Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Taiwan's China envy

Controversial Chinese philanthropist visits Taiwan, highlighting wealth gap and "new poor."

Global Post, Jan. 30, 2011

TAIPEI, Taiwan — You might think Taiwan would welcome a wealthy visitor who wants to pass out money to the poor. But you’d be wrong.

The island was abuzz last week over the visit of one of China's top philanthropists, Chen Guangbiao, who is well-known for his flashy style. The controversy highlights the still awkward relations across the Taiwan Strait, as well as the growing rich-poor gap on both sides.

Chen insists he merely wants to return the generosity of Taiwanese who have helped China, for example with huge donations after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. But several objections have emerged from Taiwan's rowdy political and media arena.

Some think he's tasteless and disrespects the poor by making such a show of his charity. (In China last week, he ostentatiously passed out banknotes after erecting a massive, $2.3 million "wall of cash.") One Taiwan county head rejected his visit on those grounds, promptly igniting a backlash from angry constituents who were hoping for a payola.

Others in the pro-independence opposition see him as a Trojan Horse, spreading a pro-unification message under the cover of traditional, Chinese New Year generosity. (China claims Taiwan as its territory; Taiwan insists it's an independent state.)

Such critics pointed to his itinerary, which avoids the pro-independence south to focus on several counties in the more China-friendly north. And then there's the inscription on the 50,000 "red envelopes" he's using to distribute cash, which according to Taiwan media reports reads in part "the Chinese race is one family."

Chen denied any political motive, telling reporters, according to the Taipei Times: "I don’t know anything about propaganda for Chinese reunification. I only know about charity and environmental work. I just want to do good.”

Beneath the moral and political indignation, though, there's a palpable unease with the symbolism of Chen's visit. Taiwan's development once far outpaced China's. But as China's wealth booms and Taiwan's stagnates, the island is losing its sense of economic superiority.

Taiwan's per-person wealth may still be far higher than China's, at around $18,500 compared to some $4,300. But growth rates have sagged in Taiwan while soaring to double or high single digits in China. And in the last few decades, the island has seen a growing income gap. (Measured by the Gini coefficient, inequality rose from 0.28 in 1980 to 0.34 in 2006.)

Like other advanced economies, manufacturing jobs have shrunk as factories move to China and elsewhere. Lower-paying, non-unionized service sector jobs have taken their place. The service sector is now nearly 70 percent of the economy, compared to 50 percent 20 years ago. And since the global downturn, Taiwan firms have been increasingly relying on "dispatch" or temp workers, like Japan and South Korea.

The result has been a new legion of "working poor" or "new poor," as they're called here. They may not show up on unemployment statistics. But they struggle to make ends meet with two or even three low-paying jobs, but no job security.

"Those people cannot get help because they're not ill, or victims of a disaster, and they're not poor by the government's standards," said Taiwan sociologist Chiu Hei-yuan. "So they are just helpless — and they hope to get some unexpected help from people like Mr. Chen."

Twelve percent of the workforce now earns less than $700 per month, and average monthly wages are at 1998 levels, according to labor groups.

Meanwhile, highly-skilled workers in the technology and other sectors pull in ever-fatter paychecks, sharpening inequality between the haves and have-nots. "Taiwan's social welfare system cannot solve the problem of the gap between the rich and the poor — especially the 'new poor,'" said Chiu.

For its part, China is seeing a burst of newly-minted millionaires and even billionaires, as a lucky few strike it rich amid the rising power's go-go economy. There, too, inequality has spiked sharply, with the most noticeable chasm between the urban elite and the vast ranks of the rural poor. The top 10 percent now earns 23 times what the bottom 10 percent makes, compared to just a seven-fold gap in 1998. The Gini coefficient is now 0.47.

"In China now, some people can get very rich in a very short time because of China's growing, but unbalanced economy," said Chiu. "The large cities are developing so fast — they can accumulate wealth quickly."

One of those lucky few is Chen, who made his fortune recycling material from the construction industry after growing up poor in the boonies, according to a BBC profile. (In that interview, he also confirmed that he had vowed never again to give money to his sister, who works as a hotel dishwasher, or his brother, who works as a security guard, because they squandered his money in the past.)

He's exactly the type of swaggering, nouveau riche Chinese businessman who rubs some Taiwanese the wrong way. For others, though, all the criticism over Chen's visit is just sniping. One 67-year-old woman waited all night outside his Taipei hotel after he arrived, then hit the jackpot by nabbing Chen's first red envelope.

Amid a swarm of Taiwanese TV cameras, the woman explained that she wanted to take care of her 88-year-old mother, who has lost her eye-sight.

“I’ve never touched so much money in all my life," she told reporters after receiving about $2,300 from Chen. “I’m very thankful. He is a very generous man."

Original site

Asia's unsung flower power

In the last decade, Taiwan has quietly become the world's No. 1 exporter of orchids.

Global Post, Jan. 25, 2011

In a massive greenhouse in balmy southern Taiwan, workers pack boxes of 2-year-old white butterfly orchids.

Around them stretch row after row of the flowers, a hothouse battalion prepared for customers in Japan. There, the flowers fetch about $12 each, earning producer Tai-Ling Biotech a more than 30 percent profit margin, according to managing director Peter Liu.

Tai-Ling exports 7,000 to 8,000 flowers to Japan per month with a 185-strong workforce. And growing demand boosted the firm's sales to $10 million in 2010 from $7 million in 2009. "I need to expand into more greenhouses," said Liu, as workers scurried behind him.

Taiwan may be famous as a high-tech manufacturing giant. But in the last decade, the island of just 23 million has also quietly become one of the world's top flower exporters, and the world's No. 1 exporter of orchids. Taiwanese know-how has also powered China's own emerging flower industry.

Flower and flower-seed exports have nearly tripled in value in the last decade, from $48 million in 1999 to $111 million in 2009, according to statistics from the Taiwan Floriculture Exports Association. Those numbers show how Taiwan has successfully married its agricultural past with cutting-edge technology for breeding and mass-producing flowers.

Much of the boom has been in orchids. $87 million of last year's exports were orchids, up from $40 million in 2004, according to government statistics. Orchids account for just 20 percent of Taiwan's flower exports by quantity, but 80 percent of export value, according to the orchid growers' association.

In 2005, Taiwan became the world's top orchid exporting country, replacing Thailand — a spot the island still holds, according to the association.

"Butterfly" orchids, also known by their scientific name phalaenopsis, have been a star export. Exports of butterfly orchids earned Taiwan $62 million last year.

Taiwan firms have also played a key role in the birth of mainland China's mass-produced flower business. Beginning in the early 1990s, Taiwan firms moved across the Strait, especially to the area around Kunming, in southwest Yunnan Province, which has an ideal climate for horticulture.

Taiwan firms typically produce for the Chinese domestic market, and serve as middlemen between Chinese growers and foreign breeders.

Tai-Ling serves the China market from a branch in Shanghai that employs 70 to 80 Chinese workers. Production costs are half what they are in Taiwan, but managing director Liu says Taiwanese workers are far better — one of them can do the job of two typical Chinese workers, he says, erasing the mainland's cost advantage. And Japan remains his most important market by far, he says, because Chinese still don't have regular buying patterns.

"They don't have the habit of buying flowers, except during Chinese New Year or National Day," said Liu. "At other times sales are very small."

That could change soon. Flower consumption is rising 20 percent to 30 percent per year in China, says Liu Bang-shein, managing director of the Dahan Group, a Taiwanese pioneer in China's flower market. That's a contrast with nearby markets like Japan, where consumption is stable or even decreasing slightly. According to a recent documentary that aired on China's state-run CCTV, China's flower market is already estimated at some $10 billion.

Dahan is now Asia's largest company for poinsettias, producing 4 million cuttings a year — 20 percent of China's overall production, and 65 percent of "legal" production, that is, plants produced under license, with royalties paid to breeders.

