Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Protests are a good start, but something larger is needed (中文 link at bottom)

Taiwan’s next-door neighbor Hong Kong has a wealth of experience to offer on how to turn civil society into a force for political change

The week of protests against the cross-strait service trade agreement continued this morning with a “siege” of the Legislative Yuan by the Youths against Service Industry Agreement with China Movement. But as youth climbed the fence and clashed with police — a common occurrence nowadays — I couldn’t help but think that all those efforts, commendable though they are, will avail to little if they aren’t part of a larger strategy.

After years of being criticized for not caring about politics, it is absolutely refreshing to see youth movements, often supported by artists and academics, take action against injustice, evictions, demolitions, murders in the military, and sheer government ineptitude. The individuals who have joined those efforts, some of them issue-specific, but most as part of a growing alliance of causes, are among the most extraordinary people I’ve had the chance to get to know in my almost eight years in Taiwan. Far from being troublemakers or anarchists, as some of their detractors might be tempted to describe them, the majority of activists are aware, highly educated and are increasingly willing to sacrifice their time, money, and personal comfort for causes that, in their view, are directly related to the fabric of their nation, present and future.

A protester in front of the legislature on July 31
One of the main factors behind their decision to take direct action is the widening gap between the government — a government of and for the rich — and the public. Simply put, the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) machine that lies behind him have grown increasingly disconnected from ordinary Taiwanese and downright voracious in their treatment of the weaker segments of society, who have the misfortune of standing in the way of the party’s definition of “modernity” and “development.”

Another related factor is the fact that Taiwan at present does not have an opposition party that can hold the KMT in check. Sadly, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is once again a mess, constantly fighting against itself, divisive, and incapable of looking beyond the next elections. Consequently, the party has been unable to propose any policy that appeals to today’s youth, let alone ones that could encourage light blues within the KMT to work with them. The Ma administration, therefore, doesn’t have to worry about the costs of disregarding public opinion. As long as it does just a little better than the DPP, and by using its unequaled financial resources, it will almost certainly prevail in future elections.

Faced with this situation, it is no surprise that a larger segment of the public has become disillusioned with politics and cynical about politicians. They are therefore taking matters in their own hands by organizing protests, conferences, breakfasts, film showings, and developing a truly fascinating Internet platform for information sharing and organization.

Protesters gather in front of the legislature on July 31
But such efforts will not, in and of themselves, change policy. They generate publicity, no doubt, and they gnaw away at the image of the Ma administration. They also serve as education tools so that the citizenry can be better informed about the issues over which they have mobilized. However, those battles must be part of a campaign and, unless the plan is to overthrow the government altogether, will ultimately need to translate into votes — enough votes so that policies that are detrimental to Taiwan are not adopted.

This starts at the local level: with families, friends, and with one’s local party chief. They need to be pressured non-stop, and then pressured again so that the ramifications of disregarding public sentiment are drilled into the local official’s head, and the message is then passed upwards. In other words, civil society must explore ways to translate its actions into political memes. The message must be such that it keeps local officials up at night wondering whether old practices will still be sufficient to keep them in power.

Organizers give give speeches outside the LY
I don’t pretend to have all the solutions to this challenge, but one thing that Taiwanese can certainly do — and must do — is to learn from other polities that have gone through similar processes. And for this kind of activity, I can’t think of a better place than Hong Kong. Not only is the territory replete with warnings and lessons for Taiwan, its civil society is highly activist and has developed various ways of making itself heard over the years (we must remember that unlike Taiwan, Hong Kong was never a democracy, not even under the British). Current movement leaders in Taiwan must look beyond their differences with people in Hong Kong and join hands with them, as they both are confronted to powers that are keen on keeping them in a state of subjugation. Taiwanese youth should explore opportunities for exchange programs with their counterparts in the territory, perhaps with some assistance from the universities or NGOs to which they are attached.

The time has come for idealistic Taiwanese to join forces with others. Protests cannot occur in a vacuum; someone must provide a master plan. (All photos by the author)

NEW: A Chinese version of this article is available here.

Andrew Yang is the man for the job

Then-deputy minister Yang addresses a crowd on July 20
Yang’s appointment was not purely political. It was the right move at the right time 

With the furor surrounding the death on July 4 of army corporal Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘) threatening to spiral out of control, it was only a matter of time before Minister of National Defense Kao Hua-chu (高華柱) stepped down to take responsibility for Hung’s death and the subsequent cover-up.

