Taiwan and the International Media

by Lorand Laskai

Photo Credit: Lorand Laskai

This is part one in a two part series on the connection between power and discourse in Taiwan.

OVER THE LAST THIRTY YEARS, there’s been a slowly manifesting trend in regard to Taiwan’s international position, a series of processes that amount collectively to a single linear motion, and which offers no small indication of the future of Taiwanese democracy. I speak, of course, of Taiwan’s growing isolation in the international arena.

Once the nominal head of the Sinocentric world, not to mention an adored forward outpost in the battle against communism, teeming with American and foreign civil servants, military officials, journalists and academics—in short the people likely to disseminate the island’s existence—Taiwan’s status abroad has gradually ebbed, as its purpose in the Western-led international order fell into obsolescence. Today, Taiwan is a forlorn island in a pool of international discourse.

Such was made clear, after months of inattentive media coverage, when a cohort of students caught the international media by surprise, hurdling over the walls of the Legislative Yuan and staged an historic occupation. Few foreign journalists were in the country; as few experts and scholars could provide an assessment of what was happening; and even fewer media outlets at first seemed interested in even cursory coverage. Only by sheer audacity of the students’ actions and the historical proportions of their occupation was the international media forced to snap to attention.

Most large outlets including CNN, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and BBC eventually began providing regular coverage of events, while important opinion-making outlets like Foreign Policy and Dissent ran commentary. For many Taiwanese this was a proud moment.

But to what effect was this spurt of coverage? The crisis in Taiwan remained a side note, stuck in the pages of the Asia section for willing eyes to seek out, and once the occupation ended, media coverage returned to its original condition—that is, of non-coverage. The media event came and passed without any deeper exploration or prognosis of the events unfolding. Taiwan was as unknown to the international audience before the occupation as it was after. If anything, the international coverage of the Sunflower movement only revealed the desperateness of Taiwan’s non-place in the international media environment.

IMG_0944 (1) Photo credit: Lorand Laskai

Lost narrative and genealogies of powerless people and disadvantaged voices exist all around us. We uproot previously oppressed genealogies everyday by questioning spoon-fed truth. But to be lost, a narrative must first be neglected; to be uprooted and discovered, voices must first disappear. Taiwan democracy today is in the process of being buried. With the comprehensive power of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) growing at an accelerated rate and wedding itself conveniently with the Western global order, the story of the renegade province has gradually faltered under the inconvenience of its existence and the mounting pressure of international disinterest. This amounted to the motion of a slow strangulation.

THE FIRST MOVE in this trend was the most dramatic, the pace towards Taiwan’s impending isolation. In 1979, nations around the world followed the United State’s lead as it recognized the PRC as the true China. Overnight, Taiwan became an official non-entity. However, few Kuomingtang (KMT) officials could be overly incensed: ‘derecognition’ was inevitable inasmuch as the KMT’s military defeat to the CCP was final and recognizing the world’s most populous country unavoidable.

Moreover, countering the loss was a series of assurances. First, plentiful arm sales from the United States and the Taiwan Security Pact ensured that the island would not be left to fend for itself against China. Second, as of the 1990, democratization in Taiwan transformed the conflict between China and Taiwan from one between autocrat and autocrat into one with greater moral force—the fight for democracy—which ensured, as long as China remained non-democratic, that the island would serve as a beachhead for an alternative, democratic Chinese future.

Surely the world wouldn’t forget this bastion of democracy?

Not quite.

As China’s economic rise quickened, so did Taiwan’s isolation. The churn of everyday decisions kicked in, and nations, international organizations and foreign talent gradually gravitated away from the island towards the Middle Kingdom. Newspaper bureaus shut down; companies relocated their foreign offices; and professionals hopped the strait in pursuit of greater opportunity.

The effects were slowly realized, especially since Taiwan, benefiting from warming relations with the PRC, too, took advantage of China’s economic boom, as Taiwanese multinationals rushed head over heels across the formally militarized Strait to indulge in cheap Chinese labor.

