Lowy Institute

The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies and the largest concentration of mobile and social media users. An escalation in online activism, changing cyber dynamics, developments in digital diplomacy and the exploitation of big data are shaping the region's engagement with the world.

  • India's Supreme Court has struck down a law that made it illegal to spread 'offensive messages' on electronic devices. The presiding judge said the law, which had resulted in arrests over Facebook posts, had a 'chilling' effect on free speech.
  • University of Toronto's Citizen Lab has found that hundreds of members of the Tibetan community are being targeted by email-based malware attacks that are using the anniversary of the 10 March 1959 Tibetan Uprising as a disguise to infect individuals and organisations.
  • A fantastic report on Vietnam's social media landscape highlights internet censorship and outlines how social media is challenging the country's state-controlled broadcast and print media.
  • Indonesian neuroscientists have a developed a mobile app to help reduce the risk of accidents by using a brainwave sensor device to evaluate driver performance. The app pulls together vehicle data and real-time environmental data (traffic, weather), which is then meshed with information collected from the driver (stress levels, alertness) to make a call on whether you should drive.
  • Japan is reaping the benefits of an Asian-driven demand for robots (Taiwanese company Foxconn uses 20 million robots in its production of the iPhone 6 alone). India wants in, and is eyeing off opportunities for its tech industry (particularly programmers) to better collaborate with Japanese manufacturers.
  • And while Japan regularly capitalises on its robotics expertise via well rehearsed 'robot diplomacy', it's unlikely Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel will be buying a personal robot anytime soon:

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  • How Indonesian President Jokowi intends to make fast and accessible broadband internet his legacy.
  • Vanuatu's popular Facebook groups are busy as residents share information and coordinate responses to Cyclone Pam. At the request of the Red Cross, the Humanitarian Open Street Map Team is using crowdsourcing to map Vanuatu's pre and post disaster imagery. A Ushahidi map has also been created to log and fulfill ICT equipment needs.
  • Chinese micro blogging site Weibo is censoring discussion about five women's rights activists who remain confined without charge after they were detained on International Women's Day (8 March) for planning a small protest against sexual harassment.
  • This article claims Bangladesh may have the technology and expertise to deal with cyber terrorism but it lacks political will, leadership and coordination, which is hampering law enforcement efforts to tackle the growing problem.
  • The cyber security risks faced by Taiwan — allegedly the most hacked place on earth — as it adapts to the 'Internet of Everything'. (And what is the Internet of Everything?)
  • The Singapore Navy is crowdsourcing names for eight new warships. The PR campaign-style competition, which runs until 29 March, is looking for 'strong' names; there are cash prizes for the winners.

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The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies and the largest concentration of mobile and social media users. An escalation in online activism, changing cyber dynamics, developments in digital diplomacy and the exploitation of big data are shaping the region's engagement with the world.

  • Myanmar’s mobile subscriptions grew 87% last year (until September), pushing penetration to 20% of the population. This blog post discusses what such rapid mobile adoption may mean for the country and this article outlines what companies are doing to increase digital literacy and mobile access for women.
  • Even though it is banned in China, Twitter is opening an office in Hong Kong to help Chinese companies market their products overseas. Many Chinese brands are turning to Western social media channels to build their global image, including the state-owned Xinhua news agency which has re-branded itself ‘New China’ across Facebook, Twitter and Youtube.
  • I look at internet citizenry in Asia in this Interpreter post and, specifically, why it is important to think about the powerful online reactions to recent viral documentaries in China (Under the Dome) and India (India’s Daughter).
  • This short report from the ANU’s Bell School analyses Papua New Guinea’s mobile and ICT market. With a focus on the dominance of Irish telecommunications company Digicel, the author calls for more effective regulation to safeguard against potential market abuse.
  • How USBs and camera memory cards are being used to smuggle data into North Korea, including South Korean movies, American TV series (Scandal is the current favourite) and Wikipedia-like information summaries.
  • A great editorial from the New York Times on what tech companies are doing to make the internet available to more people (less than half the world’s population are online) but why bridging the digital divide is not progressing fast enough (thanks Brendan). 
  • The attempts of China’s internet giants to depict International Woman’s Day with online doodles (as Google did) resulted in an online backlash in China for their sexist nature. This one was from Chinese search engine Baidu:

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Conflict has broken out across Asia. Militaries aren't involved and there are unlikely to be human casualties, but this conflict is already re-shaping our most important partners in Asia.