Although Hung’s family was right when they said on Monday that Kao’s replacement did not change a thing with regard to the case — as the 66-year-old was not directly responsible for the 24-year-old’s death — drastic action had to be taken and it was, for two main reasons.

For purely political reasons, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration needed to do something symbolic to show that it is being proactive about the case. When controversies snowball, it is not unusual for heads at the very top to roll. However, it is evident from the public’s reaction and that of the Hungs that the move was insufficient. The family, and the many others who over the years have been unable to obtain the truth about the mysterious deaths of young servicemen, want the cases to be solved. They want answers. 

By appointing Deputy Minister of National Defence Andrew Yang (楊念祖), who was Kao’s deputy on policy issues since September 2009, the administration may have taken a step in the right direction. 

My unsigned editorial, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here. (Photo by the author)

Monday, July 29, 2013

For young activists, the China threat looms large

Critics often say that Taiwan’s youth aren’t aware enough of what’s going on across the Taiwan Strait. But the student movement and its backers do, and they know that their country is at stake

Oh, how often I’ve heard this before, the double-edged encouragement that goes something like this: “I commend Taiwan’s youth for becoming more active politically, but the issues that they are concentrating on — Losheng (樂生), Huaguang (華光), Dapu (大埔), Yuanli (苑裡), media monopolization, workers’ rights, military service, and so on — are too local. Youth should tackle the ‘real’ threat: China.”

In most cases, that half-baked criticism has come from individuals who are not based in Taiwan, who don’t read Chinese, who have not plugged into the various Internet and social platforms that serve as youth’s modern command, control and communications system, and above all, they have not made the effort to get to know the actual players, the new leadership that has emerged in the past year or so. (It should be noted that many of the current leaders are “graduates” of the Wild Strawberries Movement, which points to continuity and rejuvenation rather than to the sudden emergence of something entirely new.)

Those of us who have actually followed the youth movement and the many academics, lawyers, and artists who support them, who have attended their meetings and information sessions, and who have seen them in action as they deliver speeches, get arrested, are dragged away, or are pummeled by riot police, know for a fact that they not only are fully aware of the larger context in which they take action, but that the very thing that motivates their efforts is the desire to prevent their country from being absorbed by China.

In many ways, the activists who have been agitating against the state-sponsored theft of people’s land and personal property, and who are now targeting Cabinet officials for their indifference to people’s suffering, are aware that their actions do not occur in a vacuum; hence the growing desire by some NGOs, such as the Taiwan Rural Front, to internationalize the issues. They know that beyond local corruption by officials like Miaoli County Commissioner Liu Cheng-hung (劉政鴻) there lies an entire system that is focused on self-enrichment at the expense of ordinary Taiwanese, and of Taiwan’s very way of life, if necessary.

Various groups at the LY
If anyone had any doubts about the activists’ ability to “connect the dots,” he or she should have spent some time on Ketagalan Boulevard on Sunday night, where hundreds gathered to protest the cross-strait services trade agreement that the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration is forcing upon an increasingly wary Taiwanese public. He or she would have encountered many familiar faces, the very same student leaders from Taiwan’s top universities who have risen up against media monopolization, the destruction of people’s homes, land seizures, and so on.

They, or at least a good number of them, are aware that behind all that land grabbing, behind all those hugely expensive housing complexes that are currently vacant, exists the very real possibility that this is all meant for Chinese money. Who else is going to invest in those science parks in Miaoli, those palaces in Taipei and Taichung, at a time when foreign direct investment (FDI) is running in he negative, for the first time in four decades? And therefore what are all those trade pacts intended for? For many of them, the services trade pact is a major worry, and what they have been hearing from various academics in recent weeks has certainly not assuaged their fears.

The main difference, and perhaps the reason why youth mobilization remains a rather unknown phenomenon, has been their approach: rather than storm the barricades at the strategic level like traditional defenders of Taiwan are doing at the moment — attack ECFA, attack China, attack the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) — the movement has chosen to tackle matters at the tactical level, from the bottom up, starting with issues that directly affect individuals. It then builds on that momentum, on the lessons learned, to then address the larger, more strategic challenges.

One other reason why it has been easy to discard the movement as irrelevant or naïve is that mainstream media have, for the most part, ignored them, choosing instead to focus on the traditional actors: the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the KMT, the government, and China. But beyond the headlines in the nation’s top newspapers, and behind the sensationalistic platitudes that far too often are regurgitated on popular talk shows, lies an entire world of the instantaneous, electronic, visual, artistic, where rap artists and graphic designers cooperate with graduate students in law, social sciences, political science and philosophy to create a better future for themselves and their country.

