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A conversation on the evolving attitudes and shifting politics in Taiwan – Brookings Institution

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On a recent trip to Taiwan, Brown Professor of Political Science at Davidson College Shelley Rigger got an on-the-ground view of the local political and social mood. In a conversation with Brookings Fellow and interim Koo Chair in Taiwan Studies Ryan Hass, transcribed with light edits below, the two discussed shifting public attitudes in Taiwan, the Kuomintang’s posture toward cross-Strait relations, and President Tsai Ing-wen’s current areas of policy focus.

One of the foremost experts in the United States on Taiwan’s politics, Rigger is the author of numerous books on Taiwan, including most recently “Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011). Note: In this interview, the word “Taiwanese” refers to residents of Taiwan regardless of when members of their families, living or dead, first arrived. The word is not used in a manner that is synonymous with “native Taiwanese.”


Hass: You were recently in Taiwan for field research. You have spent considerable time in Taiwan before. How would you compare the overall mood in Taiwan during your most recent trip to previous visits?

Rigger: I spent seven months in Taiwan, from September 2019 through March 2020. The majority of that time was very much in pre-election mode, as Taiwan had general elections (president and legislature) in January. The mood was fun. People on both sides of politics were excited about the election, and while they took their respective candidates very seriously, the atmosphere was positive. I remember attending a big rally for the Kuomintang (KMT) candidate just before the election, and people were clearly having a great time. Then I went back to the same place at the same time a couple of nights later and did it all again with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate’s supporters, who also clearly were having a great time.

Hass: How have public attitudes in Taiwan toward China changed over the past year? What factors are influencing the shift in views? How enduring do you expect this shift to be?

Rigger: We don’t have a lot of survey data on this question — survey questions tend to focus on specific issues rather than the broad sentiment toward the People’s Republic of China (PRC) — but my perception from the public conversation, my private conversations, and focus groups is that attitudes are more negative than they’ve been in a long time. There are a few drivers, but three that have played an especially important role in the past year are the Hong Kong crisis, China’s increasing pressure on Taiwan, and changes in the global economy, including the trade war.

The protests in Hong Kong had a lot of support on Taiwan, where people tend to value freedom and the rule of law, and also to believe the worst about Beijing. Most people viewed the protests as Hong Kongers fighting to keep rights and liberties they already had, not some kind of unreasonable demand for something more. What has happened most recently, with the passage of the National Security Law, just confirms what Taiwanese suspected: Beijing has no qualms about eliminating freedom by force when it can, and the CCP’s promises are worthless. People believed that before, but watching the evidence accumulate in Hong Kong has reinforced and amplified those feelings.

The increasing pressure on Taiwan, including military threats as well as attacks on Taiwan’s diplomatic space, further reduces the PRC’s attractiveness to islanders. I think most Americans are surprised that Taiwanese are not more frightened by Beijing’s military activities, which really are accelerating, but Taiwanese have been living with this for 70 years. They can’t imagine that Beijing would ever actually use force, because doing so is so irrational and unnecessary. At least, that’s how Taiwanese see it. Nonetheless, just because people are used to it doesn’t mean they like it. The more the PRC presses, the more Taiwanese resist.

Finally, opportunities for Taiwanese companies in the PRC are not as rich as they used to be. Part of that is PRC policy, including things like the campaign for domestic content in the high-tech sector. Another part is just rising production costs in the PRC, which is a trend that’s been underway for a while now. China is no longer the cheapest place in the world to manufacture, and a lot of Taiwanese companies are very cost-conscious. And of course, the U.S.-China trade war has made a lot of Taiwanese firms look for ways to get the “Made in China” label off their products. All of these developments shrink the constituency for cross-Strait engagement even more.

Hass: Do you expect the KMT’s posture toward cross-Strait relations to evolve to reflect shifting sentiments in Taiwan toward China?

Rigger: The KMT is already changing its position, because the idea that it’s possible to leverage engagement to stabilize and secure Taiwan’s political autonomy is no longer persuasive. Just this week, the KMT legislative caucus proposed legislation calling on the Tsai government to ask the U.S. for closer relations. Part of their motivation was to embarrass Tsai, but the action shows just how far the KMT has deviated from the positions it took when Ma Ying-jeou was president, from 2008 to 2016.

The reason for this change is that Beijing has become so relentlessly hostile toward Taiwan that it’s no longer plausible to imagine that a more China-friendly leadership will reverse that trend.

