Tag Archives: Taiwan

What coverage of a Michigan town can teach us about international coverage

Hamtramck, Mich., was one of three major centers of Polish Americans, Chicago and Buffalo, NY., being the other two.

The small city is completely surrounded by Detroit. And like Detroit fell on hard times when the auto industry started moving out of the area in search of cheap Southern US labor and then shrinking after a series of bad economic decisions by the auto executives.

The town was famous for its Polish food places with delis and bakeries getting customers from all over the region.

I know all this because Hamtramck is a part of my family’s history. Even now, whenever I visit Michigan I often stop by a bakery or two to pick up some items for my mother, who can no longer make her regular trips to the place.

A few folks I know expressed shock that Hamtramck has changed. Seems over the past few years more Muslims have moved in the area. I saw it several years ago when on one side of a street were all Polish shops and on the other were halal shops and offices with names common to the Islamic world. (I did not know where the immigrants came from, but I knew it wasn’t Poland. I later learned Bangladesh and Somalia were the main sources for the newest immigrants.)

As a population changes so does its political center. Last year the city council changed to having a Muslim majority. And, as expected, loads of people started freaking out that Sharia law was coming to Michigan.

Well, of course, no such thing has happened or will happen.

To begin with, Hamtramck is under state control. Yep, the state took over the operations of the city under the emergency control law Gov. Snyder used to run Flint and Detroit.

So even if the Muslim majority council wanted to impose Sharia law — which they don’t — it would never pass by the emergency manager.

Needless to say the change in the political powers in Hamtramck from Polish Catholic to Muslim got the press interested. The Washington Post, CNN and Voice of America all did pieces on the shift.

A recent piece by Michael Jackman for the Detroit Metro Times started out criticizing “national media” coverage of the change. (How international news media tried to find conflict in Hamtramck’s new city council — and missed it entirely)

Jackman opening paragraphs describe how “national news media” reps were peppering the Muslim members about Sharia law.

The Muslim councilman is telling the interviewer emphatically that “Sharia Law” won’t be a factor in politics. The interviewer changes his tack: how about in their own lives? Doesn’t Sharia Law enter into the day-to-day life of the community? The interviewer almost pleads, “In daily matters, outside of politics, do you ever say, ‘This doesn’t conform to Sharia Law?'” The interviewee is too clever for this trap.

For my money, it would have been nice if we knew what national media outlet was asking these questions. To be honest they sound more like the type of thing and the way Bill O’Reilly correspondents would ask, rather than any serious journalistic operation.

The rest of the article is a very good look at how things operate in Hamtramck. And with the exception of the origin of the names, it really sounds as if it is business as usual in the small enclave.

“It’s pretty amazing that they all see a story here,” [Mayor Karen] Majewski says. “It seems all kind of unremarkable on the ground. But to think that they are sending people on planes to come here to scout around. And they’re not finding what they’re expecting to find. They’re looking for the mosque with the big minarets. They’re looking for ‘the Muslim neighborhood,’ you know. They’re kind of, surprised that everything is so low-key, and nothing exciting is happening. And it’s just kind of normal life.”

When it comes to national media scrutinizing Hamtramck as a Muslim hot spot, this isn’t the city’s first go-round. In 2004, the city allowed the call to prayer to be broadcast by mosques. Back then, The New York Times was the outlet to put “tension” in a headline, and NBC News showed up too. “But this seems more of a frenzy,” Majewski says.

After November’s election results, international Western media haven’t been shy about as they’ve nosed around town, in search of tension and conflict.

Residents may be able to cite a handful of instances of bigotry, but it doesn’t sum up who we are. It’s the exception, not the rule.

Jackman writes the story in the first person. He makes it clear he has a stake in the city and its growth. It is also clear he has little tolerance for Islamaphopia AND for grandstanding politicians.

Linking coverage Hamtramck to global reporting

The complaints Jackman has about how national and international media outlets report what is happening in Hamtramck can be replicated around the world.

Too often American news consumers have to depend on parachute journalism for reports from around the world. Too many foreign bureaus have been closed by major news organizations. Or, where those bureaus still exist, the area is so large, the reporters assigned to the area have a hard time developing a deeper understanding about the situation being covered.

Sidenote: I was always disappointed that the transition to democracy in Taiwan got such limited coverage. I was told by an editor once when I pitched a story about the transition back in 1992 that if it was important enough the Beijing bureau would pick it up.

Dammit. Beijing and Taipei are two completely different places with loads of cultural and political differences. Not to mention all the political baggage that both carry regarding each other.

