What can Taiwan learn from Ukraine? Interview with disinformation and civil defense expert Puma Shen

Puma Shen talking about his trip to Ukraine. Screenshot from DoubleThinkLab YouTube channel.

Can Taiwan really learn from Ukraine as it is facing growing military threats from China? Global Voices interviewed Puma Shen, a Taiwanese disinformation expert, civil defense trainer, and now Taiwanese parliament candidate, after his first visit to Ukraine in September 2023.

China is becoming more assertive in its words and actions about a possible military operation to invade Taiwan. Even though at the November APEC meeting, Chinese President Xi said his country has no plans for a military invasion of the island, not everyone in Taiwan trusts Beijing's words given that Xi has not ruled out using force to “reunite Taiwan with the motherland.” Thus, as Taiwan prepares for presidential and legislative elections in January 2024, the topic of Ukraine is mentioned in virtually all major political debates as a symbol of what could happen to Taiwan in case of a war initiated by Beijing.

For more, read Global Voices’ Special Coverage: Understanding the link between Ukraine and Taiwan

Puma Shen (as he is called in English, while his Chinese name is 沈伯洋 — Shen Boyang) is a lawyer by training, a criminology professor, and an outspoken voice against the danger of Chinese disinformation in Taiwan. He founded Kuma Academy, a training center for civil defense, and also serves as Chairperson at the Taipei-based DoubleThink Lab thinktank and vice-president of the Taiwan Human Rights Association. Most recently, it was announced he would run in the January 2024 legislative election for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). From August to September 2023, he visited Kyiv for the first time. This interview was conducted over email after long conversations in both Kyiv and Taipei.

Filip Noubel (FN):  This was your first visit to Ukraine. What surprised you the most, and in what ways? 

沈伯洋:  我覺得最驚訝的是他們的任性,雖然以前就透過各種報導知道烏克蘭的堅強,但不知道他們能夠做到什麼樣的地步。我覺得他們能夠一致對外是讓我最驚訝的,即使有許多內部的爭議,但是大家都知道現在最重要的事情是打下這場勝仗。另外我對於重建的速度也有感到非常的驚奇,一邊打仗一邊重建,而且預備再打很多年都沒有關係的心態,是最讓我驚訝的。

Puma Shen (PS): What surprised me the most is their willfulness. Although I had heard about Ukraine’s strength thanks to various reports before, I didn’t know how far they could go. The most unexpected thing is how  they can communicate with the outside world in one single voice. Even though there are many internal disputes, everyone knows that the most important thing now is to win this battle. In addition, I was also very surprised by the speed of reconstruction. This attitude of rebuilding while still fighting, and preparing to fight for many more years, surprised me the most.

In this video, starting from the 21st minute,  Puma Shen and DoubleThinkLab co-founder and CEO Wu Min-hsuan explain the situation in Taiwan to Ukraine audiences on Kyiv-based TV channel Priamyy:

FN: Where do you see the most realistic opportunities to strengthen Ukraine-Taiwan relations in the coming months?

沈伯洋: 兩個國家其實並沒有很強的互相理解,一方面是因為中國檔在中間,一方面當然也是因為距離。現在很多零件在烏克蘭是嚴重不足的,因此台灣應該對這個理解並且加以提供。另外,對烏克蘭不利的假消息是在全世界做散佈的,但烏克蘭未必有精力在全世界闢謠,這也是台灣能夠幫忙的部分。當然,我覺得最重要的是,中國已經在這個戰場學到了不少經驗,如果台灣一直沒有好好的在這個戰場中學習的話,那麼我們跟中國之間的差距會越來越大。

PS: In fact, the two countries do not have a strong understanding of each other. First, this is because of China being in the middle, and second, this is also due, of course, to the distance. Many components for different equipments are currently lacking in Ukraine, so Taiwan should understand this, and provide them. Besides, fake news that are unfavorable to Ukraine are spreading around the world, but Ukraine may not have the energy to refute global rumors — this is where Taiwan can help. Of course, I think the most important thing is that China has gained a lot of experience on this battlefield. If Taiwan does not learn from this battlefield, the gap between us and China will become even wider. 

In this video of a discussion with English subtitles, Puma Shen shares more views about his trip and learning experience in Ukraine:

FN: You run the Kuma Academy to train Taiwanese citizens in civil defense skills. Do you see any lessons from Ukraine your group might consider and adapt to the Taiwanese context? 

沈伯洋: 我覺得很重要的一點是,烏克蘭整體的意志是在2014年之後建立,但台灣一直以來沒有這樣的事件,雖然2014年爆發了太陽花運動,但是卻被一些政治人物帶到完全錯誤的方向,這個會導致我們在建立共同體的困難.因為烏克蘭從2014年的改革是從國防,心防,一直到民防,逐步的建立,台灣國防的改革我們也還在等待,心防因為政治的關係停在那裡,而我們只能針對民防的部分做加強,這絕對是不夠的。這也是因此,我們除了一般技術上的訓練,更多的時候是需要讓大家了解我們的敵人,以及了解敵人的手法,這樣才能夠逐步把心防建立起來,增強我們自己的國族意識。

PS: I think a key element here is that the overall political will of Ukraine was established after 2014 [Russia's first invasion]. But we never had such a moment in Taiwan. Although the Sunflower Movement [Taiwan's student protest movement against an economic and political rapprochement with China] broke out in 2014, it was eventually misled in a completely wrong direction by certain politicians.

This creates difficulties in building common ground. Ukraine’s 2014 reform started with changes in defense, psychological defense, up to civil defense, but in Taiwan, we are still waiting for the reform of national defense, something that has been suspended due to political issues. Thus we can only strengthen our civil defense, which is definitely not enough. This is why, in addition to general technical training, we must help everyone understand who our enemies are and what their methods are, so that we can gradually build up mental defense, and enhance our own national awareness.

FN: Clearly, drones play a major and growing role in current open and latent conflicts. Is there a way for Taiwan to provide support to Ukraine in this regard? 

沈伯洋: 無人機的部分,當然烏克蘭有辦法把中國的無人機的軟體替換掉,但是不是只有軟體的問題,如果自己在組裝無人機的時候,需要各式各樣的零件,而這些零件中國越來越不肯提供。除了這個之外,無人機的系統,要怎麼回報情報,要怎麼樣把不同的資料形式整合在一起,甚至用A I判斷的方式知道最重要的情報,這些系統的建立也花了烏克蘭不曉得時間,台灣在這個方面除了幫忙之外,更多的時候也要思考,我們到底是怎麼去建立指揮系統的,在軍民合作的狀況之下,指揮系統應該怎麼運作是很重要的。如果這個部分沒有想清楚的話,貿然的就只是跟大家講無人機很重要,並不是一個好的做法

PS: Regarding drones, Ukraine can of course replace the software of Chinese drones, but it is not just a matter of software. If you assemble the drone yourself, you need a variety of components, and China is increasingly reluctant to provide those. Besides, how does the UAV system report intelligence, integrate different data forms, and even use AI judgment to know the most important intelligence? It took Ukraine a lot of time to establish these systems. So in addition to helping in this regard, Taiwan also needs to think more about how to establish a command system. In the context of military-civilian cooperation, how does a command system operate — that is very important. If this part is not thought through clearly, it is not a very good idea to simply tell everyone that drones are important.

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