratic governance — is based on a “false promises of economic prosperity and national glory (Clause 1).”

While some efficiency must be sacrificed for the sake of democracy, the “best solution” is not, and never was, what democracy is about, as one participant said during the discussions. Another cited Winston Churchill, who once famously said that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

As democracy is said to be in recession with the rise of “illiberal democracy,” the young democracy leaders responded to the trend with an emphasis on fighting disinformation and extremism (Clause 2 & 3), which serve as incubators for and are the product of illiberal democracy, respectively.

The declaration also contains much evidence that the young democracy leaders fully understand what democracy is not: majoritarianism with the majority having all the say. Votes may be necessary, but deliberation and compromise among groups and people, with members of a program or a community having equal rights and access, are indispensable.

The rights of minority groups and political participation have to be guaranteed (Clause 4 & 5): “All human beings, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, disability, age, language, religion, social class, sexual orientation and gender identity, deserve equal rights and equal dignity,” the declaration says, following a debate on whether “women’s political participation” should enjoy a highlighted focus with a separate clause.

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

“Democracy needs time” could also be taken to mean that the realization of true democracy is a long haul that requires people, especially the young, to resolutely and actively engage in monitoring, maintaining and improving the democracy agendas in their respective countries.

The task, however, can be particularly daunting for those who live in countries where governments wield power without proper checks and where people in general are ignorant about (or nonchalant) human rights violations. Inter-country and regional alliances and cooperation are therefore essential for activists and dissidents for the sharing of hands-on experience and solidarity building.

To this end, the 2017 AYLD participants came up with three action plans to strengthen the network they creatdd during the program and the principles they have vowed to uphold in the declaration.

The Asia News for Democracy has been set up and will serve as a platform for Asia-related news-sharing to enhance regional partners’ understanding and facilitate networking initiatives.

Moreover, two types of workshops have been proposed to promote democracy and its consolidation: a workshop at the country-level on disinformation for schools and organizations to improve young people’s information literacy and skills to combat “fake news”; and regular regional joint workshops to building regional communities and share first-hand information to young human rights defenders, with a focus on cyber security, utilization of new technology, legal training and protest-organizing strategies.

AYLD participants break into small groups as the project drafts its declaration.

The people behind the idea of holding regional workshops also agreed that lessons can be learned not only from what works, but also from failure. Stories of botched-up tactics and flops can be just as educational and rewarding as those touting successes. In the long run, they said, failure can be a series of steps and milestones leading to success.

Two visits by AYLD members — to the Jing-mei Human Rights Memorial and Cultural Park and the Nylon Deng Memorial Museum — drove in the fact that failure can be but a temporary setback. While both sites are dedicated to activists and dissidents who “failed” in the face of an authoritarian regime, today they are now remembered with respect and pride, and the principles they fought for have prevailed over the forces of repression that, at the time, seemed implacable.

TDB Vol. 1 No. 11: Memory, Amnesia, and Martial Law in Taiwan

TDB Vol. 1 No. 11: Memory, Amnesia, and Martial Law in Taiwan

As Taiwan marks the 30th anniversary of the lifting of Martial Law, much still needs to be done to ensure that a proper account of what happened is given as the memories, victims and perpetrators fade into the past. Alison Hsiao reports.

 

It was 1980, a year after the Formosa Magazine Incident. Still in high school, Chen Tsui-lien (陳翠蓮) was asked to “serve the country” after enrolling in university.

Her mission? To “catch the bad guys,” like those involved in the Formosa Magazine Incident, who, according to the school discipline director, were captured thanks to the assistance of many “patriotic youths.”

Selected by the system, Chen said was proud to be one of the students chosen for the spying assignment.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the lifting of Martial Law in Taiwan, which had been declared in 1949. To coincide with various commemorative events this year, the Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation (TATR), an organization dedicated to transitional justice in Taiwan, has launched an initiative calling on “ordinary people to share their memories of the Martial Law period.

During her high school years, immersed in an educational environment closely monitored and calibrated for collective action and inebriated with stilted patriotic refrains, Chen, now a history professor at National Taiwan University, was a what we could call a “defiant” daughter: she was appalled by her father’s criticism of nationalistic songs and accused him of being “unpatriotic.”

