Real People vs. Phantom Sources in Taiwan’s Battle of Ideas

A struggling KMT will use anything at this point to discredit civil society and its main opponent in the 2016 elections
J. Michael Cole

It only took a few days before an op-ed in The Diplomat by U.S. academic Dennis V. Hickey turned into a coordinated assault by Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislators, pan-blue media and the Chinese propaganda apparatus against Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Days after Hickey’s alarmist editorial was published, the embattled blue camp was accusing Ms. Tsai, the DPP’s presidential candidate for 2016, of sponsoring “extremists” and acting like the Islamic State terrorist organization in Taiwan.

No strangers to hyperbole and false analogies, the KMT legislators seized upon Mr. Hickey’s remark that the DPP was “reportedly embracing a Middle Eastern practice known as ‘rent a mob’ and subsidizing extremists who attack Taiwan’s government ministries” and ran with it. The operative word in this otherwise preposterous sentence (preposterous to anyone who has been on the ground monitoring the activists since 2012) is reportedly. By not providing a single clue — no source, no link, no witnesses — as to who might be behind that damaging information, Hickey breaks the rules on academic and journalistic accountability. It would be one thing if Mr. Hickey had accused Ms. Tsai of, say, failing to wash her hands after picking up her cat’s droppings; it’s quite another to allege that she is sponsoring “extremists” who are attacking government buildings and undermining confidence in Taiwan’s democracy.

But of course the KMT cabal had no compunction in using this uncorroborated information to strike at its opponent. During a press conference on Aug. 11, KMT legislators spoke underneath a large billboard that made the following five points (English translation in brackets):

1. 美國認定太陽花與課綱運動蔡英文介入很深且金錢支柱 (The U.S. believes that Tsai Ing-wen was deeply involved in the Sunflower Movement and the protests over the changes to high school curriculum guidelines and financed them).

2. 佔領政府部門是典型中東IS恐怖組織的做法,美國憂心台灣IS化 (Taking over government institutions is a “typical tactic from Middle Eastern Islamic State terrorists.” The U.S. is concerned with the “IS-ization of Taiwan”).

3. 台灣已不再是美國心中的民主模範生 (To the U.S., Taiwan no longer is the model of democracy).

4. 美國憂心小英如當選將走向法理台獨而將美國捲入戰爭 (The U.S. is concerned that after Tsai’s election, she will draw the U.S. into war as she pushes for Taiwan’s de jure independence).

5. 大家全力挺柱,因為投送就是投小英,就是將台灣IS化,暴力化 (Everyone should support [KMT presidential candidate] Hung [Hsiu-chu], as voting for [People First Party candidate James] Soong is like voting for Tsai, and this also equals allowing Taiwan to be “IS-ize” and violent).

It immediately becomes evident that points 1, 3 and 4 were taken directly from Hickey’s article, while 2 extrapolates on his claims by inserting the terrorist organization du jour. At the height of the Sunflower Movement’s occupation of the Legislative Yuan in March and April last year, KMT legislators were comparing Tsai and the protesters to al-Qaeda. It’s difficult to imagine the victims and the families of victims of AQ and IS terror not looking with disgust upon the cheap appropriation made here by the KMT.

Furthermore, the KMT panelists also do not name any sources and we must therefore assume that Mr. Hickey was the single source and that he furthermore was speaking on behalf of the U.S. government.

In a similar sleight of hand, throughout his article Hickey refers to “U.S. defense planners” and writes that “there are concerns” that the DPP will “seek to entrap the U.S. in a cross-strait crisis in an effort to achieve its dreams of independence from China.” Hickey also argues that “Tsai Ing-wen … done little to assuage such fears,” adding that her “positions on many of the most important issues of the day remain opaque and unclear, especially her plans for handling relations with Beijing.” Once again, not a single source is given; all we have are unnamed “U.S. defense planners” and phantoms who have “concerns.” In his defense, Hickey does provide two hyperlinks…to two articles in The Diplomat written by Eric Huang, the head of the KMT’s Foreign Affairs and Foreign Media sections.

I have already responded to Mr. Hickey’s piece here and will not bore the reader by repeating myself. Suffice it to say, however, that less than 48 hours after my op-ed appeared in The Diplomat, pan-blue media and a journal associated with the Chinese Community Party’s propaganda arm were accusing me of “using strong language” to “lie to myself and to others” and alleging that Tsai Ing-wen herself had “ordered me” to write a response to Mr. Hickey. Interestingly, the counter-response did not contain a shred of an argument, and no iota of evidence: it consisted entirely of ad hominem and insinuations.