Amid all the success, though, Taiwan already has its eye on the rear-view mirror. New Taiwanese firms have crowded into the market, increasing competition and lowering profit margins. The Dutch are planning large-scale greenhouses in the United States, which could give them an edge in that key market.

China doesn't export much yet, because of problems with breeders' rights — the right to grow and sell specific flower varieties. Exports without the proper paperwork and licenses are banned from key markets like Europe and the U.S.

"Our plant variety protection is better than theirs [China's]," said Chang Su-san, from Taiwan's Council of Agriculture. "They focus more on food crops, we focus more on horticulture."

But eventually, homegrown Chinese firms could compete in key flower markets. So Taiwan firms are looking to move up the value chain, in search of better margins and an edge.

"We need to keep increasing our varieties and efficiency," said Chang. Some Taiwan producers hope to set up a cross-strait production line, with the first stages of production in lower-cost China and final production, branding, and packaging in Taiwan for export to world markets.

Dutch flower exporters use a similar model, with plantations in Africa or other cheaper locations. But at the moment, cross-strait trade barriers make that business model impossible. Some flower imports from China are banned; others face a 35 percent import tariff, said Parker Wu, a veteran of the orchid business at Orchis Floriculturing.

Wu thinks the Taiwan government should set up an export zone and an auction, similar to the one in Yunnan province or in Holland, to better connect Taiwan's producers with global buyers.

Another focus will be on developing brands. Up until now, many of the island's flower firms have been akin to "contract" manufacturers in that they export small plants or cuttings to the U.S., where U.S. brands shepherd them through the final stages of production, market and sell them. That means Taiwan firms earn only a small slice of the profits.

Branding would expand Taiwan's slice. "In the end, your brand is the most important thing," said Richard Lin, of the Taiwan Orchid Growers Association. "There's still a lot we have to learn and improve."

Original site

Double jeopardy: Asia's death penalty debate

Part I: A murder trial in Taiwan puts the spotlight on Asia's death penalty debate.

Global Post, Feb. 10, 2011

TAIPEI, Taiwan —
Japan hangs them. China puts a bullet in their head. Taiwan makes them lie face down on a blanket, then shoots them in the back or skull.

Asia has had few qualms about capital punishment. It put more people to death in 2009 than the rest of the world combined, according to Amnesty International, with “the vast majority” of those executions in China.

But now, movements are afoot to abolish the death penalty. Taiwan and South Korea put unofficial moratoriums on executions, at least until Taiwan put to death four convicts in June last year after an outcry from crime victims’ relatives. Japan has also reduced executions.

Majorities in Asian countries support the death penalty, as is the case in the United States. But several high-profile cases have given people pause. In Japan last year, DNA evidence proved the innocence of a man who had been jailed for 17 years for murder. There are doubts, too, on the guilt of the country’s longest-serving death row inmate.

In Taiwan, the case of the "Hsichih Three" is cited by rights groups as a disturbing example of how police and the courts can get it wrong.

Once hours away from the execution chamber, the three men were found innocent last November in the grisly double murder of a couple in 1991. The only evidence against them were confessions they later recanted, saying they were obtained through torture.

"The case of the Hsichih Trio has raised public awareness of the weaknesses of the criminal justice system and begun to raise the death penalty as a question for public debate," said a report by the International Federation for Human Rights.

From April to November last year, GlobalPost followed the re-trial of the Hsichih Three, attending hearings and interviewing the key figures in the case. Their story is one of high drama. It highlights how the global debate over whether the state should have the power to take a life is playing out in Asia.

And it shows why Taiwan, for all its problems, is considered to be in the vanguard of human rights in Asia — and an example to its giant neighbor across the Taiwan Strait. While Taiwan is moving fitfully toward scrapping the death penalty, China executes thousands per year behind a shroud of secrecy.

An abominable crime

What happened in that room was evil.

In the dead of night on March 24, 1991, Wu Ming-han and Yeh Ying-lan were in bed, in their small apartment in a working-class Taipei suburb. In another room, their 7- and 8-year-old children slept.

At around 4 in the morning, one or more intruders crept into the couple's tiny bedroom. The couple awoke. A violent struggle erupted.

A crime scene reconstruction catalogued the results in emotionless detail, like a spreadsheet of horror. Wu was hacked 42 times; Yeh 37. Her wounds included 12 cuts on the face, 18 cuts on the left occipital, wounds to the left chest, right scapula, right hand, wrists and both arms. His left pinkie was broken and his wedding ring cut off.

Grainy police photos of the crime scene show two bodies sprawled on the floor like tossed-away rag dolls, each a bundle of mauled clothing and gore. Blood runs red down dressers, bedspreads and walls.

Police arrested the couple's 22-year-old neighbor Wang Wen-hsiao, a marine conscript on home leave with a drug habit, divorced parents and gambling debts of at least $1,500. He confessed to the crime, describing a burglary gone horribly wrong. Military courts tried and executed him.

Under intense public pressure, local police also rounded up Wang's brother and three local teens he identified, on the belief that one person couldn't have committed such a brutal double murder alone. All four confessed to involvement in the crime, and Wang identified them as accomplices. They all later recanted, saying they had been tortured by police.

Only Wang’s fingerprints were found at the crime scene, along with two sets of bloody footprints (one of those believed to be a cop's), and one murder weapon — a meat cleaver. To this day, not a single piece of physical evidence ties the three to the scene of the crime.

Wang’s brother served a light jail sentence for testifying against the others, and was released. The Hsichih Three were found guilty and sent to death row. Their lives were spared when the minister of justice — now Taiwan's president — refused to sign their execution orders, citing irregularities in the case.

In 2003, a court overturned the convictions and freed them. Prosecutors appealed, and the three were found guilty again in 2007. Yet another retrial was ordered. And that's where things stood in April 2010.

Read more from Double jeopardy:

Part II: victims' families seek justice

Part III: trend toward abolition

Part IV: presumed guilty

Part V: matter of "face"

Original site

Double jeopardy: victims' families seek justice

Part II: Have anti-death-penalty activists gone too far?

Global Post, Feb. 10, 2011

TAIPEI, Taiwan —
The prosecutors in black-and-purple robes yawned, fidgeted, even dozed through many of the High Court hearings.

But throughout the trial, a 60-year-old man with thinning hair, wearing red-framed glasses and a plain jacket, listened intently from the row behind them. It was Wu Tang-jie, older brother of the male victim.

In an interview at his lawyer's office in Taipei in June, Wu said he had attended every hearing he could in the case's 19-year course. A counselor at a Taipei prison, he used his vacation days to represent the family in court.

He insisted that all the evidence pointed “obviously” to the guilt of the Hsichih Three.

How could one person with one weapon have inflicted so much gore? How could the victims’ 7- and 8-year-old children have slept through the horror, unless two or more assailants covered the victims' mouths to stop their screams?

In the middle of the interview, Wu pulled from a folder two large, double-sided laminated photos and placed them on the table. Garish red jumped out first. Then a closer look: a mutilated head and blood-matted hair, in gruesome close-up. It was Wu's brother and his brother’s wife, both 37 at the time of death, in blown-up police photos from the crime scene.

"If people who oppose the death penalty could see these pictures, I think they would change their minds," he said softly. "People who want to abolish the death penalty don't have family who were killed like this, so they don't have sympathy."

"The victims’ feelings, before they die — nobody can know that," he said, peering over the photos. "No one can write it down."

Wu said he thought the death penalty could deter serious crimes. "You will consider that you could be put to death before you commit a crime," he said. "If there was no death penalty, people would do whatever they want."

He said there should be a law to better take care of victims’ families, saying the two children of the murdered couple had “no help.”

He was clearly bitter at how the Hsichih Three had become a cause celebre for human rights and anti-death-penalty groups, while his family has suffered with little support. “We think we are a minority — nobody cares about us,” he said.

"Everybody speaks for people who are still alive," he said. "But what about the rights of the dead? My brother and his wife can't return from the dead. The law should give them justice."