Laid-off Workers Alliance
For good reasons, Taiwan’s mainstream media has a rather unenviable reputation for shallowness, fabrication, and sensationalism. But little known to outsiders, Taiwan also has a surprisingly rich and active underground media environment, and this is where activists increasingly turn for information. Unless one pays attention to that environment, and until the time that mainstream media start to take notice of the tremendous potential that lies in today’s angry youth, all that will go unnoticed, and people will continue to criticize activist youth for their naivety and lack of effectiveness. (It is no coincidence that most of this author’s work on ongoing issues like Dapu and Huaguang hasn’t appeared in the Taipei Times, where he works.)

For the time being, mainstream media remain fixated on the forces that are part of the problem, and by doing so they themselves become part of the problem. Politicians have become so inebriated with power, so in deep with their donors and the financial institutions that prop them, that they have lost sight of, or are now unable to meet, their priorities. Too many people in the Ma administration and the KMT have become beholden to large corporations, banks, investors and land developers — and China — to be able to represent the interests of Taiwan’s 23 million citizens. As for the DPP, its politicians are themselves conflicted with their ideals, their financial backers, and have developed tunnel vision in their efforts to win the next elections, with the result that they have become disconnected from reality and unable to formulate policies that have any appeal with the public. With the KMT and the DPP a mess, it’s little wonder that today’s youth, the very people who are making the government nervous with their actions, and who likely constitute the crucial 20% of swing voters, will have nothing to do with them, though by doing so they also ensure that commercial media will continue to ignore them.

Of course, not every young person in Taiwan today is becoming an activist. I sat down with Chris Hughes, Professor of international relations at the London School of Economics (LSE), and other visiting academics on Sunday to discuss various issues pertaining to Taiwan. Youth was a subject that we discussed at length, and the delegation seemed very interested in hearing my thoughts on the recent movements. Hughes nevertheless had a point: for every young Taiwanese who fights for his ideals, there is bound to be another one who will look to China as the source of future money and employment opportunities, especially at a time of economic stagnation in Taiwan and pretty much elsewhere. So we cannot count on all young people to take action, and some in the latter category will likely do everything in their power to dissuade people their age from endeavoring to undo the very system that their future jobs depends on.

Rappers join the fray
Still, the number of activists is swelling, and the language they are using, the symbols they rely upon to express their anger, are changing. Their awareness that Taiwan may be at an important juncture — something the visiting academics sensed as well, pointing out that the Ma administration didn’t seem to have a master plan and therefore may have given the initiative to China — is helping shape their discourse. In the past two months I have noticed a marked hardening in the words used in slogans and art against the government, including the now popular “fuck the government” stickers, the “Today Dapu, tomorrow the government” slogan and the “civil revolt” towels. More and more, I see references to “overthrow,” “bring down” and “cleanse” on various Internet platforms, language that I had rarely seen in my nearly eight years as a journalist in this country.

A growing segment of Taiwanese society has had it with the cynical green/blue politics that have brought this country to a standstill and are making it easier for China to undermine Taiwan’s democracy. At the more granular level, they have also had enough with the facile “this is Miaoli, what do you expect?” remark to encourage inaction against a commissioner who, for far too long, has gotten away with behaving like a warlord.

Lines — dangerous lines — have been crossed, and more risk being crossed soon. Taiwan is fortunate it has a new generation of young, educated and idealistic individuals who will fight for their country. It’s long time we embraced them, just as this nation embraced the heroes of generations ago who fought the first series of battles in this ongoing war. (All photos by the author)

Artists defy Miaoli warning, 'street' premiere film at demolition site

Movie night in Dapu
Actions against the July 18 demolitions in Dapu continued on Saturday, with a movie showing and more flash protests 

Police in Dapu Borough (大埔), Miaoli Country, on Saturday night fined the organizers of a street premiere of director Chan Ching-lin’s (詹慶臨) film, A Breath from the Bottom (狀況排除), for “disturbing public order” by holding the screening at the site of the controversial demolition of residences in the borough earlier this month.