Too many of my colleagues have too many things to cover and not enough resources to do the job as it should be done. Editors sit hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away and decide what the story should be despite what an in-depth look at the situation might indicate. (I still recall the editor who asked me to do a piece about living as a journalist under Chinese communist rule. The only problem is that I was in Hong Kong and enjoyed all the freedoms and civic rights of any democracy. The editor fell for a misunderstanding of how Hong Kong operated since the Chinese take over in 1997.)

One way for news organizations to learn more about a place, without making the massive investment in a bureau, is to look for solid freelancers. We usually have a pretty good idea what is going on in the country where we live. Too often we are relegated to writing about tourism, trade or business relations. So a nice juicy piece on politics would be nice.

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China steps up war on foreign correspondents

The rulers in Beijing have never liked having Western reporters in their country. Those pesky reporters just keep asking too many questions and refuse to just accept the government press releases as gospel truth.

In the wake of the November 13 Bloomberg and New York Times reports on how family members of leading government officials got rich, the government of China has been withholding visa renewals — normally a routine thing — for Bloomberg and NYT journalists.

Here is the latest from Foreign PolicyIs Beijing about to Boot the New York Times?

There have been previous kerfuffles, such as when the Times reported on the wealth accumulated by then prime minister Wen Jiabao in 2012.

Bloomberg got into trouble when it disclosed the family wealth of former party boss Bo Xilai and Chinese President Xi Jinping. In retaliation, the governemnt ordered local financial institutions to not buy Bloomberg terminals, which are the main profit-generating engine for the news organization. Censors also blocked its website.

The Foreign Policy article notes:

If Beijing actually does plan to expel both bureaus it would constitute the government’s biggest move against foreign reporters at least since the upheaval following the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. Evan Osnos, a staff writer for the New Yorker and a long-time China correspondent, called this recent move “the Chinese government’s most dramatic attempt to insulate itself from scrutiny in the thirty-five years since China began opening to the world.” Paul Mooney, a longtime China-based chronicler of that country’s human rights abuses, had his visa rejected in early November, in another sign of tightening for foreign correspondents in China. Reuters, Bloomberg, and the New York Times “don’t have the ability to influence the Chinese government,” said Mooney. “I think we really need to have some kind of action. Maybe against media executives in China, or officials — to give the message that this is not acceptable.”

Foreign Policy quotes New York Times’ reporters as saying if the paper is kicked out of China, reporting would continue from Taiwan and Hong Kong. While not ideal situations, there is still a lot of information that can be gleaned from China in these two locations where press freedom is respected.


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Filed under Censorship, China, Freedom of access, Harassment, International News Coverage, Press Freedom

Taiwan, China and Hong Kong

Excellent piece by Elizabeth C. Economy in a Jan. 25 Asia Unbound (Council on Foreign Relations) blog – China, Hong Kong and Taiwan: Running Dogs, Democracy, and More

Much of it is on Beijing professor Kong Qingdong who has gone off the deep end by repeating outdated Mao lines, denouncing rule of law as something only trash and dogs need and complaining about Hong Kongers. (This blog site has already looked at Kong’s statements here and here.)

What recommends Ms. Economy’s piece is her last paragraph. It discusses the danger Taiwan presents to China. In a word that danger is “democracy.”

The Chinese government always pointing out China’s 5,000 years of  civilization. In that time China gave the world paper, gunpowder and pasta. (They also gave us mindless and autocratic bureaucracy, but that is hardly something to celebrate.)

Yet, in all that time, there was never self-rule. Government was always by some form of dictatorship from emperors to war lords to the Communist Party.

When the Nationalists fled China in 1949 and settled in Taiwan they were no better. Democratic stirrings did not seriously start taking hold until the early 1990s. It fully blossomed in 2000 when power was transferred from one political party to another by way of a popular election. That was the first time in 5,000 years of civilization that the people of a Chinese-speaking land actually had a say in their government.

Since then there have been many more elections on the local and national level. The most recent presidential election took place earlier this month.

And it was something the people of mainland China have noticed. Millions of netizens in China followed the election and marveled at how society remained stable even as competing political philosophies battled for the leadership of the island state.

(You have to remember that Beijing says China cannot have political reforms — to match the economic reforms — because any change or challenge to the system will bring immediate chaos and instability to society.)

Even the official media in China had to admit the idea of democracy — especially as practiced in Taiwan — struck a chord in China. (But the paper Global Times was also quick to point out that democracy in China ain’t gonna happen.)

On the mainland, similar questions concerning democracy, equality and interests are countless and all sound reasonable. But the systems designed for modern countries are not exactly suitable for gigantic countries like China.

China is too big in both size and population. Its diversified behavior and mentalities are weakening its current national cohesion.

Now add Hong Kong to the mix, with its free media and rights of assembly, rule of law and limited democracy and one can understand why Beijing hardliners — like Prof. Kong — and the party leadership are nervous.

For them, there are just too many Chinese-speaking places that have too many rights and freedoms.

