November 6 ‘Yellow Ribbon Siege’
It is difficult to determine how many people defied the scalding sun and showed up near Taipei Guest House on Thursday afternoon to protest the presence of Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林). But caught in its churning midst, it felt like it was at least in the tens of thousands. (In an ostensible attempt to thwart demonstrators, a last-minute decision was made to move the meeting between Chen and President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) from 4:30pm to 11am.)
As expected, demonstrators young and old had brought highly creative banners, placards, flags and posters, whose contents ranged from “Taiwan is my country” to “Made in Taiwan” to various depictions of Chen, Ma, Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), to the UN, Tibet and US flags, to Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Taiwan Solidarity Union emblems and slogans. Various groups, Aboriginals and others, were also present. Numerous vehicles, with the ubiquitous flags and blaring horns, took part in the seemingly endless line of demonstrators that meandered the streets, energizing them with slogans and the occasional song.
Once again, two out of three demonstrators were of a fairly advanced age, not unsurprising, given that this was a weekday. Very few foreigners showed up, however. In my four hours or so on scene, I only saw four. On the way to the “siege” meeting point at the Taipei Guest House, a lone vendor, selling smoked sausages at a small stand, was making brisk business. Most 7-Eleven convenience stores along the way were making a killing selling water and bottled drinks.
Overall, the whole demonstration was peaceful, with protesters limiting themselves to throwing water bottles and roses at police officers behind the barbed wire barricades. Most had heeded DPP Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) call and brought horns, whistles, drums and other items with which to create noise. Gas canister horns were distributed for free and, when used in unison, created a deafening wail from which this writer’s ears have yet to fully recover.
On at least 50 occasions I was approached by demonstrators who either asked me where I was from, thanked me for caring for their country and helping out, tapped me on the shoulder, gave me the “thumbs up” or shook my hand. One person gave me a yellow “Taiwan in my country” ribbon, while another offered me cigarettes and yet another gave me a horn, which not long afterwards died on me. A few asked to have their picture taken with me. The atmosphere was extraordinarily welcoming and I have lost count of the smiles and “hellos” I received throughout the afternoon. The last time I was thanked with such warmth and conviction by a people, I was with Palestinian friends, another group that has long been denied what is rightfully theirs by the international community.
At about 2pm, former DPP vice presidential candidate Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌), former vice president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) and DPP Chairwoman Tsai addressed the crowd, which exploded in a deafening roar, horns a-blow and flags a-flutter. Soon afterwards, demonstrators tore down a section of the barricades and joined demonstrators on the other side. From my vantage point, I did not see police intervene.
ARATS chairman Chen may claim that he and his government are misunderstood by Taiwanese, that in time they will “gain their trust,” but there is nothing to be misunderstood in the more than 1,300 missiles being aimed at this peaceful nation, or in the military exercises held by the People’s Liberation Army simulating an invasion of Taiwan, or in Taiwan’s continued isolation on the international scene resulting from pressure from Beijing. A true friend would not request that the Republic of China flag be removed from the hotel he is staying at. A true friend would not have as a right-hand man an emissary who says — while on a visit to Taiwan — that there will be no war across the Taiwan Strait as long as Taiwan does not declare independence.
Sadly, as the day progressed and after I had left, things turned violent, with protesters throwing stones at police and, at night, police using brutal force against demonstrators on Zhongshan Road and other parts of the city. Police, protesters and members of the media were injured in the process.
Deplorable though this escalation may be, you cannot deploy 7,000 armed police officer, create a sense of siege, erect barricades, block sections of road, dapple neighborhoods with barbed wire, and conduct talks that will affect the welfare of an entire nation with anything less than transparency, and not expect that people will react. Such a muscular deployment was provocative and unnecessary. Moreover, if, in the first days, police had limited itself to preventing violence and not acted as an agent against free speech, escalation may very well have been averted.
The fear of the unknown — the unknown itself — created an explosive situation. Well before the first police line was stormed, well before the first stone was thrown in anger, the seeds had been sown by the Ma administration, which resuscitated an era that Taiwanese had long left behind. On the other side, many of the police officers deployed were young, inexperienced — they had never had to deal with such a situation — scared and bound to overreact. Just as when two armies are brought in proximity to one another, the risks of accidents and things getting out of hand increase.
Let us hope that Chen and his masters in Beijing saw what has taken place throughout the week. Let us hope that the horns and shouts taught them a thing or two about the power of democracy and the determination of a people to keep it alive. Let us hope, too, that the Ma administration got the message that while Taiwanese do not oppose cross-strait talks, there must be transparency, accountability, and that the sovereignty of Taiwan must be preserved. And dignity. Despite the claims by the Ma administration that Chen’s visit was only to discuss economic matters and therefore not political, the long, shameless list of effaced national symbols, the flags removed, official titles snubbed and liberties curtailed, made the whole thing primarily political, relegating the four agreements signed during the visit to secondary news.
One cannot speak of peace, of warming relations, as long as Beijing continues to threaten Taiwan militarily and diplomatically. To treat emissaries of China as if they were friends, and to bend over backwards, as the Ma administration has done, to please Chen and his cronies — turning a democracy into a police state, and Taiwanese against Taiwanese, in a manner of weeks — is unconscionable. It is immensely saddening, after experiencing the warm brotherhood that I felt this afternoon, to see Taiwanese hitting Taiwanese over the visit of a Chinese official. Perhaps no scene touched me more than that of a middle-aged police officer crying as he surveyed what was going on, caught between his responsibility to his troops and the people he is supposed to be serving.
While the Ma administration harps about creating “win-win” situations, this week has been “lose-lose” for all Taiwanese. With Chen having returned to China, now is the time for Taiwanese to heal and mend the sad divide that reared its ugly head this week. (As I write this on Friday afternoon, students demonstrating peacefully are being taken away, one by one, by police officers.)