As Taiwan’s fifth free presidential election heats up, there has been considerable criticism over public funds being used to unfairly promote the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) incumbent, Ma Ying-jiu and his radical policies aimed at appeasing and placating China against the moderate challenger of Tsai Ying-wen from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Now, as we head into the final weeks of the election, the bicycle takes center stage in the battle for the direction Taiwan will take over the next four years.
On December 31, the central government will be heading a massive One Bike One bicycle activity with the stated purpose of simultaneously setting 1 million bicycles in motion around Taiwan to celebrate the centenary of the ROC, the official name of the state governing Taiwan.
I have already elaborated on why events like this should be avoided for their underlying political motivations, but in the wake of the “Dreamers” scandal, in which the government paid US$7 million in taxpayers money to fund a National Day concert headed by a pro-KMT musical troupe free from competitive bidding, more scrutiny is due.
The uproar over the quasi-political nature of the concert and its astronomical cost led to the resignation of Council for Cultural Affairs Minister, Emile Sheng’s resignation.
New criticism is being heaped on the US$2 million One Bike One event for the potential misuse of government funds for clandestine campaigning, an issue I accurately detailed last year. In my post I wrote:
Ma identifies very closely with the ROC, as he has always been a beneficiary of its imbalanced existence on Taiwan. A cycling event that draws riders from 100,000 different points from around Taiwan gives the central government, controlled by Ma's own party, an opportunity to effectively conduct an unofficial island-wide campaign event that would allow the government to spread cash (in many forms) to all corners of Taiwan in the name of the ROC. The campaign gifts may come in the form of tourism dollars and other temporary infrastructure projects aimed at this event. It allows the government to purchase labor in all districts. It gives the government a reason to purchase space, materials, transportation and other goods and services (possibly at inflated prices) from strategically important districts and the politicians who run those districts. It gives the KMT an opportunity to purchase patrons.
Democratic Progressive Party legislator, Huang Shu-ying has recently come to the same conclusion and lambasted the KMT led government for its largesse and for blatantly campaigning on the public dime. I also suspect a clever play on words using tiema/鐵馬(bicycle) is being used as a subtle reference to Ma Ying-jiu/馬英九.
Organizers from the CCAB, in their own defense, have cited the massively successful Hand-in-Hand rally organized in the run-up to the 2004 elections an analog. The Hand-in-Hand rally brought out millions of Taiwanese linking hands from Keelung to Kenting, in a human chain symbolizing a wall of defense against the over 1500 ballistic missiles China maintains aimed at Taiwan as part of its threat to rein in formal declarations of independence so Taiwan can be forcefully annexed by China.
This type of internal propaganda and indivisibility between the party and the state has been a major problem in Taiwan as most Taiwanese do not fully accept the official national ideology, nor do they wholly embrace the historical narratives promoted by the KMT party, which served as the party-state from 1945 until 1988.
The ROC propaganda is not only directed at mobilizing support for the incumbent in Taiwan, but was also recently on full display for the second First International Bicycle Festival. This is one reason I was quiet on the event this past November.
During that time I did have the opportunity to meet with a group of bicycle journalists and their official guide as they toured Taiwan.
What really struck me was how much control the guide insisted on exerting over the experience and exactly what her aims might be for her audience.
She insisted on taking my name and phone number. She also insisted on knowing exactly what I had talked to these journalists about. I was instructed to not say anything "bad" about Taiwan or Giant Bicycles. In my discussion with the cyclists she grew visually upset with me for discussing some of the positive aspects of Taiwan's Japanese colonial experience and on Taiwan's complex relationship with that aspect of history. I guess Taiwan's 50 years as a Japanese colony are "bad". She became frustrated that I was critical over the government's use of bicycle tourism to support some businesses over others. She also mentioned how she got the job because she was friendly with a KMT part official.
Anyway, I could tell she had a job to not only sell cycling in Taiwan, but to also promote a certain image of Taiwan as a "Chinese"nation. She was also selling Giant bicycles.
She complained openly, in Chinese, about having to forbid her group from taking pictures of shark fin soup vendors or betel nut girls and how she needed to steer her charges away from anything too "low class". Her admission that these things exist and are not for foreign visitors are an implication of both guilt and shame.
The meeting left me in absolute shock. This was clearly someone who did not understand the importance of a free press.
During the entire encounter I kept coming back to a quote from George Kerr from his renowned book Formosa Betrayed.
Insulating visitors was a fine art, pursued by talented men.--Kerr p.155
I thought I gave the visitors a fair portrayal of Taiwan's riding conditions, including the dangers of the Su-Hua Highway. The minder was not amused.
What is clear, is that the bicycle has become a prominent feature on Taiwan's landscape of informal propaganda aimed both internally at its citizens to mobilize votes, and externally at foreign visitors and commentators who may take away a certain impression of what Taiwan is or is not. It is often hoped that these visitors will use their experiences at any time they may feel compelled to act politically.
A great example of the effects of this type of propaganda landed in my in-box last year and I have been sitting on it, waiting to use it in a post.
In an article from the Shore News Today in North Wildwood, New Jersey, Jacob Schaad Jr. recalls the 1980 Wildwoods International ProAm, and how it played into a greater game played by ROC propagandists.