Professor Chen Tsui-lien tells about the state’s attempt to recruit her as a spy during an event organized by the Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation (photo courtesy of TATR).

“My parents couldn’t sleep at night after I told them how excited I was that I was going to help the country,” Chen said of her spying assignment during a talk organized by TATR last month.

Chen’s father, however, explicitly told her that she should not accept the school director’s offer. “You’re out of your head for wanting to go. You will be responsible for many lives,” he said.

“I cried so hard because this ban,” she told a laughing crowd.

Chen is among the lucky ones who eventually sensed “cracks” in the Potemkin village created by the authoritarian government’s propaganda later in her college years.

“Once you noticed the inconsistencies in their narratives, there was no turning back,” she said.

But “sensing cracks” was far from ordinary. While there indeed were hot-blooded activists who were extremely committed to fighting authoritarianism, several others — like Chen’s parents — only secretly harbored an attitude of resistance. And then there were the “free riders,” those for whom the TATR event would be more appropriately titled “ordinary people’s no-memory of the Martial Law period,” said NTU history professor Chou Wan-yao (周婉窈).

“It’s undeniable that in the latter part of the Martial Law period, which overlapped with an era of high economic growth, many were occupied by the sole idea of making money and accustomed to the life under Martial Law,” Chou said.

Admittedly life could be pretty safe — as long as you stayed away from the “unpatriotic activities and riots that disturbed social stability,” which is how resistance was portrayed by the regime. The mentality explains why many Taiwanese, especially those who are now in their 50s, remember pre-Martial Law life with nostalgia.

“There is a reason why Taiwan’s democratization has been called a ‘quiet revolution,’” NTU political science professor Huang Chang-ling (黃長玲) said. “And this trait does make the country’s transitional justice harder to achieve.”

The problems arising from historical amnesia soon manifested themselves after TATR invited ordinary people to share their stories online and to present (if they had any) memorabilia to accompany their narratives.

Among the items posted was an encyclopedia with blacked out, or “sanitized,” entries about the People’s Republic of China that attested to the era’s censorship. Other participants shared their memories of being indoctrinated with Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People at school, being punished for speaking “dialects,” or even being forced to tear out the star logos (unfortunately red) printed on their Converse All Star shoes.

A ‘sanitized’ version of the Encyclopedia Americana, with passages blacked-out by state censors. The encyclopedia is kept at the National Chiao Tung University Library (photo courtesy of TATR).

Soon enough, the stories attracted criticism by people who accused the witnesses of lying and fabrication. Some questioned the authenticity of memories they said cannot be verified, while others turned to their own memories and stated that since they did not experience such traumas, the stories must therefore be fake.

The attacks forced TATR to issue a statement calling on netizens to respect the diversity of memories of life under Martial Law held by people from different regions, generations and groups, and not to dismiss other people’s life experiences.

“The same questioning logic can always be applied to the questioners themselves,” it said.

“Contemporary studies of personal and collective memories indicate that how the past is narrated can indeed be influenced by the time and situation in which the memories were told, the passage of time and the interaction between the narrator and the hearer,” it said. “But the past is not easily the product of manipulation in a democratic society where files are declassified, different groups of people’s memories are told and historical studies are done in an open and free academic environment.”

When “ordinary people” debate past events, what is really at stake but still lacking is a national report by the government detailing how many people were executed, jailed (and for how long) and subjected to surveillance, and how the institutions behind these operations played their roles and coordinated with each other.

“The state may have offered compensation to the victims of the White Terror, continues to declassify files, maintains historical sites and has even published the victims’ memoirs and interviews, but it has otherwise been completely silent about its past crimes [as an authoritarian regime],” Huang said.

“The public’s understanding of the White Terror has become hollow,” she said, adding that the victims are now little more than “elders in the family.”

People today mostly hear about the White Terror through stories that come up, inadvertently or not, during family conversations, which also refer to the persecutors as “the evil KMT.”

“It’s not exactly wrong to think of them in that way,” Huang adds, “but it certainly shows that the issue of state violence and its complexity has not been truly deliberated and reflected upon.”