About 300 activists and members of the public joined Chan and other artistic figures at 7pm on Saturday in a show of solidarity with the four families whose homes and businesses were bulldozed on the orders of Miaoli County Commissioner Liu Cheng-hung (劉政鴻) on July 18, ending a three-year battle to halt the destructions.

A selection of the 2013 Taipei Film Festival, the black-and-white film tells the story of a father who joins demonstrations against the government after it switches off the water supply during a drought and his son, who is a police officer. Chan won the festival’s Best Director prize for the film.

Directors Leon Dai (戴立忍), Wu Yi-feng (吳乙峰), Hung Hung (鴻鴻) and Ko I-chen (柯一正), as well as actor Kao Ying-hsuan (高英軒), were among the many personalities who were present at the presentation, which also included musical performances. Several of them had also participated at a rally on Ketagalan Boulevard in Taipei on Thursday to support the victims of the Dapu demolitions.

Although Liu had threatened to deploy as many as 200 police to the site of the event, only a small number of plainclothes officers were dispatched, and the event proceeded without incident. Nevertheless, the organizers were still fined NT$1,200 for “disturbing public order,” because the screening was held at the site of one of the demolished buildings, a pharmacy, torn down to widen a road as part of a science park expansion project initiated by the county government.

Crashing President Ma's party
Following the demolitions on July 18, the Taiwan Rural Front and associated organizations launched a series of protests in Taipei, while numerous spontaneous demonstrations have targeted Cabinet officials in President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration at public venues around the nation, prompting the authorities to adopt measures that critics — including several hundred lawyers who voiced their opposition in an open letter late last week — have called illegal and disproportionate.

In the latest flash protest, four young activists took turns interrupting a speech given by Ma at an event sponsored by the Mainland Affairs Council in Greater Taichung on Saturday afternoon. Before being taken away, all four shouted the now-popular slogan: “You tear down the Dapu houses today, we will tear down the government tomorrow.”

My article appeared in the Taipei Times on July 29. (Photos Liberty Times)

Friday, July 26, 2013

Reading Orwell in Taipei

If Orwell were in Taiwan today, he would see government behavior that is worryingly familiar

The young Taiwanese man, not even in his 20s, sat across me this morning at my usual Starbucks. He was so absorbed in the book he was reading that he didn’t even notice that I was taking pictures of him. I felt I had to, as the scene was just too appropriate for the current times for me not to document it. The young man was reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

I’m not sure what Orwell, the ever-prescient British author and — we often forget — journalist whose understanding of the mechanisms of repression never seems to go out of fashion, would make of recent events in Taiwan. On can guess that he would disagree with the increased government restrictions on lawful protests and the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration’s disdain for journalists that we have experienced in recent weeks. He would likely say that he’s seen it all before: in Spain during the Civil War, in the British media of his time, and in Soviet propaganda after World War II, all of which served as the raw material for the dystopic world he created for Nineteen Eighty-Four.

More and more, the Ma administration is feeding us lies, and when the public refuses to believe them — pulverized houses and the crushed remnants of people’s lives tend to help cut through the crap — it turns to hardline tactics to silence the opposition. It calls on protesters to behave “rationally” and “peacefully,” but at the same time it breaks its own laws in repressing them, or rewrites them altogether. The National Security Bureau (NSB), which really should concentrate its finite resources fighting the Communist enemy, has stepped in, and “law-enforcement officers” who bear no uniform or insignia, and who will not identify themselves or cite articles of the law as they take people away or restrict their rights of access, are now frequently seen at protests. The ceaseless changing of the rules, the moving of goal posts, all under the umbrella of “the law,” is an art that has been perfected across the Taiwan Strait by the Ministry of State Security (MSS) and the People’s Armed Police (PAP), which anyone who’s had to deal with it will tell you isn’t of or for the people, but really against it.

Now special zones, where people can “express their opinions,” are being created for protesters to gather at when an important Cabinet official makes an appearance. Anyone who strays from those areas — and we can bet that they are located a safe distance away from said important officials, to make sure they cannot see or hear them — will either be brought back into the cage, or, as is becoming increasingly normal nowadays, will be spirited away. (I cannot help but think of the special protest zones that were established by the Chinese authorities for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.)

Journalists are increasingly facing similar constraints, evidently to ensure that devastating images and accounts of protesters, activists, residents, and academics as they are being dragged away, as their rights are being violated by the state apparatus, do not materialize. Constraints on journalists’ freedom to do their work were already imposed during the destruction of houses and commercial establishments at the Huaguang Community (華光) in Taipei earlier this year, ostensibly in reaction to the large amounts of extraordinarily moving images that were emanating from there.

