The systematic efforts by our government, uncovered by this newspaper last week, to keep secret a visit by a top Chinese security official last month raise questions that go far beyond secrecy and involve matters pertaining to the very nature of our society.
Though alarming in itself, it is not unusual for senior security officials from different countries to meet behind closed doors. In some cases, such meetings even involve cooperation with countries that have poor human rights records. In the “war” against terrorism launched after Sept. 11, for example, Western intelligence agencies began working closely — and secretly — with their counterparts in pariah states like Pakistan, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
Controversial — and at times disastrous — though this cooperation may have been, there are fundamental differences between that type of cooperation and what is developing between Taipei and Beijing. For one, it involves countries that recognize each other. Also, there are independent, institutionalized oversight mechanisms in democratic systems that ensure a certain degree of transparency, which plays a crucial role when operations involve intelligence sharing with repressive regimes.
In the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who was deported from the US and tortured by Syrian security officials, oversight and a subsequent inquiry helped expose the controversy, shamed Canadian authorities and made it more difficult for similar mistakes to be repeated.
Cooperation with China on cross-strait crime fighting, ostensibly the purpose of the visit by Chinese Vice Minister of Public Security Chen Zhimin (陳智敏), is not overly worrying. What makes the visit so problematic, rather, is the context in which it happened, at a time when the credibility of oversight mechanisms under President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), beginning with the judiciary, are now under question. It is also occurring at a time when Beijing is intensifying its campaign against Taiwan, seemingly with the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) acquiescence.
Equally worrying is the KMT’s resurrection of the Republic of China (ROC) Constitution, which blurs the lines between Taiwan, the ROC and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), as shown by the administration’s recent comments about Chinese claims over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台).
If one sticks to the Constitution, Tibetan and Taiwanese independence movements become inimical to the integrity of the ROC, just as they are inimical to the PRC’s “one China” claims. As such, depending on how one interprets “crime” and “terrorism” — both on the agenda during Chen’s visit — it is not impossible that Taiwanese and Chinese agencies would share intelligence on such groups.
Amid growing cooperation, Taiwan’s side could be wiling to share information for the sake of reciprocity, just as Western agencies did in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. This is especially likely when governments treat intelligence as a currency or as a means to advance a political agenda. This, however, is a slippery slope, one in which an agency is willing to compromise its moral integrity in the name of cooperation or access to otherwise unobtainable intelligence. This becomes all the more likely if the order comes from above, making it nearly impossible for the agencies involved to refuse.
With weakened, politicized oversight and a growing tendency to conduct business behind closed doors, there is no knowing what kind of information Taiwanese security agencies will pass on to their Chinese counterparts. In this context, can we trust our intelligence agencies, or the unaccountable officials with proper access, not to give Beijing what it wants in return for information about criminals, or to show its “goodwill?” What if Chinese intelligence asks for information on Tibetans, Uighurs, human rights activists, or independence advocates?
Taking advantage of my Taipei Times editors’ forbearance, I thought I would go with a change of pace by offering a few observations on an interesting nature topic, the many varieties of snakes in Taiwan. I will be drawing on my experiences living in Taiwan five times, from my teenage years in Kaohsiung back in the early sixties, to my last assignment as American Institute in Taiwan Director in 2006-9. Taiwan, with its semitropical climate, is a perfect setting for serpents. Indeed, one might say serpents are an integral part of the island’s ecosystem. Taiwan is warm, humid, with lots of
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