Battling The Threat of Fairness
Ironically, while international observers judged the elections as predominantly fair (factoring out KMT's inherent advantage as one of the world's richest political parties, raking in almost US$100 million in stock dividends last year1) it was precisely this fairness that triggered open expressions of alarm from Washington. Fair elections made credible the threat that Taiwan could diverge from Washington's ideal neocolonial democracy: You can elect any SOB you want, so long as he's our SOB. The Obama administration responded to the threat of fairness with the same tactic used by the Bush administration in Taiwan's previous presidential election: replacing the pretense of neutrality with open coercion. In 2008, that led to two members of Congress writing to then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asking her department to:
cease its repeated efforts to affect the outcome of the upcoming elections in Taiwan, and specifically, the outcome of the planned referendum on membership in the United Nations.But two days later, Rice herself publicly denounced the symbolic referendum as “provocative”.2
The Obama administration opted for the same strategy, but chose a different tactic. The results surpassed Bush's: now five Congress members (a bipartisan group) expressed concern to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about US failure to "stay neutral".3 But instead of public denouncements of the evils of participatory democracy, this time officials kept silent while swinging a big stick: a slew of not-so-subtle pre-election activities, that signaled a US embrace of the incumbent. Douglas Paal, who served as the de facto US ambassador to Taiwan from 2002 to 2006, identified these actions:
To reinforce its policy preference, the Obama administration has successively approved a $5.852 billion arms sales package for Taiwan that managed not to trigger a harsh Chinese reaction, arranged visits by American officials of five agencies at increasingly high levels that had not been seen in Taiwan in more than a decade, and signaled its intention to admit Taiwan to the valued visa waiver program next year - all in advance of the election.4For the crucial task of heaping scorn on the dangerously absurd notion of self-determination, the Obama administration shied away from public statements by US officials, but instead broadcast via unofficial channels: an anonymous leak, and public statements by ex-officials still in the Washington power loop. Thus freed from the temperance of diplomacy, these pinch-hitter hit men were free to join in the KMT's attack of the opposition.
Slap in the Face
And they went at it full tilt. Last September, after Tsai went to Washington to explain her policy positions, an article in the Financial Times quoted a very senior anonymous U.S. Government official as saying “She [Tsai] left us with distinct doubts about whether she is both willing and able to continue the stability in cross-Strait relations the region has enjoyed in recent years.”5 This raised eyebrows even in Washington's inner sanctum. The US-Taiwan Business Council, a Washington trade relations organization for defense and technology industries (chaired by ex-US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz), reported on this incident as:
what can only be seen as a slap across the face. This was not only meddling with the Taiwan elections, it was also inhospitable… More troubling still, this was a clear effort to telegraph to the Chinese that America doesn’t like the DPP either".6
So what type of politics does America like? Well, the brutal KMT dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek seemed to comfort Washington: for at least the first thirty years of martial law, during Chiang's murderous "White Terror" campaign against those accused as Communists and democracy activists, and his national plundering that is the source of KMT's riches, Washington's silence was deafening. As the Congressional Research Service reported in 2010: "If there was U.S. pressure on the KMT dictatorship to alleviate authoritarian abuses under martial law, the messages were largely quiet and unpublicized".7
Fettered vs. Unfettered Media
Of course, the cheerleader for every US attack is US media. After witnessing the pivotal role of US media and think-tank pundits in hyping the Iraq "weapons of mass destruction" myth, we all now are well aware of their frontline role in manufacturing consent for Washington purges. So it was not surprising to see an onslaught of op-eds fretting over the threat of democracy in Taiwan.
But the drop-dead doozy of demonizing op-eds was marked with an impressive byline: "Lincoln Millstein is senior vice president of Hearst Newspapers, which owns The Chronicle [where the op-ed appeared], and is a native of Taiwan". After establishing his authority as a Taiwan native, media honcho Millstein declared Taiwan's democracy is threatened by (ready?) too much freedom in Taiwan's media (!):
But this unfettered media has a dark side. It has fueled extremism, much in the same manner as Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin have done through Fox. In the case here, the divisive persona is a Taiwan native and Cornell Law School grad named Tsai Ing-wen…8
With shrill US rhetoric previously reserved for the democratic elections of Hugo Chavez and Hamas, Millstein shows us just how fettered US media is, by going on to assert that Tsai's behavior "mirrors the American Tea Party's lack of respect for decorum and civility in the process called government", and worried that freedom and democracy may become "unintended drive-by victims". To fully grasp the lack of respect for honesty in these unhinged claims, compare them with the 2009 assessment for the US State Dept. by Stephen Young, de facto US ambassador to Taiwan at that time (who, probably unlike Millstein, actually dealt with Tsai), noting Tsai's "moderate and cautious approach", "whose natural inclinations are moderate", while not overlooking her weakness: "Tsai's remarks are usually too bland to be picked up as sound bites by Taiwan's media."9 Yet after reading Millstein's hysteria, uninformed Americans no doubt would sigh in relief if Tsai met the fate of bin Laden or al-Awlaki.
