Sunday, April 13, 2014

Corcuff: Negotiate, or face revolutionaries

In a guest post, Professor Stéphane Corcuff warns that a refusal by the government to listen to the demands of civil society could plant the seeds of future activism and instability

As the students declared the occupation of Taiwan’s parliament over at 6pm on Thursday, 10 April, and were exiting the legislature one by one under the applause of about 20,000 people on Jinnan Rd, the cleaning teams of volunteers who had surrounded the Legislative Yuan for three weeks were busy meeting a tough deadline — to evacuate tons of material by early morning.

Their work was officially finished at 3:10am on Friday, April 11. As daylight broke, there was nothing left on the streets; everything was perfectly clean. One could not but be amazed by the radical fortnight transformation of the scene. Some students fainted during the last day and night, during the last hours, and during daytime on Friday. The last went back home at around noon, after falling asleep in a nearby park on Linsen S Rd. Some slept on concrete or on the pavement.

The students who occupied Parliament had embarked on a long journey against Ma Ying-jeou’s style of government and policies. The first conclusion that could be drawn after their April 7 announcement that they would terminate their occupation was that the movement was not finishing, and would on the contrary go on from one cause to another, after gaining strong momentum by the three-week occupation. The angry protest on April 11 against Fang Yang-ning, the chief police officer of Zhongzheng First Police Precinct, appeared to be a possible confirmation of this, though the organizers were not the students themselves.

The cause of that protest was the double standards attributed to Fang: On one side, he had let Chang An-le, or the “White Wolf,” organize an illegal protest of a few hundreds people against the students occupying Parliament the week before, and had defended himself for doing so by saying that they were simply “passing by” (路過), even though Chang’s group was there for several hours and his militants attacked their opponents at least four times. On the other side, the morning after evacuation of the Parliament by the students, Fang revoked the permit to “occupy the road” (路權) (in fact, a portion of the sidewalk) in front of the Legislative Yuan. The permit had been granted to the Alliance for a Referendum to Protect Taiwan (公投護臺灣聯盟), a peaceful organization advocating a referendum on Taiwan’s official name and status. The Alliance had been there for almost five years.

People were already very upset with Fang’s perceived resentment of the Sunflower Movement. The term “路過,” or “I’m just passing by,” became a joke for anyone visiting any place or any person. The list of jokes made at the expense of people who supported the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) during the Sunflower movement also targeted Chiu Yi, a former KMT legislator, and his “bananas.” But when Fang revoked the permit for the Alliance, the humor turned into anger and calls for an apology and his resignation. The anger was palpable, and noted by many at the site, including the author.

One of the amazing dimensions of the Sunflower movement lays in the asymmetry of conventional political forces. Against a rich and hegemonic political party, which never lost power since 1945 (except the presidency of the Republic between 2000 and 2008, though it maintained a legislative majority), a student movement rose, and did so without the support of opposition parties. Its financial means were very limited, and it grew strong through organization and donations, hundreds of volunteers’ countless hours of work, intense social media use and immense sacrifices by many people who demonstrated astonishing energy. The KMT and President Ma control most of the power “inside the system” (體制), yet he appears to have little understanding, or at least little control, of what is outside it (體制外): the young, connected, disillusioned generation of Taiwanese that has re-politicized itself through a series of protests over various issues during Ma’s six years in office.

In spite of the disproportion of conventional political forces, they left Parliament with a general feeling among Taiwanese society that they had won the battle. If the conflict was asymmetrical and they nevertheless won, it meant that such a war was not fought on conventional grounds, and goes well beyond the traditional elements of political power controlled by President Ma, and which, under normal circumstances, should help him: the police force, the neutrality of foreign governments, the support of some key media, and the legality and logic of his stance that a legislature should not be occupied by demonstrators and should be left alone to produce laws.

Obviously, President Ma has failed so far to put an end to the determination and the strength of the students. The occupation of the parliament may even be the most, if not the only, successful movement of occupation launched in recent years around the world, and thus deserves to be studied outside the realm of Taiwan studies and of Taiwan watchers. The movement, indeed, has succeeded in:

-       radically altering President Ma’s agenda;
-       depriving the KMT in Taiwan and the Chinese Communist party of their self-attributed monopoly over the negotiation of agreements across the strait;
-       awakening the public over the necessity to have a critical and powerful legislature;
-       winning the support of a very significant portion of the population;
-       imposing the principle of a clear and transparent mechanism of cross-strait negotiation, of Legislative steering of agreements, and if necessary of renegotiation before final ratification;
-       reopening the complex question of Taiwan’s identity vis-à-vis China, a question that had been buried by a KMT that had turned sympathetic to China since its reconciliation with its decades-old enemy, the CCP, in 2005

In addition, and even if it was not its aim, the movement has provoked a deep feud within the KMT, one that that had not been seen since the Lee Teng-hui years, when the Taiwanese president was fighting against the non-mainstream conservative faction, especially between 1988-1990 and in 2000.

