by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: J. Michael Cole

J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei. He is the author of the just-published Officially Unofficial: Confessions of a journalist in Taiwan.

This is the first installment of the two-part interview with J. Michael Cole conducted by Brian Hioe regarding the nature of journalism, his own career path as one of the prominent voices in English-language journalism about Taiwan, and the contemporary state of journalism in Taiwan.


Brian Hioe: Please describe how it is that you came to Taiwan. How did you start reporting on social activism and politics in Taiwan?

J. Michael Cole: Well, how I came to Taiwan is well I moved here in November 2005 after working for three years in Canadian intelligence. I resigned because I had serious issues with what they were doing in the name of defense of democracy.  I figured that wasn’t the place for me. Back then, I was dating a Taiwanese-Canadian and she I had both had resigned our jobs within six months of one another. We’re sitting on a beach in Cuba and we’re like, “What do we do next?” I believe it was me who said, why don’t we go back to where you were born and spend a few years there and see what happens and then move on. 

So the plan was for us to be here for three years and then go somewhere else or move back to Canada. Obviously, that did not happen.

I was already very much interested in Asia, but I was more a Korean peninsula guy. But I realized very quickly that arriving here in 2005 was a very interesting period because Chen Shui-Bian was still in office.  China was still rising under Hu Jintao and they were behaving, but we were already sensing some pressure on Taiwan. 

I moved here knowing fully well that the last thing I wanted to do was to be an English teacher. I worked for a magazine for about six months but had already applied to a number of English-language newspapers here. The Taipei Times was the first one to write back. Initially they did not have a position, but I did all the tests and they told me there was an opening.  They put me on the copy desk. 

For the first year I was strictly a copy editor, we did editing, page layout, selection of graphics and pictures and all that. I think it was a good experience because a number of reporters at the Taipei Times have okay English but sometimes are not very clear. That was very useful because it forced me to concentrate even more on making language legible to audiences. I realized through this, however, that what I liked doing most is writing. So about six to eight months after I started with them, I started writing book reviews, then was later asked if I wanted to write more. 

First it was op-eds under my penname. Then that snowballed. I started working as a journalist, unofficially, because there are laws in Taiwan, which make it very difficult for a non-ROC citizen to be a journalist officially. Because of my background, I did mostly cross-strait military affairs. Once I felt more confident in terms of my knowledge of local Taiwanese politics, I started commenting on politics here in Taiwan as well. 

A few years later, I was made deputy news editor, so I left the copy desk and moved onto the news desk. Now I was in charge of a team of twelve reporters and the expectation was that I would do more of my own reporting and writing as well. After a few more years of doing that you built a reputation, and then you start being approached by other publications. The Diplomat reached out to me, then Jane’s Defense Weekly, and it just snuck up over the years and you realize you’ve written for like fifteen different publications. 

This is how you expand your readership. If you limit yourself to the Taipei Times readers, it’s going to be a very small audience which cares about one thing, and it’s going to be Taiwan, right? People would tell me, you need to start writing more about China, you need to start writing more about Japan, on and on.

It turns out those are fascinating subjects that if you want to be a so-called Taiwan expert you need to focus on those countries anyway: the history that comes with them, Japanese colonialism, cross-strait relations, formation of the KMT, why did they come to Taiwan. So I positioned myself as a Taiwan specialist and placing that country into context of regional security, regional politics, and etc.

Social Movements and Civic Uprising

JMC: Social movements, which is the focus of your question here, I started looking into about two years ago, by virtue of my then-girlfriend and now wife, Ketty Chen. She is a specialist on democratization and she wrote her PhD dissertation on the mechanisms of control used by the KMT and why even after democratization the KMT had managed to get itself reelected. Ketty was back in Taiwan as a visiting scholar in a Taiwan program under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so we got to know each other and she was very interested in monitoring protests. Around the same time, both she and I started doing photography and we felt that protests in Taiwan are colorful; they’re active, so it was very interesting and would make good photography practice. 

I started tagging along with her to protests. I would go when there were afternoon or morning protests because my job at the Taipei Times was in Neihu with an office from three in the afternoon to eleven PM, so evening protests were out except on my days off. Around that time, besides the protest that were against Chen Yun-Lin, during the time period of the Wild Strawberries, the first protest I went to was one of the first major rallies against Media Monopoly. All these protestors gathered in front of Want Want China Times headquarters and then they walked to NCC. The day was about as hot as it is today. I believe it was in July 2012 around this time of year.

We started following that movement. When we realized a lot of the activists in Media Monster were also involved in other causes, we started to paying attention to the Huaguang community, the evictions in Dapu, in Miaoli county, and other issues. It became this constellation of issues that we realized were worth reporting on and most media in Taiwan were not covering. 

I believe that for a long time, I was probably the only person reporting on those events regularly in the English language. I try to sell those articles overseas and that failed miserably because they’re like, “Well, this is interesting but who cares, it’s Taiwan.” It was very difficult. 