If progress looked like anything, this certainly was it. But the isolating effects were real.

With cross-strait relations improving the last remaining incentive for journalists to remain in Taiwan—the newsworthiness of flaring tension—dissipated. Today, Taiwan’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club claims less than 30 journalists among its members. Reflecting on this tragicomic situation one foreign journalist reported, “Government departments sometimes struggle to meet their quorums for international media when sponsoring feel-good trips to see floral exhibits or the Taipei zoo’s baby panda.”

Prior to the Sunflower movement, the last New York Times article outside technology and business focusing on Taiwan—and just Taiwan, that is to say, not the Strait—was last July, when former president Chen Shui-bian appealed for amnesty.

The choice is odd in hindsight, given the sporadic coverage that followed. Indeed, there would be a virtual black when Ma Ying-jeou, with shamelessly crude Machiavellian tack, attempted to unseat leader of the Legislative Yuan, Wang Jin-pyng, a KMT politician and widely respected figure. It was a sign of the desperateness and ruthlessness that actuated the Ma administration and its plans for cross-strait rapprochement that it was willing to run the risk of bringing palace intrigue out into the open and stab a fellow KMT politician who stood in his way. Amidst the onslaught, Wang Jin-pyng conciliatory reputation garnered him widespread sympathy and further heightened the public’s uniform revulsion of Ma, whose agenda it already had held reservations about. Ma’s approval ratings plunged to unfathomable abysmal lows. But none of this was reported in the pages of the New York Times. So when students occupied the Legislative Chamber five months later and hoisted a banner starting with the words “5% President Ma” behind the speaker’s podium, who could have known these students were not being hyperbolic?

IT’S A SIGN OF OUR times that global capitalism, once thought of as a trailblazing force on the side of democracy and progress, breaking down the residual barriers of ‘irrationality’ as it clears a path for democracy toward an eschatological “end of history,” has revealed itself as much a compliment to CCP autocracy as liberal democracy. Inside China fierce competition and rampant materialism unleashed by market forces draw its citizens attention away from higher order aspirations.

On the international front, Taiwan, once on the forefront of this liberal crusade, is now besieged by the logic of profit and consequences, as nations and companies tally up the benefits of associating with Taiwan and end up shunning the island. Today, Taiwan’s ragtag foreign diplomatic corps, which includes Belize, Burkina Faso, Haiti and Tuvalu, is more reminiscent of Mao’s romanticized alliance of Third World nations than any radical experiment in proletariat foreign policy.

One could justifiably argue back that Taiwan, a small island of only 22 million, in comparison to its neighbor of 1.2 billion, deserves the scant international attention it receives. They would not be wrong. But Taiwan is also a teeming multi-cultural democracy at a complex and important geopolitical crossroads. While the U.S. transfixed its gaze towards the Middle East and Ukraine in a vain search for the rare democratic movement to champion, the Taiwanese youth brought to bear on the streets a movement of unequivocal democratic character. Surely, this merits some attention?

Not to mention, the island nation is guaranteed American military assistance, and if frustration boils over and the island drifts towards formal independence, and the PRC launches an invasion, then this little island will throw the international system into a tense situation indeed. Surely this warrants attention to Taiwan’s broader internal situation, too?

