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Brian Hioe is one of the founding editors of New Bloom. He is a freelance writer on social movements and politics, as well as an occasional translator. A New York native and Taiwanese-American, he has an MA in East Asian Languages and Cultures from Columbia University and graduated from New York University with majors in History, East Asian Studies, and English Literature. He was Democracy and Human Rights Service Fellow at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy from 2017 to 2018.


 

Young China Watchers (YCW): What has your experience been launching new media outlet New Bloom, an “online magazine featuring radical perspectives on Taiwan and the Asia-Pacific”? How easy was it to mobilize a team?

 Brian Chee-Shing Hioe (BCH): New Bloom was formed from participants of the 2014 Sunflower Movement, with some including myself participating on the ground here in Taiwan and others involved in solidarity efforts overseas. We were primarily people who got to know each other through left-wing social movement activism in the months and years before the movement or during the movement itself. After the eventual withdrawal from the Legislative Yuan, there was talk of forming a publication with the deliberate aim of connecting Taiwan and the international world, and the publication organically developed out of that.

The largest difficulty in maintaining the editorial team may be that we are primarily divided between Taipei and the east coast of the U.S. We are all volunteer-run and sustained only by reader contributions through crowdfunding, with no advertising or support from political organizations or political parties. When we have been approached with offers of support in the past, we have always turned this down in order to maintain our independent perspective.

The support we receive through crowdfunding is not sufficient to pay for much more than the website, although we publish daily and are probably the largest out of primarily English-language independent publications writing on Taiwan. And that being said, as we pass the five-year anniversary of the Sunflower Movement and approach the five-year anniversary of the publication, despite still lacking resources, we are opening our first set of offices.

 

YCW: What is the demographic of your reader? Beyond “intellectual transnational dialogues,” how could you make New Bloom more accessible to common people in Taiwan?

BCH: Even after five years, I don’t always have the best sense of who are readers are. Interestingly, while the publication was originally intended to be fully bilingual, the content has increasingly drifted toward a focus on the English section, probably because there was already a lot out there of what we cover in Chinese but less in English. At the same time, the highest readership is still in Taiwan, among urban residents between 20 and 40. I suspect many of these people are politically active in some form.

I think part of it is that many young people want to share news of what is going on in Taiwan to their friends and they may see New Bloom as a publication representative of their views. And that probably does reflect a failure to break out of the so-called “echo chamber” and become more accessible. Because many of us are academics in some form or at least have a foot in academia, the writing does slant toward the academic. I’m not sure what the solution is either. It could be that there is also a need for a more specialist publication on Taiwan. Yet it is also apparent to me that, whether in terms of English-language generalist writing or specialist writing on Taiwan, both are quite lacking.

 

YCW: What are your observations of how Taiwan politics are viewed by the West?

BCH: It tends to be the case that Taiwan is often thought of only in terms of cross-strait issues, as though this were the only issue determinant of Taiwan’s political orientation. Sometimes there is also the view that one can simply parachute in correspondents normally based out of Beijing to have an understanding of Taiwan, without any awareness that this is insufficient to grasp the complexities of many issues.

As such, New Bloom tries to differ itself from other publications by trying to have viewpoints which are more directly reflective of Taiwanese political discourse in a manner not always reflected in English language writing on Taiwan as it may occur from an outside perspective, as well as a viewpoint which is more directly reflective of the views of Taiwanese young people today. Obviously, we do have non-Taiwanese staff members and writers, but in this way, we hope to fill in what we see as a gap in the existing coverage and discourse on Taiwan in English.

 

YCW: Can you tell us about the 2014 Sunflower Movement, and how China’s “one country, two systems” formula is playing out in the public eye?

BCH: The Sunflower Movement was the month-long occupation of the Taiwanese legislature in March 2014 by student activists and civil society groups. This was directly a reaction to the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, a free trade agreement that the Kuomintang (KMT) Ma administration hoped to sign with China. It was feared that, because the agreement would open up Taiwan’s service sector industry to Chinese investment, it would be deleterious to Taiwan’s political freedoms. The Sunflower Movement reached its peak on 30 March 2014, when some 500,000 individuals—around 2 percent of Taiwan’s population—took to the streets of Taipei in demonstration, despite the occupation only beginning with several hundred students 12 days earlier.

