Showing posts with label journalism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label journalism. Show all posts

Monday, May 20, 2019

Despite some unfortunate headlines, media coverage of Taiwan recognizing same-sex marriage is exactly what we needed


Pro-equality activists have been talking about the tangential benefits of same-sex marriage (or better yet, marriage equality) in Taiwan for years, most notably that it would be a massive boost to Taiwan's international visibility. Just imagine the international media coverage, all focused on Taiwan, especially if we're the first in Asia, we've been saying since...forever.

Last Friday it happened. We laughed, we (happy) cried, it was the feel-good legislation of the year.  And just like we said, the rainbow explosion wasn't limited to Taiwan. Every major media outlet around the world - not just the ones in Western nations - carried the news.

Let's put that into perspective. After 2014, when I mentioned "the Sunflowers" to my friends in the US, I was met with blank stares. I may as well have been talking about actual sunflowers that you can grow in a garden. This time, I don't think I have a friend or relative in the world who hasn't heard the news. Taiwan did something huge, and it mattered to the news cycle that it was the first country in Asia to strike a blow for equality.

Wait, what was that I just said? First country?

Reading most English-language media, unfortunately, that word has been avoided with the most, um, ductile of language choices (please enjoy some links to examples). First place in Asia. The island's parliament. Taiwan's historic first for Asia. First in Asia.

 First what in Asia? It seems nobody is willing to clarify. Or if they are, it's a 'state' (how is that different from a country?) or a 'self-ruled island'.

Of course, a few incompetent dipclowns (like the World Economic Forum) kind of soured it by calling this country "Taiwan, China", The Guardian called Taiwan a country on Instagram then issued a correction that it was a 'state', and now seems to have taken the post down (I can't find it to link it), and of course the Chinese media gonna Chinese media and whatever.

I propose, however, that the good reporting on this issue (and reporting that is good for Taiwan) has far outstripped the few geographically-challenged dumbos.

First, plenty of media did call Taiwan a country. USA Today called Taiwan a "country" via the Associated Press. The Chicago Tribune used it in their headline too, as did QuartzThe New York Times didn't use that word in their title, but they managed to find a quote to help them slip it in, and CNN did too. Bloomberg managed to stick it into three separate quotes the day before the vote (good job!), and a Bloomberg-affiliated video on Youtube uses the word "country" and so did DW. ANI (from South Asia) called Taiwan a "nation", Bustle called it a "country". Here is The Economist using it in their first paragraph and The Washington Post using "nation" towards the top of the article. There are surely more - there are only so many articles on the same topic that I can read.


That's a lot of major media calling Taiwan a 'country' or a 'nation' and a lot of readers who will now understand that Taiwan is indeed a country. Nothing at all to sniff at.

Look beyond the English-language media, and it gets even better. On Twitter, Pierre Baubry noted that most French media called Taiwan a country:

...and that lines up with my admittedly shallow research (the sub-headline in Le Monde called Taiwan a 'country'). It's the same in Spanish. No really. There seem to be very few outliers, and even this one references the word "country" within the first paragraph.

But you know what? That's not even the best part.

The best part is that almost every single one of these stories, whether they called Taiwan a 'country', 'nation', 'place', 'state', 'island' or nothing at all ('first in Asia!'), focused on Taiwan itself. 

Not its relationship to China. Not what China thinks about Taiwan. Not China's reaction. Taiwan. The deliberations of Taiwan's legislature. What Taiwanese voters and demonstrators think. What President Tsai did. Taiwan's domestic political situation. China was a non-entity, as it should be, seeing as it's a totally different country. I mean, our buddy Ralph "I hate Taiwan but still write about it" Jennings framed his piece in relation to China but...well. Who cares - at least this time - if one guy buried the lede?

What I mean is, for once, the international media mostly reported on Taiwan the way they should have been all along.

When China was mentioned, it was either in passing without any of that 1949 claptrap, or it was to compare Taiwan favorably to China. Yay!

From the Washington Post:

In neighboring China — which asserts sovereignty over Taiwan — popular LGBT microblogs were censored online in the wake of Taiwan’s 2017 high-court ruling. The social media platform Weibo was criticized last month for restricting LGBT hashtags. 
Taiwan has shown that “traditional culture is not against LGBT culture,” said Jennifer Lu, coordinator of the rights group Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan. “That’s the message we want to send to the world.”

Another great thing? All of the amazing soundbites from Taiwan being reported around the world, which focus specifically on the progressive conversation happening here. From the Washington Post:

Tsai, the president, voiced her support of the legislation in a Twitter post, saying that Friday marked “a chance to make history and show the world that progressive values can take root in an Asian society.”

And another one from WaPo correctly pointing out that this has long been an issue in Taiwan, correctly delineating Taiwanese activist history as continuous and robust:

Chi Chia-wei, a gay rights activist for more than 30 years, said he was “very, very happy” to see Taiwan legalize same-sex marriage, calling the process “a strong demonstration of our democratic spirit.” 

From the New York Times:

“Taiwan has become the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage,” it said, “successfully striding toward a new page of history!” 
Human rights activists said they hoped Taiwan’s vote could influence other places in Asia to approve same-sex marriage.

From The Guardian:

“What we have achieved is not easy,” said Victoria Hsu, the founder and executive director of the Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights. “The law will not be 100% perfect, but this is a good start and this is a major step to end discrimination based on sexual orientation. Now the law says everyone should be treated equally no matter who you are, who you love.”

In another Washington Post piece, properly situating Taiwan as a progressive leader in Asia:

The vote in Taiwan helps “signal it’s not an East-West thing or global North global South thing,” Knight said. Officials in Brunei will have a hard time defending such harsh anti-homosexuality legislation, he said, “when the map of the Asian region is moving clearly in the opposite direction."

From The Economist:

In Asia, Taiwan has long stood out as a bastion of gay rights. The annual gay pride parade in Taipei, the capital, draws tens of thousands, many from overseas.

