Taiwan’s ‘Deep Greens’ are playing with fire

Michael Cole's picture

For those who favour a free and independent Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen remains their best bet. But they will have to learn to be a little more patient -- and aware of the extraordinarily difficult environment in which her Administration operates . . .

TAIPEI -- We now live in the age of disinformation. Our news environment, our social media, are saturated with it.
While the truth is out there somewhere, its signal is lost in all the noise, weakened by forces that contend for our attention, for a chance to shape our view of the world -- and possibly our political decisions.
Although authoritarian states like China and Russia have received the bulk of attention by concerned analysts, non-authoritarian forces that purport to defend democratic ideals have also resorted to this practice to achieve their political aims.
Taiwan's "green" camp has itself been a source, and a victim, of the disinformation campaign that has been unleashed since Tsai Ing-wen assumed the Presidency on May 20, 2016.
That disinformation stems primarily from discontent within the "deep green" camp, which has grown impatient with the Tsai Administration on the matter of independence.
According to them, President Tsai has been too soft on China, her conservatism getting in the way of an unprecedented opportunity.
For them, the Trump presidency, rising global scepticism toward China, the Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) control of the legislative branch and the Kuomintang's (KMT) current existential travails are a signal that the stars are finally aligned in favour of Taiwan independence. Consequently, Tsai should seize this opportunity to hold a referendum on name rectification or outright de jure independence for Taiwan.
The fact that she has not done these things, they argue, is evidence that Tsai is a "closet KMT politician", that she was "brainwashed" by her upbringing.
This, they claim, also explains why, in forming her Cabinet, she surrounded herself with a large number of "blue" and "mainlander" autocrats, and refused to cleanse the public service by firing hundreds, if not thousands, of officials who represented the old guard, replacing them with individuals who could be "trusted." (How and where such a number of public servants could have been found and properly trained quickly enough to prevent the total interruption of Government was never properly answered.)
This disenchantment with Tsai and her DPP has led groups within the "deep green" camp to call for a different candidate in the 2020 general elections.
They have organised protests against her -- one, eventually dropped, was to be held outside her official residence on her birthday -- and have increasingly relied on disinformation, much of it spread via social media and "deep green" traditional media, to tarnish her reputation.
Besides "deep green" elements in Taiwan, the message has had traction with the Taiwanese-American community, many of whose members are captive to certain "deep green" TV channels and commentators.
The key message? That Tsai is against independence, and the party she leads is the same as the KMT -- a carrier belt for eventual annexation by China.
The notion that President Tsai is of a KMT mindset, or that she opposes independence, is downright preposterous.
What she is, as a leader and as a person (full disclosure: I worked for her Thinking Taiwan Foundation from January 2014 until
inauguration day on May 20, 2016), is a pragmatist who understands that the international context, despite being more permissive under current circumstances, remains unstable and highly unpredictable.
Tsai, who developed a good rapport with her U.S. counterparts in the lead-up to the 2016 elections, and who learned the hard way in her previous electoral bid of the consequences of failing to reassure Washington, is cognisant of the fact that an overly assertive Taiwan could prove destabilising in the Taiwan Strait and threaten U.S. interests in the region.
Tsai, therefore, understood that gradualism and predictability, rather than a sudden departure from longstanding policy, were in Taiwan's interest -- that this would buy time to consolidate Taiwan's democracy and to strengthen the nation's ties with key democratic actors within the international community, despite efforts by Beijing to isolate it.
While more overt measures, such as the New Southbound Policy, have attracted attention, much more has been going on behind the scenes that, in the aggregate, will benefit Taiwan for years to come.
By design, to both reassure partners and avoid attracting too much attention from a retributive regime in Beijing, a substantial segment of bilateral and multilateral initiatives involving Taiwan has occurred beyond public view.
Also to her credit, Tsai has succeeded in convincing much of the public sector to go along with her initiatives, this despite institutional barriers caused, among things, by lingering "blue" influence within the system.
