TDB Vol. 2 No. 6: ‘Asymmetry’ and the Threat of Disinformation

Fake news have successfully penetrated democratic societies due in part to public complacency, the explosion of social media, and deficiencies in the media environment. New measures to counter disinformation spread by anti-democratic forces are being mooted by governments, but it will be a long time yet before the effects of this new assault on reality can be properly mitigated. Alison Hsiao discusses recent developments in Taiwan.

 

Most Taiwanese are familiar with the joke in which a Taiwanese celebrates the fact that he or she is free to comment on politics and to lambaste the Taiwanese president — and the Chinese replies, “I can lambaste the Taiwanese president, too!”

When the term “sharp power” was introduced, the authors of the report drew our attention to the idea that authoritarian regimes are “exploiting a glaring asymmetry” by “[raising] barriers to external political and cultural influence at home while simultaneously taking advantage of the openness of democratic systems abroad.” Authoritarian regimes may have problems selling their repressive system as an alternative to the liberal-democratic order, but by freely launching propaganda campaigns calling democracy “foreign” and “Western,” inefficient, and unable to deliver, they have won some adherents in democratic societies.

They have also been wily enough to criticize democratic institutions using democratic standards and are quick to dismiss democracy as “no better” than other systems of governance. The most recent case involves Beijing accusing the UK of “violating” a Chinese reporter’s freedom of speech when she was forced to leave a venue after she threw a tantrum during an event on the erosion of freedom and rule of law in Hong Kong after handover in 1997.

 

The cover photo of Biyun Temple’s Facebook page, showing the temple celebrating the 91th anniversary of the establishment of the PLA.

In Taiwan, we can see the five-star red flag waved in the capital and raised at a “shrine to the Chinese Communist Party” which the owner called “the united front patriotic education base.” The CCP mouthpiece Global Times reacted strongly to the demolition of the “base,” which was ruled an illegal construction in violation of the Mountain Slopes Conservation and Utilization Act (international coverage undoubtedly helped the local government summon up the political courage to tear it down and end a controversy that had begun in 2017). The hawkish party publication called on Taiwanese authorities to “provide legal space for the activities organized by the pro-unification groups, whose calls are in accordance with the PRC Constitution and do not violate Taiwan’s laws as long as they are not violent, and therefore should be treated equally as all other political forces without being subjected to political discrimination.”

Contrasting the self-righteous language with the fate of Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che for holding discussions about history and democracy with people in China, or with the Chinese citizen who was detained for expressing the wish to celebrate the Republic of China’s National Holiday, the asymmetry is evident, and this has been fueled, in part, by our complaisance. All of this now calls for counteractions.

Rumors kill

The inroads made by disinformation — a phenomenon with a long history but whose detrimental effects have been amplified in a world connected by the Internet and social media platforms in particular — also epitomize the “glaring asymmetry” and how it is being exploited.

A Taiwanese diplomat deployed in Japan committed suicide earlier this year, allegedly due to the pressure he was under over how much assistance — unjustifiably little, some believed — Taiwanese nationals trapped at Kansai Airport during Typhoon Jebi received from Taiwan’s representative office (TECO) in Japan. The pressure snowballed after information appeared and gained attention on PTT, the country’s largest online bulletin board system. The post alleged that China had dispatched buses to the isolated Kansai Airport to extract its nationals, and that at least one Taiwanese national admitted to have taken the ride by agreeing to be a Chinese national, all allegedly because the Taiwanese government “had done nothing.”

The heated debate and finger-pointing soon escalated, with accusations that officials at Taiwan’s representative office had failed to do their job. Few netizens, however, questioned whether the source of the “news” should be examined for its authenticity before they plunged into the debate.

The diplomat is said to have complained about disinformation in his suicide note. It was later discovered that the buses which the Chinese embassy dispatched to pick up Chinese nationals were only sent after the trapped Chinese had been transported out of Kansai Airport by buses provided by airport authorities. In other words, Chinese nationals did not in any way get privileged treatment because of their embassy’s move in terms of how and when they left the airport. It was later found out that the initial post (Sept. 6) on PTT which claimed that China had made a laudable diplomatic effort in Japan came from an IP address located in Beijing.

When influence operations meet open societies

Ethan Tu, dubbed the father of PTT, came to PTT’s defense after the platform was accused of acting as “a source or abettor of fake news.” In his response, Tu underscored the fact that PTT is an open forum, and added that it was also PTT users who first expressed doubt about the “Chinese power” hype made by posts from Weibo, the Chinese Twitter-like platform. He also pointed out that it was Taiwanese online news outlets that amplified the controversy and that they never bothered to correct or update the reports after their authenticity had been called into question by PTT users.