NORTH WILDWOOD—The passage of years often dims or eliminates memories of historic events.
Such is the case in the Wildwoods, where in February of 1980 the leading officials of Wildwood, North Wildwood and Wildwood Crest took a 16 hour fight to the Republic of China, all expenses paid by their hosts, to establish a sister relationship with the city of Hsin Chu in Taiwan.
Two of the survivors of that trip today are former North Wildwood Mayor Anthony Catanoso, the Wildwoods longest serving mayor at 27 years, and his wife, Phyllis. The arrangement was for each of the three communities here to hold a reciprocal flag raising ceremony on Oct. 10 of each year concurrent with one being held in Hsin Chu. That date, called Double Ten Day, is as important to the Taiwan as the Fourth of July is to the United States, for on Oct. 10 in 1911 a revolution was started, which led to creation of the republic.
The Wildwoods became involved in Chinese-American relations as a result of the International Pro-Am Bike Race held on Five Mile Beach. Chinese representatives from the republic sent a delegation here in 1979, presumably as a public relations gesture to show that theirs was the real place to visit, not the Communist mainland, which was often described as Red China.
The visitors were treated so well by the Americans that they invited a delegation from the island to come to Hsin Chu for a sister city celebration there in February. Don’t worry, the Wildwoods mayors, et al, were told by the Chinese, we’ll take care of the bill. It wasn’t quite that simple for the Chinese, however. But the Chinese were persuasive and their powers that be came up with the air fare and other costs.
At first there was some question here whether it would be internationally correct for the Wildwoods to possibly start an international incident by visiting one China instead of the other, especially since the two Chinese factions didn’t get along, and still don’t today. One of the catalysts for the trip was the then-Wildwood Mayor Guy Muziani who had been to Taiwan at another time, believed to be for the purpose of wooing the big bicycle race to the Wildwoods. Muziani cautioned that the Chinese invitation would be canceled if all the Wildwoods mayors did not go. George Chan, a government official from Taiwan, put on the pressure for the Americans to come and the group finally yielded to take the trip.
The entourage for the seven day journey in February of 1980 included Catanoso, his wife; Muziani ;Wildwood Commissioners Wilbur Ostrander (and his wife) , and Richard Nordaby and Wildwood Crest Mayor Charles Guhr and wife.
“It was a big success,” remembers Phyllis Catanoso from Florida where she and her husband spend the winters. “They held a parade and hundreds turned out. As souvenirs the officials gave all of us Chinese coats. I still have mine.”
Their communities, then officially sister cities, the Wildwood mayors agreed to hold October Ten Day celebrations annually in their communities when they returned to the states. And they did that until they left office after which the celebrations disappeared from the local scene. The closest they came was almost two decades later on May 3, 1997 when, as part of an annual International Day program started by the then North Wildwood Mayor Aldo Palombo, the republic of China and five other nations (Australia, Canada, Greece, Ireland and Italy) were honored in North Wildwood. Dignitaries from each nation participated in the ceremony including Taiwan ambassador Tzu-Dan Wu and Jerry Chang, assistant to the director general of the republic.
The Catanosos, though, would like to see the October Ten Day celebration returned to the Wildwoods.
“After all,” they say, “we still are sister cities and that’s no way to treat a sister when you ignore her.”
The passage above details how something seemingly as far away from international intrigue as a bicycle race, can become the centerpiece of an effective propaganda ploy.
As Gary D. Rawnsley points out in his fantastic Taiwan's Informal Diplomacy and Propaganda:
Propagandists would do well to remember that an audience tends to filter out those messages which conflict with their own predispositions, thus laying to rest the idea that somehow propaganda can miraculously convert a mass audience; and to understand that an audience is also influenced by innumerable pressures from a variety of sources--the media, family and friends, education, class backgrounds, etc.--all of which can affect receptivity. Even the best propaganda will find it immensely difficult, if not impossible, to create emotions and attitudes that are not already present. The most effective propaganda will therefore use 'hroizontal' means of communication.... This is exactly how most of the ROC overseas propaganda is constructed--by targeting groups or individuals. Rawnsley--p.35
Given the KMT's control of the government machinery, it is perhaps inevitable that that this world-view should feed into the projection of Taiwan. It is disseminated abroad by embassies and representative offices, and is controlled by the GIO. It is a distinctly one-sided view of Taiwan's political system and its international status, and is therefore a somewhat distorted picture. Even Taiwean's English-language pages on the internet, a communication innovation heralded with a great fanfare as a breakthrough against censorship and political control, are written by the GIO. --Rawnsley p. 44
I think every observer and guest of Taiwan's government should be extremely cautious of the message they are expected to portray and how that message will be expected to play both internally and externally. Before committing to any of these events, we, as participants should also be asking ourselves, who is the beneficiary of our patronage.
Just because it is about bicycling, does not meant there are not ulterior motives at play. This also reaffirms how the bicycle has become a regular fixture of every election season.
Hold on to your helmets!
Rawnsley, Gary D. 2000. Taiwan’s Informal Diplomacy and Propaganda. London, Macmillan Press Ltd. ISBN 0-333-75119-1
Kerr, George H. 1965. Formosa Betrayed. London, Eyre and Spottiswood Publishers.