Thursday, October 24, 2013

Please protest ‘rationally’

The authorities depict young activists as ‘violent’ and ‘irrational’ because they know they cannot win an argument against them. If you can’t defeat them, discredit them

In the past year, we have seen in Taiwan the emergence of an active civil society whose actions should put to rest any doubt as to whether young Taiwanese and academics have within themselves the fiber it takes to fight for their country and ideals.

Given the state of things in Taiwan and the increasingly autocratic nature of a government that, perhaps as a result of growing pressure from Beijing, seems keen on imposing policies that are detrimental to the nation’s well-being, it is not surprising that students, academics, lawyers, journalists, academics, film directors, and ordinary people would become more vocal in their opposition to the authorities, or harsher when those in power refuse to listen to their grievances, break past promises, make a travesty of public consultations, use disproportionate force and legal means to derail dissidents, and callously look the other way when civilians are victimized, evicted, broken financially, injured, or lose their lives.

So far, despite its unresponsiveness and contempt for civil society, the Ma administration has gotten off lightly: at its most radical, dissident action has taken the form of the overnight “occupation” of a government building by students, “Fuck the government” stickers, spray paint, eggs, pig excrement, a hog’s head, flash (peaceful) protests, the chanting of slogans at venues visited by senior Cabinet officials, music videos, and — lo and behold — the throwing of shoes at the president and other officials (there has been only one direct hit so far, which did not involve the president).

And yet, the government, along with its spinners in the media and the corporate sector, have systematically branded protesters as “violent,” impolite,” and “irrational.” On several occasions, public officials have opined that while they understand people’s desire to protest, they should do so “rationally.” In other words, the protesters should adopt a strategy that ensures that their aims are not met. Earlier this week, no less a figure than Minister of Education Chiang Wei-ling (蔣偉寧), whose contempt for student activism should disqualify him for so key a position, said students had a right to protest, but that they should not throw shoes at anyone. 

Yet being “rational” apparently is no guarantee that the authorities will not come after you: Three female university students who brandished banners and shouted slogans during a function attended by President Ma earlier today in Greater Taichung will reportedly be charged with causing disturbances (and endangering the president!) under the Social Order Maintenance Act. Several others in recent months — and this includes university professors — have received police summons, been charged for various violations, or been held at police stations for hours, their only crime being to “violate” the Assembly and Parade Act by participating in non-violent protests. No eggs thrown, no shoes flying; just being there.

The indiscriminate use of incommensurate legal means against protesters is already a problem, and one that has resulted in a petition signed by about 1,000 lawyers, about one fifth of the nation’s total. The other problem is a more semantic one: It is not up to the government that is under fire, or the individuals who symbiotically benefit from their ties with the administration, to set the parameters of what constitutes “proper” and “rational” forms of protest. Especially not when the government itself has broken its contract with the public. How is holding mock public hearings, where the potential victims of a policy proposal are ignored or not even invited; or the breaking of promises by a top government official (Wu Den-yih) not to have people’s homes demolished, only for those homes to be razed down three years later; or the exhaustion of all legal processes with an outcome already predetermined in favor of big business; or the government’s disinterested reaction when people lose their lives in the process; or the threatened involvement of notorious gangsters, not to mention rumors that armed police could be deployed at the event, in protecting Ma and the Cabinet during a KMT meeting in Taichung next month — how is all of this “rational”?

What’s also left unsaid by those self-serving minions is the fact that the so-called “irrational” and “violent” protesters have upped the ante after all their pleas, all legal appeals, were ignored by the government. Content with criticizing youth for throwing shoes and “undermining social stability,” such individuals — Nan Shan Life Insurance vice chairman Du Ying-tzyong (杜英宗) did that during a forum last week, as did, if perhaps more obliquely, National Central University professor Daisy Hung (洪蘭) with her crass Confucian emphasis on “politeness,” or self-hating China Times editorial writers who compare protests in Taiwan with those that occur in “third world” countries — also ignore the sundry other things that the youth movements have done in the past year, which includes holding workshops, information sessions, nation-wide lectures, and several attempts (often denied by the government, which relied on police to keep them at bay) to attend government-sponsored public forums (for example, on the controversial cross-strait services trade agreement). 

The majority of the student protesters involved in the movements, whose numbers are steadily growing, are graduate students from the nation’s top universities, and are supported by eminent academics. Many of the younger, high-school-age ones, meanwhile, tend to be precocious and have been berated by their educators for, say, reading Machiavelli or Western philosophy, or engaging in political activities. In all cases, the activists have been highly informed about the subjects they are protesting against, and much more aware of the laws and their rights than the police officers and government officials who have confronted them with shields, notices, or opprobrium. The “violent” aspects of their protests are but one aspect of their mobilization, and a very small one at that.

There is no moral equivalence, nor can we let those who abuse their position in government or the corporate world get away with besmirching groups of individuals who are, more often than not, in the right. In fact, the reason why the authorities have cracked down so forcefully on the dissidents, and why they are now trying to damage their reputation by characterizing them as “violent” and “irrational,” is because they know they could not win an argument with the protesters and those who support them. Unable to meet them as equals, they strike. (Photo by the author)

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