Saturday, March 29, 2014

Does the Sunflower Movement have (or even need) an exit strategy?

No matter how the current constitutional crisis ends, the occupation of the Legislative Yuan was a necessary warning

I was having dinner on Friday night with a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state when, perhaps inevitably, the subject of the ongoing occupation of the Legislative Yuan came up.

After expressing a few reservations about the protest, the former official asked a pointed, but certainly not invalid, question. “Do they have an exit strategy?” This is a question that has been asked more than once in recent days as the occupation enters its eleventh day, with no sign of imminent resolution.

I’m not exactly sure whether the Sunflower Student Movement indeed has an exit strategy, but from what I know if its highly intelligent leadership, I’d be extremely surprised if they didn’t. However, even if the movement didn’t have a clear goal in sight, I would argue that the occupation was itself necessary — inevitable, in fact — and that it has served its purpose.

A priori, such a statement might sound irrational, perhaps even extremist. After all, what good is there in protesting if there is no clearly defined objective? Some would argue that protest for the sake of protest isn’t conducive to good governance and that it can only exacerbate social instability.

The reason I don’t buy that argument is because the occupation of the LY is about much more than the controversial Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) and the government’s poor job of explaining and implementing it. If the CSSTA were the only issue, and the occupation starting on March 18 solely an expression of activism against free trade, then the movement’s detractors would possibly have a case.

But context matters — in fact, it’s everything, and that is why I have long been deploring the criminal disinterest and inattention of domestic and international media over developments here that led to where we are now. The Sunflower Movement is not a spontaneous phenomenon organized by a few disgruntled attention-seeking individuals; it is rather the culmination of months — years, actually — of activism over multitudinous issues. While the group has roots in the Wild Strawberries Movement, it could be argued that it truly cut its teeth with the Alliance Against Media Monopoly that formed in mid-2012. Go back to that era, and would will see many familiar faces, the same faces that are now inside the legislature.

Since 2012, those activists have mobilized over a variety of issues. These include, but are not limited to: the Losheng Sanatorium demolitions; unsafe nuclear energy; nuclear waste storage on Lanyu; forced evictions and demolitions in Shilin, Huaguang, Dapu and Taoyuan; mistreatment of laid-off factory workers; abuse of soldiers in the military; controversy over the Miramar Hotel Resort in in Taitung County’s Shanyuan Bay; the expropriation of ancestral Aborginal land at Sun-Moon Lake for a BOT hotel project and the eviction of small businesses in the area; the eviction of elderly fruit farmers on Lishan in Taichung; temple demolitions; improper building of wind turbines in Yuanli, Miaoli County, and use of excessive force by police and private security against the protesters; opposition to legalization of same-sex marriage; the Tamhai New Town development project in Tamsui District; controversial changes to school textbooks; contempt for democratic expression on university campuses; a court system stacked in favor of the wealthy (or pro-unification criminals like Chang An-le) against ordinary people; and several other environmental issues. The list goes on.

The truly fascinating thing about this litany of discontent is how little those events were reported on by media outlets that instead chose to focus on trivial matters, or whose interest was too passing for them to be able to see the connections between them. Another interesting aspect of all this is the overlapping groups and leaderships that took the lead. While Lin Fei-fan, to name just one leader, is now a national figure thanks to his eminent role in the LY occupation, how many remember that he was also among the leaders opposing the acquisition of the Next Media outlets in Taiwan by the China Times Group’s Tsai Eng-meng? Or that he was involved in the protests against the bulldozing of the entire, predominantly “mainlander,” Huaguang neighborhood in 2013? Or that as a high-school kid, the now-graduate student at NTU was involved in the Wild Strawberries? Look closely, and you will see many like Lin who for months toiled against abuse while the rest of society — those who now accuse them of being “violent” and “undemocratic” — completely ignored them and never lifted a finger against injustice. They have now burst onto the national stage, but they have been at it for quite a while.

As my friend Mark Harrison of the University of Tasmania brilliantly put it yesterday, the experiences over the past 24 months generated an “infrastructure of protest” that is now in a position to defy the entire state apparatus. The activists did not need political parties or other “hidden hands” to mobilize successfully. They, like many of the movements that overthrew despotic regimes across the Arab world, had the Internet and know how to use it well. And as journalist Paul Danahar wrote in his excellent The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring, the activists were up against “old men who probably needed help from their grandchildren to operate the DVD player.”  

With too many exceptions to count on the fingers of one hand, the government’s handling of the abovementioned issues was characterized by contempt, indifference, and crackdowns. In almost every case, lack of transparency and accountability — deals negotiated in secret to the benefit of the wealthy and the connected, mock public hearings, et cetera — were a major problem. More often than not, the administration resorted to law enforcement and the courts to deter the protesters, even when it must have known that civil society had every right to agitate.

Today’s crisis is a crisis of confidence in the government’s ability to abide by democratic mechanisms. It is about the perception that the state cannot be counted on to work for the interest of the entire society and not just a narrow segment of the populace that is close to the administration, big corporations, or China. In other words, nepotism. It stems from the anger felt when Peng Hsiu-chun lost her house and pharmacy in Dapu, and then her husband, whose mysterious death was never properly investigated and has all the hallmarks of a cover-up by local police. In response, the government spewed venom at the victims and instead blamed those who had sided with them.

We’re in the current situation because the Ma Ying-jeou administration has shown that it is unwilling to negotiate honestly with members of society. As I wrote several months ago, if the government cannot be relied upon to resolve local crises with fairness and due process, how can it be trusted with negotiations on a far-reaching trade deal with an authoritarian government that seeks to swallow Taiwan whole and that has a long tradition of using clientelism to achieve its political objectives? (Yes, other democratic regimes, even “advanced” Western democracies like the U.S. and Canada, often resort to executive means to expedite trade agreements without proper monitoring by their legislative branches. But those agreements usually involve trade with other democracies that moreover do not seek to annex them.) 

Had the Ma government been fairer at home, and had the system demonstrated that it can work for ordinary Taiwanese, perhaps the LY wouldn’t be occupied today. After spending two years reporting on civic activism here and observing the government’s contemptuous response to them, I had become convinced that something like this would happen eventually. I was wrong in thinking that the catalyst would be the potentially disastrous Taoyuan Aerotropolis project. But in the end this matters little; whether it’s the megaproject or the CSSTA, both are marred by serious procedural handicaps, hidden interest, and fears of China’s ulterior motives.

So is there an exit strategy? Maybe, maybe not. But the long-needed shot across the bow has been made, and the government has been put on notice.

The Sunflowers and their tens of thousands of supporters nationwide have answered the question I asked less than two weeks ago in a very different world. Oui, l’homme est révolté. (Photo by the author)

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