Wave of sympathy

Last March a candlelight vigil was held to show solidarity with relatives of victims of heinous crimes, like Wu. It was timed as a rebuke to the justice minister, who had vowed not to execute anyone on her watch (the minister later resigned amid the backlash.) One of the vigil’s organizers was 35-year-old Chu Hsueh-heng.

Chu became interested in the death penalty while working on a government-commissioned research project that involved online polling on social issues. He started contacting victims' families, digging into archives, and researching the issue.

He said the anti-death-penalty movement had good intentions, and was "brave" in its initial opposition to political executions in the last days of martial law (1949-1987). Civil society efforts eventually bore fruit: Taiwan paid out some $650 million in compensation for more than 7,000 wrongful verdicts during the martial law era, including nearly 900 executions, according to Taiwan’s Humanistic Education Foundation.

But activists had gone too far, said Chu. "In the past three to five years, almost all the people they are defending are not innocent." He said activists and the government should be doing more to give legal help and a support system to victims' families.

Worse, he accused the government of keeping victims' families in the dark, by starting a de facto moratorium on the death penalty without public debate on the issue. Chu called that policy "immoral."

"The government was doing something behind our backs," said Chu. "They were using a loophole as a way to delay the process, and didn't tell the public."

Victims' families "thought we would provide support," said Chu. "But our government didn't do the job well, so they feel cheated."

"Most of the victims' families support the death penalty," he said. "Maybe it's not right by high moral standards. But it’s like closure for them.” Long, drawn-out cases with no result, like the Hsichih Three case, were “like a torture” for victims’ relatives said Chu, and they “want to stop the torture.”

"'Where is the justice society promised me?' they say. 'When I get it, I'll be able to sleep at night, and I can start to forget. Then I can start to forgive.'"

Read the rest of Double jeopardy:

Part I: a look at the death penalty in Asia

Part III: trend toward abolition

Part IV: presumed guilty

Part V: matter of "face"

Original site

Double jeopardy: trend toward abolition

Part III: The majority of Taiwanese and Japanese support the death penalty.

Global Post, Feb. 10, 2011

TAIPEI, Taiwan —
Worldwide, the death penalty is on the decline.

In 2009, only one-third (58) of the world’s countries kept the death penalty on the books, according to Amnesty International; only 18 of those carried it out. For the first time in history Europe had zero executions; in the Americas, only the United States carried out the death penalty.

Asia is a holdout. It leads the world in executions, thanks to China. Beijing refuses to divulge numbers on how many it puts to death; Amnesty estimates “thousands” per year, including political criminals. Vietnam was a distant runner-up in 2009 with more than nine executed.

Elsewhere in Asia, though, capital punishment is on the wane. The Philippines abolished the death penalty in 2006. India executed just one person from 1999 to 2008.

South Korea, which like Taiwan has moved from dictatorship to democracy, hasn’t executed anyone since 1997, although it recently upheld the constitutionality of the death penalty.

Activists in Japan are pushing for abolition. The center-left government has only put two to death since taking power in the fall of 2009. In those cases, the justice minister allowed the media into the execution chamber for the first time, and called for public debate.

Popular support

Despite those trends, a majority of Taiwanese — 70 to 80 percent, depending on the poll — still supports the death penalty. In Japan it’s 85 percent.

In a 2006 report, the International Federation of Human Rights (IFHR) found that most Taiwanese explained their support in terms of a "cultural belief in retribution.”

"There is a belief that human nature can be fundamentally evil and irredeemable, that serious criminals should pay for their crimes with their lives and that extreme punishment is needed to curb behavior," the IFHR found. "There is a fear that if the death penalty is removed, the social order will disintegrate."

The IFHR report noted, though, that some 50 percent polled also think life sentences without possibility of parole could be substituted for the death penalty.

Taiwan sociologist and death penalty opponent Chiu Hei-yuan said Taiwan’s capital punishment was rooted in universal ideas of vengeance, but took Chinese forms. Interestingly, Taiwan's Austronesian aborigines had no tradition of the death penalty, he said, but the Chinese who settled Taiwan did.

"In Chinese culture, the death penalty is a very important institution for maintaining social order and the ruling government's power,” he said.

Chinese history is packed with gruesome punishments, such as execution to the “ninth degree” — wiping out an entire clan for one man’s treason against the imperial family. Condemned men were often paraded in public before being killed, and peasants would jostle to dip buns of bread in the fresh blood of the executed, said Chiu. "They thought it was good for your health, and for curing illness.”

Paul Katz, a historian at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica, said Chinese judicial tradition often featured a presumption of guilt. "The idea has always been that if you were brought into court, it was a shameful indication that something was wrong — mediation had failed," he said. "The burden of proof was always on the person being accused."

That was true also under martial law in Taiwan, said Katz, when the Kuomintang’s totalitarian spy and security apparatus operated with impunity. "If you were caught up in the state's web, you must have done something wrong and it was up to you to prove that you were innocent."

Torture to extract confessions from suspected political enemies was routine. Kangaroo courts sent thousands before firing squads.

In that context, the treatment of the Hsichih Three by cops and prosecutors was a reflexive habit of an authoritarian regime in its dying days.

Since democratization in the late '80s and early '90s, Taiwan has cast away much of that troubling legacy. Part of that is reducing the number of people it puts to death.

Executions declined from 32 in 1998 to just three in 2005, according to the 2006 IFHR report.

A thirst for vengeance

In 2005 Taiwan quietly put a moratorium on capital punishment. It wasn’t abolished, but no one was put to death, either.

But last year, public debate was reignited when the justice minister, under legislative questioning, vowed that no one would be executed on her watch. Two prominent murder victims' relatives — including a TV celebrity — took to the airwaves with emotional protests. They quickly attracted a groundswell of public support.

"This was an irrational movement; crowd behavior to ask the government to kill these criminals,” said Chiu, the sociologist.

The crowd got what it wanted. The justice minister resigned in March. Two months later, four death row inmates were shot to death, with the new justice minister saying their cases were extreme ones that had, by a Chinese saying, "made the gods and man alike tremble with rage."

The executions came despite what Amnesty described as “assurances” from the current president Ma Ying-jeou in June 2008 that Taiwan’s moratorium would continue.

Forty men remain on death row, according to rights groups, including 15 who had no lawyers at their final trials.

Still, Taiwan is moving toward abolition. A task force has met to chart the way forward on scrapping the death penalty. One human rights alliance has challenged the constitutionality of the death penalty in Taiwan, on behalf of most of the condemned men (a few refused to be part of the suit, saying they wanted to die.)

Pro-death-penalty groups say that until the laws are changed, executions should continue as legally mandated.

But rights groups make the reverse argument, saying Taiwan shouldn't put anyone to death until there's a ruling on the penalty's constitutionality.

"People who are against the abolition of the death penalty misunderstand," said Chiu. "They think if a guy's not killed, that means he's not guilty. They say, only if we kill him can we get justice. We don't think so."

Read more from Double jeopardy:

Part I: a look at the death penalty in Asia

Part II: victims' families seek justice

Part IV: presumed guilty

Part V: matter of "face"

Original site

Double jeopardy: Presumed guilty

Part IV: The most outspoken of the Hsichih Three, Su Chien-ho, describes torture in detention.

Global Post, Feb. 10, 2011

TAIPEI, Taiwan — "They poured water on my face to make me afraid, like I was drowning," he recalled in a flat voice.

"They put water on a towel and put the towel on my face. They used an electric prod on my body, including my genitals. They slapped me and kicked me, and beat me with a stick, on the bottom of my feet."

The torture and questioning by police continued for more than 30 hours, he said. "I couldn't take it anymore, so I confessed.”

In an interview at the office of a human rights group in Taipei, Su Chien-ho, the most outspoken of the “Hsichih Three,” re-told the story he's been telling for nearly 20 years of his adult life.

He’s been whipsawed by Taiwan’s courts; found guilty and nearly executed, found innocent, then found guilty again.

Su is a lanky, rail-thin man, with unruly hair flopping over his glasses and a slight chin. His emaciated appearance suggests a man who has been physically wasted by his two-decade ordeal.