You guys, this is the kind of reporting that gets the world to wake up and notice Taiwan. This is how we show everyone not only that human rights are not an east-west issue (or a Global South/Global North one, though I would not say Taiwan is in the Global South developmentally), but that Taiwan is a bastion and a leader in Asia. This is how we show them how vibrant Taiwan's democracy really is, and that in fact a lot of interesting things take place here that they probably had no idea about, because the media never bothered to report on it.


For that, I'm willing to overlook a few weaklings who wouldn't dare to just write "country" (and a few purposeful jerks like the World Economic Forum).

Overall, this is a win for Taiwan. Taiwan the country, Taiwan the regional leader, Taiwan the bastion of progressivism (at least by Asian standards).

Now, how do we get all those journalists to keep it up?

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Some media in Taiwan get Beijing's approval to run stories, and nobody cares?

So, a few days ago the Association of Taiwan Journalists issued a statement that the National Security Bureau has caught wind of some media outlets in Taiwan obtaining pre-approval from Beijing before running stories.

And...nobody seems to care?

I don't know why - that sounds absolutely terrifying to me. We've been hearing a lot of discussion about possible interference by China in the 2018 election, attempts to propagate fake news and influence the media and generally undermine Taiwan's democratic norms. Now we have some concrete evidence, or at least a report, on at least one avenue they are pursuing and...crickets.

I expected to hear more about it in the English-language media and...nothing, except this - a blog I'd never heard of before but might start following. There is coverage in the Chinese media - I don't have a TV so I couldn't tell you about broadcast (and am a bit lazy about finding that stuff on Youtube) but it's in the print news at least.

But not a lot of print news - I found pieces in Liberty Times, UDN and Yahoo! News Taiwan, and not a lot else.

So, I've gone ahead and translated the statement for you. I'm not a great translator but I did my best: 

During a meeting of the Foreign and National Defense Committee of the Legislative Yuan on the morning of the 2nd (of May), Democratic Progressive Party legislator Luo Chi-cheng questioned whether there are some media outlets which inform the "other side" (that is, China) of the contents of any 'breaking news' or 'editorial pieces' and obtain approval from Beijing before running them. Deputy Director of the National Security Bureau Chen Wen-fan replied that he had "heard of this happening recently."
This short question and answer shows that the National Security Agency does not deny certain "news" received by domestic audiences may be reviewed or even edited by the Chinese government. 
In addition to this, the Taiwan Association of Journalists feels it is unfortunate that this is a matter all people should be concerned with; we appeal to audiences to actively shun media which may produce such content. Creating such content does not serve the needs of listeners to obtain news, but rather follows the instructions of Chinese President Xi Jinping that "the media must belong to the party, listen to the party and walk with the party." 
The Taiwan Journalists Association believes that the journalism industry that informs and educates the public will continue its effort to exercise freedom of speech, follow a different path, and will not participate in in China's attempt to interfere with domestic freedom in Taiwan by reviewing pre-publication content from abroad.

And here's the original press release: 

Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 9.20.28 PM

The statement specifically mentions listening audiences, which points to it being an issue with broadcast media.

This actually doesn't surprise me - I'm sure we've all noticed that the usual craven, half-true sensationalism that characterizes Taiwanese TV news - and especially the sludge they broadcast on blue-leaning stations - has gotten worse recently. I may not have a TV but even I've noticed it, just from the TVs in restaurants. (I used to merely prefer restaurants that didn't put on CTV or TVBS, now I actively avoid them).

What scares me even more? We don't know which stations are doing this - there is no list, according to deputy minister of the Mainland Affairs Council Chiu Chui-cheng.

Though we can guess that most or all blue-leaning ones are involved - and it is nearly impossible to convince the viewers hypnotized by it that they're watching Beijing-approved swill. If they cared about that they wouldn't have tuned in in the first place.

It's going to be a long, painful slog to 2020. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

China won't do anything if you say 'no' to them


I'm hoping to add to this list in the future, but willing to publish now - and here's what I want to say.

It's OK to say no to Beijing's demands regarding the naming and designation of Taiwan. China may push and whine and scream and threaten, but at the end of the day, if you hold the line, nothing comes of it. In specific, rare instances where it has, it's because an entire industry has caved and so the CCP can flex its muscles without worry.

Take the latest LSE sculpture controversy that Chinese students manufactured. As of now, The World Turned Upside Down has still not been changed. I can confirm this as of April 14th: 

Photo used with permission

No official decision has been made, but seeing as it's no longer in the news, I doubt it will continue to be an issue.

And what has Beijing threatened or done in retaliation?

Nothing. Nothing at all. I've checked every news source I can find on this, and there's nada. Zero.

LSE said they were going to shelve the issue, and silence reigned. The Economist intoned that China could threaten to cut off student enrollment as they said they might do at Oxford:

When Louise Richardson, vice-chancellor of Oxford University, was asked by the Chinese embassy to prevent Lord Patten, the university’s chancellor (a largely ceremonial role), from visiting Hong Kong, she refused.... 
British universities have worked hard to court the Chinese, and the rush of students paying hefty international fees demonstrates the benefits of this approach. But as the LSE is now finding out, it is not without drawbacks. When threatened with receiving fewer Chinese students by the Chinese embassy, Ms Richardson of Oxford replied that there were many Indians who would be happy to take their place. 

But so far that has not materialized, and as far as I'm aware it never came to anything at Oxford, either. That allows us to add Oxford University to our list of institutions that have refused Chinese demands and suffered no real repercussions.

Then there was the incident at the Lions Club, which has chapters in Taiwan (in China, they have their own Lions Club which apparently cooperates with the Lions Club International). The China chapter tried to force the international organization to change Taiwan's designation...and failed.

Has there been any blowback against the Lions Club by Chinese authorities since?

As far as I can find, there has been none.

And here's one that may surprise you. Remember when we all thought that an Air New Zealand flight was denied landing in China because the Chinese government had requested that the airline change its designation of Taiwan to show it as part of China?