I placed a number of those articles in the Taipei Times, but even then the interest wasn’t there either.  They’d dump the story on page four. My blog became the best venue to write about those issues and that became successful, more so after some people started translating my articles into Chinese.

And I came to a realization after Ma Ying-Jeou’s election in 2012, that’s when we saw that shift and the hardening of government policies and lack of responsiveness and all that. To me, as someone who used to write threat assessments for the government of Canada, I sensed that something was coming. They were building pressures on both sides and I felt there would be a day of reckoning. We saw that last year on August 18 when protestors occupied the Ministry of the Interior for twenty-four hours. That mostly went unnoticed overseas but was to me a sign that Taiwanese were already willing to escalate.

March 18th and what happened subsequently, was in my view, a confirmation of what I had seen coming for awhile and it did not come as a surprise to me. In my view, something like this was inevitable because of the lack of government responsiveness and on the other side the civil society that willing to take risks and that had solid leadership. I mean, the first time I heard Chen Wei-Ting speak was outside the NCC back in late 2012, I was blown away by this guy. I was like this person will do something big in the not-too-distant future. I even wrote that in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal. 

I feel that I was right in my assessment, also about him and Lin Fei-Fan as well and the people that gravitated around them. To me it was an utterly fascinating story that the rest of the world needed to hear about. Now more people outside of Taiwan are paying attention.  Especially because now we’re seeing the same thing in Hong Kong as well. Possibly in Macau. And it’s all connected. There’s influence, there’s symbolism that emerged here in Hong Kong which is now being used in Hong Kong, so I think this is the big story for a few years to come, at least until 2016, and that’s why it has been the focus of my writing since 2012 or so.

The Taipei Times

BH: So to jump back a little bit, can we talk about the Taipei Times? I mean, you’ve been asked about that before in the past, why you left the Taipei Times. You do use, I think, phrase it as that you had a “disagreement” with them. Could you describe that a little?

JMC:  Right, right, right. First of all, if you really want to know what happened, you have read my book.

BH: Which I do intend to do.

JMC: I’ve had a number of people approach me asking this, like, “Oh, I want to work for Taipei Times,” and they have an opening, but then I did some searches on the Internet and I came upon your article explaining why you left and all that. Do you think it would be a good idea for me to work there?  I would say yes, but only work there for a few years. It’s a springboard, it’s a good way for you to make your reputation because it’s a relatively small newspaper where very quickly you can start doing a number of things. If you start as a green journalist with the New York Times, for example, it’s going to be years before you can start writing about national politics and placing your editorials and all that. With the Taipei Times, if you’re willing to work hard, you can do these things very quickly and different things as well. Now that being said, you hit the glass ceiling after awhile, because it remains a status quo newspaper. It is a pan-Green newspaper, so there are implicit limitations as to what you can say in terms of criticism to the DPP or other pan-Green parties. That was one of the problems I encountered in the past, in the last year and a half with them. Again, I resigned in November 2013. 

The other problem was that my understanding of my responsibilities as deputy news editor seemed to differ from my understanding of my duties by my news editor, i.e., my boss. I was pro-active; I was out there, buying people lunch, getting to know them, exchanging business cards, attending conferences, establishing relationships with heads of foreign missions in Taiwan, getting to know the leaders of social movements and all that.  She wanted me to sit on the desk in Neihu and edit articles by journalists and that was it. Last year, when the DPP in January tried their “Fury” protest in Taipei, the DPP determined that Su Tseng-Chang wants to give an interview with foreign media. They had given exclusives to Chinese language media in Taiwan, but he only gave one interview in English and it was to me. 

Their condition for giving that interview was that I conduct it. Evidently I said yes, since it was an exclusive, it would be Su’s first interview, as far as I know, to the English language media. So I said yes, but I need to consult the powers that be at the Taipei Times and all that. That did not go down too well because my boss and the editor-in-chief felt that the DPP had not respected protocol, whereas the DPP should have called her or the editor-in-chief. So somehow it became my fault. And my only crime, if you can call it that, was to care enough to try and seize an opportunity when it presented itself.

She retaliated by blocking my access to the armed forces, which again, was how I built my representation as a journalist. This was so much so that if I wanted to travel with them for military exercises, I had to take the day off. And the condition was that I could not write the article for the Taipei Times, because the Taipei Times would send someone else. I would go there, major exercises, and write for The Diplomat or Jane’s Defense Weekly. It was okay. But still, it was ridiculous that their, by far, most knowledgeable journalist on military affairs, had to take the day off and ended up writing for other publications. 

Around that time I had realized that obviously my future did not lie at the Taipei Times.  I had been looking for alternative employment in Taiwan, but nothing materialized. Most foreign bureaus are either slashing positions, closing their bureaus, farming out, or basing their journalists in Hong Kong, Shanghai, or Beijing, and when something major happens in Taiwan, they would then parachute them in and then report on what happens here. 

