On Sunday nearly half a million citizens filled the streets in front of the Presidential Office Building in support of the student action, many staying into the night to pressure Taiwan's president to respond to student demands. It was likely the second largest citizens' protest in the nation's history, though it may in fact have been the largest.
Taiwan's citizens are furious that the ruling party (the Kuomintang) and its current leader, President Ma Ying-Jeou, have used every means at their disposal to force through a controversial trade pact with China (the Service Trade Agreement) without proper legislative review. The trade pact gives Chinese investors unprecedented leverage power on Taiwan's economy, which would ultimately facilitate a future Chinese takeover of the island. President Ma's actions are seen by most people here as those of an autocrat rather than a democratically elected president. His approval rating before this crisis even began was under 10%, which makes his heavy-handed handling of the pact even harder to stomach.
If the country is on edge awaiting the outcome of this tense standoff, it is even more on edge this morning since a large gangster organization, with strong ties to the Mainland, yesterday threatened to attack the students and expel them from the congress building some time on April 1. This particular gangster organization isn't known for pulling April Fool's pranks.
All in all this is the most serious political crisis Taiwan has faced since becoming a democracy two decades ago.
So where is the American media?
Yes, there have been a few print articles covering the crisis in larger media venues, but to my knowledge there has been no televised media coverage. Also, the print articles only covered the initial student actions and the police response. When Sunday's huge protest rally showed Taiwanese largely behind the students (polls show around 70% support the student demands) American media coverage ceased.
Again, as far as I can tell, not a single American network has sent a reporter with a camera to cover this. CNN's Asia bureau is in Hong Kong, just a jump across the water from here. Yet not a single CNN camera has appeared in Taipei. Apparently they're still too busy reporting on the missing Malaysian jet, a story they've now covered in well over fifty articles and a nonstop stream of video feed. Go take a glance at CNN's Asia page to see if this has changed since my writing.
I've long noted American media's under-reporting of Taiwan. But the recent near silence is beyond just under-reporting. I'd call it a soft news blackout. I may be wrong of course, it may just be journalistic incompetence or budget constraints that keep reporters away, but if CNN, for instance, can fly reporters back and forth across Asia dozens of times to cover the missing flight 370, you'd think they could manage at least a couple short hops from Hong Kong to cover the biggest political shakeup in Taiwan in decades.
Why is the current crisis in Taiwan important? Several reasons.
First, contrary to how it's usually depicted in Western media, Taiwan is not just a "city" or "small island". By population Taiwan is larger than Australia. Consider what that means. Imagine that two-hundred student activists seized Australia's Parliament House in Canberra and refused to leave, the standoff continuing for weeks. And that Australians in support of the students flooded the capital in protest of the prime minister. Would CNN be able to afford a camera on the ground? Would other networks send someone?
More important than population, however, or at least what should be important from a Western perspective: Taiwan is a vibrant multiparty democracy built by a culture that is largely Chinese. This is unique in the world. And this democracy is now under siege.
China has long claimed Taiwan as part of its territory, to the degree that Taiwanese landmarks are regularly featured in Chinese publications promoting the glories of the motherland. In recent years, as economic ties to the Mainland have increased, some Taiwanese media companies have been taken over by Chinese investors or conglomerates. That the government here has allowed this shows two things: the willingness of many of Taiwan's elites to let the country merge with China; unawareness among much of the population as to just how serious a threat to democracy these media mergers really are.
Taiwan is a young democracy, and it is evident to Westerners living here that many in the older generation don't conceive political issues in democratic terms, but retain more paternalist ideas of government. The younger generation, however, is quite different in its political thinking, as has been proven by the recently formed Sunflower Student Movement. Both their actions and words show that these students are sharp proponents of democracy. An early article in the BBC (British media is doing much better on this than American media) stressed the students' seriousness and dedication.
The next few days should be eventful here in Taipei. Nobody knows how this standoff will end. With this diary, however, I want to stress a different point: Nobody watching TV in the States even knows this standoff is happening. Why not? Is there a systemic cause of this under-reporting of Taiwan?
Another good example of British media coverage at the Guardian.