Turns out that's likely not the case. One website reported it, and everyone just took it as true. But even Reuters - that bastion of bad Taiwan reporting - didn't think there was enough evidence to the story to even report it as a possibility. And as The Guardian pointed out, there's no definitive evidence that this was the reason, and in fact reported that:

China’s foreign affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying said the Air New Zealand flight had turned around on its own accord. “Due to temporary glitch in dispatchment, this airplane failed to obtain a landing permit with its destination and decided of its own accord to return en route.”

Beijing is quite clear on the line it takes with international airlines; it has no reason to lie about this.

So I went and checked. Guess what!

Air New Zealand still doesn't refer to Taiwan as a part of China. On its route map, it puts Taiwan in capital letters just as it does with every other country.

Screen Shot 2019-04-16 at 8.01.14 PM

At least in Taiwan, their website opens with a reference to Taiwan:

Screen Shot 2019-04-16 at 7.59.05 PM

...and Taipei is just referred to as "Taipei" as a destination they fly to, as with every other city.

 Are you hearing news reports about Air New Zealand being denied the ability to fly to China, because they never heeded the request that they change Taiwan's designation? No?

That's because it never happened. Air New Zealand doesn't call Taiwan "China" and yet they are still able to fly to several cities in China, and keep Shanghai as a hub!

What this means is that all those other airlines never actually had to change Taiwan's designation. There was no risk. There's no way China would have banned all of them, seeing as it won't even ban one.

The same could have been true for organizations that have already bent the knee to Emperor Xi - such as the international English proficiency testing organizations IELTS and TOEFL - I fail to see why they felt it was necessary. Do they really think China would ban IELTS or TOEFL testing? With all of the rich princelings that powerful parents want to send to study abroad? Please. There was no risk here; they just bent over because they like it rough, I suppose. If anything, organizations like IELTS bring pain on themselves when their own governments castigate them over their stupid decisions.

And, of course, while China might cause trouble for international news publications, the New York Times, The Economist and more who refer to Taiwan as "Taiwan" are already blocked in China. I suspect most would agree as well that censoring their content so as to appease China - assuring their reporters access or keeping their sites unblocked - would irreparably damage their credibility as sources of reputable journalism regardless. So, there is no reason going forward for them to make any changes either.

In short, let this be my announcement to the international organizations and businesses of the world: you don't have to give in to Beijing's demands on Taiwan.

It's clear that they don't actually do anything to retaliate if you show them the door.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

So, who cut ties with whom (and why)?

I know, I was going to continue my previous post, but this came along, and I can't resist.

I generally avoid commenting on which checkbook ally has cut ties with Taiwan on any given day, because it's always the same story, and never a very interesting one. These allies not helpful in any way that matters to Taiwan - are they going to stand with us if China invades? (No.) Are these countries our biggest trading partners? (No.) Does Taiwan stop being a de facto independent state if it has no diplomatic allies? (No.)

But even more problematically, they recognize Taiwan in a sort of "what is the real China" decades-out-of-date death dance in which they're only recognizing Taiwan as the legitimate sole government of China. Which it isn't.

So, generally speaking - whatever.

But El Salvador is an interesting case. Why?

El Salvador hadn't abandoned Taiwan yet. It asked Taiwan for "an astronomical sum" of financial aid, and Taiwan cut ties with El Salvador. 

Of course, that's not the whole story. I'm sure there was a competing offer from China. I don't know what that offer might have been, but friend of mine pointed out that there was a delegation from El Salvador in Beijing not long before this happened. "It was known" that this was where things were going. So, Taiwan took the only step available to it.

And it did so for good reasons (the headline sucks - we'll get to that later): El Salvador wanted money for a port project that Taiwanese engineers deemed infeasible (and which Chinese companies were, from what I hear, bidding for), Taiwan is worried about developing countries' debts to China, and apparently the ruling party wanted funding from Taiwan to help it win elections, which is a story so slimy you could break a leg trying to navigate it. And, of course, Taiwan just doesn't want to play dollar diplomacy any more.

Beijing or no Beijing, these are actually very good reasons to say goodbye to one's allies. And Taiwan at least tried to at least seem as though it made the call. 

In that light, assuming the story coming out of Taiwan about this "astronomical sum" is true, this looks a lot more like blackmail than diplomacy. I applaud Taiwan for not playing that game.

That's the real story here - people have asked, every time we lose another ally, whether it really matters. The government has just given its answer: it doesn't. It knows that if Taiwan is going to defend itself against China, it won't be because a few, as one person put it, "statelets" recognize Taiwan. It will be defended if it can keep up the morale of its own people to be willing to "stand on a hill with a gun" and fight for it, bullet by bullet. It would also help if the international community saw it as worth defending regardless of who recognizes it.

So let's look at some of the, um, "journalism" this particular severance has generated.

First, we have the one - one! - article that at least gets the subject and object right: "Taiwan Cuts Ties With El Salvador", though of course (being Focus Taiwan) it doesn't tell the whole story. It can't. 

Then, we have a piece by Lily Kuo (reporting from Beijing - couldn't they have handed the whole piece to the guy who is actually in Taiwan?) with the headline:

 "Taiwan Further Isolated As El Salvador Switches Allegiance To China"

...leading everyone who didn't read the article (that is, almost everyone) with the impression that the same old narrative was playing out, and Taiwan was sitting around with its thumb up its butt looking on stupidly as yet another friend ran away.

If you read the article - which I did - it does note fairly early on how things actually took place:

Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, said on Monday that Taipei had terminated bilateral ties with El Salvador and was recalling all staff from the country.

According to Wu, El Salvador had been asking Taiwan to provide an “astronomical sum” in financial aid for a port project that Wu said would leave both countries in debt. Meanwhile, Taiwan had received reports that El Salvador was considering establishing ties with Beijing in exchange for investment and aid.