The KMT, the former authoritarian party in Taiwan, came to Taiwan after its defeat to the CCP in the Chinese Civil War. However, the animosity of the party has since faded, and it now prioritizes political unification with China over being able to retake the Chinese mainland under its authority. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), on the other hand, did support the Sunflower Movement but was not responsible for its emergence. The DPP emerged from Taiwan’s democracy movement and is thought of as a “local” party which identifies with Taiwan rather than seeks political unification with China.

China offers Taiwan a “one country, two systems” formula, but events like the Sunflower Movement suggest that residents of Taiwan will not take this sitting down. It is notable that the Sunflower Movement took place in March 2014—well before President Xi Jinping made moves toward lifetime rule, the deterioration of political freedoms in Hong Kong that we have observed in the past few years, or the mass detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang that we see presently.

Nevertheless, as observed in the victories of the KMT in elections last November, this does not mean that Taiwanese will not vote for the KMT either. Domestic issues regarding stagnant economic growth can loom larger than the cross-strait issues which are relatively remote from the everyday lives of most Taiwanese.

Nevertheless, as observed in the victories of the KMT in elections last November, this does not mean that Taiwanese will not vote for the KMT either. Domestic issues regarding stagnant economic growth can loom larger than the cross-strait issues which are relatively remote from the everyday lives of most Taiwanese.

YCW: To what extent is the influence of mainland Chinese politics, ideology, and media felt in Taiwan?

BCH: Chinese influence in Taiwan operates on multiple levels. For one, apart from the 2 percent indigenous population, the majority of Taiwanese are descended from waves of Chinese immigration. Nevertheless, Taiwan was not empty land before the KMT came to Taiwan, as many seem to think. Around 10 percent of the current Taiwanese population is descended from individuals that came to Taiwan with the Kuomintang, including myself, but 88% of the population was present due to earlier waves of migration that took place hundreds of years before either the CCP or KMT existed.

In terms of everyday Chinese influence, for those unconcerned with politics, Chinese pop culture is regularly consumed by Taiwanese, perhaps most visibly in television dramas or talent shows. Accusations of Chinese influence in the media have been longstanding, particularly among media outlets which favor the political views of the KMT; but it is not always clear whether this is direct interference in the media or the pro-China views that these media outlets hold themselves.

Many Taiwanese also work or live in China, particularly given the poor performance of the Taiwanese domestic economy in the past decade and the potential for higher salaries in China. Taiwanese businesspeople working in China are often referred to as 台商 (taishang). Estimates are that between 1 and 3 million Taiwanese are 台商.

At the same time, despite substantial economic and cultural ties between Taiwan and China, China is not omnipresent. Taiwanese voters do not only vote on the basis of cross-strait relations and issues regarding independence and unification. In this way, the so-called “China factor” is not the only factor which influences the course of Taiwanese politics. It can also be surprising how little many Taiwanese actually know about China, particularly because of a highly polarized media environment in which media favoring one side of the political spectrum amplifies criticisms of China, while media favoring the other side of the political spectrum downplays or ignores adverse news about China.

 

YCW: And finally, any predictions for the general elections next year?

BH: Elections seem to be taking an unexpected turn this year. Despite the KMT’s widespread defeats in the 2016 election and the party suffering years of internal crisis since, the results of local mid-term elections last November prove that Taiwanese voters can and still will vote KMT.

Personally, I don’t believe that this suddenly means Taiwanese voters are suddenly in support of the KMT’s cross-strait policies, although the KMT has taken the results of elections as a mandate to push for closer relations with China again. Yet it is possible that domestic concerns took precedence over abstract cross-strait issues and that Taiwanese voters hoped to punish the DPP in this way for sluggish pace on reforms. Concerns have also been raised that the KMT’s unexpected success last November was the result of Chinese election interference and disinformation efforts.

As such, the results of elections next year are anyone’s guess.

 

 

— Interview by Olivia Halsall

 

 

Featured Young China Watcher – Brian Hioe: Founding Editor of New Bloom
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