Politicking, polls, and Taiwan’s presidential primary: Can Tsai Ing-wen survive in 2020?

Originally published by the Hong Kong Free Press on 01/04/2019.

For politicos an election never seems far off. When the polls close and the results are announced for one election, the campaigning for the next one begins.

Last month, the country’s Central Election Commission announced that Taiwan’s Presidential and Legislative Yuan elections will be held on 11 January 2020. Yet the campaigning for these races really kicked off last November after the Taiwanese public cast their votes for council and mayoral candidates.

Prior to the November results, the question of who would be elected President in 2020 was significantly less interesting than it is now. Voters gave the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who hold the executive and legislature, a drubbing well beyond the typical kicking an incumbent gets.

The DPP lost half their mayors across the island to a surprisingly resurgent Kuomintang (KMT). The prize of the night for the nationalist KMT was the maverick Han Kuo-yu’s gain in the DPP’s southern stronghold Kaohsiung.

As I explained to friends unfamiliar with Taiwanese politics, this was the equivalent of a Southern populist Republican winning the state of Massachusetts.

Ever since the green wave which brought President Tsai Ing-wen to power, and gave the DPP a majority in the Legislative Yuan for the first time in the country’s history, a quick KMT comeback was written off. November’s results changed this. Moreover, it brought into question Tsai’s re-selection as the DPP’s presidential nominee.

Enter Lai Ching-te, the former deputy of Tsai, who – last month – entered the race to become the DPP’s Presidential candidate. While a run for the presidency was widely expected of him at some point, this challenge came as a surprise to many within the party.

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Australia canary in the coal mine

Originally published by the Taipei Times on 11/03/2019.

In March last year, journalist John Garnaut warned readers of Foreign Affairs that “Australia is the canary in the coal mine of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) interference.”

He highlighted numerous cases of the CCP working to covertly manipulate his country’s political system, from access buying and Beijing-linked political donors to the hijacking of universities for party propaganda.

Similar meddling has also been documented in New Zealand by academic Anne-Marie Brady, a China specialist, who as a result has herself been the target of pro-China harassment.

Miners used to quickly exit the toxin-filled mine shafts after their caged canaries dropped dead, but when it comes to Beijing and its suffocation of free societies, liberal democracies have been slow to notice the early indicators.

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The case of Gui Minhai: The Rushdie affair revisited – with less bloodshed and less international interest

Originally published on the Hong Kong Free Press on 10/03/2019.

Thirty years on from the Rushdie Affair, the ongoing detention of Gui Minhai in China is yet another reminder of the threat that dictators pose to free expression.

At the end of the 20th century you could be forgiven for being an optimist. Fifty years after the defeat of fascism in Europe, the other great totalitarian threat, Soviet communism, had crumbled as the world witnessed a succession of democratic waves from Latin America to East Asia. It was not that history itself had ended but as Francis Fukuyama put it, that liberal democracy had won.

The year 1989 will go down as a turning point in this struggle. In that year the Hungarian government began, physically, dismantling the iron curtain and the people of Poland ended communist party rule. Across Czechoslovakia thousands called for freedom while across the Baltic states a human chain, repudiating Soviet rule, formed. In November, the Berlin Wall, a cold war behemoth which had divided the city since 1961, was opened—momentous changes were taking place.

Yet, despite this huge release of human energy not all dictatorships fell and not all tyrants bowed to cries for freedom. The year 1989 also witnessed two events which foreshadowed the current challenges to free societies, and the ability of their citizens to express themselves.

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Para Los Muchos, No Los Pocos – Why The Left Should Unite Behind Juan Guaidó

Originally published on the Gerasites on 31/01/2019.

The decision by segments of the western Left to support Nicolás Maduro’s election rigging, human rights abusing government in Venezuela once again exposes their undemocratic and illiberal impulses. Over the past week they have spread the regime’s lies about; the causes of the country’s economic crisis, the political situation there, and about its left-leaning interim president Juan Guaidó. More worrying still, the indulgence of pro-Maduro propaganda is not confined to the old hard-Left here in Britain. Rather, it appears to be gaining traction amongst a new generation of American ‘progressives’ – a sea change which no doubt makes it politically savvy for Democratic presidential hopefuls to continue ignoring the cries from Caracas.

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Forget China, Taiwanese voters care about bread-and-butter issues too

Originally published by the Hong Kong Free Press on 09/12/2018.

There is more to Taiwan elections than cross-strait relations. Taiwanese voters, like people in any other democracy, go to the ballot box to register their approval or disapproval of domestic policies and leadership. The quick comeback of the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT), after the 2014 “green wave,” and the drubbing of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) does not necessarily mean Taiwanese voters are warming to China.