What does the KMT have to gain from continuing to try to pacify Beijing? It feels kind of hopeless, so the KMT’s logical response is to look for new issues and angles it can use to contest for power, while joining the DPP at the center on cross-Strait relations. What we saw in the 2018 local elections is that there are issues and angles that open space for the KMT (2020 showed us some issues and angles that work for smaller parties as well). Taiwan needs a viable competitor to the DPP, and I expect the KMT will find a way to be that competitor. But it is unlikely that old-school KMT positions on cross-Strait relations (e.g., the 1992 Consensus) are going to be the focal point.

Hass: How much of a window does President Tsai have left before the race to succeed her swings into full gear and she gets pushed into lame duck status? Where do you expect President Tsai to focus her agenda during this period?

Rigger: Tsai Ing-wen is an extraordinary politician in many ways, but perhaps her most unusual trait is her willingness to invest political capital in initiatives that are unlikely to pay off while she’s in office.

In her first term she devoted an enormous amount of effort to the “New Southbound Policy,” a package of policies that diversify Taiwan’s economic and political connections in South Asia and Southeast Asia. There was no way Taiwan was going to see a lot of benefit from that in just four years’ time, but she invested in it anyway.

Her decision to bite the bullet and get pension reform done is another example. She knew it would cost her a lot politically, and she knew that failure to do it would produce a fiscal crisis that would almost certainly not blow up until she was out of office, but she did it anyway.

Most recently, Tsai broke the political capital bank when she abandoned the policy that prevented Taiwan from importing certain beef and pork products from the U.S. Her party has been against this for ages; changing her position was a huge boon to her opponents. But she recognized that pursuing an economic deal with the U.S. was more important to Taiwan’s long-term future than sticking to her guns for another four years, so she did it anyway.

In short, I don’t think Tsai has ever cared as much as other politicians about hoarding her political capital for some big initiative that’s always just around the corner. She does what she thinks needs to be done. I expect she’ll keep doing that until it’s time to turn over the keys to the next occupant of the presidential office.

Adrien Chorn provided editing assistance on this piece.

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SMITH: Removing big money from politics – Toronto Sun

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While I disagreed with many things about Canada’s Liberal government under Prime Minister Jean Chretien, I have to concede that his legislation to put limits on election spending was possibly one of the best things ever done for our nation.

I’ve run local campaigns for federal candidates in Canada; we get to spend roughly $1 per voter during the writ period. You need to be wildly creative and heavily volunteer-dependent to run a campaign on $90,000 – especially given the fact that we have at least one riding the size of Germany (that would be Kenora).

The money spent on U.S. elections is appalling – some reports say Hillary Clinton spent $1 billion on her 2016 campaign. The American Super PAC system is insane; it appears that it was designed to help cheaters cheat. It has spawned a massive election industry with a voracious appetite for uncontrolled spending. It has become a self-perpetuating machine of manipulation and, I think, corruption.

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In America, elections professionals can earn an excellent living selling their services in an endless loop of voting cycles with virtually no limit on spending. Candidates are allowed to raise millions of dollars which they can then spend on friends, family members and loved ones for elections activities which are questionable at best.

Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar has reportedly funneled $2.7 million to her husband’s company, 70% of her campaign spending in this cycle. That’s a nice living, and then some, for both of them.

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Column: PART III — Politics: a meditation – Rossland Telegraph

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Dropping Out

It is a dismal truth that democracy can die from lack of use, and the technologies of electronic communication and mental distraction now in use are potent foes of a self-governing, self-disciplining citizen. We might be amusing ourselves to the death of our own government.

Dropping out of political engagement is easy. I know I was pretty disengaged for entire years of my youth, and only in middle and elder age have I been consistently responsible to my duties as a citizen. Seniors, as any politically-informed person can tell you, are dependable participants in Canadian democratic institutions, at a high and respectable rate. Not so the young. Youth can be forgiven for finding other parts of life more worthy of their passions and energies than politics and nightly news, but not for failure to come to the ballot box at elections.

But by far the worst phenomenon in democracy is apathy and outright cynicism. To deliberately decide to drop out of political participation is to invite the worst results. To imagine one knows that all politics is useless or corrupt or valueless or fake, is hubristic arrogance of the lowest sort. The internet is increasing this kind of error.

People of completely self-interested motives actively desire that the masses be made ignorant, incapable of critical thinking or independent understanding, and enslaved to appetite and sensation, and the wonderful tool of these lords of manipulation is the algorithm behind the screen. Each of us has the freedom to be the master of our own use of screens and what we ingest there. This is ultimately down to us.

