Friday, October 11, 2013

Citizen 1985: The real deal, or a false flag? (中文 link at bottom)

We know very little about the group behind three recent mass rallies, but its behavior raises questions about its raison d’etre, and possibly points to something more sinister

When it comes to encouraging Taiwanese to come out and protest or do something for their country, there is never too many people, and the more groups come together to fight for a common cause, the better. But what if some organizations were used not to increase pressure on the government by amplifying a movement, but rather to divide, isolate, and turn society against the elements that are the most threatening to the authorities?

Having attended all three mass rallies organized by Citizen 1985, I (as have many other journalists in recent days) cannot help but feel that the group may very well be intended as a means to prevent the emergence of a force large and united enough to compel the government to change its policies.

This might come across as counterintuitive: after all, no organization in recent years has been as successful as Citizen 1985 in bringing together hundreds of thousands of people at protests — the first two over the death of soldiers in the military, and the last one against poor governance in general during the Oct. 10 “National Day” celebrations. All three occasions were well-rehearsed and lavish affairs, what with the seas of white shirts and flags, large projector screens, emotional soundtracks, and so on. When we contrast those with the much smaller rallies organized by, say, laid-off workers or groups that advocate change in land-management regulations, the Citizen 1985 rallies win hands down, if only in their ability to generate media attention.

However, if we scratch below the surface of the hours-long Citizen 1985 protests, we quickly realize that they are vapid affairs — beyond the catchy slogans, there is little substance, the “ask” lacks focus, and there is little follow-up. This is markedly different from the protests organized by student movements, academics and NGOs that we have seen in the past year, which tend to be much more policy-oriented, well-informed, rigorous, sustained, and which, if successful, have a much better chance of effecting change in how the government manages those issues.

Students protest on National Day
Another important point is the fact that the academics and students who have been mobilizing are known commodities: we know who they are, where they met, which academic institution they are affiliated with, and so on. As for the people behind Citizen 1985, we know next to nothing: we know that they purportedly met in Internet chat rooms and that the group is named after the armed forces’ hotline. In fact, the masterminds have kept their identities obscure, claiming they are doing so to avoid shifting attention away from the object of the protests (an accusation, unfair in my view, leveled against charismatic student leaders like Chen Wei-ting and others). We also don’t know where they obtain the not insubstantial sums of money that are needed to organize such lavish events; surely the NT$100 bills that I saw in the collection boxes during the event on National Day aren’t enough.

Yet another worrying element, and what has been the most significant factor in my reluctance to regard Citizen 1985 as a serious force for change, is the organizers’ emphasis on non-violence and their repeated depiction of the other groups as “violent” and “irrational.” “We are not like them,” one of the leaders told the crowd on National Day as the 60,000 top 100,000 protesters headed for Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, referring to the other organizations that were holding rallies in the area. “We are high-class protesters,” as if the others were “low class” and “uneducated,” when in fact the majority of them are graduate students from the nation’s top universities. The organizers also tend to be control freaks, to the point where even journalists have limited freedom to walk around and do their work.

Why to constant attempts to portray other groups as violent, which isn’t only divisive but, based on my observation of several dozens of their protests in the past year, unfair and misleading? This could simply be the result of competition and jealousy; it could also be part of a more nefarious attempt top discredit the forces that are most likely to destabilize the government. It is interesting that such claims also echo what the government and police forces have been saying about the groups that have mobilized against forced demolitions, the cross-strait services trade agreement, and other issues.

Here it would be tempting to fall into conspiracy theories, but another point worth making — and this again comes from my observations at the scene — is the fact that the relatively small protests organized by the student groups inevitably attract large police forces, more often than not in riot gear. Yesterday morning near the East Gate on Ketagalan Boulevard, a group of no more than 100 students was surrounded by an equal amount of cops bearing shields. The same situation prevailed during the removal of students in front of the Presidential Office after midnight earlier this week. At most of their rallies, the cop-to-protester ratio has always been unusually high for a democracy, and the police has often been willing to forcefully remove the protesters.

But when Citizen 1985 gathers several tens of thousands of protesters, the police force almost evaporates. This was true during the first protest near the Ministry of National Defense on July 20, followed by the big one on Ketagalan Boulevard on August 4, and the one held near the Legislative Yuan and later at CKS Memorial Hall on National Day. How can we explain that? One possibility is that the organizers struck a deal with the authorities and assured them that nothing untoward or threatening would happen. This could very well account for my earlier remark about the control freaks among them, who were on the lookout for “troublemakers” in their midst on August 4. Especially on a day like National Day, where a highly unpopular president was hosting celebrations nearby, assurances that tens of thousands of protesters, who could very well have joined the students on Ketagalan Boulevard, would be redirected away from the scene, contained, and put to sleep with hours of speeches, must have come as a relief to the police force and the government that pays them.

With all this, it is possible to conclude that Citizen 1985 is meant to serve a number of functions, all of them beneficial to the government. It can serve to discredit the organizations that are more focused, more militant, and therefore the likeliest to compel the government to change policies that it does not want to change; it can turn public opinion against the students by depicting them as violent, disrespectful, irrational, and not “high class” enough; it can redirect resources that otherwise would have joined the student movements and thereby assist law enforcement when it faces overstretch; and lastly, it can serve as an opiate by giving society the impression that they are participating in something meaningful, when in fact they are all sheep (they do, after all, wear white) gathering for rallies that the government need not fear and which, in the end, will not lead to policy change. And if nothing happens after hundreds of thousands of people have rallied a number of times, the public could well give up and come to “accept” the inevitability of government policies, or the impossibility of change.

Taiwanese civil society cannot afford to turn down allies. But it must also make sure that those who claim to support their cause are in fact on their side. (Photos by the author)

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

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