Oh and maybe it is time the US media started paying attention to the situation in Taiwan. And not just the Taiwan-China disputes but the day-to-day political and economic events in Taiwan. This is a strong economy with a stable democratic government. It is worth keeping an eye on.

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Free media and democracy are not bargaining chips

Gotta agree with Arch Puddington at Freedom House: Worst idea of the year: Selling out on Taiwan

He was reacting to an article by Paul V. Kane in a Nov. 10 New York Times Op-Ed piece: To Save Our Economy, Ditch Taiwan.

Kane starts off his piece with an argument that U.S. strength comes — or should come — from only our military might:

[Pres. Obama] needs to redefine America’s mindset about national security away from the old defense mentality that American power derives predominantly from our military might, rather than from the strength, agility and competitiveness of our economy. He should make it clear that today American jobs and wealth matter more than military prowess.

This is a powerful statement and even more so from a man who served as a Marine in Iraq.

But he forgets that what also makes America great is its commitment to democracy and its willingness to support democracies and democratic forces.

This is the point that Puddington takes: A democracy like the United States should not toss a fellow democracy under the bus to placate a dictatorship:

What would Israel or the Baltic countries think of the United States after it had tossed a vulnerable ally into the maw of a large authoritarian neighbor? Major allies would also take notice, and their reactions could be both costly and unpleasant for the United States. It is worth mentioning that Japan is close behind China as the second-largest foreign holder of U.S. debt. Taiwan itself is high on the list.

I further have to agree with Puddington that placating Beijing will only strengthen the hardliners and “would only embolden such leaders to press their advantage.”

Kane, on the other hand, sees the move as one to weaken the hardliners: “[It]would undermine hard-line militarists who use the Taiwan issue to stoke nationalist flames, sideline pro-Western technocrats and extract larger military budgets.”

By dumping Taiwan, Kane argues, the U.S. could help China save $500 billion in defense spending aimed at Taiwan by 2020.

I am not sure I want to help China save money on defending itself from Taiwan so it can put its money into other more aggressive expenditures. (Besides, there is absolutely NO threat to China from a Taiwanese invasion.)

Kane adds that dumping Taiwan would move the Beijing leadership to be more open to U.S. efforts to deal with North Korea and Iran.

“It would be a game changer,” he states.

Yes it would be. It would signal that the United States is willing — for short-term domestic reasons — to dump a democratic regime with all the rights and liberties shared by the American people, in favor of a dictatorship.

Freedom House Rankings of Political Freedom

I am pretty sure that is what the American people want. And I am damned sure that is not the legacy any U.S. president wants.

I was in Taiwan in the early 1990s when democracy was just taking hold. It was a shame that the U.S. media did not cover the soft revolution that took place there. (There were no U.S. news organizations in Taiwan by that time, they were all in Beijing. And the editors back in the States were pre-occupied with the fall of the Soviet Empire. They could not be bothered with the goings on in a small island state. I know, I tried to sell the story to a number of U.S. papers.)

Despite being ignored by most of the rest of the world, the Taiwanese kept moving forward with their democratic process. And by 2000 (I think), Taiwan became the first Chinese-speaking entity in 5,000 years to have a peaceful change in political leadership by popular vote.

In the process of building a democratic government, the Taiwanese built free and independent outlets.

Free elections. Free press. Free speech.

These are not things to give up to pay down the debt.

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Anniversaries: The Wall and Taiwan

No doubt there is reason to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ultimate collapse of the Soviet empire. (BTW, the BBC has a great interactive timeline map of the fall of the Iron Curtain.)

I was impressed that along with the Berlin anniversary stories, the BBC linked the reunification of Germany with the reunification hopes of the Koreas. The angle was good. One country unified. One looking to reunification.

But in Asia there is another land that claims to be divided. Taiwan and China both claim Taiwan is part of China and officially both call for unification. Albeit each has a different view of what kind of government the reunified China should have.

I am sure that the Chinese leaders in 1989 looked at the events taking place in Europe and then congratulated themselves for their barbaric actions in Tiananmen Square. After all, they preserved their rule and the communist governments in Europe were beginning to fall as East Germans first poured into Hungary and then through the Wall.

At the same time, the dictatorship in Taiwan saw a different lesson: Change or die.

Slowly the ruling Kuomingtang Party loosened its stranglehold on the Taiwanese people.

By 1991 the opposition Democratic Progressive Party could hold a massive march for democracy and not have the demonstration disrupted by the police. It was the largest non-KMT authorized demonstration held in Taiwan at that time. It was peaceful and significant.

And it was ignored by the Western media.

I was a freelance journalist in Taiwan at the time. I worked at the English language radio station (ICRT) at the time and anchored news reports from around Taipei about the demonstration.

