Saturday, June 26, 2010

Did Kurt Vonnegut's brother ruin the 626 protest?

What does a Canadian reporter, columnist and deputy news editor do on his one day off in Taipei? The obvious answer, if you lived in Taiwan, would be to say: Go to the Canada d’eh celebration on the beach, especially when this is only the second Saturday you’ve had off in about four years. When it comes to this odd Canadian, however, the answer would be: go to an anti-ECFA rally in downtown Taipei.

I met up with a couple of friends at the Longshan MRT station at about 3pm, whence we snaked our way through the gathering crowd and ended up at the Wanhua rail station, were former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) was expected to make a speech sometime after 3:30pm. From our walk starting at the MRT station, where I only saw three police officers, to the train station, I’d estimate there were several thousands protesters (far more already than the 5,000 TVBS said would show up earlier in the day), all gathered to express their anger at, and demand a referendum on, the economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) the Taiwanese government is expected to sign with China in Chongqing next week. As always, the composition of protesters was about 85 percent people of a certain age, and 15 percent young adults or teenagers.

This was my fifth or six major demonstration here since I moved to Taiwan, and as expected, people were friendly and welcoming (I was once again thanked, given paraphernalia and asked to have my picture taken with some Taiwanese), and the banners and placards were colorful, well-designed and original. There even was a man who, in my view, was the epitome of the Taiwanese demonstrator, with two LCD panels affixed to his chest and an epilepsy-inducing led-lit hat on his head (my fear is that later on, when mother nature decided to pour down on us, the poor man may have been electrocuted — but hey, it was a worthy cause). Some people were blasting their gas canister horns or by-now World Cup-famous vuvuzelas, and one man had an actual trumpet, while flag-studded vehicles played speeches, songs and recordings. Overall, though, this was by far the quietest protest I’ve attended in Taiwan. There were very few foreigners (less than I’ve seen at previous protests), but I did run into Ralph Jennings from Reuters on his bicycle. It was very hot and I was happy I’d brought my Cambodian kroma, or scarf, which saved me for a heat stroke back in Cambodia when I was building houses there last year.

After Mr. Lee and others were finished making their speeches, we all began our long walk toward the Presidential Office, where another group of protesters — who had launched their  anti one China  march on Zhongxiao E. Road — would meet up with us. The procession was extraordinarily orderly, and during the hour and a half that we walked, we only encountered a handful of police officers, who were making sure people were stopping at the red lights (protesters would actually thank the officers after the light turned green, how rude!). Only once did I see a small group of Criminal Investigation Division (CID) officers — three of them — taking pictures and filming the protest. This was a welcome departure from previous protests, especially those that surrounded visits by Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) officials in November 2008 and earlier this year, where the presence of thousands of law-enforcement officers was actually intimidating and severely hurt the image of the city and central governments. My guess is that there were no senior Chinese officials to protect, and little signs that violence was brewing (for some odd reason, AFP reported today that police presence was heavy; it certainly wasn’t where I went). None of the agents provocateurs who were expected to show up and create trouble — as they did in November 2008 — did so, at least not on the route we were on.

Then, at about 6pm, the rain began, and it poured. Given the season we’re in, I had thought that demonstrators were getting a break today, as by 2pm — when it inevitably starts raining — not a drop had fallen, and the weather bureau said chances of showers were fairly small. But rain it did, even if belatedly. Our theory was that the KMT paid Bernard Vonnegut, author Kurt Vonnegut’s brother and co-inventor of cloud seeding (patented in 1975), to bring the rain. But that’s just a theory. Organizers called on demonstrators not to go home, and it looks like most people heeded the call. 

We continued walking for a while, but after taking a short break at the one 7-Eleven we encountered in our entire walk, and seeing that the rain was not abating, we called it quits and went to have dinner instead. Sadly, this means we did not make it to the Presidential Office, where more speeches were expected. But we did our part. 

As to whether the demonstration will have any effect on government policy regarding trade with China, I have strong doubts. The ECFA will be signed, no matter what, and the legislative “review” — in a legislature where the ruling KMT has a three-quarter majority — will be little more that window dressing. Taiwanese have grown cynical of mass demonstrations, which, weather aside, could explain the substantial drop in participation I have noted since I began attending rallies four years ago. At best, today sent a signal, and hopefully some good pictures will be circulated worldwide so that readers abroad can be aware that a substantial percentage of Taiwanese do not support the ECFA, or at least oppose the manner in which it was negotiated in secret and shoved down our throats by the government. As I’ve said before, media (including my employer) played into the KMT’s hands when they referred to the trade pact as a “proposed ECFA.” Proposed implies that under certain conditions, a plan could be altered, or nixed altogether. In this instance, there was no such intention, and the pact was to be signed, no matter what.

(Funny anecdote: At one point during the march, I was approached by a young Taiwanese woman who told me she was from the media and was hoping to interview a foreigner about the protest. I asked her which organization she was from, to which she responded: the Liberty Times. When I told her we shared the same employer, she realized that she could hardly interview me, as the Taipei Times belongs to the Liberty Times Group.)

1 comment:

Christine said...

my heart felt thank you to your love for Taiwan.