Last week, under very different circumstances, two documentaries went viral online and now the Chinese and Indian Governments are scrambling to contain public opinion and save face by mopping up the final traces of these films on the Internet.

Under the Dome, a Chinese TED-talk style documentary self-financed and produced by well-known investigative journalist Chai Jing, was launched 28 February via the website of the state-owned People's Daily. The fact that the documentary began its online life at the People's Daily implies some level of government buy-in. And on 1 March the Minister for Environmental Protection, Chen Jining, added to this perception when he said that Chai was to be admired for encouraging citizens to be concerned about the environment.

300 million-plus views later, however, we now know that this support was conditional.

About 72 hours after its online release the censors commenced 'cease and desist' efforts. Empowered by instructions from the News Bureau of the Central Propaganda Department (which explained in frank terms that Under the Dome had become too distracting in the lead up to China's annual Communist Party meetings), social media discussions were censored, website comment threads were disabled, news organisations stopped reporting the story and the documentary itself disappeared from China's major video sharing sites.

In contrast, India's Daughter, a documentary about the brutal 2012 gang rape and murder of medical student Jyoti Singh in New Delhi, has travelled the reverse path to censorship.

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A UK-India co-production, the BBC documentary was set to be shown on Indian TV station NDTV on 8 March, International Women's Day, but was banned before its release after police secured a last-minute court injunction. India's Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has couched the censorship in terms of women's public safety, arguing that excerpts of an interview with one of the convicted rapists 'appear to encourage and incite violence against women'. In protest, NDTV halted programming during the one-hour planned screening slot.

Globally, the documentary was screened in select countries and remained accessible across video-sharing sites including YouTube and Vimeo for most of last week. But on 9 March it largely disappeared from the internet when Google agreed to comply with the Indian Government's requests to block access to the film, and later the BBC's own requests, which cited copyright infringement.

In banning India's Daughter, the Indian Government set alight a monstrous debate that has grown to include topics ranging from gender inequality and education to poverty. Spoof videos about rape have gone viral, blog posts and social media discussions are multiplying and growing into a national debate. India's TV stations have taken up the topic of the film's ban with vigour, and emotional interviews with Jyoti's parents have been aired. India's politicians responded immediately to the public outcry and are falling over one another to argue for or against India's Daughter

In a rare display of symbiosis, a number of journalists in India have also leveraged the popularity of Under the Dome to re-ignite debate about India's poor air pollution. And without a hint of irony, China's Global Times published an opinion piece on the banning of India's Daughter, analysing India's 'imbalanced and inadequate social development' and encouraging its neighbour 'to face up its domestic headaches.'

This week-long cyber tug of war won't end soon for China or India because the internet can't actually be censored in the way some states would want.

To start with, China's and India's sizeable diasporas, both loosely estimated at approximately 40 million, are scattered across the world and are largely free to watch, discuss and share whatever content they can get their hands on. As are both countries' rapidly growing numbers of outbound tourists. 

While China has worked hard this year to fortify and expand its Great Firewall, netizens remain one step ahead of censors because they lead the discussion that the state then scrambles to suppress. China's internet users exist within a constantly shifting and shrinking framework set by the state, but the Chinese Government can't always predict where the next flare-up will occur, giving netizens some room to manoeuvre. The Chinese Government also knows it must ensure that using the internet remains attractive to its citizens, and that includes leaving space for people to congregate and discuss issues online.

If China's version of the internet starts losing mass appeal, then 620 million frustrated people will be looking for other ways to channel their opinion. And this is the Communist Party's worst nightmare.

Under the Dome's viral popularity has already had an impact. The price of solar stocks surged 32%, with analysts directly attributing the jump to Jing's documentary. Small anti-smog protests have broken out in Shaanxi province. A 24-hour environmental complaints hotline that Jing spruiks in her documentary has reported a 610% surge in calls.

On 6 March – a week after the film's release – President Xi Jinping promised that polluters would be punished, no exceptions, 'with an iron hand.'

Historically, politics has been the domain of the elite, with only a chosen few given access to decision-making. Information flows were also predominantly unidirectional and trapped within rigid hierarchies. But the internet has decimated the geographical and economic nature of how power is distributed and decisions were made. Under the Dome and India's Daughter are both incredibly compelling documentaries, but the online reaction they have stimulated is even more powerful. And this is a timely reminder for Australia that the internet's ability to provide the world's 3 billion web users with unprecedented access to information is a global game changer.