Everybody tells me, seven years at the Taipei Times are five years too many. I agree with them, but there was nothing else for me. My ability to stay in Taiwan is contingent on having employment.  There were lots of jobs in China, but I was not willing to go to China. So I stayed. For at least a year and a half, I was working 2.5 full-time jobs. I was on the point of burning out. It’s a good thing I resigned in November. 

I was planning on staying here for three months and the plan was for Ketty and I to get married and then move back to North America. It was in January, Tsai Ing-Wen threw us a major curveball and asked us to stay, saying that the next two years would be very important, and she wanted people who are enthusiastic about Taiwan and knowledgeable about Taiwan to stay here and continue doing work.

The Far Eastern Sweet Potato

BH:  So you ran the Far Eastern Sweet Potato blog for so many years and now you’re currently at Thinking Taiwan or running the English language version of Thinking Taiwan. First off, what would you point to the kind of achievements or kind of running a blog on your own offered in terms of for example independence compared to for example, working at the Taipei Times

JMC: Well, Far Eastern Sweet Potato started off as what was it now, seven years ago, as a platform where I could write about my experiences in Taiwan for family and friends. Now when I started publishing articles, I felt it would be a good place for a sort of clearinghouse where I could just post links to all of my publications and excerpts from my articles. So you go to one place and if I wrote a new article, you’re going to see it. It was a good way for me to keep track of all my publications as well.

I would say my last two years at the Taipei Times when my relationship became poisoned with management, I made the conscious decision if they would not allow me to do what I thought I should be doing or if they would punish me for doing that, I would simply deny them my knowledge or my expertise, so more and more I would simply publish on my blog. And actually a lot of my knowledge of social movements ended up only on my blog and not in the Taipei Times and the photography I did as well on my Facebook page and on my blog. Which coincides with the period when people started translating my articles into Chinese.

The other reason is, obviously I did not get paid for articles on my blog, but whatever the Taipei Times was paying me was not a whole lot of money anyway, so it was not a major loss for me. But it was a good way to reach out to the community. Furthermore, after 7 years in Taiwan, I had good enough a reputation that by then the head count of articles on my blog were about as high as they would have been if I had published those articles on the Taipei Times. 

I’ve always paid very close attention to head counts and the origins of where people are reading my articles. Who shares what and whether it’s being discussed on other platforms. This was important. This was something I would do with articles in the Taipei Times because as deputy news editor I thought it was my responsibility to make sure we were having some traction with our readers. So having concluded I did not necessarily need the Taipei Times as my platform, I figured I would write even more on my blog. And yes, I could be more critical of the Green camp. Because I did not have to fear every time I published an article, management would come down and threaten me with all kinds of things.

My understanding of journalism is that everyone is fair game, you can be leaning in one direction or another, but it does not mean you cannot be critical of the side you favor if they are doing things that are detrimental to their cause or even more so to the country. Around that time it had become evident and that stemmed from exchanges with NGOs and social movements, the DPP was not paying attention to social movements. Taiwanese media was ignoring what was going on the ground in Taiwan, but so was the DPP.

That was a major problem because it led to disillusionment from members of social movements from politics in general. They’re like: KMT and DPP, they’re all bad, they all suck. Or when you ask leaders of the Sunflower movement: 2016, who are you going to go for? You know what, they all suck, I think I’m not going to vote. You have politically aware activists who become completely apolitical because of the state of things in the major parties. 

I felt it was incumbent upon myself to highlight those issues, if only to encourage people in the DPP to pay more attention to those issues. Well, I got into serious trouble with management at the Taipei Times for making those points in my articles. When I published the same things on my blog, well, I had angry letters, I had some people who work for the DPP who accused me of all kinds of things, but nobody could fire me, it was my blog. So it was easier for me to do that. And then in other publications like The Diplomat, The China Policy Institute, and to a certain extent The Wall Street Journal, I could make those points without the fear of negative repercussions either. 

I do mention that in my book, as a freshly arrived foreigner in Taiwan, I would say my first few years with the Taipei Times, my editorial line was very much reflected that of the newspaper. But the more I got to know Taiwan and different members of society, I think the more refined my understanding became. 

Indeed, not everything KMT is bad, not everything Ma Ying-jeou is evil. He did a lot of stupid things, but he did a lot of good things for the country as well. And I don’t think I should avoid mentioning those as a responsible journalist and vice-versa. There is an admission, especially in later years, that maybe a lot of the things that I said or wrote earlier were wrong. And I think it’s my job as a journalist to show my readers that I’m willing to learn as well. I never pretended to know everything and to know the absolute truth.  Maybe ten years down the road what I write if I still write about Taiwan, well, maybe I’ll say, what Michael Cole was saying on 2014 about Taiwan was completely wrong, right? I hope I wasn’t completely wrong, but we’ll see, and I’m going to be willing to say that if it happens.

The second installment of this interview, regarding Thinking Taiwan, the relation of journalism and activism, and Cole’s recently released book, Officially Unofficial: Confessions of a journalist in Taiwan, will be released in several days.

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