Tuesday, March 18, 2014

L’Homme révolté (中文 link at bottom)

Taiwanese are the products of an education system that militates against the spirit of revolt. While a few may develop the notion through exposure to foreign ideas, there might not be enough of them to change the system

As I was returning home on the MRT late last night, I had the sudden urge to snatch smartphones — surely one of the most nefarious inventions in recent years — from all those captive minds on the train and shatter them to pieces. I imagined checking every single screen to determine what it was that so transfixed them. If it was one of those stupid video games, or trivial chat about one’s dinner, the phone was doomed to obliteration. If instead the individual was reading up on the terrible undemocratic act that had been committed by the Executive Yuan and compliant legislators earlier today, the device would have been spared.

But l’homme révolté from the title isn’t about me; or rather, this article isn’t about me, but the Taiwanese whose way of life, whose freedoms, are under assault. Although a nucleus of issue-oriented activists has formed in recent months, tackling various contentious issues, I fear that this isn’t enough, that the relatively small numbers aren’t creating enough momentum to really make the government, whose ways are becoming increasingly undemocratic, pay attention.

The deterioration of Taiwan’s democracy has been, until recently, gradual and subtle, enough so that the authorities have gotten away with it. Starting last year, however, there has been a noticeable change in government behavior and attendant degradation of democratic mechanisms. A number of factors can help explain this, including a disorganized opposition; the ascension of Xi Jinping in China; President Ma Ying-jeou’s re-election in 2012; and the fact that, under Taiwanese law, this will be his last four-year term as president.

All those factors, added to growing Chinese impatience at the pace of “progress” in the Taiwan Strait — by this read the commencement of negotiations on Taiwan’s political future — and fears that whoever comes after Ma might not be able, or willing, to deliver the political goods, have resulted in Beijing applying tremendous pressure on Taipei, and thus forcing it into a reactive position. Already, some prominent individuals have observed that Ma’s government has failed to take the initiative in cross-strait negotiations by allowing China to set the agenda, a most dangerous strategy (or non-strategy). 

After a year of transgressions, the Ma government yesterday truly flexed its undemocratic muscles when Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Chang Ching-chung (張慶忠), the presiding chair of the legislature’s Internal Administrative Committee, declared that the committee had completed review of a hugely controversial Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement and sent it straight to a vote. Except that there was a small, shall we say, problem: Chang made his announcement before the review, which the KMT and DPP had agreed would involve a clause-by-clause review of the agreement, had even begun. Explaining the move, KMT caucus whip Lin Hung-chih (林鴻池) said that Chang had acted legally as the committee had failed to review the agreement within the stipulated period of 90 days. (There was admittedly a fair bit of blocking action and fighting inside the legislature.)

Soon thereafter, the Executive Yuan congratulated Chang for his “hard work” in getting the agreement out of committee.

But there’s a catch: The three-month clause only pertains to executive orders, which the trade pact isn’t — or at least shouldn’t be, given the wide-ranging ramifications on society and the economy. Nor is the pact a treaty, for that matter. Instead, much like ECFA, the agreement lies in limbo, and the executive seems to have concluded that it is doing the legislature a favor by submitting it for consultations.

Prior to yesterday, the agreement was already clouded by controversy. The public hearings, ostensibly held to pacify the public, were a complete farce, with dissenters usually prevented from attending by large contingents of police officers. Negotiations, conducted in China, were not transparent, and when the document was returned to Taiwan in June last year, even KMT legislators recoiled in horror at the breadth and scope of the agreement.

Like ECFA, Taipei and Beijing contend that the agreement is more generous to Taipei than it is to Beijing. If that is the case, then one should perhaps wonder why it is that the CCP has repeatedly instructed their Taiwanese counterparts to quickly pass the agreement. The reason for their impatience is most certainly not for altruistic or humanitarian considerations, but political ones (many of the components of the agreement would play directly into China’s United Front and psychological warfare efforts, not to mention dramatically increasing its ability to position people in Taiwan).

Facing dissenters within his ranks, Ma, as KMT chairman, imposed what could only be regarded as internal authoritarianism by threatening expulsion of any KMT legislator who voted against the party line on the matter. The measure quickly succeeded, and opponents who rightly feared the negative impact of the agreement on the districts they represent could affect their chance of being re-elected fell into line.

The next — and last — line of defense is civil society. As I mentioned earlier, their numbers are few, much less than, say, the Alliance Against Media Monsters, the No Nukes movement, or the seemingly deflated Citizen 1985. One reason why the movement has failed to attract more people perhaps lies in the nature of the threat, which remains distant and largely abstract. The pros and cons are overwhelmingly academic and far too complex for ordinary people to jump into. For most, the agreement is probably regarded as another ECFA: Maybe, like its predecessor, it won’t yield much results (at least not to the majority of the people), but it probably also won’t cause too much evident damage. As long as their interests aren’t directly affected — and they won’t know until the agreement is implemented and cheaper Chinese-invested businesses elbow them out of the market — they won’t see the need to take action.   

I spoke with one of the young people who were holding an all-night vigil in front of the legislature last night. The young man had just got off work at a night market and gone straight to the Legislative Yuan. After he’d ejaculated a few unprintable expletives against the government, I asked him why he was there. “Most people at the night market will be affected by the agreement,” he said. “But they don’t seem to know, or they are simply resigned and don’t believe they can make a difference.”

The young man was right on the mark. Either people can’t be bothered, as long as they can continue with their middle-class “lives of material comfort,” or they are convinced that resistance is futile. Much of this is the result of decades of martial law and an education system that, to this day, reinforces conformity and citizen’s responsibility to comply with top-down directives. Basically, the education system should have been reformed at its very foundations during democratization and the eight years of DPP rule, but it never was. Consequently, rather than serve as an incubator of ideas, it reinforces a conservative view of the citizen as subject. And most educators — many of whom are not worthy of the title — drill such views into their students, discouraging them from caring about politics and berating them (or calling their parents) if they refuse to listen.

As a result, the majority of young Taiwanese and the generation before them have little notion of revolt. The few who do either learned it while studying abroad, or through contact with outside material, literature, et cetera. The huge task of attracting more people to their cause and convincing them that risk-taking in the defense of one’s way of life is a worthy endeavor, discomforts notwithstanding, now lies upon their noble shoulders. This is dirty work, and many of them will be disparaged for being “violent,” “irrational” and “undemocratic” in their means, but at this stage, barring a return to accountability in government institutions and the judiciary, playing by the rules might just be the surest way to lose the game. If the movement gains enough momentum, the possibility exists that allies in government and within the KMT who currently lie dormant will join the ranks of the opposition and increase the pressure on the government. But people won’t know unless they try.

It’s never too late to start learning. L’homme révolté, the French philosophe Albert Camus wrote in his book of the same title, is defined by a “no.” What is this “no”? It is, among other things, the affirmation that “things have been the same for too long”; “Until now, yes, but beyond that, no”; “You have gone too far”; “There is a limit that you shall not transcend.” Simply put, it is the determination of a border, a frontier, and the will to combat any excesses that threaten to cross that line, beyond which lie the rights of the homme révolté. Je me révolte, donc nous sommes... (Photo by the author)

New! A Chinese-language translation of this article is available here.

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