Eight witnesses support the Hsichih Three's alibis, he said, proving they were not at the crime scene at the time of the murders.

But when they hauled him in on Aug. 15, 1991, police at the local Hsichih police station weren't in any mood to listen to alibis. Lacking any physical evidence, they were under intense pressure to extract verbal confessions, said Su.

After police tortured him, prosecutors arrived at the station to take Su’s statement, he said. At one hearing in April, the court listened to a scratchy 19-year-old recording of that encounter. Over and over again, Su's weak, scared voice pleaded, sobbed, saying, "I didn't do anything, I didn’t do it. You must believe me.”

Finally he did sign a statement, though. "They said if I didn't sign it, I couldn't leave the station."

Su and a member of the defense team said the Hsichih police station chief and deputy station chief on duty in August 1991 have since been promoted to high-ranking jobs; they don’t know the whereabouts of the lower-ranking cop who carried out most of the alleged torture.

To this day, none of the cops involved have been punished. Prosecutors refused to charge them when Su tried to bring a lawsuit, despite Su's insistence that there was photographic evidence of his wounds from an exam before he left the police station in August 1991.

All of the cops involved in the case deny torture.

Waiting to die

Su spent the next nine years in detention. First he was alone in a 72-square-foot room, wearing five-pound shackles around his ankles for 24 hours a day. Inmates got 20 minutes a day outside.

"Most of the inmates developed mental illnesses," said Su. "I kept reading — otherwise I would have gone crazy."

After his first year, he got a roommate. Several inmates had committed suicide at his detention center, so authorities decided not to leave them isolated.

His final sentence — the death penalty — came down on Feb. 9, 1995.

From that point until his first retrial in 2000, the psychological pressure was intense. "Six to 10 days after you receive the final sentencing, it's random, you can't predict when they will come for you," said Su. "I faced the fear and pressure that it would be me, next, every day."

Some death row inmates prepared empty "red envelopes" (hong bao), used to give gift money in Chinese culture, to pass out to other inmates once their final sentence came down. Su once got one from a condemned man with a terse message of encouragement: "You will win your case." But inmates who insisted they were innocent or didn't deserve to die wouldn't give out red envelopes.

Such was the case when Su's final sentence came down, leaving him a week to live.

"I didn't want to" give out red envelopes "because that would be a sign that I had given in to the situation, and could never escape," he said. His parents came to see him. "They told me they had visited many temples and prayed to God, and they told me to keep the faith, there might still be a chance for me to get out," he said.

Typically, Taiwan death row inmates are taken from their cells without notice in mid-evening. ("It used to be in the morning, but nearby residents said it was too terrifying, so they changed the schedule," said Lin Hsin-yi, of the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty.) Some cops burn incense to the god of the underworld at small altars near the execution sites, to notify him another soul is on the way.

The condemned are given a last meal and asked for their last words. Then they’re injected with a powerful anesthetic, so strong it sometimes kills them, according to Lin. They're made to lie face-down on a blanket, then shot in the back, through the heart. If they've agreed to donate an organ, they're shot in the head.

Superstitious cops treat the spent execution bullets as amulets, believing they can repel demons, according to Taiwan media reports.

While waiting, Su wrote goodbye letters to his family, to his supporters, to his attorney.

"I believe there is a spirit, a God above this world, but I don't believe in any particular religion," said Su. "But I thought, if I get out I will devote most of my time to human rights causes. This was sort of my negotiation with God."

On Feb. 20, Taiwan’s top prosecutor, under pressure from rights groups, filed a rare, 11th-hour appeal to halt the execution. The Supreme Court rejected the appeal. Two more appeals were filed; both failed. By mid-August, Su’s options were exhausted. Only the justice minister’s signature stood between him and the execution chamber.

That minister — now Taiwan’s president — refused to sign the orders. So did his successors. And so Su got an indefinite reprieve.

For all of that, Su has a surprisingly unemotional take on capital punishment. "Any innocent person could find themselves in my position one day," said Su calmly. “They could be declared a criminal, like me.”

"So I support the abolition of the death penalty because it's a very problematic system. That's pretty much it."

Contradictory opinions

Lin, of the anti-death-penalty alliance, said public opinion polls paint a confusing picture. Although a majority backs capital punishment, 80 percent of Taiwanese also don't trust their judicial system, and think it must make mistakes.

To explain that apparent contradiction, she said many Taiwanese believe it's worth killing one innocent person if it will help save many others' lives. Most people never believe they'll be the one falsely accused. "They think, I won't be one of the people to pay this price," said Lin.

If they have money, they're probably right, she said. "Rich people, or those with social status, they don't worry, because if they get in this situation, they can afford a good lawyer."

She noted that the Innocence Project and others have documented wrongful convictions in the United States. (Since 1973, 138 people have been released from death row in the United States because of evidence they were innocent, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.) "But in Taiwan, we don't have this kind of information. Our legal system doesn't recognize that we even have these kinds of cases."

Lin said support for the death penalty had also been high in countries like France, Germany and Canada. But after the death penalty was abolished, support rates plunged.

What's more, 53 percent of Taiwanese are willing to accept a life sentence without the possibility of parole as a substitute for the death penalty, she said.

“The death penalty is often imposed after a grossly unfair trial,” wrote Amnesty International. “But even when trials respect international standards of fairness, the risk of executing the innocent can never be fully eliminated — the death penalty will inevitably claim innocent victims.”

In short, says Amnesty and other rights groups, the death penalty too often compounds the suffering of the original crime with the horror of executing an innocent man. That’s not justice, they say. It’s human sacrifice.

Read more from Double jeopardy:

Part I: a look at the death penalty in Asia

Part II: victims' families seek justice

Part III: trend toward abolition

Part V: matter of "face"

(Original site)

Double jeopardy: A matter of 'face'

Part V: Why did it take the court 19 years to change its mind on the Hsichih Three?

Global Post, Feb. 10, 2011

TAIPEI, Taiwan — One Friday in late April last year, Wang Wen-chong, the brother of the marine convicted and executed for the murders, took the witness stand. He had named the Hsichih Three as accomplices in the murder in 1991, identifying them to police by their nicknames.

As such he was partly responsible for putting them on death row.

He described being hit in the head by police at the station, how they threatened to haul in his mother if he didn't confess, how he saw Su Chien-ho tied up, heard him scream in pain from another room.

He said he denied involvement in the murders, but police didn't write that down. "I told them I didn't do this, but they didn't believe me," he told the court. He remembered how cops told him the murders couldn't have been the work of just one man, "there must have been more people involved."

He described being beaten bloody, until he “couldn’t tell who were prosecutors and who were police.” At one point they stopped recording his testimony “because I said I didn’t do it.” Every time he denied involvement, they hit him again.

He finally confessed to acting as a “lookout,” as his brother and the Hsichih Three committed the crime.

He said he'd seen his brother doing drugs, smoking something off aluminum foil (probably amphetamines), but not on the night of the murders. “I didn't know it was serious,” he said.

The photos of six policemen from the Hsichih station were projected on the courtroom wall. Wang Wen-chong said he couldn’t identify the ones who had hit him. “I can’t speak carelessly,” he told the court, after glancing quickly at the wall.

Marshaling evidence

In most criminal trials in the United States, juries are instructed that the burden is on prosecutors to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” the guilt of the accused.

In the Hsichih Three's retrial, before a panel of three judges, the burden of proof often seemed to lie with the defense. “From the start, there’s been no evidence in this case" to prove guilt, said Shau E-ming, a member of the defense team. “But they still sent them to death row. So we had to prove that these three men were innocent.”

Wang’s recollections added weight to the accusations of police torture. The most crucial testimony, though, was that of the foreign expert — Taiwanese-American forensic scientist Henry Lee, famous from the O.J. Simpson trial. Lee was brought to Taiwan by the defense to do a crime scene reconstruction and appear in court.

His forensic report concluded that the bedroom was so cramped as to make it unlikely that four assailants could have struggled violently against the two victims, in the poor visibility at the hour of the crime, without leaving more physical evidence.

