Taiwanese media have become involved in a process of depoliticization which can only help Beijing achieve its objectives over the island-nation.
Try as I might to concentrate on my dinner, the TV screen across the room would continually attract my attention to a ceaseless stream of uplifting news about Han Kuo-yu’s Dec. 25 inauguration as mayor of the southern port city of Kaohsiung. Five back-to-back news segments — from the inauguration itself to the dresses Han’s daughter and spouse were wearing, his vows to make Kaohsiung great again to ebullient street vendors expecting to rake in sizable profits at the venue — and then, finally, something else: a car accident.
Visit almost any restaurant equipped with a TV set nowadays and this is what you will be treated to. In my neighborhood, TBVS is everywhere; and nowadays, the channel, which is fully controlled by companies run by HTC Corp chairwoman Cher Wang, is an unrepentant booster for Han. The message is simple, if not crassly revisionist: the maverick vegetable vendor turned Kuomintang (KMT) candidate who defeated the status quo which allegedly had kept the city, if not the entire nation, in a state of poverty. In the TVBS universe, Han was defiant, the future, defying the central government by embracing Beijing’s “1992 consensus” and vowing to bypass longstanding laws barring investment by China in the real estate sector. This was the mayor who, while running for office, vowed to ban protests ideological in nature and whose crew described the participation of Chinese tourists waving People’s Republic if China flags at his inaugural ceremony as “freedom of expression.” This was Han who gave an exclusive to the communist mouthpiece Global Times. Han would bring fortunes; track races; Disneyland (already aborted); a sex ferris wheel and love hotels; gambling. This was Han, along with pliant bought media like TVBS, promoting the Macauization of Kaohsiung, where money, not ideology, and certainly not politics, would run the show.
It didn’t matter that somewhere in the background, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) very likely was honing its claws, ready to deploy the kind of means of influence and control that some of us have paid dearly for exposing, often in the form of lawsuits. You’ll find none of this on TVBS or Tsai Eng-meng’s CtiTV, which according to mediareform.tw actually pay restaurant owners, hotels, medical clinics and other popular sites NT$500 a month to inflict their broadcasts on their patrons, or in the free newspapers that also are allegedly given free to such establishments.
Little by little, the media environment (and online news isn’t far behind, what with what artificial intelligence is doing to the algorithms that determine what we see) is being transformed to shape minds, not so much through “brainwashing” as depoliticization, conditioning that turns ideology and politics into impediments to riches, the narratives held by troublemakers and irrational types. Who, after all, opposes development, stability, wealth? Politics get in the way. Han wants none of this: money is the name of the game: China has lots of it; and tax visiting foreigners while you’re at it. By dint of repetition, on TV, in newspapers, on social media and on the Internet, it begins to sound good; and memories of a not-so-distant past, when greater proximity to China also promised riches that failed to materialize, fade into nothingness. Perhaps this time things will be different…new players, same tune, but somehow different outcomes.
Besides boosting clowns-turned-politicians, media have also been complicit — some, the co-opted many doing so proactively, others by their hunger for a share of the trough — in anesthetizing their audience: news, or what passes off as news, is almost entirely local, and then most of it consists of scandals and domestic political turf battles that exacerbate the view that democracy is messy (add “fake news” to this mix); the rest is cute house pets performing various antics, and loads of car accidents, the more terrible and Hollywood-stunt-esque the better. Unless a natural catastrophe hits somewhere, it’s almost as if the rest of the world does not exist. What’s even more troubling is the almost total absence of news from China — and here it’s not just “pro-Beijing” channels like CtiTV that are guilty of this, but all of them. The danger in all this is that ordinary Taiwanese become less and less aware of the disturbing developments that are occurring in China — the concentration camps in Xinjiang, the clampdown on activists across China, the arrests, the banning of political parties, the demolition of churches, the kidnapping of foreign nationals…ignore all this, and it’s possible that people who believe China is the solution to personal enrichment might in fact be a viable partner. An ordinary partner. If Han the messiah convinces us that this is the solution, then China it is. If the key to unlocking all this potential is the “1992 consensus,” then all hail the “1992 consensus,” even if a large segment of the population doesn’t even know what the so-called consensus entails and a good number of people believe it signifies one country on each side of the Taiwan Strait. By being derelict in their duty to inform, the media are normalizing authoritarian China and making us forget that there would be a cost — a terrible cost to our freedoms — if it ever were allowed in, as handmaidens like Han very likely aim to do. Taiwanese cannot forget that the CCP has designs on Taiwan and that its intentions are all but benevolent.
It’s not for me to tell the Taiwanese who to vote for. After all, I am but a guest here. And if what they want for themselves is more money in their pocket at the exclusion of everything else, then that is their choice. Yes, I do believe Han is a political clown, someone who cannot be trusted and who contradicts himself every time he opens his mouth. But that is just me — and I cannot vote. That being said, I also believe that as Taiwanese make their choices, they should do so with a maximum of information at their disposal so that they are in a better position to comprehend the consequences (I personally do not believe that Han could have been elected were it not for the general amnesia and confusion that have descended upon voters). What I fear is that the media, traditional and new, are actively preventing this kind of knowledge and forcing the public down a narrowing tunnel with no possibility of turning back. Knowledge is power, and those who wield power are fully aware of this fact. No regime knows this better than the CCP, and Taiwanese bathe in this sea of ignorance at their own peril.
I wish people read more history books and reports about Chinese political warfare and influence operations so that they would have greater awareness of the kind of regime we are dealing with across the Taiwan Strait; but that would be asking too much. Yes, that information is already out there, but it is niche, and often is consumed by people who already are aware of the dangers. But that, unfortunately, isn’t enough. What is needed is a true, responsible media for the Taiwanese, one that has enough reach and independence to provide the knowledge — not mere entertainment pablum — that is necessary for the maintenance of a healthy democracy.
Top photo: 韓國瑜 official Facebook page.
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