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A Brief Review of ‘The Once and Future Liberal’ by Mark Lilla

Prompted by the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election, Mark Lilla’s latest book The Once and Future Liberal takes on identity politics. 

According to Lilla this pseudo-politics, as he pointedly puts it, is a self-indulgent betrayal of the American liberal and progressive agenda. Worse still, it’s electoral toxicity is downright dangerous.
It has allowed the Republicans to successfully persuade much of the American public that they are the party of Joe Sixpack while the Democrats represent Jessica Yogamat.

But make no mistake this isn’t a gleeful attack on modern liberals. Lilla believes that Trump is a demagogue, unfit to hold high office, and now liberals need to fight back. It is this rallying call which sets this book apart from those which simply sneer at millennials. 

Naturally, there are a few jibes at campus liberals and the odd incendiary phrase, “Identity is Reaganism for lefties” being just one. 

Lilla is fed up of marches not because he doesn’t value the contribution of movement politics to America’s history, he cites the important contribution of the Civil Rights Movement for example, but because right now it’s not doing the Democrats any good. Lilla wants to see more Democrat mayors not marchers. More Democrat governors and state legislators, for that matter, and in every part of the United States, representing all of the country’s citizens. 

In this spirit, the book is prefaced with a quote from Senator Edward Kennedy:

“We must understand that there is a difference between being a party that cares about labor and being a labor party. There is a difference between being a party that cares about women and being the women’s party. And we can and must be a party that cares about minorities without becoming a minority party. We are citizens first.” (1985)

The idea of citizenship is key to Lilla’s response. Liberals, he argues, need to forge a grand narrative for all citizens - a story about what America is and what duties are bestowed by being an American. 

This is something which technocratic policy wonks cannot deliver. Nor can identity or movement politics. Lilla believes a new dispensation is needed to replace the Reaganite narrative which has prevailed since the 1980s. However, this new dispensation cannot fall back on the New Deal agenda which preceded Reaganism, the times have moved on he acknowledges. 

Yet this is not to say nothing can be learnt from the past. Lilla channels the ethos embodied by FDR and subsequent Democratic leaders. As he puts it, what ever happened to JFK’s challenge to the sixties generation: “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”. 

Today, according to Lilla, we have ended up with a liberal ethos of: What does my country owe me by virtue of my identity? Worse still this identity politics has placed self-expression over persuasion whereby preaching purity is prioritised over coalition building. 

Lilla cites the example of religious feminist groups being disinvited from the 2017 Women’s March, because of their anti-abortion stance, as another bridge unnecessarily burnt. Better to keep them on side by civilly agreeing to disagree and by making a few compromises, than drive them into the hands of the radical right he argues. Who could disagree? 

Yet it is not as simple as Lilla suggests. Even those who prefer big-tent, pragmatic politics must acknowledge a commitment to civility and inclusivity raise a number of challenges. 
How inclusive should liberals be? Naturally, there has to be limits to who you make alliances with, some groups will be morally beyond the pale or will have too many differences to make cooperation practical. 

When and how should you speak out over differences? Most people would agree that fiery condemnation is unnecessary but divisions cannot simply be ignored. Additionally, including a group you have disagreements with in a march, or giving them a platform at a conference, is all well and good but involving them in the policy making process is different thing all together. 

More importantly, what compromises? Take for example Lilla’s abortion case, as a self-declared pro-choice absolutist what restrictions could he actually agree on in order to keep his political coalition together. Will his strategy work, and keep pro-lifers in the liberal tent and supporting other liberal causes? And even if it did is it morally justifiable? 

No one set of concrete guidelines can be established. Each issue will have its own unique set of circumstances, but going forward liberals will need to set out some rules of engagement. 

Lilla does not believe that this is his job. In public book talks he has put on record his reluctance to write the book’s last chapter on the way forward. He wanted to diagnose a problem not write a manifesto. He therefore admits what he provides is a rough sketch and that it is the task of liberals, if they choose to take his advice, to build on it and flesh out an election winning program. 

China at UN: Deflection, dirty tricks

Originally published by the Taipei Times on 14/11/2018.

China’s underhand tactics at the UN Human Rights Council are a serious problem, but should come as no surprise.

China has undergone a third review of its human rights record at the UN Human Rights Council as part of the organization’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR).

This is a process all UN member states must go through every five years and gives other countries the opportunity to question and put forward recommendations. With the input of civil society groups, the UPR is supposed to be an opportunity to raise serious concerns, monitor progress and hold governments to account.

Naturally, Chinese officials faced robust questioning about a number of issues, including political prisoners, torture and freedom of expression.

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