Australia should be seeking to understand and influence the internet's ability to unite and mobilise populations, because this internet citizenry is accelerating political and social change in Asia.

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The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies and the largest concentration of mobile and social media users. An escalation in online activism, changing cyber dynamics, developments in digital diplomacy and the exploitation of big data are shaping the region's engagement with the world.

  • A new report investigating the gender disparities in mobile phone ownership in developing countries has found the largest gaps are in Southeast Asia, where women are 38% less likely to own a mobile phone than men.
  • President Obama has criticised China's plans for new restrictions on US tech companies, urging Beijing to change the policy if it wants to do business (h/t @BrendanTN_). China has dismissed the criticism and called for the US to 'treat this in a calm, objective and correct manner'.
  • The US is also putting up a fight in Indonesia against new rules requiring smartphone and tablet companies to produce 40% of their content locally from 1 January 2017. The US believes the 'made in Indonesia' rule will hamper the efforts of its tech companies, such as Apple, to capitalise on Indonesia's growing smartphone market.
  • Few 'mobile for development' programs reach Cambodia's poorest because they are unavailable in Khmer and aren't accessible to illiterate users. Local NGOs and the Government are getting around this with a free open-source platform that uses voice rather than text.
  • This blog post questions the hype around the FireChat mobile messenger app. Operable without phone reception or an internet connection, FireChat generated headlines last year during Hong Kong's 'Umbrella Revolution' (and before that during Taiwan's 'Sunflower Movement').
  • Why did a documentary about China's air pollution go viral in China this week? 'Under the Dome', self-financed by a former state TV journalist, has generated tens of thousands of comments on WeChat and been viewed more than 200 million times. It is now being censored but it is available here with English subtitles:

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The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technology and the largest concentration of mobile and social media users. An escalation in online activism, changing cyber dynamics, developments in digital diplomacy and the exploitation of big data are shaping the region's engagement with the world.

  • China has dropped some of the world's largest tech companies, including Apple and Cisco, from its approved state purchases list in a move that has been linked to both Western cyber surveillance and domestic protectionism.
  • Fergus Hanson has proposed that the Government instigate a regional ICT response to discredit Islamic State messages in Southeast Asia and Australia. One of his recommendations — an interdisciplinary lab bringing together technologists, communications experts, tech firms and public servants — might be realised via the Government's newly announced body intended to monitor social media and disrupt terrorist propaganda.
  • Vietnam's regulatory approach to the internet is increasingly out of step with its booming technology sector.
  • The spokesperson for Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang party has used Foreign Policy magazine to urge his own party to turn its fortunes around by changing the way it uses the internet, shifting from thinking about it as simply a communications tool to using it to mobilise support and encourage public participation in policy development.
  • Can Tibetans trust Facebook? Prominent Tibetan author Tsering Woeser doesn't think so.
  • Based on 2013's Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines, findings have been published showing how state-of-the-art social media processing methods can be used to assist humanitarian organisations during a crisis. More than 2 million tweets were analysed and geo-located as a part of the project.
  • After the People's Liberation Army announced strict guidelines for body weight, including that meeting the guidelines will be a promotion consideration, Chinese netizens turned on Mao Xinyu, the often-mocked and overweight grandson of Mao Zedong, who in 2010 become the youngest Major General in the PLA.
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The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies, the largest concentration of social media and mobile users, and some of the world's most innovative tech companies.

  • The world's largest annual human migration is in progress and search engine Baidu has used big data to map it. Baidu's map, which updates hourly, uses location-based data pulled from smartphone users to geo-locate the Chinese New Year (CNY) travel routes of its 350 million active users.
  • Improved internet access in China is changing traditions. Thousands of pre-cooked CNY eve dinners were sold online and traditional lanterns have been a hit seller for e-commerce companies. CNY gift-giving has been transformed by the cashless 'virtual red envelope', sparking fierce competition between rival internet companies and social media networks.
  • Did the Chinese Government just censor a semiofficial anthem performed by its own cyber censorship agency at a CNY event boasting about its influence over the internet?
  • A Singaporean company has developed the perfect mobile app to help people returning home for CNY answer pesky questions from relatives (Q: why are you still single?), providing users with a range of pre-arranged answers (A: relationships are expensive!).
  • The number of Chinese women renting fake boyfriends online to take home for CNY holidays has increased, as has the price, from US$128 to US$160 per day.
  • Big data is being harnessed to highlight CNY consumption habits in China. Backed by 12 years of historical data, Dianping, a review and booking platform that relies on crowdsourcing opinions from its 190 million active users, has mapped out the most popular activities and places to eat in real-time, province by province.
  • You judge who comes out on top in the CNY digital diplomacy stakes. President Obama, Prince William, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak or this humorous video from the US consulate in Hong Kong.
  • A short film encouraging parents to welcome LGBT children home this CNY has gone viral in China, racking up 100 million views:

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The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies, the largest concentration of social media and mobile users, and some of the world's most innovative tech companies. The rise of mobile messenger apps, use of big data and online activism are shaping the region's engagement with the world.

  • A spat involving Taiwan, high school students and a Harvard-based model UN conference has set the Chinese web alight.
  • Popular Facebook groups in PNG and West Papua are teeming with discussion about Prime Minister O'Neill's recent public acknowledgement of West Papuan oppression (and the PNG Foreign Minister's subsequent back-peddle).
  • Bad open source intelligence claiming China has deployed nuclear-armed missiles on its border with North Korea, targeted at Japan, has been debunked by the Arms Control Wonk blog, using specialist open source techniques.
  • Millions of Facebook users in Myanmar, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand (and Africa) don't know they're on the internet, creating data anomalies on global internet uptake.
  • Bouncing off North Korea's cyber ambitions, Alan Dupont argues cutting-edge cyber skills are now a key measure of national power and economic prosperity (the US obviously thinks so).
  • Everything you wanted to know about China's social media landscape in 2015. The big news: while social media use continues to grow rapidly (WeChat remains the most popular), users are showing increasing concern for how it impacts their lives.
  • Unbeknown to most, the world's largest gay mobile dating app is Chinese. Called 'Blued', the app has international expansion in its sights, this week launching in its first overseas market, the Netherlands.
  • India, despite having one of the smallest diplomatic corps per capita in the world (only 930 diplomats representing India's1.25 billion people), continues to invest heavily in digital diplomacy. Watch how India's Ministry of External Affairs is using ICT platforms to expand its presence in China (below) and Egypt.

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The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies, the largest concentration of social media and mobile users, and some of the world's most innovative tech companies. The rise of mobile messenger apps, use of big data and online activism are shaping the region's engagement with the world.

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The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies, the largest concentration of social media and mobile users, and some of the world's most innovative tech companies. The rise of mobile messenger apps, use of big data and online activism are shaping the region's engagement with the world.

  • As Taiwan struggles with its role as the 'testing ground' for Chinese cyber attacks (some have labeled it as one of, if not the most, hacked place on earth) the Government is ramping up its focus on cyber defence amid calls for greater cyber security cooperation between the US, Japan and Taiwan.
  • It is perhaps awkwardly fitting that as Prime Minister Abbott described social media as 'electronic graffiti', India's soft power savvy leader was tweeting his best wishes to Australians on Australia Day (to his 9.7 million followers).
  • Recent comments by Vietnam's Prime Minister suggest the country may ease up on internet censorship. But commentators caution against optimism, and it's worth noting that there are 27 bloggers in Vietnam's prisons.
  • In a decision apparently sparked by the Snowden revelations, China's cyber regulator has announced security screenings of foreign-produced ICT products will begin this year. The new rules, which are said to include demands for source code and back-doors into hardware, have heightened concerns foreign companies are being forced out of the world's most populous tech market.
  • A Bangladeshi mobile app, 'Doctor in a Tab', which connects rural residents with doctors, has won a major USAID award. The app, which is planning an expansion into Myanmar, is worthy of the attention of DFAT's new (rather mysterious) 'innovation hub'.
  • As the skirmish intensifies between e-commerce giant Alibaba and the Chinese Government over the sale of counterfeit goods (public support is said to be with the company), it's worth taking a look at recent profiles of both Alibaba and its less well-known competitor JD.com
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There are many problems with Prime Minister Abbott's now twice-stated remark that 'Social media is kind of like electronic graffiti'. Here are just three.