Huang Chang-ling speaks during an event organized by the Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation (photo courtesy of TATR).

TDB Vol. 1 No. 10: Taiwan Confirms China’s ‘Black Hand’ Behind Anti-Reform Protests

TDB Vol. 1 No. 10: Taiwan Confirms China’s ‘Black Hand’ Behind Anti-Reform Protests

Using ‘content farms’ and other means, Chinese elements are suspected of generating much of the disinformation that has been circulating concerning the Tsai administrations’ pension reform plans. They have also helped mobilize protesters. J. Michael Cole looks into this worrying interference in Taiwan’s democracy. 

 

Taiwan’s national security apparatus on Monday confirmed that a recent wave of increasingly virulent protests against President Tsai Ing-wen’s pension reform efforts have been influenced by China.

According to government information, Chinese elements (presumably agencies involved in political warfare) have played a role in mobilizing protesters and spreading disinformation about pension reform via electronic media. Various web sites, as well as the LINE instant communication tool, have been used to disseminate “fake news” about the government’s plans. The national security apparatus has confirmed that the information originated in China.

Besides domestic online platforms, China has also been using microblogging sites in China, as well as WeChat and popular “content farms” (also known as “content mills”) such as COCO01.net to spread disinformation and interfere with government policy back in Taiwan.

Content farms are platforms that pay large numbers of freelance writers to generate large amounts of content that is specifically designed to satisfy algorithms for maximal retrieval by automated search engines. While such platforms were initially designed to generate advertising revenue, groups and regimes have quickly realized the potential of content farms to manipulate public perceptions. Using techniques that have been tried and tested by authoritarian regimes in Russia and China, “repeater stations” — online and traditional media that willingly take part in “fake news” efforts or that fail to properly corroborate information — are then relied upon to broadcast the disinformation to a wider audience.

On several occasions, anti-independence slogans were chanted at the protests against pension reform, which also suggests that the movement has been co-opted by the Chinese side.

▶︎ See also “TDB Vol. 1 No. 9: Pension Reform: A Bitter but Necessary Pill”

Over the past six months, members of Chang An-le’s (“White Wolf”) China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP) have also been identified at various protest sites. Chang, who in an interview with foreign media in 2014 confirmed that he works closely with the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), led members of his organization at an anti-pension reform protest outside the Legislative Yuan in April. Since 2013, the CUPP has also been involved in activities targeting independence activists and members of civil society in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Chang is also a former head of the Bamboo Union, a major crime syndicate in Taiwan with roots in China.

Physical violence is also a m.o. of those organizations, and the protests against pension reform have often led to violent clashes, resulting in injuries. Other organizations with a history of violence, such as the Blue Sky Alliance, have also participated in the protests.

Worryingly, protest organizers appear to have insiders in Tsai’s security apparatus — retired members of the police and national security apparatus ostensibly still have good contacts within the active force — and on several occasions have been able to obtain details about her daily schedule and itinerary. The groups have threatened to shadow President Tsai and Vice President C. J. Chen and thus could compromise the leadership’s personal security. Last week organizers also threatened to disrupt the upcoming Universiade in Taipei.

Taiwanese authorities have been closely monitoring the developments and have implemented measures to counter the disinformation.

 

Top photo: Members of the China Unification Promotion Party protest outside DPP headquarters in 2015 (J. Michael Cole).

TDB Vol. 1 No. 9: Pension Reform: A Bitter but Necessary Pill

TDB Vol. 1 No. 9: Pension Reform: A Bitter but Necessary Pill

When President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) delivered her inauguration speech after being sworn in as Taiwan’s first female president on May 20 last year, she pledged to build a better nation for younger generations. The first and foremost task in fulfilling that goal, she said, is to reform the nation’s cash-trapped pension system that would otherwise go bankrupt within a decade. Stacy Hsu looks into the history of and the many challenges associated with this endeavor.

 

Before the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)-dominated legislature passed the pension reform bills targeting retired civil servants and public-school teachers amid fierce protests in late June, the country’s pension system was a “political time-bomb” that many leaders before Tsai had tried — and failed — to defuse.