This is solid. So why was the headline so misleading? Which unqualified editor thought such a headline was acceptable?

Unfortunately, the piece also includes this (stupid) gem:

Relations between China and Taiwan have reached a low under Tsai, who belongs to the Democratic Progressive party, which advocates independence for the island. Since her election, Beijing has ramped up efforts to poach Taiwan’s allies. Now, just 17 countries recognise Taiwan, after Burkina Faso and the Dominican Republic cut ties and recognised Beijing instead earlier this year.

Let's see, in this steaming turd heap of a paragraph, we have:

1.) An assumption that the problem with relations with China is Tsai, not China. Tsai hasn't done anything to foster tensions with China. China is doing everything possible to create tensions to hurt Tsai. No wonder her popularity is sinking - she's not perfect on the domestic policy front, but with garbage like this, people think she's riling up China, too - when her dealings with China are actually one of the strongest points in favor of her administration. People want a president who will stand up to China when it matters, but who will not rock the Chinese economic boat. For Taiwan, that is not possible, and China is playing that card hard.

2.) An implication that "advocating independence for the island" is somehow a bad thing, or that this, not Chinese bullying, is the real thorn in the side of Taiwan-China relations

3.) No redux of the actual story behind Taiwan's decision (which doesn't look good for Taiwan, but would at least interesting related information about what China was up to and the steps Taiwan took to deal with it more proactively. All we have are some "reports" mentioned above, and then a lot of information about previous diplomatic switches that, while useful to the non-expert, are tangential.)

These parts are a bit better: 

The latest diplomatic switch leaves Taiwan further isolated on the international stage as Beijing continues to put pressure on the self-governed island that operates under its own government, currency, and military. Beijing claims Taiwan is an inseparable part of China and will not maintain ties with any country that has formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan....

China has also pressured companies to take sides. This year China’s aviation authority demanded foreign airlines, including American Airlines, Air Canada, Lufthansa, British Airways, and Qantas to change any descriptions of Taiwan as a non-Chinese territory.

Sure, there is a lack of explanation of China's role in Taiwan's decision, leaving us with the previous half a sentence about some "reports" to lead readers to understand how the story goes from "Taiwan cuts ties" to "Beijing is trying to isolate Taiwan".

But, I will say that I appreciate that it moves away from the old "separated in 1949" nonsense; that's an improvement. It talks about Beijing as the main antagonist. Good.

Yet, as with most pieces, it goes on to talk about what Beijing wants, without talking about what Taiwan wants, only mentioning (above) that the ruling party "advocates independence for the island" - nothing about why the Taiwanese would vote in such a party (could it be that...they want independence too? Who woulda thought? Nobody outside Taiwan apparently, because they're reading such shoddy news reports.)

Nothing about why the DPP might advocate for independence to begin with. Nothing about why unification with China might be seen as a bad idea in Taiwan. Nothing about how all of these allies recognize Taiwan as "China", not as "Taiwan", and are not necessarily important allies. So, of course the rest of the world has a skewed view of what's actually going on here.

I won't bother digging into the trash heaps of the other articles, but here are some headlines just to show you how skewed the story the West is hearing really is:

El Salvador Breaks Ties With Taiwan To Favor Beijing (wrong subject/object order, guys)

El Salvador, Taiwan Break Ties As China Isolates Island Foe (Taiwan isn't a foe of China - China is a bully to Taiwan. In any case, why is Beijing treated as a lead actor in this story?) - with the same headline in the Washington Post, which includes some useful information alongside the same old 1949 nonsense, and a paragraph about Xi Jinping's ambitions that are only tangentially related to the real story.

Taiwan loses third diplomatic ally this year as El Salvador breaks ties (again with the subjects and objects. You could have told this story in a way that acknowledges Taiwan's proactive choice, while still noting that it was forced into that choice, rather than pretend it sat by passively.)

Channel News Asia starts with an okay headline (Taiwan Says Breaks Ties With El Salvador), only to dive deep into the trash pile in the actual article.

Internationally, outside Asia, only the Wall Street Journal gets it right:

Taiwan Cuts Diplomatic Ties With El Salvador

So now, thanks to poor reporting, we have the rest of the world thinking Taiwan is passively letting itself be eaten away, when in fact, Taiwan is trying to flip the table on this tired story. It's doing so in a weak way, playing a weak hand, but it's trying nonetheless. It matters that despite being pushed into this corner, Taiwan is trying to at least seem more proactive about it, but nobody is listening.

Even when Taiwan tries to change the narrative others have forced on it - however imperfectly - it gets pushed down. Why bother trying to take control of your own story when nobody is paying attention anyway?

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Neither marriage equality nor Taiwanese independence are strange or scary - stop making them seem that way for clicks

As we all know, and the reasonable among us have celebrated, marriage equality is finally set to come to Taiwan. I personally do not think any of the worst fears of retaliation by anti-equality groups will come to pass, because the ruling was clear. Inequality is unconstitutional, therefore, there must be equality. Unequal laws passed off as "marriage equality" will not suffice and it seems to me will be open to immediate challenge in court.

You wouldn't know that from reading Taiwanese English-language media though.

Have a read through these articles, or even just check their headlines:

Same-sex marriage age to be set at 18

Cabinet mulls introducing marriage age of 18 for same-sex couples

What's your first impression upon skimming the headlines? Was it that the marriage age for same-sex couples seems like it will be different (and older) than that currently set for opposite-sex ones?

Look again at the first paragraphs (or first few paragraphs) of each:

The Executive Yuan yesterday said that its proposal to legalize same-sex marriage would set the legal age for such unions at 18 and engagement at 17, while prohibiting those within the sixth degree of consanguinity from getting married.
The Cabinet held a second ad hoc meeting to establish the goals that it is to work toward in the legislative process to legalize same-sex unions.
After reviewing the chapter in the Civil Code governing marriage, the Executive Yuan said that homosexual couples would have to be at least 18 to get married and at least 17 to become engaged, Executive Yuan Secretary-General Chen Mei-ling (陳美伶) told a news conference in Taipei.
The Civil Code stipulates that heterosexual couples must be at least 18 to be legally united and at least 16 to be engaged.
* * * 
Taipei, June 14 (CNA) The Executive Yuan is considering making the minimum age at which same-sex couples can get engaged and marry 17 and 18 respectively, irrespective of gender, a Cabinet official said on Wednesday.