Caution: Influence Peddler At Work
But the big gun in the attack was the most visible unofficial messenger of "US interests": Douglas Paal, the former de facto US ambassador to Taiwan. According to one report Paal, a former National Security Council adviser to the senior Bush, has a history of questionable judgement. Most notably, his activities that made him appear to be a lobbyist for Asian governments, while concurrently heading a US non-profit think-tank that depended on foreign funding, left him branded as "ethically suspect" - and therefore he's likely to remain unofficial.10 Despite touting himself as a free agent (he instructed one interviewer, "You should also ask me about the feeling in China. As an independent scholar who is not in the government, I've talked to people in the US and Chinese governments"), Paal seemed to have trouble maintaining his facade and often referred to Washington as "we", "us", or "our". For example: "give 'us' some confidence that she [Tsai] can manage cross-strait relations effectively." And: "It's been beneficial for American interests. That's first and foremost in 'our' minds". It seems delightfully fitting that the Obama administration selected (hired?) someone alleged to be an ethically-challenged global influence peddler to lobby against the DPP's proposal for a Taiwan consensus: "This is not possible. We know Taiwan is deeply divided about its future relations with China…everybody hopes Taiwan can have a consensus…but…this is still a remote possibility. Maybe decades will be required before something like a consensus can be formed”.11
Paal's message, in short: we in Washington, not the people of Taiwan, know what is best for Taiwan because Taiwan is not yet ready for self-determination. After years of Obama's pseudo-progressive rhetoric, it's perversely refreshing to see US neocolonial arrogance once again displayed in full splendor: in the tradition of "Negroes are not ready for full citizenship", and "Colonies are not ready for independence", now comes "Taiwan is not ready to determine its own future". No lack of chutzpah here: Washington passing judgement on Taiwan's ability to craft consensus amid political differences, barely one month after Washington held the global financial system hostage as its deficit reduction debate went into political gridlock!
After putting Taiwan in its place, Paal also placed the burden of peace on Tsai, insisting that she must "try to find means to persuade China that she is not a threat to their perception of what’s required for peace and stability". Paal seems to have forgotten his own words in a 2010 article, which still hold true:
China seems intoxicated by its language of "core interests" in Taiwan and Tibet, and has forgotten its "broader interests" in trade, development and a "peaceful environment."12
In 1996, Beijing's autocrats made clear what threatens their perception of peace: nine months of sabre-rattling - missile tests and military exercises - was Beijing's welcome to Taiwan's first direct presidential election. As a 2008 security report to Congress observes: "Taiwan’s democratic model poses a threat to the PRC’s Communist regime".2 Like Washington, Beijing abhors government by the people. Democracy is messy, autocracy is stable and easier to deal with. Unlike Washington, Beijing does not bother with pretense, but instead regularly contributed to Taiwan's presidential elections with outright threats.
This year, however, Beijing muted its bullying, perhaps heeding analysts who conjectured that such bullying backfired and contributed to the first DPP win in 2000. The more vocal role in the Washington/Beijing "good cop/bad cop" act was outsourced to Washington, which dangled carrots rather than sticks. There's compelling evidence of Washington/Beijing collusion in the US invasion of Taiwan's elections: Beijing, always quick to claim sovereignty over Taiwan and its affairs, responded to the US invasion with utter silence. Paal admits: "The US and China are both sitting on the edge of their chairs, nervous about the outcome of this upcoming election in Taiwan". Forget the 1992 consensus, forget Taiwan consensus: the rulers have now embraced the notion that Taiwan's future is to be decided by the Beijing-Washington consensus: the marriage of autocrats and plutocrats. From the Cold War to today, the people of Taiwan can testify to the truth of the proverb, "When elephants fight, the grass gets crushed. When elephants make love, the grass gets crushed".
While many pundits claim voters affirmed the current regime's China policies, no one can state with any certainty to what degree those policies determined the election outcome. In the current extraordinarily uncertain global economic climate, it is possible that voters simply did not want the potential disruption of regime change at this time. We do, however, know that Taiwan's voters have already shown that they will not be cowed by threats from Beijing. We can only hope that they are equally resilient to coercion from Washington.
- Taipei Times, Jul 23, 2011 ↩
- Congressional Research Service ↩
- Taipei Times, Jan 12, 2012 ↩
- Carnegie Endowment Asia-Pacific Brief, Jan 11, 2012 ↩
- Financial Times, Sep 15, 2011 ↩
- US-Taiwan Business Council ↩
- Congressional Research Service, May 26, 2010 ↩
- San Francisco Chronicle, Oct 9, 2011 ↩
- Wikileaks cable, May 1 2009 ↩
- The New Republic, Mar 4, 2002 ↩
- China Times, Jan 11,2012 ↩
- Carnegie Endowment, The National Interest, Apr 5, 2010 ↩