Taiwanese news outlets compete for “clicks” and have a penchant for sensational content and headlines in order to attract readers, as the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shinbun has correctly pointed out. This can be exploited by the “Taiwan-targeting team” set up by the CCP Central Propaganda Department and the China Internet Information Center, according to the Japanese paper, which quoted a source saying that the team would be rewarded with bonuses if the disinformation it deliberately initiates receives coverage in Taiwanese media.

Another one of the team’s guiding principles is to spread rumors that concern people’s daily lives. These can be about anything from the plummeting price of bananas to President Tsai Ing-wen riding a fully armed armored personnel carrier and “refusing” to come down during an inspection at flood-devastated areas in southern Taiwan in August.

The media environment, along with the unexpected consequences of social media platforms — originally designed to encourage people interactions but more often than not giving rise to filter bubbles instead — have compounded the spread of malicious disinformation.

Much discussion has been devoted to the idea of amending existing laws to put the kibosh on the deliberate spreading of disinformation in the country, which in turn has given rise to misgivings about the possible abuse of new regulations. Legislation or not, there is a need to raise public awareness on how our open environment and political biases may be — and have been — exploited to the advantage of those who wish to destabilize Taiwanese society.

The establishment of the Taiwan FactCheck Center and the introduction of media literacy in Taiwan’s new K-12 curriculum are a good start, but the immediate effects will still be limited. For one thing, people who turn to the FactCheck Center probably already harbor healthy skepticism, but this does not help those who generally consume news uncritically. Also, media literacy does not only concern future adults but current ones as well, so more immediate solutions are necessary. The government must therefore bolster public trust through transparency in its operations, and by collaborating with civil society to keep the public aware by exposing and delegitimizing disinformation.

Feature image: From Flickr CC BY 2.0.

TDB Vol. 1 No. 21: Lee Ming-che Sentencing a Warning to Others (Analysis)

TDB Vol. 1 No. 21: Lee Ming-che Sentencing a Warning to Others (Analysis)

More than the unfair treatment of a man who did nothing wrong, today’s sentencing is another reminder that China has no intention of playing by international rules. It is also a warning that Beijing has cast a much wider net to silence critics and those, Chinese and not, who propose an alternative system of governance in China. J. Michael Cole looks at the significance of today’s ruling.

 

The Yueyang Intermediate People’s Court in Hunan Province today sentenced Taiwanese human rights activist Lee Ming-che to five years’ imprisonment for “subversion of state power” and suspended his political rights for two years, a ruling that Taiwan’s Presidential Office and rights organizations worldwide decried as “unacceptable.”

Lee was arrested in March upon entering China via Macau. After disappearing for several months, he resurfaced in court in Hunan Province in September, where he was accused of collaborating with others in China and on social media to “attack the Chinese government” and promote “Western-style democracy.”

Peng Yuhua, a Chinese citizen who was accused of working with Lee in “organizing, planning and taking action to subvert national authority and overthrow the socialist system,” was sentenced to seven years in prison.

After today’s ruling, Lee said he would not appeal.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other organizations have described the sentencing as “absolutely outrageous” and a “warning signal” to other activists. In a statement, Taiwan’s Presidential Office wrote that “it is regrettable that the Lee Ming-che case has seriously damaged cross-strait relations and especially challenged Taiwanese people’s persistence and ideals for democracy and freedom.”

Lee is the first Taiwanese national to be sentenced for such a “crime” in China under the new National Security Law which passed on July 1, 2015 and which stipulates that preserving the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of the People’s Republic of China “is a shared obligation of all the Chinese people, including compatriots from Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan.”

The court’s suspension of Lee’s political rights is no doubt meant to underscore Beijing’s contention that the new National Security Law applies to Taiwanese nationals (whom it regards as PRC citizens) regardless of where the alleged crimes are committed. We should note here that the said crimes Lee is accused of having committed occurred primarily online.

The heavy sentence is also meant to send a loud signal to other activists in Taiwan, Hong Kong and elsewhere that they, too, can now be apprehended and convicted for “crimes endangering national security” and the “people’s democratic dictatorship regime” as (loosely) defined in the Law, irrespective of where the said crimes have been committed, both physically and online.

