It’s official now — smoking in public spaces is illegal. The new law, which came into effect on Sunday, will clear up the air and hopefully encourage some to abandon a harmful habit that costs billions of dollars in healthcare and work absenteeism every year.
Laudable though the new law may be, there were signs on Sunday that the authorities may be overreaching after the Taipei City Government encouraged the public to report any violations by providing name, time, date and location — and pictures — while promising 5 percent of the fines as a reward.
In other words, the government was telling us that it is OK to spy on each other and to snitch on friends, family members and coworkers.
“I think most of the monetary rewards will go to those who report someone they know, such as a coworker or friend,” Chang Kang-hsin (張康興), a Taipei City Health Department inspector said at the time.
Now there is nothing wrong with a civilian reporting a serious crime — murder, rape or other serious offenses — or with the state providing financial compensation for their cooperation. But a policy encouraging people to report individuals who violate a smoking ban is another question altogether, especially when it comes with a financial incentive at a time when thousands of people are being laid off or forced to take unpaid leave. Furthermore, while some may be motivated by money, it wouldn’t take too long before less scrupulous individuals use this for other motives, such as vengeance, jealousy or any other grievance.
Petty motives aside, when a government invites citizens to spy on each other, it is on a very slippery slope. Not that the current government is breaking new ground in this department; after all, not so long ago the Environmental Protection Administration was offering similar incentives to encourage people to report those who failed to recycle or littered public spaces. In 2002, the US Department of Justice launched an initiative known as Terrorism Information and Prevention System (with the appropriate acronym TIPS), which enlisted people from all walks of life to work as “extra eyes” for the government.
What should make all of us step back, however, is that once citizen spies become a fact of life, there is no telling where it will end — especially when a government has authoritarian tendencies. Today it’s cigarettes and failure to recycle a plastic bottle; tomorrow, it could be anything — business practices, sexual behavior, political views. Spying is made perfectly legal, we would think, because it was sanctioned by the government, the infamous top-down directive that throughout history has resulted in untold abuse.
In darker periods of history, the KGB, the Gestapo and the Stasi all encouraged people to snitch on each other, ostensibly to “protect” the state. Given where these agencies — and the governments they worked for — are today, it should be clear that the practice, though seemingly effective at first, is in the long term deleterious as it turns citizens against each other, undermines trust and unweaves the bonds that make society function. Those reviled agencies, we should note, pushed citizen spying to a terrible extreme, but they did so gradually, just as the proverbial frog will allow itself to be boiled to death if the temperature is raised one degree at a time.
Encouraging people to quit smoking is one thing, a good one at that. But such efforts should not unleash measures that cause more harm than the ill they seek to remedy.
Over the past year, scores of gargantuan Chinese sand dredgers have deployed themselves in territorial waters off the Taiwanese-administered Matsu Islands, where their activities erode beaches and ruin fishing shoals. These Chinese ships are mercenary; a small 5,000 ton ship could sell a load of sand for the equivalent of US$55,000 to Fujian construction firms — or to the People’s Liberation Army for use in building its artificial reefs in the South China Sea. They also frustrate Taiwan’s government, which tries unsuccessfully to cooperate with Beijing on environmental stewardship of their contiguous waters. Each day, Taiwanese Coast Guard vessels can
On Monday last week, a formation of 16 Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) warplanes flew over the South China Sea near Malaysian Borneo and intruded into the airspace of Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone. Although it was not the first incursion into Malaysian airspace by Chinese military aircraft, it was the first time such a large formation had been dispatched by China. It was yet another worrying indication that Beijing senses an opportunity to aggressively shape the post-COVID-19 world in its own image and has stepped up its plans to expand the frontiers of its empire well beyond the limits of its
With Taiwan’s COVID-19 “ring of steel” breached, the public is demanding vaccines, and politicians are calling for vaccine imports to be expedited. However, the manner in which the debate is being conducted leaves much to be desired. Some people believe that companies and nonprofit groups should be allowed to import vaccines. This is not as simple as it sounds. The mRNA vaccines made by Moderna and BioNTech need to be stored at extremely low temperatures during their transportation from overseas manufacturing plants to the clinics that administer them. Regarding the BioNTech vaccine, its export from the EU requires complex paperwork and procedures.
With more controversies upsetting the nation’s fight against COVID-19, government agencies need to regain the public’s confidence. Being more transparent would be a good start. Over the past week, several politicians have apologized for failing to prevent more COVID-19 deaths, including President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) and Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung (陳時中). They must be frustrated to see their globally acclaimed victory from last year being denounced. However, their apologies must ring hollow to the grieving families and those who have no access to rapid testing kits or COVID-19 vaccines. To make matters worse, a Taipei-based clinic