Monday, August 19, 2013

With protests, size isn’t everything (中文 link at bottom)

Which is best: One big protest followed by a return to normal, or a series of smaller ones that keep the issues alive?

Several thousand protesters opposing forced evictions and demolitions were at it again on Sunday evening with a mass rally in front of the Presidential Office, followed by a raid on the Ministry of the Interior, which about 2,000 protesters occupied for well over 12 hours.

Barricades on Ketagalan Blvd
According to estimates by the organizers, close to 20,000 people (this seems a bit high), including 15 self-help organizations, gathered on Ketagalan Blvd from 5pm for the rally, which included a series of talks and musical performances, all to do with the many cases of state-sanctioned land theft, destruction of agricultural land, forced evictions, and demolitions that have spread like cancer across the nation recently. Although some of the cases highlighted at the event have gone on for more than a decade, the catalyst was the July 18 demolition of four homes in Dapu (大埔), Miaoli County.

The crowd cheers in support on 818
A number of artists, including the rock band The Fireman and hip hopers Kou Chou Ching (拷秋勤), as well as film director Ke Yi-cheng (柯一正), continued their longstanding support for the cause, as did a number of academics who delivered the occasional fiery speech (my employer Lin Rong-san [林榮三], a major land developer, was not spared).

As things wrapped up a little after 9:30pm, Frida Tsai (蔡培慧), the Taiwan Rural Front spokeswoman, announced that the protest was to continue with a raid on — and egging of — the Executive Yuan, which had already been the victim of an “attack” last Thursday.

A member of the Zhang family
As about 2,000 of the protesters joined the spear of humanity that headed towards the seat of the Cabinet, I began having doubts about the effectiveness of making the announcement about the raid on the EY so public, and also thought that the slow mobilization would give police ample time to prepare for the protesters, if not block off the area altogether.

A fellow journalist accosted me and said he’d heard there was a “plan a” and a “plan b.” According to him, “plan a” was the EY, while “plan b” was the Ministry of the Interior (MOI), which we were just about to pass by. “There’s tons of police in front of the EY,” he said, “but nobody at the MOI.”

Stickers affixed to the back door at the MOI
The entire group stopped at a red light, with organizers making sure that nobody crossed the street. It dawned on me that “plan a” had been abandoned after all. “Plan b” it was, whereupon by the hundreds young protesters stormed the low-lying fences round the ministry building and easily overwhelmed the small police detachment outside (I have since been informed that “plan a” was a decoy; the MOI was the target from the beginning). I followed them in. Protesters poured in from all sides of the building and parked themselves by the front and back entrances. By the time a larger police force arrived at the scene, several windows and walls had been spray-painted or papered over with the by-now ubiquitous “Fuck the government” stickers. A few eggs were also lobbed at the walls, and for a second time in as many months this reporter’s camera was a victim of the slimy substance (the first instance was during a protest in front of KMT headquarters).

Artists spray graffiti by the main gate
Later on, after sporadic pushing and shoving with police — the descriptor “violence” mischaracterizes the nature of the incidents — rather talented graffiti artists began working on a large fresco on the grounds of the main entrance of the building, which truth be told is among the most drab of all government offices in Taipei. As the vapors turned the night into a ghostly scene, I’d had enough and went home a little after midnight, leaving it to others to witness and document what was going on.

The protesters occupied the building until mid-day on Monday and promised to return if their demands were not met. Later that day, the Taiwan Rural Front filed a lawsuit against Miaoli County Commissioner Liu Cheng-hung (劉政鴻) for corruption in various land deals.

I can already hear it, as I’ve heard it many times before: This is all good, Michael, but a few thousand people isn’t enough to convince the government to mend its ways; what Taiwan needs is mobilization of the type and scale seen in Egypt, or Tunisia, or Syria. Otherwise, the protesters will simply be ignored.

There are several problems with that argument. The first, most obvious one is the fact that none of the countries with which Taiwan is being compared are functional democracies. Without democratic outlets, the public is likelier to resort to more “extreme” measures to voice its discontent with the authorities or seek to unseat the government altogether.

Two other and related important factors are the size of the 15-24 age population — a key variable in political instability — and levels of unemployment. A quick look at those categories helps explain why sustained protest campaigns in Taiwan have not achieved mobilization rates anywhere near as in the other three countries. According to the CIA World Factbook, people in the 15-24 age group represent: Egypt (18%); Tunisia (16.5%); Syria (20.8%) and Taiwan (14.3%) of the total population. The median age in those countries is 24.8, 31, 22.7 and 38.7 respectively. Already, we can see that Taiwan has fewer young people as a share of total population available to fuel the ranks of protests.

Here’s where it gets really interesting. Unemployment within the same age bracket is as follows: Egypt (24.8%, or 2.79 million); Tunisia (30.7%, or 553,500); Syria (19.2%, or 883,200); Taiwan (4.2%, or 130,000). In other words, Taiwan has fewer young people as a percentage of the population, and most of them are either employed or, given their country’s advanced economy, obtaining an advanced education. It should not be surprising, then, that the number of young Taiwanese taking to the streets is much lower than elsewhere, not because they don’t care about the issues or aren’t making a difference in other ways (e.g., helping with Web sites, short films, art work, &c), but because they have a job, or class, or oftentimes both.

Moreover, beyond the behind-the-scenes work referenced above, we must also consider whether large numbers of protesters showing up at a rally are sufficient, in and of themselves, to count as a successful means of pressuring the government. How often in the post-authoritarian era have large protests — say, those assembling 200,000 or more protesters — succeeded in forcing the government’s hand? Since the KMT regained power in 2008, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has held a number of such protests, the most recent one being the “Fury” (火大) in January 2013. Time and again, such protests have been held, only for the government to ignore them altogether and continue with what it was doing. Those were one-shot public expressions; people were bussed to Taipei, they waved flags and placards, shouted slogans, and went back home the same evening.

Contrast this with the recent wave of protests over Dapu or the several other issues over which today’s youth, supported by academics and other groups, have mobilized. Though a much smaller number of participants are involved, the protests and guerrilla-style flash rallies, music, videos, and a very original use of visual arts, have managed to keep the issues alive over several months by ensuring that they continue to be the subject of debate on TV talk shows and in newspapers. How long did people continue talking about “Fury” after the streets were cleaned?

Ultimately, protests are a battle for hearts and minds, a competition for public opinion waged between those in power and those who aren’t. Large protests are rarely a spontaneous outburst and instead build-up over time until a certain line is crossed (e.g., the protest group wins the battle for hearts and minds), or people lose complete faith in the system and decide to overturn it. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 didn’t happen overnight, nor did it initially involve a large segment of Iranian society, however unhappy they were under the Shah’s repressive regime. This, in fact, partly explains why the CIA was caught unprepared when the revolution occurred. I would bet that the Jasmine Revolution was also preceded by much smaller and more localized protests that didn’t generate interest abroad. We only know of the larger, destructive ones, but that’s a direct result of the nature of today’s international media.

It’s still far too early to predict that the current movement in Taiwan will manage to effect radical, or structural, change; but it is equally much too early to discount it as a possible instrument for durable change. (All photos by the author)

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

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