Despite the warm response that Ms. Tsai’s 12-day visit to the U.S. earlier this year received among officials and the DPP’s flourishing relationship with the American Institute in Taiwan, the U.S.’ de facto embassy in the absence of official diplomatic ties, Ms. Hung latched onto Mr. Hickey’s claims to declare that this was all evidence that Tsai’s U.S. visit had been “a failure.” Needless to say, it would be very interesting to hear what AIT or actual U.S. officials have to say on the matter. One suspects that their response might not jibe all that well with Mr. Hickey’s claims, let alone those made by Ms. Hung’s KMT.

Some real people with actual names have in fact made statements about U.S. views on the 2016 elections. In article published on Aug. 12, the state-run Central News Agency quoted Evans J. R. Revere, a former principal deputy assistant secretary and acting assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific Affairs who retired from the U.S. State Department in 2007, as saying that while “Beijing is obviously nervous about the prospect of the victory of the DPP,” irrespective of the outcome on Jan. 16, it would be “a victory for democracy in Taiwan.”

Furthermore, contrary to Mr. Hickey’s claims that “many of the most important issues of the day remain opaque and unclear, especially [Ms. Tsai’s] plans for handling relations with Beijing,” Revere said that Tsai “has been very careful and very precise in her rhetoric, and I am hoping that Beijing will listen very carefully to what she has said and what she has not said in this campaign.”

Other Americans with an actual face and a name who have publicly spoken about Ms. Tsai’s China policies. This includes Walter Lohman of the Heritage Foundation, who attended Ms. Tsai’s speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in June.

All of this is not to say that there are no skeptics in the U.S. government who regard a DPP victory in 2016 with apprehension or who believe that Ms. Tsai has yet to assuage their fears. In fact, the DPP should be encouraged to be as clear as possible on those issues that are of interest to the international community. However, given what’s at stake, journalists and academics would be well advised to reveal their sources and to remain conscious that everything they write can — and will — be seized and expanded upon by politicians to further their aims, as was clearly the case with Mr. Hickey’s article.


J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei. He is the author of Black Island: Two years of activism in Taiwan.

6 Responses to “Real People vs. Phantom Sources in Taiwan’s Battle of Ideas”

August 13, 2015 at 8:04 am, 葉忠正 said:

I am highly disappointed that Dennis Hickey would resort to such slandering and propaganda. If he was a legitimate Taiwan scholar, he wouldn’t slander Tsai Ing-Wen or the Democratic Progressive Party. Comparing the DPP to ISIS is distasteful because there’s no sources behind that claim. I am a huge Taiwan supporter and it sickens me that the KMT would rely on a joke of a scholar on Taiwan-US Affairs.


August 13, 2015 at 4:05 pm, Julian said:

There is a chicken-and-egg question here, too. Critics of Hickey’s shockingly partisan attack on Dr. Tsai and the DPP pointed out that he was repeating unfounded accusations that first appeared in the blue media. Now KMT lawmakers are repeating them back. It reminds of USVP Dick Cheney citing a report in the New York Times on WMD in Iraq, after the Times story had been planted by the White House. Even so, these talking points from the KMT are so absurd and hyperbolic that they are the equivalent to an own goal. Who believes this stuff among mainstream voters?


August 13, 2015 at 5:01 pm, Mike Fagan said:

“Comparing the DPP to ISIS is distasteful because there’s no sources behind that claim.”

To be fair I don’t think it would taste any better if Hickey did have a sauce for it.


August 14, 2015 at 2:13 am, Christian said:

I don’t think the KMT jerks who try to exploit Hickey’s slander really understand what they are talking about when they refer to AQ, IS or what’s going on in the Middle East anyway. Just like those people in Taiwan who like to call anyone they dislike a new “Hitler”, without having any clue of European history. To be sure, verbal attacks like this are malicious, but also consequence of the still considerable ignorance of many Taiwanese people about what’s going on in the world outside their island.


August 16, 2015 at 5:28 am, Eric said:

Seriously, guys, how can you pretend to be taken seriously as a non-partisan website when you won’t even add one sentence explaining the connection between this website and Tsai Ing Wen (while blaming the “pan-blue” media).
It’s basic journalism etiquette.


J. Michael Cole

August 17, 2015 at 1:27 am, J. Michael Cole said:

Look to the top right corner of the main page, in Chinese characters. It’s also in the about “about us” and “connect.” It’s all in there, we’re not hiding anything: “A product of Dr. Tsai Ing-wen’s Thinking Taiwan Foundation.” Plus, one need not be associated with Tsai Ing-wen to point out the sheer lunacy of the KMT accusations against Tsai (e.g., ISIS) or Prof. Hickey’s utterly misinformed take on the current situation in Taiwan.


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