Tea Leaf Nation

Is Taiwan Sinking Back Into Obscurity?

For a brief spell, a student movement plucked the island from media purgatory. But the spotlight is dimming.

Barring a natural disaster or political crisis involving China, the international media has often ignored Taiwan, an island of 23 million people just off the coast of the Chinese mainland. But for roughly three weeks in March and April, things were different. Starting March 18, when students occupied Taiwan's parliament to protest legislation of a cross-strait trade pact that would open Taiwan to further mainland investment, media outlets from around the world covered the army of college-age student protesters, who were upset with their government and knew how to show it. 

The rush of foreign media attention gave the protesters, and Taiwan generally, an unusually attentive international audience. And it has created a new set of public relations challenges both for Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, who has been criticized for failing to inform the public about the trade pact, and for the student organizers of what they called the "Sunflower Movement," who are now trying to keep Taiwan and the social issues they champion in the international spotlight.

Beginning with the initial occupation, frequent reports and updates appeared not only here in Foreign Policy, but also in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, and wire services like the Associated Press. Many international news outlets covered the March 24 storming of the Executive Yuan, the seat of Taiwan's cabinet, and a March 30 mass demonstration outside the presidential office in Taipei, attended over one hundred thousand protesters. Television news stations like CNN, Arabic-language Al Jazeera, and Japanese public broadcaster NHK also acted quickly to bring footage of protesters clashing with baton-wielding police and to provide analysis for a worldwide audience.

This media regard did not go unremarked in sometimes attention-starved Taiwan. In an April 5 article, the news website of ETTV, a popular Taiwanese television station, provided Taiwanese readers with a run down of international coverage, noting that German left-wing newspaper Die Tageszeitung ran a front-page story praising the Sunflower Movement for "elevating democracy to an even higher level," while Bloomberg Businessweek cautioned in the headline of an April 3 article that "Taiwan's protests point to a deeper crisis" as Ma seeks to further integrate Taiwan's economy with China's. ETTV Vice President of News and External Affairs Chang Yuling told Foreign Policy that the Sunflower Movement "definitely" captured the interest of some foreign media that originally had paid Taiwan little mind. 

Domestic and foreign media coverage began to trail off, however, when students ended the occupation on April 10, following Legislature Speaker Wang Jin-pyng's promise not to hold further discussions over the cross-strait trade pact until a law is passed to give the legislature greater oversight over trade agreements with China. Despite splinter protests in the weeks that followed, coverage of Taiwan in newspapers like the Times had returned to levels seen before students occupied the parliament building. Meanwhile, an April 20 Forbes blog post noted declining membership in Taiwan's Foreign Correspondents' Club, an organization for accredited journalists that today has fewer than 30 international members. 

The warming of cross-strait relations since Ma took office in 2008 is one reason why foreign media haven't stayed focused on Taiwan. Gone are the days when former President Lee Teng-hui angered China by traveling to the United States in 1995 to speak at Cornell University, or when former president Chen Shui-bian taunted China with threats of Taiwan independence during the early 2000s. (Beijing views Taiwan as a renegade province that must someday be reunited with China, by force if necessary.) Ma, by contrast, has brought Taiwan closer to the mainland, signing 21 cross-strait trade agreements over six years. With little chance of China attacking Taiwan -- or of Taiwan provoking its much larger neighbor -- many major news outlets have redeployed reporters to cover the island from the mainland or Hong Kong. 

Taiwan's diplomatic status is also partly to blame. The Taiwan Relations Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1979, ended diplomatic relations with Taiwan and established formal ties with the mainland. Since then, Beijing has condemned any remarks or actions that smack of Taiwanese sovereignty. While the act potentially requires that the United States defend Taiwan in a military crisis with China, it also prohibits Taiwanese high-ranking elected officials from communicating directly with their counterparts in Washington. This precludes Ma, for instance, from meeting with Obama for talks on Taiwan's participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a U.S.-led pact that Obama discussed on his recent trip to Asia and that some experts say is designed to contain a growing China. Such a meeting, were it ever permitted, would generate considerable press.