First, his views hit awfully close to home for the majority of Australians, because it turns out we are graffiti artists and prolific ones at that. About 60% of Australians have a social media account, ranking us sixth in the world for accounts per capita. And this addiction to online connections has been brewing for years. In 2010 we spent just seven hours a month browsing social media. Fast forward five years and an astonishing two hours every day is consumed by its use. The total number of active accounts grew by 6% in 2014 and we are now home to 13.6 million Facebook accounts, 4 million Instagram users and 2.8 million Twitter accounts. We also have a particular affection for YouTube videos, blogs and the mobile dating app Tinder.

But it is not just Australians who are social media animals and this leads to the second problem with the Prime Minister's statement. There are more than 2 billion social media users scattered across the world. The bulk, more than 1 billion, reside in our neighbourhood, the Asia Pacific. Our neighbours in the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Singapore spend more time each day on social media than we do. Almost half of China's population has a social media account, 15% of the world's tweets come from Indonesia, and in 2014 India experienced a 31% hike in total social media accounts.

Unsurprisingly, in the Pacific Islands, the numbers aren't as impressive, but social media has been used to hold governments and businesses accountable for corruption and poor service delivery. Facebook discussion groups, particularly in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, have played vital roles in crowdsourcing policy ideas, shedding light on misused public funds and alerting law enforcement to domestic violence and other crimes.

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Third, governments around the world take social media seriously and are increasingly inventive in its use as a tool of communication and influence, They also use it to predict trends. At a very basic level, social media is widely used to measure changes in public opinion and to gauge sentiment when new policies are announced. The Australian Government has in fact funded and built its very own software tool to do just that. And government departments use it to communicate with and engage the public (a list of the federal government's vast collection of social media accounts can be found here).

Even in China, where internet censorship is routine (the Chinese Government is thought to employ some 2 million people to monitor Chinese social media), social media is contributing to a new responsiveness from local governments. Online activists and grassroots movements in China such as 'Not In My Backyard' have used social media to force action on a range of environmental issues..

The US Government, via various intelligence research arms, invests heavily in programs that mine social media to predict social and political events, including the spread of disease. More recently, the US Government revealed it was social media that provided the crucial link to identify those responsible for downing Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in the Ukraine.

The Indian Government has committed to expanding its social media presence and responsiveness, particularly in the area of digital diplomacy. The way India and the US used social media (and other online tools) before and during President Obama's recent visit provides the Australian Government with some excellent lessons on how it can expand its digital diplomacy capabilities (for example, see #AskObamaModi)

The Prime Minister's antiquated remarks about #electronicgraffiti could worryingly be read to reflect a lack of understanding of both the role of social media and how widely used it is around the world, including by his own government. Social media is no longer just the purview of angsty teenagers and online gamers. It is used globally to foster development and to help shape social and political change.

26 January isn't just Australia Day, it is also India's Republic Day (an event President Obama made the centerpiece of his visit this week). In an Australia where all that is old is new again, it is perhaps awkwardly fitting that, while our Prime Minister described social media as 'graffiti that happens to be put forward by the means of IT' live on ABC news, India's soft power savvy Prime Minister was tweeting his best wishes to Australians on Australia Day (to his 9.7 million followers). It is disappointing, but not surprising, that our Prime Minister's Twitter account did not return the favour.

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The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies, the largest concentration of social media and mobile users, and some of the world's most innovative tech companies. The rise of mobile messenger apps, use of big data and online activism are shaping the region's engagement with the world.

  • China's cyber watchdog has revealed one billion posts were deleted in 2014 as part of an 'Internet cleanup operation.' In addition, 20 million online forums, blogs and social media accounts and over 2000 websites were closed. Was yours one of them? Check here.
  • Indonesia's young and tech-savvy population is attracting new investment. Before you invest here are ten things you need to know, from the difficulties for foreign companies to the importance of social media (15% of the world's tweets come from Indonesia).
  • Why 2015 will be the year of India's next technology revolution. Mobile health applications, electronic commerce and app-based automation of public services are pinpointed by the Washington Post as areas to watch.
  • Internet-based civil society groups are mentioned in this Devpolicy blog post as one of the few areas of hope for Solomon Islands politics. The author is likely referring to Forum Solomon Islands International, which has grown from a Facebook discussion group to a registered NGO that uses ICT tools to crowd-source policy ideas from its members to influence political outcomes.
  • Chinese consumer electronics company Xiaomi is shaking up the consumer electronics and smartphone market with plans to expand to Southeast Asia, Russia and Brazil. Founder Lei Jun, Forbes Asia's Businessperson of the Year in 2014, recently said: 'I've said on many different occasions that if I had been called the "Steve Jobs of China" as a 20- year-old, I would have been very honoured...As a 40-year-old, however, I don't want to be considered second to anyone.'
  • China is considering a range of measures to rein in poorly behaved Chinese travelers, including sending text messages to tourists as they arrive at their destination reminding them to observe good manners. The move comes shortly after CCTV pulled its Be a Good Panda, be a Good Tourist ad filmed in Sydney after a backlash on Chinese social media.

