A bizarre analysis of Taiwan’s delegation to President Trump’s swearing-in ceremony exemplifies everything that is wrong with much of what is written about Taiwan overseas.
Last week I wrote about signs that China may be ramping up its disinformation campaign against Taiwan as part of its psychological warfare efforts to confuse and discredit the democratic island-nation. To do so, pro-Beijing media have been planting “alternative truths” and count on traditional outlets to replicate the information so that over time they become new “memes.” But there’s another element at play that is also detrimental to Taiwan’s ability to be known and understood: downright ignorance passing off as “expert analysis.”
For various reasons that I have discussed elsewhere, Taiwan hasn’t received the attention it deserves in international media and academic blogs. This changed somewhat following the brief telephone conversation between President Tsai Ing-wen and then president elect Donald J. Trump on Dec. 2 and Mr. Trump’s subsequent remarks concerning “one China.” All of a sudden, and on the assumption that trouble was brewing, Taiwan was “newsworthy” again for international media and think tanks.
With that came a series of expert analyses that often mischaracterized rather than enlighten, not out of ill intentions toward Taiwan on the part of the authors, surely, but rather because the expertise on what is an extremely complex object of study wasn’t there to begin with.
One example of this occurred in a Jan. 20 article by Frances Kitt in the Lowy Interpreter titled “Who’s who in Taiwan’s Trump delegation” (disclaimer: I occasionally write for the Interpreter). In her piece, Kitt, who based on a quick Internet search had never authored anything else about Taiwan, argues that the composition of the 11-member Taiwanese delegation sent to attend President Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20 helped explain Beijing’s démarches to Washington and may furthermore be indicative of President Tsai’s plans aimed at “influencing [U.S.] policy-makers and advisors.”
One telltale sign of beginner analyses is the ahistorical nature of the argument that is made. Going through the list of attendees representing the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Kitt sees a strong “pro-independence” slant to the delegation. She singles out delegation leader Yu Shyi-kun, a premier during the Chen Shui-bian administration, and Taichung Mayor Lin Chia-lung as “evidence” of a deep ideological signal that is being carried by the delegates.
“Yu,” she writes, “represents a connection between this delegation and Chen’s outspoken views on cross-Strait relations. Yu shared some views with Chen; as Premier he advocated a ‘balance of terror’ across the Taiwan Strait to counter Chinese aggression.” Of Lin she observes: “As an academic he has aired strong views on Taiwanese sovereignty, Taiwanese nationalism and Cross-strait relations.”
What isn’t said in the article is that Taiwanese who were just as, if not more, “ controversial” — and certainly more vocal on independence — have been part of delegations attending U.S. presidential inaugurations in the past. In January 2009, for example, former vice president Annette Lu, who served with Chen, then Tainan mayor Hsu Tain-tsair and former lawmaker Chai Trong-rong were part of the 30-plus delegation led by then Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng.
Some media are even worse. Note, for example, this headline in the Independent: “Donald Trump risks angering China by inviting Taiwan representative to presidential inauguration,” which suggests that the very presence of Taiwanese at the event is controversial and hadn’t happened before. The Express had a similarly alarming headline (“‘Message delivered’ China furious as Trump refuses to shun Taiwan envoys from inauguration”) but at least observed in its article that “Taiwan usually sends a delegation to a US President’s inauguration and it is actually very unusual for China to have demanded the nation’s removal from the event.” Many media headlined their coverage with references to a “pro Taiwan independence figure” leading the delegation.
Kitt continues: “the DPP representatives may be so extreme in their support of independence (particularly given Yu’s association with Chen Shui-bian) that some Republicans might hesitate to advocate for their cause.”
Missing from Ms. Kitt’s analyses and the others mentioned above is the fact that Mr. Yu, 68, is hardly a very influential figure within the DPP. He is not associated with any of the influential factions within the party (e.g., the New Tide), and was not given a position in the Tsai administration. More likely, he was picked to lead the delegation as some sort of jobless sinecure, a kind nod.
Moreover, by linking representatives who are supposedly “so extreme in their support of independence” with Beijing’s “anger” at the delegation, the author misses the context altogether. It’s not about who was sent by Taipei to attend the inauguration. For all we know, Beijing would have fumed just as much had President Tsai sent her two cats to attend Mr. trump’s swearing in. Because of the current state of affairs in the Taiwan Strait, Beijing has been attempting to limit Taiwan’s international space by any means necessary, including lecturing the U.S. government on who it can and cannot allow on its territory. By focusing on the supposedly “extreme” views of the Taiwanese delegates (that itself is completely wrong), Kitt makes it somehow more justifiable for Beijing to seek to block the Taiwanese delegation.
For all we know, Beijing would have fumed just as much had President Tsai sent her two cats to attend Mr. trump’s swearing in.
Kitt also interprets the cross-party delegates — three legislators from the Kuomintang (KMT), one from the New Power Party and another from the People First Party — as “calculated to send a strong message to Trump, projecting the image of a unified, single Taiwan.” What is supposed to be wrong with sending representatives from all the major parties isn’t exactly made clear by Ms. Kitt, although she seems to conclude that their “liberal inclinations” and support for LGBT rights might jar with “traditional Republican values.”
As mentioned above, the unfortunate thing with disinformation or, as with the case discussed here, poorly informed analyses is that they nevertheless tend to be picked up by other media and take on a life of their own. Already, Kitt’s piece has been reproduced by outlets such as the Myanmar Times and Taiwan’s pro-Beijing China Times, which jumped on the opportunity to have a white-faced foreign “expert” saying negative and alarming things about the Tsai administration’s delegation to President Trump’s inauguration. Far too often Taiwan’s Chinese-language media will quote, cite and give space to foreign “experts” simply because they are foreign and are saying things about Taiwan; whether what they say makes any sense, or makes a constructive contribution to the debate on Taiwan, rarely matters.