There are many unsung heroes in the Tsai Government, whose hard work and dedication to securing Taiwan's future is also derided by those who accuse Tsai of various ills.
Progress -- at least the parts of it that can be made public -- has indeed been slow, as it must occur largely in parallel with the slowly-
adjusting global sentiment toward China. Continuity and gradualism ensured smooth relations with both the Obama Adminstration and a highly unpredictable Trump Administration, and has won many adherents within the international community, where the desire to engage Taiwan more has grown commensurately with the view that Taiwan can act responsibly.
Another variable that Tsai has had to conjugate with is China, whose ruler, Xi Jinping, presents unprecedented challenges -- both in terms of the assertiveness he has unleashed and the uncertainty that surrounds his future intentions.
These considerations have compelled her Administration to handle cross-Strait relations carefully, and to avoid giving Xi, and even more hardline elements within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), justification for cracking down on Taiwan.
Understanding the necessity of this, Tsai was even willing to face loud criticism at home when her Government was accused of not responding strongly enough to China's kidnapping and detention of rights activist Lee Ming-che in March last year.
Here, her Government chose a pragmatic approach to deal with the situation rather than lash out at Beijing. It is difficult to imagine the latter option doing anything to help Lee's fate.
Tsai therefore needed to perform an incredibly difficult balancing act, one that gave Taiwan enough space to deepen its engagement with the international community when that window opened, and one that, by necessity, required restraint, patience, and long-term vision, so as to reassure Taiwan's 23 million citizens -- including those who did not vote for her in 2016, as well as Washington and other important players -- while avoiding actions which could force Beijing to take irrational measures.
As with any other Government, there have been failures in both the crafting and implementation of certain policies. And Tsai's DPP is hardly infallible.
But the idea that Tsai is against independence, or the wrong leader for Taiwan, can only exist in minds that do not fully appreciate the tough, and still unpredictable, context in which political decisions must be made on behalf of Taiwan.
Tsai was handed a Government apparatus that cannot be reformed overnight (anyone who argues otherwise has evidently never served a day in government), and a geopolitical environment that often has been rather hostile to Taiwan's ambitions, however justified.
As a responsible President, and with sagacious guidance by her advisers, she has had to adopt a careful course of action, much of whose effects will only be felt if she is given enough time to continue with those policies. In other words, if she is given a second term -- the very outcome which, rather tellingly, Beijing seeks to deny her.
With their vicious attacks on her political credentials (and sometimes her gender) and ramped up disinformation campaign, the "deep green" camp is playing with fire.
Much of what has been accomplished by Taiwan since 2016 could quickly be derailed if a new, more assertive and impatient leadership took the helm in 2020. It also goes without saying that sabotage by the same "deep greens" of Tsai's Administration and effort to get re-elected in 2020 could also usher in a politician who has different ideas about Taiwan's future.
The false moral equivalence that "deep green" disinformation has been encouraging -- the idea that the DPP and the KMT are the same -- could facilitate the emergence of an independent populist who, unhampered by the restraints inherent to political parties, could suddenly take the nation in an unexpected direction, and one that is antithetical to the hopes and desires of the "deep green" camp.
Actors in the "deep green" camp who are actively involved in efforts to destroy her Administration (some of them have sought to convince visiting U.S. officials of her supposed unsuitability), or who irresponsibly pass on news and commentaries on social media that attack her Government, should also ask themselves whether this whole narrative may not itself have been the brainchild of some "content farm" or "troll" somewhere in China. That's the danger with disinformation -- its origins often are unknown, and it spreads like brushfire.
For those who favour a free and independent Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen remains their best bet. But they will have to learn to be a little more patient and aware of the extraordinarily difficult environment in which her Administration operates.

Michael Cole is Taiwan Correspondent for ATI Magazine. This report was first published in Taiwan Sentinel, https://tw.sentinel.tw/