Press passes and academic credentials are commodities of decreasing value these days, with law enforcement officers bluntly telling their holders that they don’t care — and that’s when they even bother to glance at them. Things haven’t reached the same lows observed in China, but one can sense the gradual shift in that direction, and it’s rather worrying. I sensed it as I walked in front of the Presidential Office earlier today, especially when I got to the “wrong” side; there’s something in the air that just doesn’t feel right. I’ve always made it a point to tell outsiders about the good access that journalists normally enjoy in Taiwan. I don’t know whether this is true anymore.

What would Orwell have done at a time like this, when he knew that grave injustice was being perpetrated against a people, but told by those in authority that he was barred from documenting it or would get into trouble for doing so? He would have found ways, and he would have stubbornly sided with the people against the authorities as they warp reality for the sake of their personal enrichment or for more nefarious ends.

And as a veteran of the many-fronted Spanish Civil War (I urge you to read Homage to Catalonia), he would have known which allies to side with, and would have stayed away from the opportunists and mediocrities that are now offering to help the activists and academics who have turned the screws on a government that, in turn, is screwing them. (Picture by the author)

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Taiwan’s handicap (中文 link at bottom)

It might be a while before the world realizes that a serious battle is being fought in Taiwan. But as the government becomes increasingly indifferent and repressive, that could change

Once again today, as I often have in the past, a young Taiwanese approached me and asked what could be done to help raise awareness about what is happening in Taiwan with international media like the BBC or CNN. Evidently, amid indications that the government has taken a more hardline and less accountable approach to politics, his real question was, Why doesn’t the world care about our fate?

As someone who has practiced journalism in Taiwan for nearly eight years, this is a question that I have often asked myself. My conclusion, after years of struggling to tell Taiwan’s story through major international media, is that Taiwan’s democratization during the 1980s was too successful. Now don’t get me wrong; by successful, I do not intend to create the impression that the island’s democracy is perfect — far from it: it is incomplete, unconsolidated, and torn by extraordinary pressures both from within and without.

What I mean by successful is that Taiwan’s democratization occurred without bloodshed, a truly rare instance in this part of the world. It also occurred at a time of tremendous optimism globally as the Soviet Union was crumbling and the forces of liberty seemed to be prevailing. In many ways, Taiwan was the perfect, logical example of the (since discredited) “end of history.” And with that, Taiwan became a victim of its own success. Taiwan was no longer authoritarian; people were no longer being disappeared or murdered by the state’s security apparatus, and furthermore its government had abandoned the delusional hopes of “re-taking” China.

Meanwhile, other countries within the region descended into chaos (Myanmar), threatened regional security with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles (North Korea), faced domestic insurgencies (Philippines), descended into instability (Thailand), or emerged as regional powers while maintaining high levels of repression (China). In contrast, Taiwan was stable, successful, modern, liberal and thus easily forgettable, especially after the year 2000, when China’s “rise,” in addition to its abominable human rights record, became the story in the media, often at the expense of Taiwan. More and more, international media ignored Taiwan, pulling out their reporters and shifting them to China. Furthermore, as Beijing’s influence grew abroad, looking too closely at Taiwan became too inconvenient; showing concern about it risked damaging ties with China.

July 24 protest at the Legislative Yuan in Taipei
I discussed this with Sophie Richardson, director of the China program at Human Rights Watch, during a visit to Washington, D.C., last year. I had first gotten in touch with her a few years earlier, when I had noticed that HRW had removed Taiwan from its list of countries on its Web site. My initial reaction had been to attribute the removal to pressure from China, which often endeavors to efface Taiwan’s presence abroad. However, Richardson told me that the principal reason was that HRW (like the media) had finite resources and had to allocate those to where human rights violations were most serious and frequent, a situation that certainly didn’t apply to Taiwan.

I agreed then. I’m not sure I do now, and that is why I think that organizations like HRW should take a close look at what’s been going on in Taiwan in recent months.

Before skeptics dismiss my views because of the news organization that employs me, I should state that I have always sought to maintain a neutral stance on the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Unlike many of the strident mouthpieces in the pro-green camp media, I have endeavored to become acquainted with government officials as well as members of both the DPP and the KMT. I came out confident that the government had good people in its ranks (and bad ones, like elsewhere) and that the KMT was not the monolithic monster that its enemies would like us to believe.