At the center of the problem are two notorious absurdities in the pension schemes of retired military personnel, civil servants and public-school teachers: the so-called 18% preferential interest rate and abnormally high income replacement ratios.

The preferential interest rate can be dated back to as early as 1960, when Taiwan was under authoritarian one-party rule. In light of inflation and the relatively low salary received by public servants back in the day, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime issued a series of administrative orders to offer a preferential saving rate on civil servants’ pension payments in a bid to ensure their financial security after retirement.

According to the Examination Yuan, the administrative body in charge of managing public servants, the saving rate has undergone several adjustments since its introduction, from the initial 21.6% to 14.25% in 1970, 16.7% in 1979 (with the rate floor at 14.25%), and then to 18% (also the rate floor) in 1983.

The preferential interest rate was scrapped following the implementation of a new pension system in 1995, which increased civil servants’ pension benefits by allocating part of their monthly income to the pension fund, rather than relying on the government as the sole contributor.

However, it did not quash the controversy surrounding it, as public servants who were hired before 1995 were still entitled to the saving rate after retirement. (The amount of a retiree’s pension payment that is eligible for the interest rate depends on a public servant’s pre-retirement income and number of years of service prior to 1995.)

The meeting minutes of the Presidential Office’s Pension Reform Committee show that as of June last year, approximately NT$462 billion (US$15 billion) in pension payments from about 457,000 public-sector retirees were stored in bank accounts eligible for the 18% interest rating, putting a NT$82 billion dent in government coffers each year.

The committee’s deputy convener, Lin Wan-i (林萬億), estimated that the interest rate would not really become history until 2054.

Though the saving rate had its historical necessity, today it is mostly seen as a remnant of Taiwan’s authoritarian era, one of the roots of social injustice, and a form of political payout by the previous KMT authoritarian regime to cement support among the nation’s civil servants, which has in turn created an uneven playing field for political parties.

Due to the preferential interest rate and/or public-sector employees’ ostensibly “unfair” pension calculation formula, some of their actual income replacement ratios (the percentage of one’s pre-retirement income) could be over 100%. This means they could earn even more in retirement than they did when they were on the workforce.

In 2006, despite leading a minority government, president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) of the DPP sought to reform the preferential interest rate. However, instead of gradually phasing out the rate, he only managed to cut down on the amount of pension payment from which a retiree could earn the interest rate by putting a cap on their income replacement ratio.

Chen’s successor, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the KMT, also made pension reform one of his policy priorities, describing the problem as so dire “people will regret it tomorrow if we do not reform it today.”

The Ma administration established a pension reform task force to solicit public opinions in 2009 before rolling out a draft plan in 2013. Despite the efforts, the plan was stalled at the KMT-dominated legislature at the time — allegedly due to electoral concerns and overwhelming criticism of what president Ma called a “painful decision” to cut year-end bonuses for public-sector retirees in 2012.

Failed efforts by her predecessors and fears of further alienating the DPP among public servants should have deterred President Tsai from making another attempt. Instead, she put pension reform at the forefront of her policies and joined hands with DPP lawmakers in ramming pension reform bills that many deem drastic through the legislature.

Under the bills passed so far, the 18% preferential interest rate will be reduced to zero two years after the bills’ promulgation scheduled for July 2018.

In addition, civil servants and public-school teachers (the draft bill for military personnel is yet to be drawn up) will see their income replacement ratio reduced to 60% within 10 years and ultimately be required to calculate their pension payment based on their average monthly salary in the final 15 years of employment, rather than their last month of service as currently stipulated.

Tsai’s reform success has reflected in her approval ratings. According to a survey by the TVBS poll center on July 12, the president’s support rate has climbed to 29%, from 21% in June.

Such efforts, however, are not without their costs. President Tsai has been shadowed by anti-reform protesters, some of whom have threatened to use violence or to disrupt events such as state visits by foreign presidents or the upcoming 2017 Universiade in Taipei. The KMT and its spin-off, the People First Party, are mulling filing a request for a constitutional interpretation on pension reform legislation.

Just as in other countries, pension reform is almost always a magnet of unpopularity and fierce protests. A good leader will know when to overlook temporary noises and focus on the long-term good.

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