Friday, 29 April 2016

On The Closure Of "Thinking Taiwan" And The Censuring Of Chang Ching-sen (張景森): "You Know What Some Might Say"

It's Friday morning and I need to run a number of important errands today both before and after work, so there isn't much time. However, I want to comment on two things that have occurred in the news this week; though they may appear unrelated they are actually connected.

The first thing is the news, released via J.M. Cole's twitter feed that the English version of "Thinking Taiwan" is to close in a few weeks, and the second thing is the controversy surrounding Chang Ching-sen's (張景森) Facebook comments about urban renewal projects in Taipei city and the young people who protested against them four years ago.

Apparently, the decision to close "Thinking Taiwan" may have been made so as to avoid the embarrassment of Tsai Ing-wen's own foundation funding written articles that were critical of her new government, or from a concern as to the "skewed" nature of the comments appearing below the articles (obviously I wrote a fair number of those comments, and so it may be some of mine that they had in mind). Here is the relevant quote from the China Times...
If this is true, then it reflects the wariness of criticism that we associate with most people in positions of power, but especially political power. However, it may be that this was the "face-reason" given for the impending closure with the real reason being far more mundane - Tsai Ing-wen won the presidential election and the DPP won a majority in the legislative elections and so there is no more need for English language articles to win influence among western governments. Of course these two explanations for the closure of Thinking Taiwan are not mutually exclusive; "we don't need you anymore now that we've been elected, and you're probably going to prove a liability to us here on out anyway."

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a post praising Tsai Ing-wen's remarks in Hualien concerning freedom of speech. I hope her support for free speech will continue and will in practice mean her opposition to any and all legislation intended to restrict freedom of speech, including so-called "hate speech" laws.

One of the functions of free speech is to allow political criticism, argument and the exchange of views. To remove one platform for this is not an infringement of freedom of speech, but it does betray a nervousness, an attitude of "we must have freedom of speech for reasons of principle and appearance, but in actual practice, we would much rather people just shut up and go away."

This is an attitude that can easily be expected from a new government, especially given the indirect forms of power that media can sometimes wield over government. Yet in my opinion, it was also an attitude that seemed to be prevalent among the writers at "Thinking Taiwan"; their failing was that they did not take the opportunity to respond to comments and to argue for their views. Perhaps they felt it would have been a waste of time - but that does not say much about their confidence in themselves as writers or "thinkers", and, more importantly, their confidence in the intelligence, reasoning and curiosity of their broader audience.

Onto the Chang Ching-sen (張景森) controversy...

Apparently he is a minister without portfolio in the new cabinet elect, and published comments to his Facebook page on Monday disparaging the protests against so-called "urban renewal" projects that involved the "expropriation" of the home of a family surnamed Wang. He is reported to have commented that...
"The Wang family that seemed to have been persecuted by the construction company and the government had a house that was 56.06 ping [185.2m2], but now has been distributed five apartments that total 175.02 ping with a value of more than NT$100 million [US$3.1 million]... Fuck! How pathetic... I meant those highbrow young people who howled for justice and staged candlelight vigils for the family."
I personally disagree with this assessment because, as I said in an unpublished letter to the Taipei Times back in 2012, I thought the real issue was the Wang's lack of consent to having their home demolished and the omnilateral implications for everybody else that follow from the disregard of private property rights. Nonetheless I don't think Chang's view is an uncommon one, nor is it entirely unreasonable if one accepts the (in my opinion, flawed*) premise of a "balance" that must be struck between private rights and public rights.

But it is not Chang's comments that are important as such, but rather the reaction to them in the media. Here is J.M. Cole remarking on Chang's comments at The New Lens...
"Deriding civil society is hardly the signal that anyone in the Tsai administration wants to broadcast at this point, especially as a sizable segment of that politically active population remains wary of the DPP."
The gist of his article is that the Tsai administration would do well to relieve Chang of his post before he even takes it up on account of the "broadcasting" of "signals". Whilst this is an attempt to exert influence over a newly elected government, it is also, sadly, an indulgence of the now widespread habit of offense-taking as a substitute for reasoning. Chang's remarks are "damaging" because they offended the students who took part in the protests in Taipei. Yet though they may be offended by Chang's remarks, that does not preclude them from considering the logic; that it does not follow from Chang's remarks that either Tsai or the new cabinet-elect agree with him, or that his functional powers as minister would allow such incidents of government sponsored theft to reoccur in the same way.

Yet the logic of the situation has been sublimated beneath the overriding waves of offense-taking.

By either firing or censuring Chang, the new Premier will be reinforcing an unhealthy reflex among the government - that ministers and other officials must avoid speaking their minds freely for fear of causing offense to what Cole and others are calling "civil society"**. Yet that is a reflex of cowardice, which indicates a return to secrecy and a dangerous incline toward what I call cryptocratic government. It is hardly the mark of a free society with confidence in the rationality of its' citizens to exchange views, engage in debate and the giving and taking of offense without resort to violence or coercion. What should happen instead is that ministers should be encouraged to air their views freely and that, when the likes of Lin Fei-fan object to something like Chang's remarks, there should be some forum designated for an exchange or debate to get everything out in the open. The automatic censuring or firing of a government minister for speaking his mind, even when - in fact, especially when - we disagree with his views does not inspire confidence that the new cabinet elect or the new president really understand why freedom of expression is so important in the first place, in spite of what they may say to the contrary.

And that is how the two stories tie together - the closure of "Thinking Taiwan" and the censuring of a minister in the new cabinet-elect can both be viewed as strong indications of the lack of belief and confidence in the functional importance of freedom of expression and political criticism.

*It is flawed because the distinction is untenable - private property rights are not something to be balanced against the "public interest", private property rights are the public interest because everybody needs them in order to secure their own individual and common interests.

**Alhough I largely agree with them about what happened to the Wang family, I don't think it is entirely accurate to characterize the protesters as "civil society" because though their view of the issue is a popular one, it is not the only popular view. Rather, they have become, in effect, a kind of unofficial lobbying group that must be appeased by the government.

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