Lee wrote that one strike with a meat cleaver could leave several different wounds on a body, making it possible for one attacker to have left 79 wounds on the couple in an explosion of violence.

"There is a high likelihood that Wang Wen-hsiao acted alone in committing this crime," Lee's report read. "It is highly improbable that four (4) suspects attacked two (2) victims simultaneously with the types of weapons [described by police] in such a confined space."

In their closing arguments in September, defense lawyers leaned heavily on Lee’s testimony to sway the judges. They focused, too, on the testimony of police torture and the lack of physical evidence tying the Hsichih Three to the murders.

"How is it possible that only Wang Wen-hsiao's physical evidence was left at the scene — but none from the other three?" one defense lawyer said. "Why didn't they find any hair, or blood beside Wang Wen-hsiao's? The prosecutors haven't met their responsibility for proof."

Another defense lawyer railed against the very fact that the three were still defending themselves in court, two decades after the crime.

"The case has already dragged on 19 years and they're still on trial — is this the way the legal system should work?" he said with clear disgust. "This is blackening our country's reputation."

Catalyst for change

Why did the case drag on so long?

"Face," one defense lawyer said simply, putting his hand to his cheek, in a conversation in the lawyers' lounge after one hearing. He and others said it boiled down to the judicial system's embarrassment over making a mistake. (The lead prosecutor declined GlobalPost’s request for an interview.)

"One of the hardest things for the state to do is to admit that they screwed up," said Katz, the historian. The Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty’s Lin agreed. When a second trial found the Hsichih Three innocent in 2003, "There was a lot of pressure from the victims' relatives, and the prosecutors lost face," said Lin.

Still, things have improved since the days when the Hsichih Three were first hauled in. This and other cases have spurred calls for reform. "The legal process is more open, police don't rough you up anymore," said Katz. "You can't get away with it anymore, like you could in the 1990s."

Taiwan has adopted a law putting a time limit on cases like the Hsichih Three’s. No longer can prosecutors drag out a case indefinitely. Legal reform advocates are also pushing for changes to how judges are chosen and promoted, to shake up a hidebound hierarchy where junior judges are afraid to go against their elders.

Taiwan now requires all police interrogations to be video-taped; that's still not the case in Japan, according to Shau, the member of the defense team, who also works for a human rights foundation. He said that neither Japan nor China had a historical idea of human rights, but that "Taiwan is different."

Unlike China and more so than Japan, Taiwan has an independent media, independent businesses and a thriving civil society with active non-governmental organizations. "All these can influence the government to support human rights," he said.

Taiwan is taking human rights concepts from the West and adapting them to what is "suitable" for Taiwan, he said.

"Some people say, 'You are Asian,' or 'You are Chinese.' Why do they say that? I am myself. There's no such thing as 'Asian people' — we are only individuals," said Shau. "A lot of people in Taiwan have a new belief in individual rights."

He called this a marked contrast to China, where the Communist Party government controls the justice system, sharply limits civil society and scorns human rights as a foreign annoyance. "In mainland China, if the government doesn't help you, no one can help you," he said. "In Taiwan, if the government can't help you, we are there to help. That's democracy."

As flawed as the Hsichih Three case had been, it could be worse, he said. "Because they are in Taiwan, they are still alive," he said. "In China they would have been killed already."

Mixed emotions

None of the prosecutors showed up on Nov. 12, when the verdict was read. Only Wu, the older brother of one of the victims, sat quietly on their side of the courtroom, a lone figure facing a phalanx of black-and-white robed defense lawyers, and, to his left, the Hsichih Three.

The spectators’ galley was packed, mostly with students and Hsichih Three supporters. The three judges took their places behind the raised desk, a tower of documents piled unsteadily in front of them among the tea cups.

The court police ordered everyone to rise and then the head judge read out the verdict — not guilty. Gasps and murmurs came up from the crowd.

Wu left the courtroom quickly with a blank expression. Outside he told reporters that he would try to get prosecutors to appeal again. "The injustice against my younger brother and his wife ..." he said, his voice breaking. "I don't know when it can be made right."

In the courtroom, Su Chien-ho hugged his lawyer for a long time, holding on until the lawyer’s eyes turned puffy. Outside, the three defendants and their lawyers gave a press conference, surrounded by a mob of TV cameras, microphones and well-wishers.

Their supporters started chanting "Justice, jiayou [an expression of encouragement]!,” "Taiwan, jiayou!"

Su, stopped by a reporter on the sidewalk outside the court, made a few comments. Then he turned and quickly loped away down the street, leaving the chants, lawyers, students and cops behind. He was free again.

Huang Guo-rong and Yang Chia-nin assisted with this report.

Read more from Double jeopardy:

Part I: a look at the death penalty in Asia

Part II: victims' families seek justice

Part III: trend toward abolition

Part IV: presumed guilty

(Original site)

Keep your 'frenemies' close

In Washington this week, US and China will be looking to stabilize troubled relationship.

Global Post, Jan. 17, 2011

TAIPEI, Taiwan —
Are the United States and China friends? Enemies? Partners? Rivals?

Ahead of Chinese President Hu Jintao's trip to the United States this week, observers are struggling to define a thorny relationship that increasingly defies characterization.

Taiwan-based Next Animation may have done best when it dubbed the two countries "frenemies." One blogger suggested the clunkier "parvals." But even those fall short.

"I don't want to use simple words," said China-U.S. relations expert Shi Yinhong, when asked to define ties between the two countries. "The U.S. and China have a relationship which is complex. But compared to the past, I think the strategic rivalry is increasing."

Last year the two countries grappled with a long list of issues that bedeviled relations: How to deal with North Korea, the value of China's currency, a massive trade gap, the South China Sea, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, climate change and the Dalai Lama, just for starters.

Shi, from Beijing's Renmin University, said China's priority during the U.S. visit will be to "stabilize" relations after that turbulent period. But he doubted there will be any "historic breakthroughs" on the big problems.

He downplayed talk of a joint statement or declaration to guide U.S.-China relations, as suggested by former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.

"Dr. Brzezinski is very old and doesn't necessarily have a very strong influence on the U.S. government, so I don't think a joint statement is most important," said Shi. "Maybe they [the U.S. and China] will launch some statements, but they can only play a very limited role, because the substantial points are not being solved, or even dealt with."

For Shi, Presidents Hu and Obama should take steps to improve Chinese public opinion toward the United States, which he said had soured in recent months. "Beginning last year, the Chinese public has had a bad opinion of the U.S.," he said. "The Chinese people feel that the U.S. has not treated China as a strategic power, it only sees China as a financial great power, who can lend money to the U.S."

Shi's comments seemed to clash with polls conducted last summer by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. That poll found that 58 percent of Chinese had a favorable attitude toward the U.S., up from just 34 percent in 2007. Only 37 percent had an unfavorable view.

But Shi dismissed those numbers, saying "I don't think such polls are very accurate." Others agreed.

Li Mingjiang, an expert on China-U.S. ties at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said that the poll was conducted before two major events: the war of words last summer over the South China Sea, and huge U.S. military deployments near Chinese waters.

Those two developments were "alarming" for China, he said. "If you did another survey now, the 'favorable' opinion would probably decline quite a lot."

Last summer, Washington said that the United States had a "national interest" in resolving territorial claims in the South China Sea. That was a response to China's description of its claim over nearly all of the disputed South China Sea as a "core interest" on par with Taiwan and Tibet. It was the first time China had used that language. Later last year, the United States dispatched aircraft carriers and conducted massive military exercises near Chinese waters, in response to North Korea's provocations.

Li said China would likely press the United States for a statement of principles to stabilize bilateral relations. China was especially concerned about U.S. wooing of new "strategic partners" in Asia, including Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and India, he said.

"China's decision-makers may have concluded that the U.S. is trying harder to encircle China," Li said. "Their concern is to forestall this from moving forward." He said China's wish-list included a U.S. statement that Washington would respect China's "core interests," but he thought that was unlikely to happen. "I doubt America would go that far."