Despite these obstacles, exchange among some lower-level and retired government officials and politicians from both the United States and Taiwan has taken place. On Nov. 20, 2013, Vincent Siew, the islands' vice president from 2008 to 2012, spoke at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C. think tank, in an effort to drum up U.S. support for Taiwan's entry into the TPP. And EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy traveled to Taiwan on April 14, becoming the first U.S. cabinet official to do so in 14 years. Except for Taiwan's own media, which reported on the meeting with keen interest, the foreign press (and even China's own news outlets, which mentioned Beijing's displeasure with the visit) paid little heed.

Taiwan's PR problem, however, is not just an international one. Before the Sunflower Movement occupied Taiwan's legislature, only 12 percent of Taiwanese reported understanding the trade agreement that students were protesting. Ma told the Economist that the protests and occupation were a result of "misunderstanding among the public" that the cross-strait trade agreement was never submitted for public review. Ma insisted it had been, although he conceded that most of the meetings "were small-scale," and that "the public might not have known about them." 

None of this has sat well with Taiwanese, whose favorability ratings of the Nationalist Party (KMT), which favors reunification with China, and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which favors independence, were 21 and 28 percent, respectively, as of April 16. While Ma and the KMT have been accused in Taiwan's press of employing deceptive and underhanded tactics to ram through the trade agreement, DPP elected officials have also faced criticism for exploiting the student protesters for political gain in an election year. For his part, Ma has acknowledged that more could have been done to get out the message. 

A revamped PR campaign might further boost Ma's approval ratings, which have edged up slightly from 9 percent to 13 percent, and give him more room to govern for his remaining two years in office. This is especially important since the Sunflower Movement's aftermation is far from decided. Jerome Cohen, a Chinese law expert and Ma's former instructor at Harvard Law School, told Foreign Policy that Taiwan specialists are now closely watching to see whether Taiwan's government will prosecute the protesters, including student organizers Lin Fei-fan and Chen Wei-ting, both of whom answered subpoenas on April 21 and met with Taipei prosecutors in connection with obstruction of justice and destruction of property charges. How the media portrays Ma's handling of the case could bear on his legacy as president. 

Meanwhile, Lin and Chen are doing their part to keep themselves and the protests in the international spotlight. On April 26, the pair visited 73-year-old former DPP chairman Lin Yi-hsiung at the Gikong Presbyterian Church in Taipei, where he had been on a hunger strike from April 22 to April 30 to protest Taiwan's construction of a controversial fourth nuclear power plant. Later that day, Lin also turned up at a rally outside the presidential building in Taipei to protest the island's reliance on nuclear energy. Following a second round of demonstrations on April 27, Taiwan's government agreed to seal up one reactor from the plant and halt work on another, a development reported by outlets like Reuters and the Journal. Then on April 28, at around 3 o'clock in the morning, a phalanx of whistle-blowing riot police, brandishing batons and shields, slowly squeezed demonstrators off a Taipei street while they were still protesting, as a water cannon sporadically sprayed the mostly peaceful crowd, many of whom came prepared with rain slickers. That, too, generated some international coverage, but nothing like what Taiwan saw during the height of the Sunflower Movement.  

Politics aside, the Sunflower Movement undoubtedly managed to pluck Taiwan from the international media doldrums -- if only for a few weeks -- and focus the foreign press' attention on why protesters fear further economic integration with China. This is a turnabout from just a few months ago, when Taiwanese were chiding their own media for ignoring important international issues like the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, a trade agreement Taiwan signed with China in 2010 of which the Cross Strait Service Trade Agreement is a part, and for focusing instead on trivial, "brain-dead" news. Whether they intended to or not, an army of well-organized youth protesters has reintroduced the world to Taiwan -- and seems to be getting the government to capitulate to some of its demands. Time will tell whether the protest leaders sustain the world's interest too.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Tea Leaf Nation

Five Harsh Lessons for Chinese Private Business

Censors just axed several innocent U.S. shows. What gives?

HONG KONG — It's a plot twist few saw coming. Not long ago, China's video streaming sites were trying to clean up years of copyright violations by paying big bucks to license popular U.S. television shows. For their part, Chinese fans had begun to abandon the ubiquitous and cheap pirated DVDs which had long been their conduit to Western television in favor of online videos with good subtitles and better picture quality. This story of transgression and redemption had been going swimmingly -- until a shadowy government agency emerged to throw a wrench into the works. It all went down on April 25, when four popular U.S. television series -- The Big Bang Theory, The Good Wife, NCIS, and The Practice -- were removed from major Chinese video streaming sites. Aghast audience members are now left to parse this sudden turn of events.

