Asia watchers keep a close eye on the communist People’s Republic of China’s relationship with Taiwan for signs of trouble and trends in the region. The United States switched formal recognition from Taiwan — formally, the Republic of China — to the communist Beijing government in 1979, yet backs Taiwan’s security and supplies it with advanced weapons for its self-defense. Its only real security threat is mainland China, while China’s military strength lags far behind its economic strength. Taiwan has stood as an economic powerhouse and beacon of democracy in an authoritarian region for more than half a century. Since the days of Chiang, mainland China has sought to re-capture Taiwan either by force of arms or force of world diplomacy.
Or, maybe, Beijing has changed its strategy to one centered on the force of media. The Examiner reports that Taiwan’s popular Next Media is about to be sold to China-based business baron Tsai Eng-Meng. Tsai is one of China’s richest men, and has deep connections to the communist government. Next Media are best known outside Taiwan for their wonderfully wacky animations of U.S. political and media stories. A free press, plus Taiwan’s unique position in the world, help make those animations possible. The purchase deal would give the tycoon Tsai 50% control of Taiwan’s print media industry. Through his conglomerate Want Want media, Tsai already controls a major swath of the island’s cable and TV outlets. Purchasing Next Media would make him a major media force.
The proposed deal is so huge, and such a concern given Tsai’s ties to Beijing, that it has already caused Taiwan’s press freedom rating to fall. According to Taiwan Today, “Taipei City-headquartered Want Want China Times Group’s purchase of the Taiwan operations of Hong Kong-based Next Media Ltd. has given rise to concerns among certain groups about the establishment of a media monopoly.” An editorial in the Taipei Times calls Want Want media a “cancer.” The editorial, which blasts Noam Chomsky for getting involved in island-mainland politics, also calls Want Want “vicious” and “totalitarian.” According to the Times:
The group is a repeat offender, orchestrating print media and the airwaves it controls to launch ad hominem abuse against whoever stands in its way. It spares no one, dedicating entire pages in its newspapers and hours on its news and TV talk shows crucifying media watchdogs, government employees, professors and young students. It bends the truth, fabricates information, mistranslates comments or uses them out of context, threatens lawsuits, insults and resorts to systematic character assassination.
It also unleashed vile minions, such as CtiTV Washington bureau chief John Zang (臧國華), to interview the MIT professor — the same Zang who, in early 2009, literally stalked former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) daughter, Chen Hsing-yu (陳幸妤), when she was in New York, forcing hotel management where she was staying to expel him and necessitating the intervention of umbrella-touting Taiwanese-Americans to protect her.
The above incidents alone — and they are rife — are sufficient to demonstrate that Tsai’s media empire will not engage in responsible journalism, a key component of any healthy democratic system.
Having popular Next Media in Tsai’s back pocket would only make things worse. Given Tsai’s connections to Beijing’s communist rulers, it would ramp up legitimate fears that the mainland is, in the words of a January New York Times piece, “slowly engulfing the Republic of China, or democratic Taiwan — indirectly, through ever-deepening economic integration and purchases of the republic’s free and vibrant media by Taiwanese businessmen with large financial stakes in China, who want to see unification happen soon.”
Taiwan’s people should have some say in all this, and most of them do not want unification. More on that later.
Free Taiwan, the Republic of China, has long been a friend to the United States. Its resolute anti-communist stance has stood in sharp contrast to its mainland counterpart. Its friendly relations with others in the region, including U.S. allies Japan and South Korea, do as well. The risk is that Tsai would use his media monopoly to destroy press freedom in Taiwan as a means to force reunification. Tsai is no freedom-loving democrat: He has denied the truth about the brutal 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tienanmen Square. According to Tsai, who would own half of Taiwan’s media if the Next Media deal goes through:
While the crackdown outraged most in Taiwan, Tsai said he was struck by footage of a lone protester standing in front of a People’s Liberation Army tank. The fact that the man wasn’t killed, he said, showed that reports of a massacre were not true: “I realized that not that many people could really have died.”
China’s People’s Liberation Army murdered hundreds of protesters to bring the demonstrations to a bloody end. The Chinese communist government censors discussion about that massacre to the present. Tsai, from his own remarks, may twist his media empire to do the same thing, across Taiwan.
Furthermore, while Tsai supports reunification with the PRC and says that it is “inevitable,” 90% of his potential customers disagree with him and want Taiwan to remain independent. But a censorious, biased media empire that refuses to report truth can change minds.
The bottom line is that freedom of the press in Taiwan, a democratic friend of the United States, is at stake. Taiwan’s freedom from communist rule is also at stake. Our own leadership should speak out, but our indebtedness to Beijing and our own newly minted Secretary of State John Kerry’s old habit of using Chinese propaganda against American interests — regurgitating such propaganda during the Vietnam War is what he built his political career on — may muzzle America’s voice.
Taiwan’s youth have been shaken from apathy to take to the streets to oppose Tsai’s establishment of a near media monopoly. They deserve some backing from the nation that still calls itself the land of the free.