Li also rejected any simple labels for the U.S. and China's hot-and-cold relations. "It's so complicated, there's really no single term or phrase to characterize this bilateral relationship," he said. "I use the term 'cooperative competitor.' There’s a lot of cooperation, a lot of collaboration, but also a lot of competition and rivalry."

The American public seems to agree. In Pew's polling last year, it found that 49 percent of Americans had a favorable view of China, with just 36 percent having an unfavorable view. And in a new Pew poll released last week, most Americans said China was a "serious problem, but not an adversary." They said the U.S. military was far more powerful than China's.

But Americans wrongly dubbed China the world's top economic power (the U.S. economy is more than twice the size of China's), and called China the country representing the "greatest danger" to the United States (just ahead of North Korea).

In terms of priorities for policy toward China, Americans put "build a stronger relationship" at the top of their list, with "get tough with China on trade and economic issues" second. Human rights and environmental concerns were a distant third and fourth.

The wisdom of the American people seems to be saying: Keep your friends close, but your frenemies closer.

Original site

China's military head games

Rumors or no, news of China's military advances throws wrench in the works for US strategists.

Global Post, Jan 5, 2011

Taipei, Taiwan --
China's recent military advances have launched a debate in security circles on whether the People's Liberation Army is more bark or bite.

Much of the talk has focused on China's new anti-ship ballistic missile, which is now deployed, according to the top U.S. military commander in the Pacific. Not to mention today's news about a runway test for China's first radar-evading stealth fighter. State media called the news "rumors" and played down the aircraft's capabilities.

But for one top Taiwanese security analyst, rumors of the runway test and China's other upgrades have already achieved their key objective: to mess with U.S. war planners' heads.

"It's a very effective deterrent on the minds of strategic planners in Washington," said Lin Chong-Pin, a former Taiwan defense official who teaches strategy at Tamkang University. "The Chinese don’t have to do anything in the future. Their announcement has already thrown a monkey wrench in strategic planning for U.S. action in and around the Taiwan Strait."

To be sure, no one is arguing that China could beat the United States in a full-out conflict. U.S. military spending, war-fighting experience and technology vastly outmatch China's. That would make any war between the world's sole superpower and its rising challenger a lopsided, if devastating, fight.

But Lin and other experts say China's rapid military advances have exposed the vulnerabilities of one linchpin of U.S. military might: the aircraft carrier battle group. Now, they say, China has advanced just enough to deter or slow such a battle group from joining a fight in East Asia — thereby forcing U.S. strategists to rethink war plans, for example in a flare-up over Taiwan.

China's so-called "carrier-killer" missile is just one of its recent advances. It has also demonstrated its prowess in anti-satellite warfare. And its fleet of attack submarines — now Asia's largest — continues to grow apace.

Add to that the recent news that China's first aircraft carrier (a refurbished Soviet hand-me-down) may sail as early as next year, and that its advanced stealth fighter may be for real, and some are alarmed. "We are seeing the erection of a new Chinese wall in the western Pacific, for which the Obama administration has offered almost nothing in defensive response," security expert Richard Fisher told the Washington Times.

Others downplay the threat. They stress that the anti-ship ballistic missile has not yet been fully tested, involves extremely complex technology and can be countered through various means, including attacks on China's military satellites that would be key to the missile's targeting.

But Tamkang University's Lin said fundamental trends are "not favorable for the U.S. to maintain its dominance in East Asia, and even in space."

"Currently the Chinese are far behind, of course, but one country [the U.S.] is going level or down, the other is going up fast," he said.

For Lin, the real question is not whether the ballistic missile and China's other new equipment would turn the tide in an actual fight. The question is whether such advances can alter U.S. strategic thinking — and by that measure, the answer is already a "yes."

Though U.S. officials may still talk tough, the reality is a gradual, U.S. military retreat from East Asia, Lin said. "The U.S. has economic, social and political problems at home, and defense budgets are on a downward trend," Lin said. "Washington may not change its rhetoric, but in their own minds planners are very clear — they won’t guarantee the capability of intervening in the vicinity of the Taiwan Strait."

Lin said the Chinese military has consistently advanced faster than Americans thought it could. "This is a decades long phenomenon — Americans tend to underestimate the activities of the PLA," he said. That's not entirely surprising, he said, since "the PLA's strategic tradition is to conceal."

He said U.S. analysts often misread China and the PLA due to cultural bias. "The Chinese are students of Sun Tzu's 'Art of War,' not students of Clausewitz," said Lin. "So they'll avoid using the military up front, and instead use the military as a backbone for Beijing's extra-military strategies."

He predicts China will successfully challenge the U.S. without resorting to war, by manipulating U.S. perceptions through a broad range of means, with military being just one. Western analysts don't sufficiently "get" this more comprehensive Chinese strategy, he said.

The result, he says, will be that China pushes the United States out of its Pacific backyard without firing a shot. "The U.S. will gradually withdraw without China fighting it," said Lin. "China will achieve that not by military means, but in economics, and diplomacy — this is Beijing's plan, and it's very shrewd."

"By 2025, and probably even before 2020, they will have de facto dominance of East Asia, or at least the western Pacific."

Original site

Asia and Wikileaks

WikiLeaks Asia: "There but for the grace of God"

East Asia's reaction to Cablegate is so far subdued. Some say the US may win sympathy.

Global Post, Dec. 1, 2010

TAIPEI, Taiwan —
A "visibly flustered" Chinese diplomat "temporarily lost the ability to speak Russian and began spluttering in Chinese" when his U.S. counterpart sprang an allegation on him in Kyrgyzstan. North Korea's leaders are "psychopathic types, with a 'flabby old chap' for a leader who prances around stadiums seeking adulation." And China's point man for six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program is "an arrogant, Marx-spouting former Red Guard who 'knows nothing about North Korea, nothing about nonproliferation and is hard to communicate with because he doesn’t speak English.'"

Those are some of the juicy bits from the U.S. diplomatic dispatches from Asia posted to the web by WikiLeaks. But while some observers are calling the massive cable dump a diplomatic catastrophe, most Asia-based experts have a lower-decibel reaction.

They say the cables mostly confirm what people already knew or guessed, though there's some surprise over lax U.S. security measures. The fiasco may even generate sympathy for the U.S., some said.

"It proves diplomats are flesh and blood — they're not as cold and boring as they look," Taiwanese commentator Antonio Chiang wrote in the Apple Daily. "This could actually help their image."

Brian Bridges, an expert on East Asian politics at Hong Kong's Lingnan University, said most of the cables he'd seen "confirmed things that I would have expected," but he was struck by two cables relating to North Korea and a post-collapse scenario.

The first reports a South Korean diplomat arguing that China could live with a re-unified Korea under South Korean control, though Bridges and other experts caution that this view may not be reliable or as widespread in China as the Korean official believes. "We have to be a little careful about that one."

The second surprise was indications in a cable from January that several North Korean diplomats have quietly defected while posted overseas, said Bridges — defections that had not been made public.

"The fact that they took the step of defecting implies that within the North Korean elite, there are serious doubts about the sustainability of the North Korean system," said Bridges. "If you haven’t got your family with you, it can be extremely tough for family members left behind in North Korea, so in order to make that decision, people will think twice or three times about that step."

Others were also struck by the cables' illumination of the China-Pyongyang-Seoul dysfunctional triangle, and by diplomats' extensive study and preparation for a unified Korea and what it would mean for China and the region.

Meanwhile, in Japan, the public is too absorbed with tensions on the Korean peninsula to pay much attention to Cablegate, said Koji Murata, an international relations expert at Kyoto's Doshisha University. But he said he and others were surprised at the massive cyber-security breach. "Some Japanese may feel that the American security system for protecting secrets is so fragile and weak."

Murata said U.S. cables may fuel arguments that Japan bows too much to U.S. pressure, particularly in relation to Tokyo's recent moves to relax a ban on exporting its military technology. "Many Japanese feel that this policy change may have been done under American influence or pressure," said Murata. "Some may feel this is evidence that Japan is too dependent on the U.S."