The heavy sentence is also meant to send a loud signal to other activists in Taiwan, Hong Kong and elsewhere that they, too, can now be apprehended and convicted for “crimes endangering national security” and the “people’s democratic dictatorship regime” as (loosely) defined in the Law, irrespective of where the said crimes have been committed, both physically and online. This development will no doubt have a chilling effect on activists, academics, journalists, officials and artists who may fear that they have, at some point, promoted through their work or personal discussions online notions of democracy or sovereignty that can be construed as criminal in China.

Moreover, the existence of the Law, and now the precedent set by Lee’s arrest and sentencing, provides the means and empowerment for local officials to act independently and to disappear a suspect into the Chinese legal system, out of which it has become increasingly difficult to emerge — even for foreign passport holders. In other words, and as likely was the case with Lee, the arrest and sentencing of non-PRC nationals can now occur without a directive from, or even the knowledge of, the central government.

By targeting Taiwanese nationals and others who are engaged in the promotion of human rights and democracy, Beijing hopes to deter their engagement with likeminded elements in China and limit their ability to cooperate with them in defying CCP authoritarian rule. Thus, besides scaring off outside forces, the move also seeks to further isolate human rights activists in China, who under new rules governing foreign NGOs have already been having a tougher time connecting with the outside world.

More than the unfair treatment of a man who did nothing wrong, today’s sentencing is yet another reminder that China has no intention of playing by international rules. It is also a warning that it has now cast a much wider — and extraterritorial — net in its attempt to silence critics and those, Chinese and not, who propose an alternative, more liberal and democratic system of governance in China.

Photo: Chuyện Việt Nam

TDB Vol. 1 No. 19: Kou Yanding — A Chinese Dissident’s Journey Through Taiwan

TDB Vol. 1 No. 19: Kou Yanding — A Chinese Dissident’s Journey Through Taiwan

After spending a year touring Taiwan and meeting people from all walks of life, Chinese ‘enemy of the state’ Kou Yanding shares her views on change, the power of civil society, and the challenges facing Taiwan as China flexes its muscles. Alison Hsiao reports.

 

Chinese activist Kou Yanding (寇延丁) identified herself as a “public interest advocate” and did not know she was a dissident until she was arrested by Chinese authorities on charges of “inciting subversion of state power,” the same “crime” that has led to the forced disappearance of Taiwanese citizen Lee Ming-che and the arrest of the late Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo.

After arriving in Taiwan last October as a 2017 Democracy and Human Rights Service Fellow at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, Kou embarked on a nation-wide tour with assistance from a civil society organization and local groups to exchange thoughts with local Taiwanese and to urge them to know and face up to China.

“Through my interactions with Taiwanese people over the past year, I have discovered that they hold two alternating images of China: either it’s ‘big,’ or it’s ‘bad,’” Kou said during a seminar concluding her tour on Nov. 11. “People either talk about China as a political superpower and a global economic powerhouse, or as a regime that is autocratic and cruel.”

“Lack of understanding of China puts Taiwanese people’s interests at risk,” she said.

‘Enemy of the State’

Kou’s trip to Taiwan began less than two years after she was freed on Feb. 14, 2015, following a 128-day stint in a Chinese jail.

Her detention came as a result of a sweep of arrests targeting Transition Institute, a non-governmental think-tank in Beijing founded in 2007, and the Liren Rural Libraries, also founded in 2007 to promote education in rural areas and shape the rural young into “modern citizens.” In September 2014, the Libraries were shut down and Transition Institute founder Guo Yushan was detained, followed by a wave of detentions of NGO workers, including Kou.

The year 2014 was a sensitive year for Beijing, with Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution erupting only months apart against, respectively, creeping Chinese influence in Taiwan and Beijing’s refusal to grant universal suffrage in Hong Kong. Kou’s detention resulted from her involvement in the two movements and a wave of arrests in response to the printing of material about the Umbrella Movement by a woman in Beijing.

Kou, left, Wu Jieh-min, associate research fellow at the Institute of Sociology at Academia Sinica, and NGO workers from Hong Kong (second from the right) and Taiwan (right), share their views on why Taiwanese should interact with Chinese civil society and cultivate a “Taiwanese viewpoint” of China during a seminar in Taipei on Nov. 11. (Photo courtesy of the Youth Synergy Taiwan Foundation)

In her book, How is an Enemy Made? — Chinese Who Have No Right to Remain Silent, Kou details her 128-day ordeal “through which enemies of the state are manufactured.” During her interrogation she was enlightened by her interrogators (one of whom she nicknamed “pig”), who informed her that she was part of a “subversion scheme” centered on a training camp involving activists from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. One of the trainers, a convenient fact highlighted by “pig,” was Chien Hsi-chieh, a non-violent resistance advocate, but more importantly, one of the founding members of the Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan.

