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 second installment of the two-part interview with J. Michael Cole conducted by Brian Hioe regarding his editorship of Thinking Taiwan, the relation of journalism and activism, and his recently released book, Officially Unofficial: Confessions of a journalist in Taiwan. This first installment can be read here.

Thinking Taiwan

Brian Hioe: Because you are now running the English language version of Thinking Taiwan, some have criticized you as aligning yourself with Tsai Ing-Wen.  Though, again, much has been said before, what would you have to say to critics?

J. Michael Cole: Moving on to Thinking Taiwan and the views or fears that I have sold out to Tsai Ing-Wen, who is, once again, chairperson of the DPP.  When she sat me down and offered me the job, I made it very clear that I wanted to retain my ability to be critical of the green camp. I also made it clear that I did not want any editorial interference.  I did not want people upstairs, who are now at DPP headquarters, who tell me what to write or what not to write.  I made it clear to Tsai that I did not want to be a propagandist for her or for the DPP.  Thinking Taiwan English is, by the way, not a English version of 想想, but is a independent entity that happens to bear a similar name and operates under the same foundation.  Basically, we don’t want people to think we are simply English language translations of what happens, is published in 想想, those are very different.

I can say very proudly in the two months and a half since we have launched the publication not once, not once have I been told what to write or what not to write.  Not once.  I have on a fairly regular basis interactions with Tsai Ing-Wen herself or her staff, and they have repeatedly said, “You’re in charge.  You’re the editor-in-chief.  You decide what goes in the publication.”  They have said we would like to see more analysis, we would like to see a bit more articles that make policy proposals, but this is as far as they’ve gone.  As you will note, this is not intervention in terms of content.  And if you read some of the articles that have published, including articles by me, there is criticism of the DPP in there. 

I have actively encouraged people who are seen as pan-blue to write for us as well.  I have approached people like Su Chi, former National Security Council Secretary-General under Ma Ying-Jeou, who is now at Prospect Foundation, Taipei Forum, and was of the seven individuals who did the Greater China Initiative.  He’s too busy right now, a lot of people are too busy right now, but I want those people to write for us.  If there was pressure from above to limit ourselves to writers who are only favorable to the DPP, I would not approach someone like Su Chi, for example, who is very Kuomintang, close to Ma Ying-Jeou, and close to Beijing as well.  Thinking Taiwan has to serve as a platform where people exchange ideas and I do believe that Dr. Tsai understands this and respects this.

Did I sell out to Tsai Ing-Wen?  No, because if she had not made me that offer, I would no longer be in Taiwan.  She gave me the chance to stay here and to continue to writing about things I think are very important. 

I think Taiwan is easily ignored internationally but in the next couple of years, it’s going to be very important again.  Again, 2016 is a Pandora’s box right now.  There’s a lot of uncertainty.  China realizes that the rapprochement that they starred in 2008 is probably failing; it’s probably dead in the water thanks to the Sunflower movement.  They are realizing that a One Country consistent formula even in Hong Kong is failing miserably.  What’s going to happen after 2016, regardless of whether the DPP wins or not in 2016 is that whoever replaces Ma Ying-Jeou will not be able to go as far as Ma did, especially if Beijing wants to sit down and talk politics.  So how does Beijing react?  What does that mean for the Taiwan strait once again as a political flashpoint that would draw in American forces and increasingly likely Japanese forces as well, as they do their revisions to Article 9 of the Constitution?  So people who are writing about these issues and doing so in the English language for a foreign audience are very important.

But I maintain, I will never ever sell out my principles as a journalist and the day I am asked to be a propagandist, I will quit.  I will find something else.  I hope that my readers and my critics assess my credibility as a journalist not based on who I work for or who pays the bills, but solely on the value of my work, and my ability to be critical of different sides and reevaluate my earlier assessments.

Journalism and Activism

BH: What would you say is the ability of journalism to influence the world?  Is there a line between journalism and activism?  Who should journalism target? Policy makers, people coming out of social movements, or just an international audience at large?