Chinese commentators had a mostly low-key reaction. With the exception of some choice remarks by Chinese officials about "spoiled child" North Korea, many of the cables from China released so far have been pedestrian (says China's top diplomat to U.S. visitors about China-U.S. cooperation: “If we expand the pie for the common interest, the pie will be larger and more delicious.”)

But Chiang, the Taiwanese commentator, said in a phone interview that Beijing is likely fretting, since information control is "vital for the survival of their regime" and authoritarian governments like China's are a stated WikiLeaks target. "They must be very alarmed," said Chiang. "There must be a lot of emergency meetings."

Taiwan, for its part, is bracing for the publication of nearly 3,500 cables that WikiLeaks claims to have from the American Institute in Taiwan, America's de facto embassy in the absence of formal ties, and one of its most sensitive diplomatic posts. But Chiang said he doubts anything "surprising" will emerge, since Taiwan's rowdy talk shows and manic 24-hour-media has already chewed through most everything involving U.S.-Taiwan relations.

One possibility, said Chiang, was cables that could "confirm Beijing's suspicions" about former Taiwan president Chen Shui-bian (nickname "Ah-Bian"), now jailed on corruption charges. Last decade Beijing and Washington accused Chen of stirring up tensions by pushing the envelope on independence; AIT cables could further tarnish Chen's image. "It will be the nail in Ah-Bian's coffin," said Chiang.

Chiang noted that we'd only seen the "tip of the iceberg," since just 300 out of some 250,000 cables have been posted. But so far, he and others say the massive leak hasn't appeared to have done as much damage as some feared, at least in East Asia.

Lingnan University's Bridges said "people are going to be a bit more wary about what they say to American diplomats," but that their Asian counterparts will probably sympathize.

"I think there will be a sort of 'there but for the grace of God go I' kind of view — the Americans have been caught out and this is very embarrassing, but it could have been them."

Original site

Red light fight

Plan to legalize prostitution sparks debate between women's and worker's rights groups.

Global Post, Nov. 29, 2010

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Massive debts pushed her into prostitution. Now, after several false starts, she's pocketing $3,000 in a good month, turning tricks as a self-employed Taipei street-walker.

The money's good, she says, but there's just one problem: the cops. Prostitution is illegal in Taiwan, and the cops have several times hauled her in for three days in jail, or a fine up to $1,000.

If sex work is legalized in a year's time as now planned, though, she says her working conditions will improve.

"I can be more relaxed at work," said the sex worker, who gave only the name "Nadia," in an interview in Taipei. "I won't have worry so much about the cops; worry that they'll come and catch me. I won't be afraid of anyone bullying me."

Nadia is one of an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 sex workers in Taiwan, including hostesses that offer services short of intercourse in clubs and karaoke halls. They're at the center of a debate over whether prostitution should be legalized as planned next year, and if so in what form.

Taiwan's decisions could have implications for countries in Asia and beyond that are struggling to balance demands for social order with the protection of sex workers' rights.

Prostitution is legal in more than 70 countries worldwide, illegal in more than 100, and restricted in others. (See map from Chartsbin.com.) In Asia, Thailand and the Philippines are well-known sex tourism destinations, despite a legal ban on prostitution in both countries. China legally bans prostitution but lurches between looking the other way and harsh crackdowns, such as the public shaming of prostitutes and their Johns. Japan legally permits sex services short of intercourse, and hosts a thriving sex trade.

In Taiwan, the legalization debate has pitted women's rights groups against workers' rights groups. The former say the sex trade exploits women, is plagued with trafficking and ensnares under-age girls.

"We don't think it's just a question of workers' rights," said Wang Yueh-hao, from the Garden of Hope Foundation. "The sex trade does big damage to both sex workers and their families."

But sex workers rights' groups say the sex trade isn't going anyway anytime soon, that bans are counterproductive, and that prostitutes deserve dignity and good working conditions as much as any other laborers.

"They contribute to society, but society gives them the lowest status," said the Collective of Sex Workers and Supporters' (COSWAS) Chien Chia-ying. "That's the most unacceptable part." Sex worker rights activists in many other countries agree.

Part of the problem in Taiwan is that the laws don't make much sense. For decades prostitution was legal here. But since the 1990s, prostitutes have been punished under the Social Order Maintenance Act, COSWAS says. Pimps, middlemen and traffickers are dealt with under the criminal code, slapped with up to five years in jail or $3,300 fines. Johns aren't penalized at all.

That means it's perfectly legal to pay for sex, but illegal to sell it. Taiwan's courts found that arrangement unconstitutional in 2009, and demanded a change by November next year. So the government plans to scrap the penalty on prostitutes, and has mooted the option of legal "sex zones" in Taipei, or letting small brothels of five or six prostitutes run their own small business out of apartments anywhere in the city.

Women's groups take a dim view of either scenario. The Garden of Hope's Wang said that since 90 percent of sex workers are female, "We think it's an issue of gender inequality." They want the laws to remain as they are, at the very least, and ideally to make it illegal to pay for sex, too.

They say the government should do more to help prostitutes find a way out of the trade. "We need to give them other choices, so they don't think they have to sell their body to resolve their household problems," said Wang. And they say society has an obligation to curb a destructive trade as much as possible. "You can't improve their lifestyle and rights by legalizing prostitution," said Wang. "They will still face discrimination and be under gangsters' control."

Meanwhile, COSWAS is trying to improve sex workers' public image. Their ideal is a fully legal and open sex trade in which empowered prostitutes could hire third-party services to help them market their wares, and keep more of the profits. For that reason, they say the government's plans don't go far enough -- pimping and other third-party services need to be legalized, too.

"You need to completely decriminalize the sex industry in order to protect sex workers' safety," insisted COSWAS' Wang Fang-ping. "If middlemen are still illegal, you will still have a lot of problems."

They say prostitutes kept 70 or 80 percent of the money when the trade was legal (giving the rest to pimps or other middlemen) — now it's more like 60 percent.

In an interview arranged by COSWAS, GlobalPost interviewed Nadia to find out the reality on the streets.

The interview took place in a former brothel dating back to the 1950s. It's tucked into a narrow street fragrant with incense curling out of a next-door temple, in one of Taipei's jumbled, old commercial districts. The building is now used for legal health and counseling services. Inside there's peeling wallpaper, claustrophobic rooms, bead curtains. Dim yellow lighting bathes the hallway. Photos of one-time madames dot the walls, scraps of the brothel's long-past heyday.

There are still seven or eight small, illegal brothels nearby, said Wang, but "you have to know where they are."

In the decades following World War II, this and other Taipei brothels and clubs did brisk business, helped in part by a steady supply of U.S. military men. Taiwan hosted huge U.S. bases before formal ties were broken in 1979, and the island was an R&R destination during the Vietnam War. Taipei still boasts a now down-on-its-luck bar district dubbed the "Combat Zone" by U.S. servicemen.

But in the 1990s, a Taipei mayor, inspired by New York City's Rudy Giuliani, backed an anti-smut drive as a way to gain support from conservative middle- and upper-class voters, according to Wang. Outside Taipei, only 20 to 30 legal brothels remain, still open under a loophole.

Wearing a bright pink, puffy winter jacket, Nadia took a seat in a small office, two gold rings circling bony fingers. She appeared to be in her 30s ("Why don't you guess my age," said the rail-thin sex worker, when asked).

Nadia's story doesn't easily lend itself to either side of the legalization debate. She rejected the womens' rights groups arguments, at least for self-employed sex workers like herself ("We are absolutely not exploited," she said. "We don't have bosses.") But she told a depressing tale that hardly speaks of empowerment.

Asked how she had started in the sex trade, Nadia's wary expression crumbled into choked-back grief. She said her husband left her in 2006, abandoning also a son, now 7. Saddled with huge debts (she didn't want to go into why), she turned to prostitution. But her initial attempts failed. "This work isn't as simple as it looks," she said.

