“Free Speech Bastion” Taiwan Faces Brain Drain

At The New York Times, Chris Horton and Austin Ramzy write that “Taiwan now draws the sorts of dissidents, rights groups and events that once naturally gravitated to Hong Kong” as the latter’s traditional freedom is eroded by growing mainland influence. The barring of elected pro-democracy candidates from taking their seats in the legislature, the detentions of Hong Kong-based publishers and booksellers, and the prospect of new national security legislation have all sparked protest ahead of China’s impending Universal Periodic Review at the U.N. Human Rights Council. This week alone, Hong Kong Free Press has reported on the release of one protester after a four-and-a-half-month sentence, the ongoing prosecution of five others, a flash mob protest against a planned ban on disrespecting China’s national anthem, and the prospect of censorship or legal action against media outlets covering pro-independence statements.

A human rights film festival that was held in Hong Kong last year will take place this year in Taiwan. A Hong Kong book publisher [Lam Wing-kee] who was abducted by mainland Chinese agents two years ago and later released will reopen his bookstore in Taiwan.

Last year, Reporters Without Borders announced that it would open its first Asian bureau in Taipei, the Taiwanese capital, after considering but rejecting Hong Kong.

[…] Taiwan’s freedoms were hard-won. Last Saturday, Taiwan marked Freedom of Speech Day on the 29th anniversary of the death of the free-speech advocate Deng Nan-jung, who burned himself to death as the police prepared to storm his office and arrest him for publishing a revised constitution.

Mr. Deng’s death prompted large protests that helped set the island toward democratic government and greater freedoms.

[…] Speaking to reporters on Saturday, Mr. Deng’s widow, Yeh Chu-lan, warned that Taiwan’s freedoms were not guaranteed. “We could lose our freedom of expression anytime in the face of Chinese hegemony,” she said.

[…] While Taiwan is relishing its new reputation as the center for free speech in the Chinese-speaking world, there have also been instances when Taiwan has appeared to compromise on its political values to avoid angering Beijing, which claims Taiwan as its territory. [Source]

The Wall Street Journal’s Li Yuan added:

Former Canadian ambassador to China David Mulroney also commented:

While supporters argue for accommodating Taiwan on the international stage, China continues to do its best to keep it isolated and resist any acknowledgement of its effective independence. China continues to police the language used to describe Taiwan in its domestic media and even, through the U.N. accreditation process, by foreign NGOs. Recent successes on this front include backpedaling of such recognition by companies including Marriot Hotels, Delta Air Lines, and Zara clothing, as well as more recently by the Man Booker literary prize. Quartz’s Josh Horwitz last week highlighted another case, Apple’s longstanding exclusion of the Taiwan flag emoji from Chinese iOS devices.

With regard to Taiwan itself, China continues with threatening behavior such as the live-fire military exercises scheduled for Wednesday in the Taiwan Strait. Perhaps more effective than such blunt and often counterproductive attempts at intimidation are China’s ongoing economic efforts to bind Taiwan more closely to it. At The Washington Post on Friday, Simon Denyer reported on fears of a cross-Strait “brain drain” in the wake of China’s February announcement of 31 new incentives to lure Taiwanese individuals and businesses across the Strait. These new policies, Denyer notes, could lead to commercial constriction of Taiwan’s current freedom of expression, even if they fall short of leading to unification.

Attracting Taiwanese entrepreneurs and workers to the mainland could make them more comfortable with one day being part of China, and less likely to risk their livelihoods by supporting independence.

The flow of talent creates another lever that Beijing can use against Taipei, and if it succeeds in hollowing out Taiwan’s economy, it could perhaps fuel a sense of resignation among Taiwanese people, a feeling that there is no alternative to one day accepting Chinese sovereignty.

“We can’t scare you, we can’t bully you to be our friend, so we’ll keep offering you candies until you are hooked,” Hsu said, describing his perception of China’s tactics.

[…] In Taiwan, there are particular concerns about an offer to open up China’s television, film and publishing industry to Taiwanese companies.

