Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The war of the shoes

The government is cracking down hard on shoe throwers not because the practice is violent, but because this unusual form of protest is a highly successful means of highlighting public discontent with the underperforming administration

If we bought what the government is telling us, we’d believe that graduate students, young mothers, and the elderly in Taiwan have spontaneously picked up the habit of throwing shoes at government officials, a “violent” practice that, so the narrative goes, occurs for no reason whatsoever other than boredom among criminal minds. Now the government, along with ever-compliant Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislators, is seeking measures to eliminate the “improper atmosphere.” Enter prosecutors and the National Security Bureau (NSB).

Despite its high unpopularity, the Ma government, as well as media outlets that like lap dogs support it no matter what, refuses to recognize that shoe throwing is not a spontaneous or irrational phenomenon, but that it is, rather, rooted in a public that has lost patience with an increasingly distant and unaccountable administration, that no longer believes it has an honest counterpart in negotiations. It stems from far more than what foreign media have tended to focus on, which is the poor state of the economy and the controversial (and poison pill) services trade agreement with China that the administration is forcing upon an apprehensive public. Beyond those, the discontent is fueled by the broken promises, lies, evictions, deaths, demolitions, lawsuits, behind-closed-doors negotiations, bogus “public hearings,” countless blocked bills, police and thugs who occasionally beat up protesters, cronyism, and, above all, the not unjustified perception that the government is acting in behalf of the rich and the powerful (here and in China) against the interests of ordinary people and, possibly, the very sovereignty of their nation.

To repeat: there is nothing spontaneous in acts of shoe throwing, nor do they occur in a historical vacuum, as the government would want us to believe. Taiwan’s youth, young mothers, and the elderly have better things to do with their time than to shadow public officials and lob footwear at them. That they do so is a symptom of how bad the situation has become, and the government has only itself to blame.

Another reason why shoes have gone airborne is that this form of dissent has succeeded in attracting media attention, both local and foreign, where other measures — ordinary peaceful protests, legal action, forums and so on — have failed. In a way, the shoes have managed to break the illusion that everything is swell in Taiwan and that the public is fully behind Ma’s policies, something that the international community, oftentimes for selfish reasons, likes and wants to believe.

The shoes have therefore brought Taiwan back into the discourse, back in the world’s headlines, and this is most inconvenient for Ma and everybody else who continues to believe in his unquestioned rectitude as a “peacemaker” and uncorrupt official. The gaunt-looking Ma may pretend all he wants that everything is fine, as will the foreign officials and business tycoons and academics who shake his limp hand during official functions, but one fact remains — Ma is a failing leader, and his failed policies risk dragging down the entire country.

The powerful symbol of the flying shoe, one that, if only for its novelty in this part of the world, cannot easily be ignored, is exactly why the government is now doing everything it can to stop it by deploying expensive catch nets (which themselves contribute to the image of an unpopular president), threatening legal action against the “violent” practice, involving the NSB, and looking the other way when a gangster with a violent past, just returned from exile in China, offers to dispatch 2,000 of his goons to “protect” the president during the KMT congress in Taichung next month (though police plans for the event have yet to be formalized, rumor has it that police will establish a protest zone about 600m away from the venue, and will try to separate protesters from those who oppose them). 

It is the very success of the shoe throwing campaign, and the threat that it could further spread and undermine the government’s dirt-poor image even more, that is compelling the administration to adopt what are, in effect, measures of the desperate.

Such reaction, one might add, can only be conceivable in a country where it is still a crime to scream at the president, under regulations — enacted under Martial Law but which, we should note, were not abolished by any administration in the democratic era — to prevent the humiliation of the head of state. (Photo by the author)

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