For years -- unlike state-owned television networks in China, which are kept on a perpetually tight leash by central authorities -- Chinese video-streaming platforms like Sohu and Youku, both of which are operated by U.S.-listed companies, had been relatively free to show content either purchased from overseas providers or produced in-house. Since Sohu first licensed the U.S. television series Lost in 2010, Chinese Internet giants, in competition for web traffic and advertising revenue, have spent millions of dollars bringing free, on-demand streaming of foreign shows and movies to the Chinese market. According to Youku's Chief Content Officer Zhu Xiangyang, the site's traffic from U.S. series has increased 13-fold over the past three years, with the majority of the audience being well-educated 18- to 40-year-olds living in first-tier cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.

The recent move comes as a shock -- but it's also a teachable moment. Here are five insights about China that can be gleaned from this latest news.

1.              The exercise of political power is arbitrary.

The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), the government organ responsible for censorship of all sorts in China, has given no reason for singling out the four shows for removal while leaving others alone. In the past, online content has been removed for vulgar, violent content, or negative portrayals of the Chinese government. But the four recent victims did not offend on any of these fronts. In fact, as of April 29, over a dozen U.S. television show remain available on Sohu and Youku, ranging from supernatural teen drama The Vampire Diaries to sci-fi thriller S.H.I.E.L.D. to mockumentary sitcom Modern Family. Some have speculated that horror drama The Walking Dead might be next on the chopping block for excessive violence, but there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to SARFT's decisions.

2.              Business always comes second to politics.

On April 28, Sohu CEO Charles Zhang told Chinese tech blog TMTPost that a few "stand-alone" incidents do not indicate a policy change. That may be wishful thinking. An article from the same day on Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily states definitively that the move is indeed part of a recently announced crackdown called "sweep out porn, strike at rumors," one which has already gone beyond its stated ambit to target content like online fiction. The article also warns that more bans are underway and that shows from the United States, the United Kingdom, South Korea, and Japan will be reviewed by censors beforehand. (It adds that a crackdown on British shows is next.)

3.              Private companies must always stay on their toes, no matter how big they become.

Major Chinese Internet companies are privately held. In China, that means more freedom to operate, but less political protection when things go awry. Sohu has invested heavily in licensing U.S. television shows, scoring the exclusive rights to The Big Bang Theory, and now stands to take a large loss on licensing fees when the show was removed from the site. Sohu's shares on Nasdaq hit a one-year low after the ban, while Youku's shares on the New York Stock Exchange slumped to the lowest price since August 2013.

4.              Competing with state-owned companies is dangerous.

It's worth noting that state-owned television channels are in the business of airing the same shows as Chinese streaming platforms. Respected Chinese finance magazine Caijing has reported that state media behemoth CCTV, which operates its own entertainment channels, will soon air a "healthy and green" (read: heavily censored) version of The Big Bang Theory. CCTV has also introduced a newly dubbed version of Game of Thrones, a fantasy series featuring plenty of violence and nudity, to its paid channel.  

5.              It helps to have friends -- or fans -- in high places.

House of Cards, a Netflix series that prominently features a corrupt Chinese antagonist, would seem an apt candidate for removal.  But it remains available on the Chinese web, at least for now. One reason could be that Wang Qishan, China's corruption czar and a member of the standing committee of the Politburo, has publicly cited the dark political drama based in Washington, D.C. as one of his favorite shows.

Axing popular foreign shows certainly isn't a way to win Chinese hearts and minds. Today's Chinese youth see U.S. television shows as a window to a foreign culture, not to mention an opportunity to improve their English. (Chinese schools teach English, but focus more on reading and memorization.) Fans have started themed cafes, online forums, and even volunteer groups that arise early in the morning to translate subtitles for their favorite U.S. shows. In addition to the recent casualties, shows as diverse as sitcoms like Friends and 2 Broke Girls, but also crime drama Breaking Bad have developed fervent Chinese fan bases.

If anything, the recent takedowns have brought censorship to the doorstep of young Chinese web users who may not have experienced it directly before. Many young Chinese are either indifferent to politics, or at least profess to be so. But it's one thing to take away citizens' right to petition, of which most won't seek to avail themselves anyway. It's another thing to take away their favorite TV.

Photo: Getty Images