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Taiwan's pro-China political party, the Kuomintang (KMT), was royally walloped in last weekend's 'nine-in-one' nationwide local elections, losing 60% of their seats. As I wrote previously, these elections are important because they are widely seen to serve as a barometer for the 2016 presidential election. The upcoming election of Taiwan's new president will have regional implications for Asia, particularly for the tangled web of North Asian political relations and geostrategic tensions. 

The newly elected Mayor of Taipei Dr Ko Wen-je on election night, 29 November 2014

29 November marked the KMT's largest defeat in recent electoral history.

They won only six of the 22 constituencies in the mayoral and commissioner elections (the KMT previously held 15 of these 22 positions), a worse outcome than in 1997 when it only managed to secure 8 of 23 seats. The less Beijing-friendly Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won 13 seats, taking back swathes of Taiwan and doubling its control. Independents nabbed the remaining three (the new electoral map on the right, previous on the left). For seat-by-seat analysis, including the DPP's shock win in Taoyuan, head to the Thinking Taiwan website or one of these blogs.

As polling predicted, the position of Taipei mayor was captured by independent candidate Dr Ko Wen-je, whose election broke the KMT's 16-year stranglehold on the island's capital. A trauma surgeon by background, Ko's victory speech focused on the need for a more open government, greater public participation and an assurance that he would improve the impartiality of the public service. Since Taiwan introduced direct presidential elections in 1996, every single president has first been mayor of Taipei, so the rise or fall of Dr Ko Wen-je will be watched closely, not just in Taiwan, but throughout the region.

Too many in the international media have insisted that these elections were a vote on China and were deeply impacted by the situation in Hong Kong. Both of these assertions are overblown.

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Voters abandoned the KMT, first and foremost, because of a string of domestic issues. Two factors that would have been in voter's minds likely included their aversion to their president (polling from last weekend shows Ma's approval rate has dropped to 9.7%) and punishing the KMT for a recycled cooking oil scandal which has received blanket media coverage in Taiwan this year. Most Taiwanese are more concerned with apartment affordability, job security and what kind of future their children will have (as was the focus of Ko's campaign) than the protests in Hong Kong or the latest development in Taiwan-China relations. 

But while local issues dominated election discourse, you certainly can't discount international influences. In both Hong Kong and Taiwan, these influences run parallel, and often weave into, domestic discourse. Before voting in the 'nine-in-one' election on 29 November, each voter (other than hardline pan-blue or pan-Green supporters) would have contemplated and prioritised their own patchwork of issues. Once sewn together, Taiwanese voters chose the political party or independent that best represented their views. In Australia we are used to hearing 'there are no votes in foreign policy', but in Taiwan, there are plenty of votes in foreign policy. And by foreign policy, we mean China. 

These electoral outcomes are a major setback for China-Taiwan relations and one can almost guarantee the recent momentum in cross-Strait relations will stumble.

President Ma made improving relations with China a priority. He consistently focused on promoting cross-Strait relations under the principle of 'no unification, no independence and no use of force'. But the KMT's recent trouncing makes it difficult for Ma to move forward on what can now be confirmed as a deeply unpopular policy. An editorial in the Taipei Times sums the issue up well: many Taiwanese have become suspicious of — if not hostile to — China because of widespread concerns that the rewards of liberalised cross-Strait trade are reaped only by the business elite and that increased economic reliance would only undermine Taiwan's democracy and society. This view is particularly prevalent among young people. 

It is safe to say the KMT's 2016 presidential prospects look dim, and the party is imploding. On 2 December President Ma announced he was resigning as KMT Chairman (he did so on 3 December, though he remains president). KMT Premier Jiang Yi-huah and Secretary-General Tseng Yung-chuan had already pipped Ma to the post, resigning immediately following the elections. The KMT's own post-mortem, a blameless list outlining the reasons they believe they lost the election (h/t Letters from Taiwan blog), doesn't instil confidence that KMT will learn from its mistakes and put up a fight in the 2016 presidential elections.