When on March 18 a few dozen students forced their way into parliament, they did not know, at the onset of the siege, how long they could hold their position – they announced the following day that they would try to occupy the legislature until … March 21. The movement succeeded in swiftly organizing itself and rallied the support of thousands of mostly young protesters who surrounded the Parliament day and night, forming a human corridor against possible police intervention. The movement lasted well beyond the initial expectations of the student leaders through a conjunction of public support, a high degree of organization, and the inability of the KMT to legitimize with compelling arguments the opaque conditions of negotiations with China, the absence of public evaluations of the impact of the agreements on Taiwan’s economy, and the virtual impossibility of the Parliament (due to the KMT’s legislative absolute majority) to amend articles of the pact or even reject the agreement in its entirety.

The stalemate was total. The students occupied a strategic location, and it was soon clear that the government would probably not use force against them, at least not in the Parliament (force was used to evict protesters when they occupied the Executive Yuan on the evening of March 23). The movement requested a review of the agreement article by article, but also a legal framework to supervise the growing number of cross-strait agreements (25 between June 2008 and February 2014). This was followed by a call for vast constitutional revisions, touching on the core issues of national identity in Taiwan. Ma flatly refused face-to-face debates in presence of the media. Supported by less than 10% of the population (one of the nicknames seen on a poster during the Sunflower movement read  “馬英9.2”) and with poor economic results at home, Ma had found it hard in previous months to legitimize his actions, and met increasing opposition from civil society over an increasing number of issues, ranging from nuclear energy, urban renewal or resentment over active government efforts to re-Sinicize school textbooks.

One man emerged, after twenty days, as a Deus ex machina: Legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng – an old competitor of Ma in the KMT. Unlike Ma, Wang was very popular and, most importantly, he was a native Taiwanese, in contrast with the Hong-Kong born, pro-unification Chinese mainlander Ma. Soft spoken, pragmatic and rational, Wang spoke to the students on April 6, asking them nicely to go back home in exchange for his decision — which stunned the KMT of which he is a member — of pushing for a vote on the supervision mechanism before the CSSTA can be reviewed again. Ma immediately rejected Wang’s offer, though while he counts on his party’s majority, he has no power to determine the legislative agenda. And while the KMT can threaten reluctant lawmakers that it will not nominate them for the next legislative elections, the latter will nevertheless fear that after securing their nomination, they might be voted out of office for following too strictly Mr. Ma’s orders on a delicate matter: the CSSTA.

Mr Ma seems very alone today. Though he was never appreciated by various clans within the KMT, who have always viewed him as a compromise option only, it is nevertheless difficult to forecast whether Taiwan’s Leninist party will strip him of his party chairmanship, for fear of an electoral backlash at the next (local) elections at the end of 2014. The KMT charter, indeed, has no mechanism to terminate the term of a chairman before the end of the mandate. And Ma will certainly not offer to resign from this position. However, his credit within the party is vastly diminished, and the announcement by the KMT on the day the students left Parliament they would again try to expel Speaker Wang from KMT is likely to spark a power struggle.

To his credit, Ma refrained from using force against the students in parliament, which paved the way for a more moderate solution. But the solution was not found by him either. Thus speaker Wang, together with student leaders Chen Wei-ting and Lin Fei-fan, emerged as the winners in the conflict against Ma. The president may remain chairman of the KMT, but it is probable that he will be a liability for KMT candidates in various elections in the two years that remain before the next legislative and presidential elections. We cannot imagine Mr. Ma, highly unpopular, endorsing any candidate without making a very “embarrassing” () situation for the latter.

The well-trained group of student activists has won the first big battle in what might well be a new war. Hyper-connected and active segments of the population can now directly play a role in society, in a form of direct democracy that at times forces indirect representative democracy to reform and deepen itself. This occurs in the context of Taiwan’s unfinished democratization amid deepening influence of an irredentist China on Taiwan politics.

The students might already have set the future agenda and shape of politics:

-       negotiations of agreements across the strait could be seriously halted and subject to supervision – otherwise Mr. Ma will likely see many repeats of the estimated 500,000 people who participated in the March 30 protest in Taipei;
-       the independence movement has found a new impetus and, very significantly, a future generation of leaders who will quickly abandon their studies to become professional politicians;
-       a series of new social movements will emerge in the months to come: issues related to social justice, taxes, big businesses, gay marriage, the fourth nuclear plant, and environmental issues…

In theory, these developments should force the KMT to reluctantly share more of its power. It is not, however, its elite-Mainlander pro-unification circle that will do such a policy shift. The key of the evolution is not yet in the hands of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) either, at least as long as its factions, which existed before the students were even born, remain divided. The key to the immediate future lies in the pressure by the civil society, and the Taiwanese legislators in the KMT, the forces on which Speaker Wang can count to counterbalance to the hyper-concentration of power in the hands of “9% Ma.”