“I am worried that TV dramas will self-censor so they can enter the Chinese market,” said Yang Tzu-ting, an Academia Sinica economist. “That’s a threat to the best thing we have in Taiwan, our freedom of speech, our democracy.” [Source]

In mid-March, Taiwan Sentinel editor J. Michael Cole warned that Taiwan’s response to these incentives “is now a matter of urgency, of survival for this nation”:

Whether economic determinism will succeed in convincing the Taiwanese that they are Chinese, or that the Marxist-Leninist — and increasingly repressive — system espoused by the People’s Republic of China is a desirable one for them, is very much in doubt. Similar efforts targeting minorities in China, such as Tibet and Xinjiang, do not appear to have yielded the expected dividends for Beijing. Over the years, Taiwanese have demonstrated that one can both engage China and reap the material rewards of those interactions while at the same time maintaining, if not strengthening, their identity as Taiwanese, a self-definition that encompasses the island-nation’s idiosyncratic geography, history, as well as liberal-democratic traditions.

The challenge facing Taiwan, therefore, isn’t so much that Beijing’s latest exercise will “brainwash,” or turn into “traitors,” young Taiwanese who may be tempted by the incentives than the risk that the nation’s best and brightest will choose to relocate and, in doing so, deny Taiwan the brain trust and talent it needs to build and reinvest itself for the future. (A secondary aspect to all this is that the more successful Beijing is in luring Taiwanese talent, the greater will its propagandistic claim be that the “China model” is a better-performing alternative to “messy” democracy.)

A potential “,” therefore, poses a more immediate threat to Taiwan’s future than does the People’s Liberation Army or backroom deals between the Chinese Communist Party and pro-unification groups in Taiwan, which at best have only had a marginal impact on the independence-versus-unification question. Although Beijing will continue to pressure Taiwan military, to work with likeminded partners in Taiwan and to seek to influence it via United Front activities, an economic, academic, scientific and creative hollowing-out of Taiwan over a period of time appears to constitute Beijing’s new strategy to resolve the Taiwan “question.” [Source]

Also at the Taiwan Sentinel, however, Eberhard Karls University Tübingen’s Gunter Schubert argued that China’s 31 preferential policies, or “31PP,” constitute “a confession of defeat concerning its political approach to Taiwan since the change of government there in mid-2016,” and present Taiwan with an opportunity, rather than a threat:

China’s 31PP-strategy certainly has a political underpinning, but its core significance is economic: It forces Taiwan into a fierce competition for investment and human capital that it must face not only because of the “China threat” but because of the forces of globalization, of which China is just one manifestation. The threat of the 31PP-strategy is nothing more or less than a struggle with the forces of globalization which have pushed the island republic to modernize across the board. Incentivizing technological and industrial innovation, public debt restructuring, investment in education and social care are some of the keywords which point to the necessity of a comprehensive reform strategy aiming to keep the best and brightest at home and ensure Taiwan’s economic and social well-being. China’s 31PP-strategy therefore is a blessing in disguise: It pushes the government and all political forces to do better in order to offer the Taiwanese people a viable alternative to the “Chinese promise.”

For that reason, an attitude of anxiety or even anger is certainly the wrong answer to China’s rational behavior to “incorporate” Taiwan. All other things being equal, Taiwan must take up the challenge and cultivate a spirit of competition, self-confidence and optimism. It must take China’s “comprehensively opening-up” as a catalyst for determined economic and social reform in Taiwan proper. Even if it could never match China’s economic clout and attraction, it would then still be able to play a powerful part in an integrated regional economy and add a number of “soft components” that would convince many Taiwanese to stay, most notably its democratic system and high quality of life.

Being afraid or angry of China is useless. Turning anxiety into action to make Taiwan fit for the future is the order of the day. [Source]

Lauren Dickey examined these issues in the context of United Front work in Taiwan at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute: Analysis blog:

China has so far assumed that the better the incentives Taiwanese are offered, and the more Taiwanese are exposed to China, the more acceptable a future of reunification will become. Quite to the contrary, the Taiwanese experience has proved that no amount of contact between the two sides of the Strait will create the ‘psychological harmony (心靈契合)’ seen by Beijing as a necessary element of reunification. But with united front policies now explicitly targeting Taiwan in socioeconomic areas where it is particularly vulnerable, the island must implement a defence strategy which adapts to this China’s reinvigorated offence.

[…] Defending the Taiwanese populace against united front work and the countless tactics China will turn to in hopes of influencing the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese people is just as important as fielding enough air defences to deter kinetic Chinese attacks. Fortunately, it appears that the Tsai administration is both ready and willing to step up its defence against China’s subversive tactics with a series of policies aimed at strengthening Taiwan. The only question that remains is whether these defences can be mounted quickly enough, lest Taiwan’s socioeconomic backbone is paralysed by Beijing in the interim. [Source]