All of us in the news room were expecting violence. Either the demonstrators would get carried away and take out their frustrations against the state or the police would over-react to the massive demonstration and start banging heads. (There were enough recent examples of both for this to be reasonable expectations.)

Yet none of that happened. The police blocked off the streets for the legal march and demonstration and kept traffic under control (as if Taipei traffic can be controlled). And the demonstrators stayed to the route agreed to and stayed peaceful.

This was a major step forward in Taiwan’s march to democracy.

I thought it was significant. Here was proof that Taiwan would peacefully move from dictatorship to democracy. I called a number of editors in the States.

“Would you like a story about the demonstration and its implications for a democratic Taiwan?”

The universal response was, “No.”

Some said if the event was important enough the AP would have it. Others said no one cared about Taiwan.

And yet in 1996 Taiwan held the first free and open election in a Chinese speaking territory.

Four years later in another election power was peacefully transferred from to another party.

And in 2008 power once again shifted in a free and fair election.

And still, the Western media ignores the dramatic democratic growth in Taiwan, except for the corruption stories.

Process stories and stories about the life and economy of Taiwan are rare as hens’ teeth.

Why is this all important to journalists and journalism?

Taiwan — and Hong Kong — are the only Chinese speaking places that have free and independent media. And yet thanks to the maneuverings of Beijing Taiwanese journalists are banned from covering key international organizations. No Taiwan-based news organization or Taiwanese journalist can get credentials to cover the World Health Organization or the United Nations because these bodies bow to China’s pressure.

Journalism groups around the world have stood up to support Taiwanese media access to the international bodies but to no avail.

So while we celebrate the fall of the Wall and the (real) democratic liberation of Eastern Europe, let us not forget that at the same time a major revolution also took place on the other side of the globe but it went under reported (and often ignored).

Too bad we haven’t learned much in 20 years.

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Filed under China, Freedom of Information, International News Coverage, Press Freedom

Taiwan and free press

Earlier I posted a piece about how the only press Taiwan is getting now is related to the typhoon and the complaints against its president for the way disaster relief was handled.

Let’s go back a few a bit and also talk about how the free press of Taiwan (a political entity that democratically elects its leaders) is barred from covering the United Nations and any of its affiliated bodies.

Seems Beijing is determined to keep Taiwan isolated so it pushed through rules for press credentials that ban ANY journalist working for a Taiwanese publication.

Yes, ANY. Not just Taiwan citizens.

If I applied, I could not get credentials to cover the U.N. for a Taiwan-based news organization.

It wasn’t until this year that the WHO relaxed its rules to allow Taiwan to observer the WHO proceedings. But as far as I know, Taiwanese journalists are still banned from covering the WHO.

Too bad we are not seeing more complaints about this from journalism groups and the mainstream media.

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For once Taiwan gets international coverage, but the president is not happy

Poor Taiwan.

Ever since 99.9% of the governments in the world recognized Beijing instead of Taipei as the capital of China, Taiwan only gets into the international press if a natural disaster happens or if some TV news program wants to close with a funny clip. (Usually the clip is of the members of the combative legislature throwing chairs are each other.)

What so many in the international media missed is the fact that Taiwan went from a brutal dictatorship to a democracy without one shot being fired or without massive riots. It was a slow process but once started it picked up steam.

Taiwan became the ONLY Chinese-speaking location to elect its leaders in fair and open elections.

Now, with the flooding from the most recent typhoon, the shortcomings of the current administration are coming out in full force. (Think of all the good publicity Pres. Bush got after Katrina. That gives you an idea of what is going on with Taiwan.)

So now the international media focus on Taiwan to cover a natural disaster and the political aftermath.

Too bad that same media did not feel the transition to democracy was important.

I remember living in Taiwan at the time of the transition. There was a massive opposition party demonstration. I worked at the English language radio station at the time. We geared up for a massive counter-strike by the ruling party followed by a massive violent reaction from the crowd.

It didn’t happen.

This demonstration was the largest ever seen in Taiwan and it was peaceful. The government provided proper protection along the parade route. The demonstrators refrained from provoking the police and military.

The people and the government showed remarkable political maturity. (As opposed to many of the anti-global trade demonstrators today.) And yet, I could not get one US publication to take the story.

The common line was: “If it is important, we can get it from the AP.” (And at the time, besides me — a simple freelancer — the only Western news service in Taiwan was AFP and an AP stringer.)

To me, that showed a complete lack of interest in what was going on in Asia. (Unless it was China.)

How are Americans going to know why things are happening in the world unless we tell them? How are they going to understand how things happen unless we tell them?

Unfortunately, the bean counters in corporate media do not feel it is important to keep Americans up to date on events in the world.

Unless the event is a war, disaster or (violent) revolution.

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