Divided by irrational hatreds, polarized into electronic tribes of shallow identities, we are horribly vulnerable to the would-be masters of what goes into our minds unless we stop them. The power to direct our future is still with us, but perhaps not for long. The pandemic is a master lesson in how a real emergency might be exploited for over-reach by governments, and one must be constantly on guard not to be coerced into surrendering personal sovereignty to electronic devices that ought to serve us, not turn us into servants of others.

We can resist. The forces pushing us toward electronic slavery – I do not think that word is hyperbolic — are inarguably formidable. This is a spiritual crisis, I make no mistake, and I seek out the opinion and analysis of people who know this truth.

Small is beautiful

Let nations grow smaller and smaller.

and the number of people grow fewer.

Let weapons become rare and superfluous.

Let people feel the gravity of Death once more

and never wander far from home.

Then boat and vehicle will sit unused

and sword and shield lie unnoticed.

Let people knot cords for notation again

and never need anything more.

Let them find content in their food

pleasure in their clothing

peace in their homes

and joy in their ancestral customs.

Then people in neighbouring nations will look across borders to each other

their dogs and roosters calling back and forth

and yet they will grow old and die

without bothering to visit one another.

                                                      From the Tao Teh Ching, chapter 80.

When I cannot say it better myself, I let this 2500-year-old text say it for me. My perfect world is described. Small, with few technologies, no travelling for its own sake, and contentment with simplicity. As homo sapiens lived 10,000 years ago, and as a few tribes like the !Kung San of the Kalahari and Yanomami of Amazonia in the year I was born — who can live that way no more since “progress” broke into their worlds.

Dominant species do not have to be as we are. Dinosaurian dominant species lived atop the pyramid of life for over 135 million years without ruining their own habitat. Humanity — the master of material, the lord of science — has been here on earth for only a tiny fraction of the time those species dominated the globe.

Well. That was then. Now we are here, and we know what we face.

Big is unavoidable

Can humanity go back to the small worlds from which we evolved as a species?  The probability is miniscule, and if the possibility were realized, it would only by a catastrophic die-off of humanity that no one can make congruent with their compassion and empathy. Big interconnected world, huge population, global organization, is here to stay. Let us think how to live with that reality.

We can, I am sure, create a harmony and equilibrium between the planetary scale and the intimate scale of individual humans in their chosen circle of family and friends, community and “tribe.” I feel an instinctive aversion to the idea of a mono-culture for a planetary species. I love the imponderable, improbable ways humans became so variegated into so many cultural shapes and flavours. There is no way that a single cultural global community would be preferable to variety, in my opinion. Let hundreds of ways of life, belief, custom and tradition flourish on Earth.

And yet, I have been implying that our political culture upholding the democratic norms and rights of Western historical provenance, is good for all. I reject the dictators, tyrants and totalitarians who say humans over whom they rule are living in contentment, without protest while lacking rights and freedoms Westerners think are normal. That is not credible. When people say simply that they want to live in Canada or Europe or Australia because “it’s a better life there” — I believe them.

The individual and the collective

I am personally not a very sociable person, happy to go weeks without seeing more than a small handful of family and friends, not drawn to large congregations of others, not wanting to attend events with crowds. I’m charmed by the words of Kierkegaard that “the crowd is madness.” This is me, today.

But I live in society, and politics is about my relating with others. I have gone on at great length in my exploration of politics and politicians, particularly in democracy; I have to be willing to put aside my disinclination for group activity where politics is concerned, because I have aspirations only a group, a community, or a nation, can make possible. I am like everyone in that, having to find that “sweet spot” between my individual autonomy and the necessity of belonging to a political community.

Once again, I encounter the truth of my privilege and good fortune, that I live where I take as much of politics as I feel inclined to, and disengage when not inclined to be political. Not a lot of people on this earth are in my position, and political struggles for rights, for material support, for health and education, are facts of life for far more people than there are Canadian middle-class citizens like me. Only solidarity with a large collective can advance the agenda of people in struggles like that.

I am certain that the political systems that can give effect to their agendas, the politicians who can be entrusted with power to lead, are found more in democracies than in any other form of large government operating today.

There are probably some very small, isolated communities of humans where politics might still operate on an intimate scale, untouched by the overworld of states and corporations and law enforcement. I just do not know where they are.  If I did, I would not publish the knowledge, for that would likely ruin what they enjoy.