In fact, in the middle or at the bottom - not in the headline, not at the top - of both articles, it is clarified that the marriage age for heterosexual couples is proposed to change too, so that the age regulations will be the same no matter the sex(es) of the couple:

Chen said that the Cabinet would recommend that the legal age at which heterosexual couples can be engaged be changed to 17 so that the rules would be consistent.

* * *
Although Taiwan's Civil Code currently has a different minimum age requirement for men and women in heterosexual unions, the Executive Yuan's proposed legal amendment would make the minimum engagement and marriage age the same for homosexual and heterosexual unions, Cabinet secretary general Chen Mei-ling (陳美伶) said during a meeting.

I understand why Taipei Times and Focus Taiwan did this: marriage equality is a hot issue, and articles about it get clicks. Articles on changing the marriage age are less likely to be read - marriage age changes, especially fairly small ones, are just not that interesting. You can basically get what you need to know from the headline.

It's the same rationale behind why China seems to be horned into every single article (even headline) in the international media about Taiwan, even when it isn't in any way relevant. So we end up with stupid headlines like Tsai Ying-wen elected president of Taiwan, China angry or China likely to be upset about marriage equality in Taiwan? (I made those up, but they're pretty close to the truth). China gets clicks, Taiwan doesn't, so editors complicit in mutilating Taiwan's story in the international press shove China in there like an unlubed butt plug.

And I know this is why they do it because more than one journalist friend has told me so. They *shrug* and say "it's better that the article be published at all than it be spiked because nobody's going to read about just Taiwan." Quite literally if you want to be in the news at all you have to bend over and take it. 

So it is with marriage equality, except it doesn't even come with the excuse of "if you want this news out there at all you have to accept the butt plug" that the China-shoving does. It's just put in there to be sensationalistic and get clicks over what is a relatively minor news item, which deserves to be published but maybe wasn't going to get all that many clicks anyhow...and that's okay for something that, again, is just not that interesting. It's not serving any greater purpose.

It's just as damaging domestically, however, as the China butt-plugging is internationally, if it's also happening in the Chinese-language media (it probably is, but I'm traveling right now and don't have the time to properly check. Some back-up on this would be greatly appreciated).

What articles like these do is make marriage equality seem riskier, stranger, scarier, more sensational and more 'exotic' than it really is by highlighting what the rules are likely to be for same-sex unions while downplaying that the proposals would make these rules the same for opposite-sex couples. It damages the idea of marriage equality as a step forward in human rights, in a greater application of equality for all, and, frankly, as something normal, even mundane - which it more or less has become in much of the developed world. The ruling was a big deal. Marriage equality coming to Taiwan is a big deal. Setting the marriage age and proposing to change the heterosexual marriage age to be consistent is not. Continuing to treat marriage between people of the same sex as somehow different from marriage between people of the opposite sex encourages readers to think that way, and confirms the biases of those who already do. It's not neutral and it's barely accurate.

It's not that much different from the international (and sometimes domestic) press playing up every single tremor of disapproval from China, presenting their statements without context, making everything seem more terrifying or unprecedented than it really is, instead of accurately reporting the truth on the ground, which is rather mundane: Taiwan is independent, China doesn't like that, but China can fuck right off and so far not much has really changed. It is not neutral, barely accurate (or not accurate at all), creates sensationalism and otherness where none need exist, encourages a certain thought process, and plays to biases for those who already have them. It hurts Taiwan in the same way that writing about marriage equality this way is detrimental to a broader acceptance of equality.

Going back to marriage equality, what's worse is that there does seem to be at least one problematic proposal on the table that, from the reporting, would seem to affect opposite-sex couples but not same-sex ones. From the Taipei Times article:

Same-sex couples younger than 20 who want to get married must obtain the approval of their legal guardians, or the marriage could be voided should their legal representatives file an objection, she [Chen Mei-ling] said.

This is buried about halfway down one article and not mentioned in another, and yet to me it appears to be the real news item here - unless this proposal would cover all couples equally, it is a sign that the Executive Yuan is mulling a rule that would create unequal marriage laws, which, as I've said several times, will be open to all sorts of challenges as the ruling is unambiguous in calling for equality. 

But neither Focus Taiwan nor Taipei Times can seem to get their heads out of 'what'll get the most clicks' land and report actual news.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Seek out Taiwanese voices, but don't prune them to fit your own narrative

This is interesting read in and of itself, but I have a specific reason for sharing it - and it's not an entirely positive thing.

Quick editor's note: I'm switching around the halves of this post because too much discussion has been happening on my criticism of the over-inclusion and enhanced credibility of Dr. Some White Guy Who Is An Expert On China (a criticism I believe is merited and which I stand by) and not nearly enough on the co-opting of Taiwanese voices to fit Western narratives. I am disappointed to say the least that the wrong point was emphasized. While I have my criticisms of the idolizing of Dr. Some White Guy Who Is An Expert On China, I don't want to be yet another in a list of people using a Taiwanese voice to air a grievance of my own.

So, let's start with the bad of it: this is Lin Fei-fan's reaction to his inclusion. There is also a Facebook post in English, which if I did the link right, you should be able to read here. It is worth your time.

He was a bit disappointed, though he recognized the honor of his words opening and closing an article on Taiwan in the New York Times. He was not misquoted, but the crux of what he was trying to say was that the solution to threats from China over this phone call - and in general - was to work towards normalizing relations between the US and Taiwan, and that current policy on Taiwan is in its own way a selling out of Taiwan already (which is absolutely true). All of that was excised. To wit:

"Lin said he told the paper that while many in Taiwan worry that US president-elect Donald Trump will change policy directions after he assumes office, the best way to handle a potential change in policy would be for Taiwan to seek the development of normal relations with the US.