Before her involvement in the alleged plot, Kou’s work had always focused more on public welfare. She founded organizations to support people with disabilities in China which today continue to play an active role in areas that were most affected by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. She focused on grassroots empowerment that even received approval by the Chinese authorities: her Operational Democracy — Bringing Robert’s Rules of Order to the Countryside, was published with permissions in China.

It was not unnatural for a civil society worker in China to eventually look to Hong Kong and Taiwan for precedents and opportunities to share experience. But in 2014, it was more risky than ever to associate with activists from the two places.

Petitions with Chinese characteristics

At every seminar that she held, Kou and the local team that supported her tour in Taiwan screened “Petition” (上訪), a documentary by Chinese director Zhao Liang. The film covers more than a decade and ends in 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics. In the lead-up to the Games, a petition village — spontaneously built as petitioners stayed in Beijing for years hoping in vain that their cases involving local injustice and gross corruption could be heard by the state’s highest institutions — was torn down.

Almost 10 years have elapsed since the Beijing Olympics, and Chinese President Xi Jinping is said to be cracking down on corruption, one of the main grievances animating the petitioners. Have petitions, a form of appeal to higher ups in government seeking redress that harkens back to feudal China’s “imperial appeal” (gao yu zhuang, 告御狀), had any success in mitigating the longstanding problems with the Chinese system?

“No,” Kou says, emphatically.

“Xi’s anti-graft campaign is selective in that it targets only his opponents,” she said. “The petitions [to Beijing] continue and the most prominent one recently was that by veterans of the People’s Liberation Army.”

Asked if she apprehends returning to China after spending a year in Taiwan revealed the problems plaguing Chinese society, Kou was evasive, but stressed that the Chinese government has “done a successful job drumming up and spreading fear, even in Taiwan.”

“I’ve been very open about what I’ve been doing in Taiwan via my column [on Taiwanese online media Storm Media],” she added, suggesting that there is no need for Chinese law-enforcement authorities to be alarmed by possible “secret activities.”

Taiwanese apathy

Kou says she was stunned by how few people in Taiwan know who Lee Ming-che is, and worried that even fewer wish to know more about China aside from its apparent economic prowess.

“I was really depressed after a seminar [held earlier this year] with a group of young students at a college in central Taiwan, during which only two or three hands were raised after I asked them whether they’d heard of Lee,” Kou told her audience on Nov. 11.

In her column, Kou said she was perplexed by commentaries by Taiwanese describing Lee’s arrest as “his own doing” because he had engaged in activities that are forbidden by the Chinese government.

“It’s unbearable to see that [Taiwanese who enjoy freedom] would use [Beijing’s] logic to explain [the consequences of] your actions,” she wrote. “There are also those who choose not to look at China just because they ‘don’t like China,’ which I consider an extremely childish answer not fitting for an adult.”

“All the progress and reform in China started from the people, from peasants, petitioners and public interest advocates, whose demands got debated by scholars, spread by media and eventually recognized by the institutions.”

The last thing she needs is for Taiwanese to refer to history and politics and explain to her, as some friends and scholars have tried to do, why some Taiwanese behave that way, Kou says. “The point is not about convincing me in oral arguments. The question in the end comes down to how Taiwanese are to face up to their gigantic neighbor.”

But, indeed, how? Kou said she is here to ask the question, not to provide an answer. But an answer was nevertheless implied in her talk on how Chinese civil society is actually more vibrant and active than those who obsess about the omnipresence of the communist regime would think.

If one focuses only on the Chinese Communist Party’s size and might, it is natural that he or she would feel powerless, she says. “But from what I’ve seen from ‘among the people,’ people power is strong, as manifested in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, where thousands of civic groups mobilized.”

“All the progress and reform in China started from the people, from peasants, petitioners and public interest advocates, whose demands got debated by scholars, spread by media and eventually recognized by the institutions,” Kou said, firm in her belief that change comes from the bottom and through more substantial civil society-to-civil society exchanges with places with robust civil activities, such as Taiwan.

Top photo:  Kou Yanding speaks about China and why Taiwan should care (Photo courtesy of the Youth Synergy Taiwan Foundation).

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.

No More Articles