This may well be a new phase in the democratization of Taiwan, a process that is far from over. And it is sending a clear message to the Chinese Communist Party: democracy might be constrained, but it is alive and it is fighting back. Taiwan is not China, and you should not imagine that a complacent KMT eager to seek benefits from unification is the only option that Taiwanese are ready to accept. It seems that China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) understands this, as it has acknowledged the necessity of according greater consideration to the opinion of Taiwanese people.

There are now two options that will be tested in the coming weeks. The first is escalation, and is not to be taken lightly. The two sides indeed do not appear ready to make concessions, for three reasons:

-       First, Ma has been extremely reluctant to listen to the students. Immediately after the cleaning of the legislature was completed, police moved in swiftly to barricade the building, which may be a sign that the government expects more demonstrations in reaction to government intransigence;
-       Second, the government at home, as well as emissaries of president Ma abroad, such as former vice president Vincent Siew at the Boao forum in Hainan, claim that Taiwan must quickly pass the CSSTA as if nothing had happened – it appears that China has been more realistic in noticing that something has changed;
-       And third, as said, the KMT announced on the very day students left Parliament that it would appeal the judicial decision confirming that Wang could retain his party membership. If the KMT succeeded in expelling Wang from the KMT (over accusations of improperly using his influence in a case against an opposition DPP legislator), Wang would immediately lose his status as legislator-at-large, and, ipso facto, his position as Speaker. All this seems to indicate that the KMT is not showing any flexibility at the moment.

As far as they are concerned, the students left the scene with an ambivalent feeling: they were happy to go home and rest, conscious that they had written history and probably changed the course of Taiwan’s politics, to great acclaim. On the night of their leaving the legislature, a Liberty Times poll found that over 70 percent of the population believed that the movement had brought something positive to Taiwan. But they were also sour about their half victory on the legislative review of the CSSTA, the absence of consensus on the supervision mechanism (seven versions, including a government-drafted one, are to be reviewed), and the seeming impossibility of redesigning the outdated Republic of China constitution of 1947 that is used to govern Taiwan. The activists therefore left the legislature conscious that they must prepare for future protests and determined to organize themselves politically. And they were extremely angry with Ma, even more than with the “crap” KMT legislators they denounced for blindly following Ma’s orders and abandoning their mission of representing the people.

Immense quantities of material were accumulated during the crisis. Perishable goods have been distributed – many to poor and homeless people. Some artifacts have been stored at two locations in greater Taipei. It is difficult to imagine that students organized to that extent had not foreseen the possibility of reusing such material if and when necessary. Ma understood it probably, or may have not, but is clear anyway that they will come back, especially since Ma is not showing any sign of appeasement. No one should be surprised that Taiwan’s Parliament is now sealed off with barbed wire in a way that, ironically, isn’t reminiscent of Martial Law, because even during that dark period in Taiwan’s history, it was not sealed off this way. The Parliament is now the third public building in Taipei prepared for a siege, after the presidential office — now protected by a military contingent of 500 men — and the Executive Yuan.

“This doesn’t look good on democracy,” a foreign observer noted, referring to the barbed wire.

The second scenario is one of negotiations, compromise, and progressive evolution. Ma’s KMT might ultimately be forced to do so, but it will do so only under people’s pressure or because of a feud within the party. Although the students used careful language most of the time, most of them were nevertheless wearing T-shirts that called for … revolution. This might be a dream of young and idealistic people who do not know what revolution means. But revolutionaries do not always know what it means until they actually make it happen. Deaf governance is planting the seeds of civil disobedience, but if this is combined with the perception that the government is pro-China, and if Ma does not listen at all the warnings sent by civil society, it might lead to further, more dramatic developments.

The next issue the KMT has to face is whether to sue the student leaders or not, and, if they are convicted, to have them imprisoned. The government already declared it wanted to imprison some students “for many years.” But shouldn’t it be left to judges to decide whether they broke the law, and if they did, what penalty should be applied? Mr. Ma’s KMT may be dreaming of doing to the students what it did to former president Chen Shui-bian, putting him in prison and darkening his image in a relentless effort to kill the Taiwan Independence movement. What the KMT does no seem to understand is that doing so will only fuel resentment. The authorities would be well advised to read Ted Gurr’s 1971 acclaimed book Why Men Rebel

To finish with, it seems that there are four conditions for social protests to become a threat to governments: they become regular, their themes vary and multiply, their efforts appeal to and draw the involvement of different generations, and it extends geographically. By being more respectful of democracy, the rule of law and the feelings of Taiwanese society towards unification with China, the KMT could have avoided the emergence of the Sunflower Movement. If the administration refuses to see the situation and to listen to the voice of the people, it is likely that the KMT and its chairman will plant the seeds of many future movements. And some of those could be more radical.

Stéphane Corcuff is a researcher at the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei. (Photo by J. Michael Cole)

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