The seriousness of the KMT's predicament was best conveyed by Li-Keng Kuei-fong, a member of KMT's Central Committee: 'This is the worst crisis for the KMT since we fled to Taiwan.'

Photo courtesy of Reuters/Pichi Chuang.

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The view from Taipei

Tomorrow in Taiwan a record 11,130 seats will be contested in nationwide local elections, with 80% of Taiwan's population of 23 million heading to the polls. Voting will take place across nine categories of elected office in what is known as the 'nine-in-one' election. Six municipal mayors (including Taipei), six chiefs of indigenous districts, 532 county councillors and 7851 chiefs of village are just some of the positions up for grabs.

Local election campaigning in Taipei, 25 November 2014.

While these elections haven't stirred much interest in the Australian media, they are being closely watched in North Asia and the wider region as they will serve as a barometer for the 2016 presidential election.

Taiwan's next president (the incumbent, Ma Ying-jeou, has reached his term limit) will have to navigate a narrow course through treacherous waters. They will inherit Taiwan's struggle to remain on the international map, an increasingly toothless Asian tiger economy and protracted disputes in the South China Sea. They will, of course, also have to contend with the precipitous balance of maintaining a close economic relationship with China while continuing to assert the island's independence.

Then there are the events in Hong Kong, which many argue have angered Taiwanese and further fueled distrust of China. An emerging solidarity between Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement and Taiwan's Sunflower Movement has seen unity demonstrations in Taipei and advice shared on rally organisation and crowd mobilisation. A large crowd of yellow umbrellas was displayed at a recent East Asia Cup qualifier in Taipei.

While Taiwan's gaze is almost permanently fixed on China, the reverse is also often true. This piece in Foreign Policy explains why China is watching the elections (and also offering 'election discount' flights for Taiwanese living in China to return home to vote, in the hope that they will back candidates that oppose Taiwanese independence). Those seeking more English-language analysis of Saturday's elections should head to The Economist, Thinking Taiwan blog, The Diplomat, The Conversation and the UK's China Policy Institute blog.

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Tomorrow, mobile phones will be banned from polling booths, with fines ranging from A$1,000 to A$11,000. But this simple regulation will be almost impossible to enforce. Taiwan's mobile-addicted population spends an average of three hours online a day via smartphones – more than anywhere else in the world. It is hard to imagine a situation where technology-dependent Taiwanese youth (note: the voting age is 20) would sign off from mobile chat app LINE (75% of the Taiwanese population are users), let alone leave their phones behind.

The same mobile phone addiction has given rise to a vigorous brand of digital democracy in Taiwan. Some commentators believe it will play a decisive role in the outcome of the Taipei mayoral election, arguably the most important of tomorrow's electoral skirmishes. The position wields enormous influence and is a well-trodden path to the presidency. President Ma — also Chairman of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) – was mayor of Taipei from 1998 to 2006. So far it has has been a fiercely fought competition between the relatively unknown Dr Ko Wen-je, an independent and eminent surgeon supported by the Democratic Progressive Party, and the well known KMT candidate Sean Lien, whose family was recently voted the most dominant political family in Taiwan.

KMT, known as pro-business and pro-China, is allegedly the richest political party in the world with registered assets in excess of A$1 billion. And Taipei is traditionally a KMT stronghold, so it is the KMT's race to lose. But some of the most recent polling (election laws prohibit the release of poll results in the final ten days before voting) show Ko leading Lien by more than 10%. The contest has been both dramatic and bizarre, and policy positions have often been overshadowed by intense mud-slinging. There have been allegations of corruption and money laundering, organ trafficking, wiretapping and a Watergate-type scandal. 

Despite the significant financial and political resources he brings to the table, there are a number of reasons why KMT's Sean Lien is behind in the polls.

Seemingly at the heart of it is a failure to connect with voters beyond core KMT supporters. Widely described as a 'princeling', his father, former vice president and KMT Chairman Lien Chan, has been outspoken during the campaign. But Lien Chan, who earlier this year emerged as a key figure in Cross-Strait talks when he was welcomed to Beijing by President Xi Jinping, may have harmed rather than helped his son's prospects. At a rally to support his son earlier this month, Lien Chan fired off a string of criticisms at Ko, including: 'I absolutely cannot stand the thought of having someone whose grandfather changed his surname to a Japanese one during the Japanese colonial era as mayor of Taipei. He (Ko) calls himself a commoner and us the privileged few. What a bastard'.