And, to go back to the beginning, what would the role of social change through journalism look like for you?

JMC:  The first the function of journalism as I understand it is to inform the public.  An uninformed public is unable to make rational policy decisions.  It’s important that you have someone who has the ability to translate events for an audience including foreigners and those who cannot physically be in Country X but need to know what is going.  In that regard, the audience is multifaceted.  It can be decision-makers, it can be other journalists, it can be academics, it can be ordinary Joe in New York City or in Ottawa.

I won’t hide the fact that my main audience, that is, the audience I hope I am reaching is predominantly foreign government officials, academics, and foreign journalists as well.  Which is why, even moreso since I joined Thinking Taiwan, is that one component of my work besides the writing and the editing, and putting the website together, is to interact with the international community. 

I go to a lot of academic conferences overseas now on Taiwan.  The title that I have here and the work I have done in recent years has made academics more amenable to have someone like me go and speak at conferences.  I just came back from the UK, where I spoke at two conferences on Taiwan and about social movements.  In a way, it’s hard to influence academics, but I bring my experiences.  They’re not here, they’re in Germany, they’re in London, so I bring my experiences from being here on the ground.

It’s hard to assess success, but it’s easier to judge with policymakers in a way.  They rely a lot on people like me for information, especially, smaller diplomatic missions in Taiwan, who don’t necessarily have intelligence officers or political officers that they’re willing to go the ground and see what’s going on.

The Canadian government buys me lunch every month or so, and says brief us, “are there people you think we should meet and sit down and talk with?”  It’s a way for me to at least give some direction to Canadian policy in Taiwan, which they might not have, if they did not call upon me, right?  Is that pure journalism?  Obviously not.  I’m wearing a different hat when they call upon me for information like that.

If I only really wanted to be a journalist, I would say no to those invitations.  I would stick to my job.  I’m willing to do that because I’m formerly government official myself.  But my entire body of knowledge comes from my journalistic endeavors.   

Now how influential is that? It’s very difficult to assess.  I mean, we all like to think our articles are influential.  It’s a constant internal battle.  There are weeks, where you’re like, it makes exactly zero difference.  And there are other weeks when you see some reactions and you’re like, I’m making a bit of a dent in certain things.  It’s very hard for you to say, well, was that my article, or my series of articles that did that, or was that decision in Washington D.C. made completely independent of what I wrote in The Diplomat or whatever?  As I said, I pay attention to who reads me, it’s important to me, because I’m driven by the desire—I wouldn’t say desire—the need to know that I’m making a difference.  I’ve always been like that.  Maybe I’m not.  But that’s what keeps me going, that’s what drives me.

Now there is such a thing as a more activist-oriented journalist, and I do believe I am one.  I do believe that is a result of my willingness to inject my views in my articles. I think I was at my most activist covering social movements.  Or the issues late last year surrounding the movement to save the family against same-sex unions in Taiwan where I saw some rather unfortunate infractions upon the part of the church organizations in Taiwan.  Bit of a family background, my mother is lesbian in Quebec city.  I am fully aware of the hell that she and her wife went through when they first came out and that I would not like something like this to be revisited upon other people, including some Taiwanese who are since my friends.  I was very activist there.  You read the tone of my article and you can say, yes, I’m definitely activist there, because I’m taking sides.

Officially Unofficial: Confessions of a journalist in Taiwan

BH: In regards to the publication of your memoir, Officially Unofficial, recently, is there anything you have to say to readers?  Would you say that book in in some way targeted towards people interested in journalism?

JMC: Well, in regards to the book itself, I wrote the book itself during the period when we had decided we were leaving Taiwan.  So in many ways it was my goodbye to Taiwan and it was a way to keep track of what happened to me in my eight years and a half, nine years in Taiwan.  I don’t want to be ten, fifteen years down the road, and thinking “Oh, who did I speak to?  What happened?”  Over time, if you have not put down things in writing, your perception of things from years prior will change.  For me, that’s the reason why I did the very bizarre thing of writing a semi-autobiographical work in the third person in the singular. 