IMG_0804Reporters interviewing a man outside the Legislative Yuan premises. Photo credit: Lorand Laskai

Yet, more and more, cross-strait relation is all the so-called ‘Taiwan hands’ at the crossroads of academia and Washington fixate their gaze upon. And if relations are not teetering on the edge of calamity, then all is fine; one need not inquire into the island democracy that sit on one side. Indeed, because of warming relations between the PRC and Taiwan under Ma Ying-jeou, these so-called Taiwan hands have become the self-anointed gatekeepers of cross-strait peace, cheering on any development in cross-strait relations that maintains the peace, no matter at what price the small island polity must pay. It’s for this reason that many notable academics, like David Brown and Alan Romberg, responded to the Sunflower movements opposition to the cross-strait Service pact with visceral displeasure, as if watching childish antics in danger of breaking the china. David Brown, a board member of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), in particular took out his displeasure on the opposition Democratic People’s Party (DPP), reprimanding them in a letter for inciting the Sunflower movement in a cynical attempt to secure electoral gains. That this accusation hardly jibed with what was occurring on the ground or any reasonable assessment of the recent political climate is less telling than the revelations that followed shortly after: that Brown, a well-regarded Taiwan expert, last visited Taiwan six years before.

PART OF THE PROBLEM is that Taiwan was never quite “known.” Disguised as Chinese by the KMT, mistaken for Chinese by the roving American sinologists barred from the mainland, and then paraded around during the 90s as a golden boy for procrustean liberal internationalism, Taiwan’s true achievement, its radical experiment in inclusive multi-cultural harmony, went unnoticed. Taiwan was dressed in the garland of others’ ideological premises. It was as easily forgotten as originally discovered.

Shorn of its external functions, the paper mâché imitation through which Taiwan became known to the world failed to stem the tide once it turned against Taiwan. With China rising and the international community’s neglect of Taiwan growing in tandem, Taiwan has slipped into an a discursive vacuum, a state of non-meaning internationally.

Indeed, the exercise of answering, “what is Taiwan?” by sheer process of association has become increasingly difficult for the typical international observer; the answer only becomes clear to the few that preside here for an extended period. One piece in National Interest after the Sunflower movement perfectly exemplified this state of non-meaning, when the commentator’s attempt to justify why Taiwan was worth defending degenerated into a bland list of Taiwan’s architectural and infrastructural achievements:

“Indeed, Taiwan impresses a visitor in unexpected ways. Who knew that Taipei is home to what was, until a few years ago, the world’s tallest building, with an innovative design built to withstand even the fiercest of earthquakes? A shiny, new high-speed train covers the 185 miles between Taiwan’s two largest cities, Taipei and Kaohsiung, in eighty-nine minutes.”

In all fairness, this commentator is probably not the first to label Taipei 101 as one of Taiwan’s most worthwhile qualities.

Interestingly, Ma’s KMT has come not only to subsist within Taiwan’s lack of discursive meaning abroad, but thrives in the vacuum. While, as a rule, all regimes base their rule on a web of ideology and half-truths, internationally the Taiwan under Ma’s KMT seems to have made do with a simple lack of information and interest. Ma has mended the uneasy elision between its goal of cross-strait rapprochement and possible reunification, and its populous’ strong unease by relying on the benighted state of international discourse regarding Taiwan. According to one source close to this writer, a recent tour for young aspiring American leaders between the age of 20-35, which included a Q&A session with President Ma and meet-and-greet with the who’s who of the KMT top brass, passed with nearly zero engagement on the matter of the Sunflower movement or Taiwanese identity (reportedly some participants left with the uncorrected impression that a majority of Taiwanese identified themselves as Chinese).

Certainly, any young aspiring American leader with a minor interest in the state of Taiwan affairs must find the state of Taiwanese democracy also important, and must feel compelled, within respectable bounds, to inquire on what grounds their hosts find themselves justified in so unabashed opposing the democratic will. It’s not everyday, after all, you meet a president with less than 10% approval.

Yet it appears few of these aspiring American leaders had basic knowledge of recent events in Taiwan, not to mention the details of the Sunflower movement or the contours of Taiwanese identity. The tour, as if existing in a different temporal reality altogether, one sustained by an absence of accessible discourse and the concomitant apathy of its participants, made due with platitudes on the success of Taiwanese democracy in spite of the outrage transpiring outside the ministerial walls. Outright censorship was unnecessary as minimal prevarication and casuistry was enough.

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