First she joined a "Thai shower" joint, where customers picked girls out of a line and paid about $65 for an hour's shower, massage and sex. She only kept about $35 per customer, giving the rest to her bosses. The money wasn't enough, so she left after four days.

Then she worked at a secret "spa" with a private elevator requiring a key. There the terms were even worse: $150 a trick, of which she kept only $50. After a month, she switched to a sex "studio," where she kept $65 out of $100 per customer. "No matter which place it was, my cut wasn't fair, and there was the problem of where to get customers," she said.

So she began walking the streets. Now at least she can choose her customers, and reject any who seem too shady. She charges about $35 per 15 minutes and can clear up to $2,800 a month after paying her rent and all other expenses — although $1,500 to $1,650 per month has been more typical lately, she said.

She works 60-hour weeks, takes only one day off per week, and lives in a building with more than 50 other sex workers. Despite what women's rights groups say, she says she has no contact with gangsters, and said the only reason some sex workers sometimes have to get gangsters' help is that the trade is illegal.

Sitting beside her, COSWAS' Chien said "I can't say there's no exploitation, but I think [sex workers] are exploited a lot less than most workers are." Chien added that do-gooder plans to switch prostitutes into other work typically offer them salaries a fraction of what they can make selling their bodies. Said Nadia: "I would like to change jobs, but I don't have the ability to do other work."

Now, Nadia's top concern isn't gangsters or pimps, but police stings. She and COSWAS allege that Taipei cops routinely set up prostitutes for arrest by arranging for friends or a paid third party to approach them. Once a sex worker negotiates a price, she can be busted; meanwhile the customer is considered a "witness" to the infraction but is not fined or held.

COSWAS led protests against such set-ups last year, drawing a pledge from the mayor to end them. But with new regulations on the sex trade still in limbo, the group — and Nadia — say not much has changed.

"I'm afraid of the cops, not my customers," said Nadia.

Original site

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Who'd down with TPP?

Obama is betting on a new free trade bloc to help the US economy. Here's what you need to know.

Global Post, November 21, 2010

TAIPEI, Taiwan —
New Zealand's down with it. Singapore's down with it. Now the United States, Australia, Peru, Vietnam and Malaysia are getting down with it, too.

Still waiting for word on whether Japan's down with it or not.

There's a new trade bloc on the block, and it's called TPP — short for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Just a few years ago it was an obscure deal between the "P4," which sounds like an Asian boy-band but actually refers to four small, free-trade loving countries on the Pacific rim: New Zealand, Singapore, Brunei and Chile.

But since the Obama administration publicly embraced it last year as a way to help revive America's zombie-like economy, TPP has shot to stardom. And joined a long list of mind-numbing acronyms.

TPP was a hot topic at the recent APEC meeting in Yokohama, and has been widely lauded as a possible stepping stone to a FTAAP.

That last one may sound like something Bill the Cat would have spat out in the 1980' comic strip Bloom County. But it stands for a Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific, a "Mother of All Free Trade Deals" that would include the world's top three economies — the U.S, China and Japan — and APEC's 18 other members in one king-sized trade block spanning the Pacific.

Too bad it's not likely to happen in our lifetimes.

"The FTAAP is a hopeless dream at this point," Deborah Elms, a trade expert with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, wrote in an email. "I don't see the political will to launch talks on this scale. And, practically, to get the entire 21 member economies to agree to talks on liberalizing trade with one another is just not in the cards."

It's the politics, stupid

Even TPP's prospects are dubious, some analysts say. The problem, as usual, is politics. Domestic politics, to be more specific — in the U.S. and Japan, for starters.

With TPP, Obama's team is headed into a bruising fight to get Americans down with another ambitious trade deal. Republicans are typically more free-trade-minded and likely to support such deals, so you'd think a Republican-controlled House could help.

But Obama's recent failure to re-negotiate a free trade deal with South Korea doesn't bode well. In that case, U.S. auto companies and beef exporters couldn't swallow the terms of the original 2007 deal and pressed for a better one. But so far Seoul isn't biting.

With TPP, it's the U.S. dairy lobby that's gearing up for battle. It threw down a gauntlet in March by marshaling 30 senators from both parties in a show of force against TPP. The reason, the senators said in a letter: Cheap dairy imports from New Zealand threaten U.S. dairy farmers livelihoods.

Elms, the trade expert, says objections are also likely from U.S. beef and sugar producers, and textile producers who would face cheap competition from Vietnam. She thinks these objections won't be as much of a hurdle as U.S. automakers' concerns over the South Korea deal. But the politics of TPP have others betting against Obama already.

"The net benefits to the U.S. economy are likely to be minimal and the political costs, imposed by dairy exports from New Zealand, substantial," said John Ravenhill, an expert on global trade at Australian National University. "So I would not be optimistic about its chances."

"The TPP at the moment has no significant economy involved with which the U.S. does not already have a trade agreement," said Ravenhill, with the possible exception of Vietnam. If Tokyo gets on board, TPP would become far more important, he said.

But Japan's inclusion would also sharply raise the political stakes — almost certainly sparking a fierce debate in America that would make the 1990s NAFTA fight look like a playground scuffle.

Land of the rising "no"

Which brings us to Japanese politics. Tokyo's center-left government has only expressed vague interest in joining TPP talks [4], and it's already ignited a firestorm of debate and brought 3,000 farmers onto the streets in protest. Japan's rice and vegetable farmers have long been protected by tariffs as high as 600 to 800 percent, and they like that arrangement just fine, thank you very much.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan has an urban support base that's more likely to back free trade. But the opposition — and some in Kan's own coalition — draw support from rural farming areas. And amid Japan's musical-chairs political leadership, Kan is considered weak.

At his excellent "Observing Japan [5]" blog, Tobias Harris rounds up the politics of TPP in Japan, and says Kan needs to show leadership on the issue. Instead, Tokyo kicked the can down the road, saying it won't make any decision on TPP until next June. "By proceeding cautiously now, did the government simply give its opponents time to mobilize and thus ensure that once again the issue will be postponed?" wrote Harris.

If the politics of TPP look thorny, they're nothing compared to the politics of a wider trans-Pacific deal. Protected agricultural sectors have so far helped prevent a Korea-China deal, a Japan-Korea deal, or an expansion of the ASEAN-China deal to include Korea and Japan.

And any ambitious regional deal will face the same issues that have seen the the current "Doha Round" of global trade talks grind to a halt, said Ravenhill.

"What you have is essentially the same divide as exists in the Doha round, except with a couple of key players missing — the EU and Brazil," said Ravenhill. "But otherwise you've got the same players with the same attitudes and the same entrenched interests facing off against each other."

In other words, the politics are just as tough. "For economists, the puzzle is why states would ever do anything other than free trade," Harris wrote in his post on TPP, paraphrasing political economist Helen Milner. "For political scientists the puzzle is why states would ever practice anything but protectionism."

"Getting back in the game"

If the politics of these deals are so daunting, why all the rosy talk in Yokohama?

TPP is partly about showing that the U.S. is "back" in Asia. There's a perception that while Asia has been busy inking deals and integrating its economies, Washington's been asleep at the switch.

Now Washington is determined to be a player on economic as well as security issues. TPP "is a bid by the U.S. to keep at bay Asia-initiated economic integration in the region and maintain influence over Asia," Moon Gwang-lip wrote recently in South Korea's Joong Ang Daily. The deal is "being driven primarily by strategic calculations on what is necessary to get back in the game" in Asia, added Ravenhill.

Elms said the TPP drive began at the administration of George W. Bush over worries that Washington was being "locked out" of Asian markets and left out of preferential deals. "Many officials in the U.S. were increasingly concerned about the proliferation of trade agreements at all levels that would have left the United States on the outside," Elms said.

The next TPP talks are in December in New Zealand, and Obama wants big progress by next year's APEC summit in Hawaii. But if he can't sort out the politics, TPP — not to mention FTAAP — may well be DOA.

Original site