Conclusion: Keeping Faith

My faith is not strong. Modern humans in the present material world might not be capable of the highest ideals of liberty, self-sovereignty, autonomy, independence, and freedom, that I wish for us. The counter-forces opposed to the realization of hypothetical utopian order are immense. Democracies enjoy the best odds for my version of the good life and optimum politics, and they confront enormous obstacles.

But I do not despair. I keep to a chosen path, speaking truth as I understand it, not because I know for a certainty it will help, but because not to do so betrays my spiritual being. Being true to self is an exercise of freedom too. Being someone who can tell his child and grandchildren that I was bowed but not beaten, matters to me.

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From cargo bikes to online politics: U of T students plug into German innovation via virtual internships – News@UofT

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Students in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Arts & Science gave their language skills and career options a big boost last summer via internships with innovative German businesses – all without setting foot in the European country.

Run by the department of Germanic languages and literatures, the students took part in futurGenerator, an extension of the department’s iPRAKTIKUM initiative. The internship program, which was conducted virtually this year because of the pandemic, connected students with companies in Berlin and Freiburg so they could receive international work experience.

Hania Eid worked remotely for three months with MotionLab.Berlin, a growing innovation hub focused on developing hardware to enhance urban mobility.

“When I heard of MotionLab as ‘Europe’s first prototyping space for hardware in mobility,’ I was immediately interested,” says Eid, a member of Innis College who recently completed her bachelor’s degree in political science with a double minor in equity studies and Spanish. “I thought this would be a great way to learn more about a sector that I had never considered working in before, and to contribute to a great company that’s developing original projects.”

She worked with one of the company’s co-founders and produced research for an upcoming project called NOCA, or “no car,”  that is devoted to cycling infrastructure, market research in the area of cargo bikes and the impact of COVID-19 on cycling infrastructure internationally.

“Now, more than ever, it’s important to include cycling infrastructure in the bustling cities of major countries, especially in Europe,” says Eid. “Because of COVID, many cities have introduced temporary bike lanes to make way for more sustainable and healthier modes of transportation. With these new lanes, the cargo bike industry is booming.”

Her work consisted of examining international markets, products and consumer preferences to analyze the feasibility of introducing NOCA to the streets of Germany in the near future.

“By the end of my internship my language skills had improved immensely,” says Eid, adding that she was keen to work in a German-speaking enrvironment following graduation. “It was also great to conduct research on a topic completely unrelated to my work in undergrad. Since I’m a recent graduate, it’s important to consider different fields of work so as not to limit myself. I’ll definitely be looking into working in Germany in the future.”

MotionLab.Berlin is an innovation hub focused on enhancing urban mobility (photo courtesy of MotionLab.Berlin)

Stuart Jones a fourth-year student at St. Michael’s College also completed an internship with MotionLab.Berlin. He is majoring in international relations and European studies and minoring in German studies. He, too, wanted to strengthen his German language skills.

“I truly believe immersion is the pathway to language mastery, and futurGenerator has offered some really great opportunities for students to engage in an authentically German-speaking work environment,” he says.

Jones worked on a new digital engagement platform that functions as a virtual symposium for social and political issues.

“As a student of global – particularly European – politics, the chance to do political and business research for an initiative based in Germany was too good to pass up,” says Jones.

“I did research and compiled reports on this new political engagement platform – very much still in its genesis – which hopes to connect users so that all citizens can feel their voices are heard and they can appreciate all the channels of democracy beyond just voting.”

The reports Jones wrote and the content he was exposed to during the internships was all in German. “This really helped me focus on the language and learn a great deal of new vocabulary and terminology I wouldn’t have otherwise in class,” he says. “And I gained exposure to current societal discourses in Germany surrounding democracy, political participation and other contemporary issues.” 

Jones says he also felt like he was exploring possible career paths. “It was so relevant to my interests and area of academic study, it was almost hard to believe sometimes,” he says. “I could really see myself working at a company or on projects like this in the future.”

Stefan Soldovieri, chair of the department of Germanic languages and literatures, and Helena Juenger, the iPRAKTIKUM student placement co-ordinator, say they are pleased with futurGenerator’s first online internships.

“In the beginning, we felt like the students were not going to have as great an experience as the students who went to Germany last summer,” says Juenger. “But the students and MotionLab were incredibly enthusiastic. It was a success on both sides and that was really, really gratifying.”

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