Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Truly worrying signs in Taiwan

Student are hounded by police. Peaceful protesters are thrown in jail for throwing eggs. Meanwhile, a wanted criminal with a violent past offers to mobilize his followers to protect a highly unpopular, and increasingly authoritarian, president

There was a time during Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) first administration where it was easier, even for critics like this author, to give it the benefit of the doubt, when we could believe that the government could be trusted with working for, and protecting, the nation’s interest. Since the beginning of his second (and thankfully last) term, trend lines — from a hardening of government policies, and an increasingly authoritarian reaction to dissent amid very low popular support — have made it nearly impossible to continue doing so. Recent developments should dispel any notion that the Ma cabinet can continue unchecked.

One of the most worrying events in the past six months has been the return to Taiwan of the wanted fugitive Chang An-le (張安樂), also known as “White Wolf,” whose leadership of the Bamboo United criminal syndicate forced him to flee Taiwan in 1996. Immediately after being released on NT$1 million bail on the day of his return to Taiwan, Chang embarked on a campaign to promote his “peaceful unification” ideology through TV appearances and the opening of a campaign office in, of all places, Tainan. I have written extensively about the significance of his return to Taiwan and of the government failing to keep him busy preparing his defense in court, and will not repeat what I have said here.

But one thing bears repeating: As I pointed out soon after his return, Chang’s return to Taiwan creates a high likelihood that intimidation and violence will once again be part of Taiwan’s politics. Although Chang has been portrayed as a former, if not “reformed,” gangster-turned-politician, there is every indication that the man, who served prison time in the U.S. for drug trafficking and is believed to have played a role in the 1984 assassination of Henry Liu (劉宜良) in California, remains involved in criminal activities. Panelists who had the misfortune of appearing on TV talk shows with him earlier this summer could not help but notice Chang’s entourage of “friends,” which some were not shy of describing as “bodyguards” or “thugs.” This author ran into the White Wolf just last week at a bar very popular with foreign crowds in Taipei. In fact, Chang sat at the very next table, and was accompanied by a dozen bodyguards who positioned themselves at various strategic points to create a virtual box round their leader.

Now that very same Chang, who at the weekend said that Taiwanese were downright stupid for refusing to acknowledge that they are Chinese, showed his cards on Monday by revealing that he planned to create an “action alliance” to protect the highly unpopular President Ma ahead of a planned protest in Taichung on Nov. 10, when the KMT holds its long-delayed party congress. According to some reports, Chang said he would mobilize as many as 2,000 of his followers to counter protesters at the venue and ensure Ma’s safety amid a campaign to shadow the president and, at its most “violent,” lob shoes at him. Chang further singled out laid-off workers who have led a series of protest against the administration in recent months and who are expected to spearhead the Nov. 10 demonstrations.

Most conveniently, by not prosecuting Chang, the Ma government has now found an ally who is willing to ensure his safety — in other words, in addition to police, gangsters — not simple gangsters, but gangsters that are very much Beijing’s extension in Taiwan — will now play a role in shielding Ma from a public that has had enough of his poor governance and who, as citizens of a democracy, have every right to protest. Such role for the underworld in politics hadn’t been seen in Taiwan since the early 1990s, before president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) launched a nationwide crackdown on organized crime. While still a fugitive in China, Chang was reportedly behind the dispatch of thugs to protest against the Dalai Lama during a visit to Taiwan in 2009 and to pick up his hateful ally Kuo Kuan-ying (郭冠英) at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport after the latter, an official at Taiwan’s representative office in Toronto, was recalled (and then fired) over a controversy surrounding the publication of several of his anti-Taiwan articles under a pen name. Now that he is back in Taiwan, the threat that Chang represents for society is all the more worrying. Already, some prominent student leaders such as the charismatic Chen Wei-ting (陳為廷) have been warned that criminal organizations were on them. We can only speculate as to how his followers will behave when they encounter protesters in Taichung or at any other venue. Will they simply seek to intimidate, or will they use force against the protesting youth and the academics and lawyers who support them, the journalists who gather to cover the events? How will police react — if it reacts at all? And what does this presage for the future, for the safety of anyone who opposes Ma or the KMT or “peaceful unification”?

Unless the National Police Administration quickly intervenes and prevents Chang’s followers from involving themselves, we will have no alternative but to conclude that Ma, who now has every reason to fear the public, is resorting to gangster politics to maintain his grip on power, the same kind of thing that the KMT did well before it was expelled from China in 1949. This speaks volumes about the current state of Taiwan’s democracy. Surely all of this isn’t about Chang’s freedom of expression, which might very well be the administration’s stated reason for its inaction!

All of this occurs against a backdrop in which police and law enforcement are cracking down hard on protesters. While wanted criminals roam free and threaten society, Lin Tzu-wen (林子文) and Taoyuan County Confederation of Trade Unions chairman Mao Chen-fei (毛振飛, pictured above), two men involved in the protest by the aforementioned group of laid-off factory workers will on Nov. 1 begin serving 20-day and 50-day prison sentences for breaking the Assembly and Parade Act (集會遊行法) during a protest in front of the Presidential Office in October 2012. Their crime? Throwing eggs. The timing of their detention (the two refused to pay the fine) is also noteworthy, as it means they will not be able to participate at the Nov. 10 protest. Many others in recent months have been charged with obstruction of justice, or endangering public safety, for similarly minor “crimes” — misdemeanor, in fact — for throwing eggs, shoes, affixing stickers at various venues, or spray-painting government buildings. In many cases, the sentences have been as heavy as those imposed on armed individuals fleeing from the authorities in a stolen car. In other words, and as a number of lawyer friends have told me, the courts have been disproportionate in the sentences issued against protesters who, unlike what the KMT and some pan-blue media have averred, have been overwhelmingly peaceful.

Also last week, reports emerged that students who were conducting surveys of residents in Miaoli — a county at the very center of various protests against forced evictions and government-sanctioned demolitions that led to the death, ostensibly by suicide, of one of the residents last month — were being shadowed by camcorder-toting police officers. While it is true that some of the students involved in the door-to-door survey have been involved in the protests against county commissioner Liu Cheng-hung (劉政鴻) and Cabinet officials, nothing justifies hounding them as if they were criminals. It is known, though, that the local police force, by and large, serves as Liu’s personal force.

We now have a situation where students are intimidated by police and peaceful protesters thrown in jail, while wanted criminals with a violent past are free to do as they please, to run businesses, and to enter politics. None of this has yet to capture the attention of people abroad, who remain busy showering Ma with praise for creating a very false peace in the Taiwan Strait. Unless we start seeing external pressure on the government to mend its ways and change course, the recent trends mentioned above bode extremely ill for the future of Taiwan as a free, distinct, and democratic society. (Photo by the author)

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