The remarks, meant to provoke nationalist sentiment, had the opposite effect. On national television Ko's elderly parents were forced to defend and explain the honour of Ko's grandfather, who was a teacher during Japanese colonisation. Apologies followed, but for many Taiwanese, who also lived through Japanese colonisation, it was profoundly offensive. It may have been the final straw for some. 

The contest is perhaps most poignantly summarised by the release of recent campaign ads. Ko's ad, 'How long has it been since you last listened to your children?', plays on the insecurities of the average Taiwanese family. It addresses inequality, unemployment and job security, high property prices and the declining birth rate. A shot of Taiwan's most expensive apartment complex 'The Palace', of which Sean Lien is a resident, is a pointed reminder to voters of his privileged background (although he alleges he moved out in September 2014).

In stark contrast, Sean Lien targets young voters in his Step Up-inspired music video 'The Same World', directed by famous music producer Kuang Sheng. The ad implores youth to vote as they would in a breakdancing competition: by considering skill rather than family background, wealth or power. But it is hard to see how this dance-off video, peppered with luxury vehicles, scantily clad women and designer sunglasses, will do anything but remind voters how far removed their lives are from that of the Lien family.

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1 of 7 This post is part of a debate on What's the purpose of Australian foreign aid?

2012 will be remembered as a year of sluggish international policy debate. Ken Henry recently said he couldn't remember a time in the last 25 years when the quality of public policy debate had been as bad as it is right now. In my opinion, Australia's aid debate is no exception.

Australia's public discussion on our role as an aid donor is patchy at best. The debate is sustained by ANU's Stephen Howes (who runs the Development Policy Centre) and the Lowy Institute's Annmaree O'Keeffe, while Hugh White keeps things interesting. News Limited's Steve Lewis writes a quarterly article for the Daily Telegraph exposing perceived aid waste.

Australian NGO heads do a good job of keeping the focus on poverty and humanitarian aid by getting out in the media during times of disaster and famine, or when it looks as though the aid budget might be cut. But few stay regularly engaged in public debate about Australia's aid strategy and the future of the aid program.

For some NGO figures, this is likely a deliberate strategy. Budget discussions are tense in Canberra. Few supporters (and recipients) of the aid program will want to continuously remind the Australian public, and the Treasury, of the $5.2 billion annual aid budget. As the Government continues to cut spending to achieve its promised budget surplus, foreign aid is an increasingly obvious target.

Last week, Australia's development community got a serious funding injection which has the potential to shake up and wake up the lethargic aid debate. The Harold Mitchell Foundation gave a $2.5 million grant to the Development Policy Centre, a university think tank which undertakes aid and development analysis. This grant, which will be matched by ANU, will give the Centre breathing space and independence from the very institution whose policies it will need to critically analyse and inform – those of AusAID.

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The fact that this is such big news in Australia's small development community tells you a lot about the environment Australia's aid budget is operating in. Australia is not blessed with a collection of research institutes that provide Australia with informed analysis on international development issues, and hence inform and shape Australian aid policy. As a comparison, the UK aid agency DFID is surrounded by institutes which provide high quality research and engage in a dynamic public debate which helps inform the British public on the pros and cons of an international aid program.

Australia's weak aid debate is odd given the size and scope of Australia's aid program and considering the aid budget has more than doubled since 2006-07. Over this period, the Australian Government, civil society, and to a lesser extent the business community, have paid little attention to building Australia's capacity and knowledge on international development issues.

A frail and weak aid policy dialogue is bad news for those who support a sustainable and predictable aid program. A weak policy debate means there is one less obstacle to potentially diverting aid funds to other priorities. Sure, keeping a low profile and remaining disengaged from the public debate helps minimise the effort required to defend the aid program from criticism and keeps the Foreign Minister's office happy. But a weak aid debate also means that much of the policy and strategy surrounding Australia's aid program remains undiscussed, untested and misunderstood.

Too often in Australia, when the money stops the thinking starts. Earlier this year the Government slashed the defence budget by 10%. Subsequently, a vacuum of debate on defence policy has been filled with voices from both in and outside the ADF. A weak aid debate will prove detrimental to the sustainability of the Australian aid program. Does Australia have to wait until the aid program faces cuts before we can expect an informed and lively debate on Australia's role as an aid donor?

Photo by Flickr user sbluerock.

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