The first book I wrote on Canadian intelligence was called Smokescreen.  Some of my readers said that it was too much Michael Cole being very angry at his former employer and it distracted them as they were reading. Obviously my experiences at the Taipei Times were a source of anger and disappointment as well, but I felt if I needed to be honest with myself, I needed to impose some distance.  So I used the literary device of objectifying myself and making me a character in the book.  It was a psychological thing and it really helped in, I think, in making me a bit more clinical about what happened to me. 

The book is in some sense also an attempt to answer the question that I get time and time again by younger people: how do you become a journalist?  How do you reach the point you are today?  I’m linear in that regard.  I start with my first months at the Taipei Times and I conclude with January when Dr. Tsai offered me that job. 

Journalism is not something that you learn in school, it’s something that you learn by doing it as much as possible, as often as possible.  To me that’s means being out there and working your ass off, working all the time, day and night, weekends, it never stops.  You have to be willing when you’re at home, it’s past midnight, and there’s a protest somewhere, to grab the camera, jump in the cab, and go there.  This is how you become known.  This is how you provide valuable work that people are not doing.  This does not fall from the sky. 

I mean, there is an element of chance.  The stars have to be aligned sometimes.  But in the end, it’s hard work.  There’s an element of talent, you have to enjoy writing.  I’m lucky that I truly enjoy writing.  For most people it’s a painful experience and the sooner you’re done, the better.  For me, it’s something that I thoroughly enjoy doing, which is why it’s easier for me to write, four, five, six articles in a week.  It’s painless, relatively painless.  I’m very fortunate that I write pretty quickly.  I can produce relatively clear copy rather quickly.  For some people, it takes them an entire week to produce 2,000 words.  I can do 2,000 words in three hours. 

There’s no job that I’ve done that did not eventually help me in finding something else and getting closer to what I want to do.  And all those past experiences, working in television, working as a translator from French to English, going to grad school at military college, working for intelligence, moving to Taiwan, working for the Taipei Times.  It all triangulates.  I’m where I am now because of all these things and I did not always have control over all these things.  Had 9/11 not happened, I would never have considered a job in intelligence.  If I had not taken that job in intelligence, I would have not met that Taiwanese-Canadian.  I would not have ended up in Taiwan.

I mean, the field of journalism itself is suffering, it’s terrible, and the pay is low, but if you’re willing to do it, there’s ways and there’s new media, including platforms such as yours, to do so.  But there’s also the element of being at the right place at the right time and, again, the stars being aligned, and your background.  So I hope that my book succeeds in explaining at least why I am where I am now.  It doesn’t mean that everyone can replicate that progression and maybe some people will do so in different ways and be even more successful. but that’s what happened to me.

Closing Comments

BH:  Are there any last comments you have for readers that may be out there?

JMC: Well, I would encourage anyone who cares about issues to start a blog and write about those issues.  Your website, for example, is very Asian democracy focused.  The practice of writing is unfortunately dying in the modern age for people who are all busy playing video games on their 4G cell phones, but it’s important.

I learn a lot just by writing because I have to question myself. I have to look up a lot of different things, and it clarifies a lot of unformed views that I have about issues. So anyone who cares about those issues, who cares about the world, who cares about the future, or politics, or the environment, or space exploration or whatever, I would encourage people to write about it.

When people ask me, what can I do for Taiwan, I say, the more people know about Taiwan, the chances are the more people will care about its fate.  If it’s an unknown entity, it’s conveniently and very easily ignored.  If you have people who write about and care about the place, we can put it on the map again.  I am fortunate enough that I have been able to make that a professional endeavor and I am lucky that there are people willing to pay me to do so and hire me to do that in different ways. 

For a lot of people, they will not get paid, at least not initially.  But as I said, the more you write, the better you become.  At some point someone will see your work and say, well, this person actually makes sense, we might ask them to write an article for us.  I guess that’s the final point:  Write, write, write.

BH:  Thank you so much.

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