I have seen many comments in recent days by people criticizing the opposition — more specifically the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) — for “tarnishing” Taiwan’s image, or “disgracing” the nation with the demonstrations and occasional violence that surrounded the visit to Taiwan last week by Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林). Even here in Taiwan, the anger directed at the opposition has at times reached vitriolic levels, while others have claimed that the DPP has been discredited, dealt a final blow after the initial double hit of electoral defeats earlier this year and accusations of corruption leveled at the family of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and other former DPP government officials.
While it is indeed unfortunate that things had to turn violent — and again, it should be emphasized that those incidents were isolated and came after police had forcefully prevented peaceful demonstrators from displaying so much as the Taiwanese flag — the accusations are, in my view, unfair. Unfair, because they miss the context and put the cart before the horse. They see the violence as calculated and planned well ahead of Chen’s visit, rather than as a reaction to fear, to overwhelming police presence, to the enactment of outdated laws that have no place in a democracy, to the lack of transparency that characterized the negotiations between Chen and his Taiwanese counterparts, and to repeated humiliations as symbols of nationhood, flags, banners, even music, were erased, with force if necessary.
Detractors of those who took to the street last week also fail to look at things in a larger context. On Nov. 2, the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama said in Tokyo that the drive for greater autonomy for Tibet had failed:
My trust in the Chinese government has become thinner, thinner, thinner. Suppression [in Tibet] is increasing and I cannot pretend that everything is OK ... I have to accept failure. Meantime among Tibetans in recent years, our approach failed to bring positive change inside Tibet, so criticism has also increased.
Years of peaceful resistance, of negotiation, had therefore failed to bring any positive results for Tibet, and the main proponent of non-violent action was publicly saying that he had lost all hope. Such news, one day ahead of Chen’s arrival in Taiwan, cannot have gone unnoticed by Taiwanese who are skeptical of the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration’s peace initiative with Beijing, especially when we take into consideration the fact that in Beijing’s eyes, the main prize is not Tibet, but Taiwan, upon which hinges the credibility of the Chinese Community Party in the eyes of the Chinese. Aware of all this, seeing that decades of peaceful resistance had ended in abject failure, Taiwanese who fear for the future of their nation had every right to voice their opposition to the negotiations and to flaunt their political colors, flags and music. Only when police deprived them of that right in the presence of an overbearing opponent, only when their own government told them that they should hide who they were to please an emissary from Beijing, did some turn to violence. But what choice did they have? Would the world think any better of Taiwanese if they simply capitulated?
Sad though it is that Taiwanese civilians, police officers and reporters ended up getting injured in the clashes, the events last week tell the world that Taiwanese will not go gently into the night, that they are willing to resist anything they see as threatening the foundations laid in lives and suffering and blood by their forefathers — yet another context that critics of the demonstrators have failed to take into account. The wounds of the past are still there, many of those who suffered them are still with us, and they should never be forgotten. In fact, what transpired last week could result in a newfound interest, by younger generations of Taiwanese, in their own history, in what it was like to live under Martial Law, what it meant to live in fear during the White Terror, and who paid with their lives on 228.
There are limits to peaceful resistance and a point where its continuance crosses a line and enters the realm of capitulation. Gandhi, often cited as the perfect example of successful non-violent resistance, was successful because the enemy, in this case Great Britain, was a democracy, and perhaps more importantly, is was a waning power (his involvement in the Indian movement began in 1916, when the British Empire was already in decline, and ended in 1945, by which time the very idea of empire had been discredited). In cases where, unlike the British Empire, the opponent is not a democracy, where its power is not in decline and where the motivation to use force against the weaker opponent exists, peaceful resistance, though a useful tool, will not work on its own. Such a situation obtains in the Taiwan Strait today.
This is what I had in mind when I wrote about the need for angrier Taiwanese youth. Not radicals or extremists, but young people, students, soldiers, who will not accept oppression. True, every violent demonstration counts in its midst some who are there for no reason other than to create trouble, and there might have been some such people last week. But the great majority — those who demonstrated peacefully as well as those who clashed with the authorities — where there for a reason, and their anger was nothing to be ashamed of.