The Washington Post featured an interview with President Chen-shui-bian of Taiwan today (free registration required). The interviewers were unable to position themselves properly relative to their material, and thus produced the kind of loaded language and point-of-view writing that foreign commentators on Taiwan can’t quite manage to free themselves from:

But Chen, who has incurred the wrath of China and the irritation of the United States over his relentless pursuit of Taiwanese independence, added in an interview that, practically speaking, political opposition to such controversial changes makes it unlikely they will be approved anytime soon by the opposition-controlled legislature.

“Relentless pursuit!” Yes, Chen Shui-bian is “relentlessly” pursuing democracy and independence. Is there no other less negatively loaded adverb available to describe Chen’s commitment to an independent and democratic nation?

Chen appears to have learned his lesson from the flap over the NUC abolition, and this time is giving out signals loud and clear, in case Taiwan watchers in the US have missed the last 14 years of constitutional reform in Taiwan. WaPo cites him as saying:

But at the same time, he said, Beijing and Washington should not get upset, since the opposition Nationalist Party has the votes in the Legislative Yuan to prevent his ambitions from being translated into law for the time being. “So everybody can relax,” he said, smiling.

Good — notify in advance, and keep them up to date. Another very loaded moment occurred in this paragraph:

Despite the display of patience, Chen’s vow of a debate on such constitutional issues as sovereignty and formal independence indicated that the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait will continue to be a source of tension and danger in the Asia-Pacific region, involving the United States and Japan as well as China.

Yes, China’s 800 missiles and a constantly upgrading military, as well as a formal commitment to violence — those are not a source of tension and danger. But just talking about Constitutional change — just talking, mind you, since change isn’t remotely possible at the moment — just talking, however, seriously threatens regional peace. No wonder the US media failed so miserably in its reporting on the Iraq War. Thank God Chen decided not to publish memoirs or something. That might have ignited a global war. The truly noxious part of this comment is the way the context is presented:

a source of tension and danger in the Asia-Pacific region, involving the United States and Japan as well as China.

The danger “involves” China — the context presents China as the passive and indirect recipient of the danger — as if there are no threats to murder Taiwanese, no missiles pointed at Taiwan, and no military spending increases aimed at the island. It is not Taiwan that has threatened to do violence to China — it is China that has threatened to incite a regional conflict if Taiwan turns its de facto independence into a de jure one. I know it is always difficult to write clearly on complex topics, but surely saying that China is “involved” is a particularly pernicious way to present this information to the reader. It is hard to resist pointing out once again that the foreign media writes as if only Chen would beef up his military, point missiles at China, and make violent threats, he would be considered a rational man of peace…..

Proper contextualization is all the more urgent because WaPo did have a paragraph from Philip Pan, the Beijing correspondent, from Wen of China:

[Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao referred to Chen's council move during a news conference Tuesday at the end of the national parliament session, correspondent Philip P. Pan reported from Beijing. "His moves are extremely dangerous and deceptive. We need to stay alert to the fact they are now intensifying their secessionist activities," Wen said. "We are closely following developments, and we are fully prepared for all the eventualities. . . . We will by no means allow Taiwan to be separated from the motherland."]

Observe that WaPo simply let this paragraph slide by. There is no loaded language such as the word “relentless” to describe China’s urgent need to murder Taiwanese lest they establish a democracy, and there is no remark from WaPo to the effect that China has 800 missiles pointed at Taiwan and has threatened to annex the island by force if necessary. It simply repeats what Premier Wen says, offering neither judgment nor information to help the reader understand the context of the remarks.

At least they let Chen make this much-needed point:

Chen expressed dismay that other nations would criticize Taiwan for taking steps to stay out from under Chinese domination. China, with its 1.3 billion people and rising economic power, is like a raging elephant, he said, while Taiwan, with a population of 23 million, is like a little rabbit trying to avoid being crushed.

One thing the interview shows is that the DPP cannot treat constitutional change as a purely local issue, but is something that it must sell to the world. The first thing the DPP needs to do is bring in US and European Taiwan experts, along with members of the US Congressional Taiwan caucus, and brief them on the reasons why Taiwan’s screwed up constitution, which was meant to serve as the exoskeleton of a one-party state, and cannot function as the guiding document for a modern nation, needs a radical makeover. The DPP needs to start selling this idea abroad now, because it will take some time to be absorbed overseas, and it needs to constantly re-sell the message, all the time, during the whole period of discussions. The KMT has long mastered the art of controlling the way foreigners think about Taiwan. It is time the DPP too began to think locally and act globally.