Lin said the NYT’s reporter emphasized the worry that he mentioned exists in Taiwan over Trump’s intentions, while overlooking the emphasis he placed on the development of normalized relations between the two countries...I did absolutely say this, but they emphasized the wrong point. Of course I am unhappy about seeing Taiwan used as a chess piece,” Lin said."

Why? Well, I do understand that reporters and editors have to take many interviews and ideas and create a narrative flow, and that means not every idea, as strong as it may be, and not every quote, as pertinent as it may be, is going to make it in. In some ways it's fairly standard.

I have another, less innocent suspicion though: the New York Times, and most Western liberal media - has already created, cultivated and sold the narrative that talking to Taiwan is Bad Bad Bad because China is Scary Scary Scary. Like parents - yes, that means I'm calling the Chinese government a baby, because it is - who don't realize that their spoiling of their kid is a direct cause, if not THE direct cause, of why their kid is an asshole. Who think continuing to spoil said kid is the only solution because it's already too late. "We've tried nothing, and we're all out of ideas!"

My liberal friends, I am sorry to say (and I love you guys, I do! But please!) have bought into this in a scary way. I get it - this isn't InfoWars or whatever, it's not even Addicting Info or other liberal clickbait. It's the New York Times, among others. You want to believe them. They are respected journalistic organizations. They created this narrative, and you bought it. You trust them, with good reason (usually).

Only as the initial furor has abated, when readers may not be reading anymore, are they seeking out Taiwanese voices - and Lin is among the best voices to seek out - and to their credit, they're not making them sound unreasonable or vacuous. They come across as cogent, knowledgeable and and thoughtful.

As I said above, that's an important and laudable step, but note how, in this case, when those Taiwanese voices voiced ideas too far outside the curated-and-sold narrative, they are edited to fit it. You can't broadcast a revolutionary idea - as sad as it is that normalizing relations with Taiwan is "revolutionary", it really shouldn't be - because the media doesn't want its narrative called into question. They just don't publish it. They probably think they are doing the right thing. They may not even be aware of it on a conscious level. We all, consciously and sub-, create, broadcast and defend our narratives. We don't even realize we're doing it.

What concerns me is that this feels a bit like Taiwanese voices being carefully edited to legitimize the pre-existing narrative on Taiwan. By cutting out the rebuttal -  that no, the status quo is not very good for Taiwan, yes, we are hurt that American liberals ignore progressive, liberal Taiwan, and the solution is to stand up to China and normalize relations - and pruning a few quotes regarding Taiwanese sentiment and also suspicion of Trump, the latter thought already resonating with American liberals, are they not co-opting Taiwanese voices to lend credence to the narrative they've already decided to sell regardless of whether those voices actually agree? Is that not just as problematic as quoting Dr. Some White Guy Who Is An Expert on China, if not more so? To make it sound like the Taiwanese more or less endorse this narrative because they, too, are suspicious of Trump (when that support is not necessarily as full-throated as you want to believe)? Is there not something a bit icky about pruning quotes from a local voice to support your Western worldview when the actual local voice is disappointed in how the article ended up including it? How do you feel if you are one of the folks who bought the narrative?

So, here is a confirmed example of how those Taiwanese voices who are interviewed do not always think the main point of what they want to express is included when they are asked at all - and a powerful example of perhaps legitimizing one's pre-existing worldview by including selected quotes from local voices to fit the narrative you want to sell, rather than letting the local voices speak for themselves.

But it's not all bad. Aaaand, here we go.

The good of it is that finally, reporters in the West are seeking out Taiwanese voices on Taiwanese issues. This is a big change from analysis on Taiwan brought to you by Dr. Some White Guy Who Is An Expert on China, no thought paid to the fact that Taiwan is not a part of China. It also finally reports on the Taiwanese reaction to the Phone Call Heard 'Round The World (and I do appreciate more pieces in recent days finally looking at alternative viewpoints to the knee-jerk "China Is Big And Scary And We Have To Placate Their Tantrums!" Western liberal reaction - and again, I say that as a liberal).

This piece on Medium lays it out well:

"As producers and transmitters of knowledge, the media plays an indispensable role in shaping how a society learns about and understands a topic. Individuals’ beliefs are significantly impacted by the voices that are amplified in the media they consume....We can witness the epistemic marginalization by observing who gets quoted in articles about Trump’s Taiwan phone call. While the US and Chinese political actors are given the agency of chess players, Taiwan is represented as merely a pawn. The most basic articles include a quote from an American and a Chinese government official. The more advanced articles add quotes from an expert on China, Taiwan, or Asia — typically a White person working in a Western institution. The very advanced articles add quotes from expats or journalists working in the region — again, typically White and Western. In mainstream publications like The Financial Times, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, there was not a single quote from a Taiwanese perspective. Instead, it is those who already occupy dominant social positions who get to be heard."

The issue is not, of course, that the voices of Western scholars and experts are being included, it's that they are included while Taiwanese ones are not. They supplant Taiwanese voices, when they are not effective substitutes. It's that Dr. Some White Guy Who Is An Expert on China is considered to be all that's needed, rather than just one voice bordered by others. And, of course, that these guys are almost never experts on Taiwan - those who are often have an outdated understanding of Taiwan - and that does hurt the quality of the "journalism" being churned out.

This is especially great because, as a Mandarin-speaking long-term resident of Taiwan with a degree in a closely related subject, I am a bit sick of being told by Western media how I should feel about the Taiwan-US-China relationship, and well-meaning people quoting that media to insist that this is what's best for Taiwan, without ever having heard a Taiwanese perspective. Yes, this has happened. It's condescending - to me, sure, but I don't matter - but mostly to the Taiwanese.

