Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Protests are a good start, but something larger is needed (中文 link at bottom)

Taiwan’s next-door neighbor Hong Kong has a wealth of experience to offer on how to turn civil society into a force for political change

The week of protests against the cross-strait service trade agreement continued this morning with a “siege” of the Legislative Yuan by the Youths against Service Industry Agreement with China Movement. But as youth climbed the fence and clashed with police — a common occurrence nowadays — I couldn’t help but think that all those efforts, commendable though they are, will avail to little if they aren’t part of a larger strategy.

After years of being criticized for not caring about politics, it is absolutely refreshing to see youth movements, often supported by artists and academics, take action against injustice, evictions, demolitions, murders in the military, and sheer government ineptitude. The individuals who have joined those efforts, some of them issue-specific, but most as part of a growing alliance of causes, are among the most extraordinary people I’ve had the chance to get to know in my almost eight years in Taiwan. Far from being troublemakers or anarchists, as some of their detractors might be tempted to describe them, the majority of activists are aware, highly educated and are increasingly willing to sacrifice their time, money, and personal comfort for causes that, in their view, are directly related to the fabric of their nation, present and future.

A protester in front of the legislature on July 31
One of the main factors behind their decision to take direct action is the widening gap between the government — a government of and for the rich — and the public. Simply put, the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) machine that lies behind him have grown increasingly disconnected from ordinary Taiwanese and downright voracious in their treatment of the weaker segments of society, who have the misfortune of standing in the way of the party’s definition of “modernity” and “development.”

Another related factor is the fact that Taiwan at present does not have an opposition party that can hold the KMT in check. Sadly, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is once again a mess, constantly fighting against itself, divisive, and incapable of looking beyond the next elections. Consequently, the party has been unable to propose any policy that appeals to today’s youth, let alone ones that could encourage light blues within the KMT to work with them. The Ma administration, therefore, doesn’t have to worry about the costs of disregarding public opinion. As long as it does just a little better than the DPP, and by using its unequaled financial resources, it will almost certainly prevail in future elections.

Faced with this situation, it is no surprise that a larger segment of the public has become disillusioned with politics and cynical about politicians. They are therefore taking matters in their own hands by organizing protests, conferences, breakfasts, film showings, and developing a truly fascinating Internet platform for information sharing and organization.

Protesters gather in front of the legislature on July 31
But such efforts will not, in and of themselves, change policy. They generate publicity, no doubt, and they gnaw away at the image of the Ma administration. They also serve as education tools so that the citizenry can be better informed about the issues over which they have mobilized. However, those battles must be part of a campaign and, unless the plan is to overthrow the government altogether, will ultimately need to translate into votes — enough votes so that policies that are detrimental to Taiwan are not adopted.

This starts at the local level: with families, friends, and with one’s local party chief. They need to be pressured non-stop, and then pressured again so that the ramifications of disregarding public sentiment are drilled into the local official’s head, and the message is then passed upwards. In other words, civil society must explore ways to translate its actions into political memes. The message must be such that it keeps local officials up at night wondering whether old practices will still be sufficient to keep them in power.

Organizers give give speeches outside the LY
I don’t pretend to have all the solutions to this challenge, but one thing that Taiwanese can certainly do — and must do — is to learn from other polities that have gone through similar processes. And for this kind of activity, I can’t think of a better place than Hong Kong. Not only is the territory replete with warnings and lessons for Taiwan, its civil society is highly activist and has developed various ways of making itself heard over the years (we must remember that unlike Taiwan, Hong Kong was never a democracy, not even under the British). Current movement leaders in Taiwan must look beyond their differences with people in Hong Kong and join hands with them, as they both are confronted to powers that are keen on keeping them in a state of subjugation. Taiwanese youth should explore opportunities for exchange programs with their counterparts in the territory, perhaps with some assistance from the universities or NGOs to which they are attached.

The time has come for idealistic Taiwanese to join forces with others. Protests cannot occur in a vacuum; someone must provide a master plan. (All photos by the author)

NEW: A Chinese version of this article is available here.

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