Consider this the next time you swallow an article by the Western media on Asia, as reputable as the source may be.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Officially Unofficial: A Review

I thought I was a little late to this party, but a quick look online shows that no, the only other person I can find who has actually reviewed Officially Unofficial (and not on Amazon) is my husband. Seems odd, I would have expected it to have been widely read and commented on in expat circles though not necessarily much outside Taiwan, but okay.

Brief recap - this is a memoir about moving to Taiwan, working one's way to national and international recognition as a journalist, coming to care deeply about Taiwan, and about Cole's time at the Taipei Times and his not-so-amicable split from them, as well as his own observations of the political and military goings-on from the perspective of a journalist with access to the key players.

First, what I liked about it. I can't find the specific reference but it seems that Cole arrived in Taiwan about one year before I did, and is older than me, but not by a huge amount. Which is to say, we experienced Taiwan at about the same time and at not terribly disparate ages, so it was fascinating to look back at the experiences someone else with a very different trajectory had during a time I was also in Taiwan and also learning how things worked. At many points, reading this filled in the gaps of news events and other important issues I was either too new to know much about or too busy with my own life trajectory to pay sufficient attention to (I wasn't that interested in Taiwanese politics until I had already been here several years - my interest bloomed just as I was starting to realize this could be a long-term home for me).  I appreciated this quite a bit.

A few examples: I had been in Taiwan one month when the Red Shirts marched. I went and observed but didn't participate and didn't know much about it (nevertheless, being more knowledgeable now, I am glad to have seen it with my own eyes), so reading about how businesses at times paid employees to participate or donate was of some interest - especially as I went from a green organization (a large chain of language schools) to a blue one (a singularly awful 'management consulting firm' with great clients and terrible management) back to an apolitical-but-greenish-leaning one. I did notice that the blue one was a far worse place to work than the green or greenish ones, though.

I was also a Taipei Times reader when the quality started to suffer and I have to say, that one line in the book about how "readers noticed"...yes, we did. I did. I was one of them. I used to contribute the occasional reader editorial, but don't now.

Huaguang, Losheng sanatorium, Dapu, Want Want's Next Media acquisition? I was there for all of that too although, again, too busy with my own career path to pay as much attention as I should have. Reading this book filled in a lot of very useful blanks.

My mother was a journalist, so it was equally fascinating to me to read about how other journalists got to where they were and how they worked, as well. Although I have a lot of respect for (most) (good) journalists, the kind who really live up to the industry's standards of professionalism, it cemented my choice way back in the day not to pursue that career path. That is not meant as a jab at Cole, the profession, or any other journalists - it's just not for me. The low pay, long hours, poor treatment and lack of freedom and free time to pursue other interests? As a young arrival to Taiwan I was only willing to put up with perhaps one of the above, and now that I'm older I'm not willing to put up with any for any appreciable amount of time. The idea of only having 7 days off per year indefinitely, for example? Not acceptable.

In Cole's shoes I would have flamed out at the Times far earlier than he did simply because I'm not willing to do work towards an item for publication that will make someone else money on my day off, and not willing to put up with much bullshit. I also probably have a shorter temper. If that's what you have to do to break into journalism, then it's not for me and I'm quite happy I realized that early on (when I considered, and ultimately rejected, the idea of double majoring in journalism back in college).

It also helped me better articulate, oddly enough, how and why I chose teaching as an actual career and not something one does for a few years before moving on. It is a career - a profession. One would never call a math, science, history or literature teacher someone who "does it for a few years then moves on" (though some do) - they train to become professionals, and they are. So, when Cole subtly disparaged the teaching profession a few times in this book, as though it were somehow beneath him, it caused me to realize that no - I worked hard for my degree and my job is no less respectable than that of a journalist. It reminded me that I chose this and I trained for it in lieu of pursuing other careers (I used to work in finance, and have been offered non-teaching jobs which I have turned down) and no detractor can take that away. It is not 'beneath' anyone unless they don't know what being a professional educator actually means.

It reminded me, while reading about events that happened while I was busting my butt doing a Delta that, hey, it's okay that maybe I let my political observation slide a bit - I was busting my butt doing a Delta! It is absolutely fine that rather than go down and see the Huaguang protests for myself, that I was reading a book on discourse analysis. That rather than read every article on the Next Media acquisition that I was improving my knowledge of language systems. That it was perfectly logical for me to have been honing my knowledge of training practice and theory, language testing and assessment and various pedagogical approaches as well as doing data gathering on a group of real students rather than watching political events during the lead-up to the Sunflower occupation. I did it for my career, and now it's time to go back and fill in what I missed (you may have noticed that there were a few quiet years on this blog as well - now you know why.)

It was engaging, informative reading providing angles and backgrounds to things I either didn't know much about or missed due to my own studies.

In short, there was quite a lot to like.

Let's talk about the things I didn't like.

I noted there were a few inaccuracies in his portrayal of the ELT industry. Most importantly, that in his time drafting articles for an English teaching magazine, rather than realize that the reason it wasn't fulfilling was because he didn't know what he was doing, he just immediately reverted to the idea that it was "beneath him". Sure, it's easy to think that way if you have no background in second language acquisition, materials or curriculum development, scaffolding, early childhood education (for the articles aimed at kindergarteners), text-based language extraction pedagogy etc., it's easy to think any idiot could do a perfectly good job and smirk at such work. That's why so many such publications (and schools) in Taiwan are sub-par. For a real professional, such work would present a chance to grow and develop text-creation and other curriculum development and pedagogical skills. Simply put, he thought the job was beneath him because he was a hack at that particular job, and the crappy company he worked for doesn't do the profession any favors, either.

Moral of the story? Get your facts right before you write about a profession you know nothing about.

And finally, okay, look. This author didn't care for the book being in the third person, which creates not only wonky referencing but a sense of pomposity that just doesn't need to be there. It was a poor narrative choice that detracted - and distracted - from the otherwise very interesting story, she said. But, beyond does she say this?

When a fairly large section, and several passages interspersed later through the narrative, reference how much one has  read in such a way as to come off as bragging about how well-read one is rather than telling a good story about a journalist's life in Taiwan which is all I really want to read about, one comes off as...well...also a bit pompous if not outright sybaritic. I didn't think those paragraphs added much to the overall story. He's a good journalist and well-read, we get it. If he had interwoven observations and references based on his wide and diverse reading it may have come off a little better. As it was I was not terribly interested in paragraphs about all the stuff he's read. Great. I've read a lot of it too. Do you want a gold star?

That, and his disparaging of English teachers (discussed above) and bloggers (discussed below) were the book's greatest weaknesses. I would not go so far as to say it caused me to dislike Cole. I have respected and will continue to respect his excellent work, and having never met him, it is not fair for me to make any such judgments. But, you could say it put me off a bit. I can see why Ben Goren called him "alienating", although I have no such personal story to corroborate that. That said, we have a rather large number of mutual friends, people I respect immensely, so perhaps he is more likable than he at times comes across in this book.

As for the bloggers, because I seem determined to make this review as long and messy as possible, I find a lot to disagree with. There are plenty of idiots, but there are also plenty of excellent Taiwan bloggers. I won't go so far as to group myself in with them - at the end of the day I'm a loud woman with opinions and a platform and that's about all, and I write Lao Ren Cha for personal pleasure rather than to try and get readers - but it is quite unfair to imply that excellent personal blogs that comment on politics, such as The View from Taiwan, Letters from Taiwan and Frozen Garlic are amateurish or beneath Cole's own work (I do not imagine that my blog was in any way considered as an instigator of those comments, simply because I assume Cole doesn't read it, nor, given my proclivity for sailor-mouthed vulgarity, should he necessarily do so!) What really bothered me was his assertion that such people, who don't have the access he does, "shouldn't" have a voice. To quote my ever-oratorically-appropriate cousin, you can fuck right off with that.

Nobody gets to decide who "should" and "shouldn't" have a voice. That's for a bygone era. Now, everyone with a computer and rudimentary writing skills has a platform, but that does not necessarily mean they have a voice. You can get a free blog and write what you want, but if what you write is crap, nobody is going to read you (or at least not anyone in any great enough numbers to matter). The readers decide who has a voice or not with their clicks and eyeballs. The downside of that is not that unqualified people comment, but that qualified people feel reduced to creating clickbait headlines and going after angles that will hook readers rather than the story people actually need to know. That's why Taiwan is so often shoehorned into stories about China. In the end, though, good people do tend to stand out and get readers, and incompetent ones don't get read and don't get link-backs. The readership tends to sort the wheat from the chaff pretty accurately I'd say.

I'd also like to note that towards the end of the book he writes about how mainstream media is failing and alternative media is increasingly becoming the place to turn to. Wouldn't that also include personal blogs?

Such comments, again, only serve to put readers off Cole's larger narrative by dint of making him seem like a less likable, more priggish person than perhaps he is.

I'm also curious who these bloggers who "revile" him and other journalists are. Seems to me most decent bloggers are big fans of Cole's work, myself included. He seems to group them in with the "white wise men" he so often references, but I honestly don't have a clue, blogger-wise, who he is talking about unless there are a ton of blogs I haven't noticed. For now, though, I feel like he's describing a world at odds with my observations.

A few quibbles before I finish this.

I was happy to see in the Afterword that he changes his previous "the KMT is not so bad, they are a modernized political party functioning in a democracy" into something more realistic. I may strongly dislike the KMT as a whole, but I do realize that individuals within it are not all necessarily evil, corrupt, chauvinistic or incompetent. I also appreciate that not everything reported as done by the "evil underhanded KMT" went off exactly as it was reported by pan-green publications and that not all pan-green politicians are great people or good leaders.

However, the idea that the past is the past and now they're a perfectly normal political party? No, again, you can fuck right off with that. A normal political party doesn't withhold transitional justice or try to ignore-away its past the way the KMT has. They don't keep records from the Martial Law era sealed to a large degree and hold the line that victims and their families - many of whom still don't know what happened to their ancestors - should just forget it and move on. As the descendant of genocide survivors who are also being told to "just forget it" by the Turkish government, in my gut I feel that that is simply not acceptable and is proof that the KMT is not, and likely never will be, a normal and modernized political party.

Furthermore, this idea that these "white wise men" Cole references parroted the DPP party line for years, which was both self-serving and self-defeating, and that they called the youth and their critics "brainwashed" by the KMT. Certainly a few did do that, but what I saw during the Ma years was those "white wise men" (who all seem to think they're freakin' Confucius) towing the KMT, not the DPP, party line! It was all about how ECFA was good (it wasn't), the economy was bad under Chen but good under Ma (not true), that closer ties with China was invariably and in every situation a good thing (wrong again), the DPP were "troublemakers" (nope) and pro-independence "agitators" were the "brainwashed" ones, and the students impetuous and naive. All that nonsense. Maybe it was because I stopped reading the Taipei Times soon after its quality dropped, but unless I'm living on a different planet, the commentary he heard and the commentary I heard was quite different indeed. Any given Economist article on Taiwan from that time period will show you what I mean.

I have a few things to say about noting that a journalist was "female" without that adjective being necessary, the ridiculous Taiwan/Israel comparison (don't get me started on that) and the unnamed-but-we-know-who-it-is reference to Ralph Jennings (the short of it is that my reasons for disliking Jennings have nothing to do with his wife, whom I hadn't known and don't care is Chinese). I'll save all that for another time, maybe.

I'll end with this: despite its flaws, it was an engaging book and quite fascinating to read about someone else's experiences in Taiwan just as I was having my own, very different, experiences. I enjoyed some but not all of the autobiographical elements, overall wanting to know more about Taiwan. So, in the end, I have to say it has whet my appetite for Cole's next book, Black Island, which I have the feeling I will enjoy even more.