One consequence of those efforts is that I have avoided demonizing the KMT or the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration. I often have given them the benefit of the doubt, and never hesitated to criticize the DPP when criticism was due. For all that trouble, I was accused of “selling out” or of naively falling for the KMT’s lies, and even got into trouble with my employer.

Until recently, I think I was right in my assessment. But something has happened in recent months that warrants a reassessment. I’m not exactly sure whether it is the result of growing pressure from China, the 2016 presidential elections, or a desire on Ma’s part to accomplish certain things before he leaves office, but one thing is sure: we’re seeing an acceleration of state-sanctioned outrages against citizens, a growing reliance on police and the national security apparatus, and an increasingly restrictive environment for journalists.

Behind many of those infractions lies the issue of land, a precious commodity in Taiwan that I suspect is regarded by a small coterie of connected individuals as a potential gold mine if and when laws are amended that will allow Chinese to invest here. It’s been an ongoing process, and Chinese money is now allowed in major infrastructure projects like ports and airports, something that would have been inconceivable a few years ago. Unfortunately for all involved, the scarce commodity of land often has houses, businesses, farmland, and people on it, which makes seizing it evidently problematic. Or it should. By no means is the problem a recent phenomenon, or something that arose only after the KMT returned to power in 2008. The DPP faced similar issues, and on many occasions, how it handled the matter left a lot to be desired. However, in several instances — such as at the Huaguang Community (華光) in Taipei — it also chose not to act, and preferred to leave the problem to future administrations.

Victims of Dapu
But now, for some reason, the Ma government is showing signs of impatience. It, or investors and developers close to it, want the precious plots now, and the treatment reserved those who stand in the way has on several occasions led to what can only be characterized as human rights violations. By the end of September, Huaguang will be no more, to be replaced by a glitzy super mall for the super rich; in Dapu (大埔), Miaoli County, four homes were razed on July 18 under orders of County Commissioner Liu Cheng-hung (劉政鴻), an act that sparked outrage and a campaign of protests against Cabinet officials who broke promises and simply chose to look the other way. Dapu wasn’t Liu’s first act of terror, and it won’t be the last: the green light he has received from the government has now opened the door for further land grabs in his county as he attempts to create science parks and other mega projects. The fact that there simply isn’t enough demand or capital for those projects doesn’t seem to bother Liu or officials in Taipei. So what’s the alternative? I place my bets on investment from China.

Adding insult to injury, Liu has been unrepentant and unapologetic as people’s loves were destroyed by his acts. For its part, the Ma administration has responded to the public outrage with equal silence and repression of such magnitude as I had not seen since Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) chairman Chen Yunlin’s (陳雲林) visit to Taiwan in 2008. The only difference now is that no Chinese official needs to be present for the state to rely on its security apparatus to quiet dissent.

Unidentified enforcer
It is now known that the National Security Bureau has gotten involved as the protests snowball. During a protest on July 23, NSB officials were heard ordering police officers to take National Chengchi University professor Hsu Shih-jung (徐世榮) away, even though the academic had limited his actions to shouting slogans. On several occasions, people have been asked to show their I.D., told not to approach certain buildings (they did that to a legal expert from Academia Sinica yesterday as he approached the Howard Plaza, where Vice President Wu Den-yih [吳敦義] was attending a function), or have been taken away by police for reasons unknown. Moreover, a larger presence of plainclothes officers has been noticed, and those officers have repeatedly refused to give their name or reveal their organization to members of the public or to journalists, which has echoes of the authoritarian era. On several occasions, police have been unable or unwilling to state the articles of the law under which they took people away. And as this occurs, journalists have seen their access suffer, and often have been turned away or prevented from doing their work.

As those developments are causing serious harm to the image of the Ma government and becoming the subject of TV talk shows, we would imagine that the Presidential Office would seek to de-escalate, especially with local elections in 2014 and the presidential election in 2016. Instead, it escalated and chose an irrational path by rewarding the one person who has done most in recent months to hurt the KMT’s image, and who has become an object of hatred nationwide: during a party meeting on July 24, President Ma nominated Liu to the top of the list for the KMT Central Committee, as clear a sign as any that his government refuses to acknowledge — let alone address — public discontent with the whole Dapu affair. And Liu, who went to the intelligence school when he was young and went up the ranks locally as an official, now has greater ambitions following his retirement as county commissioner next year: he is rumored to be eyeing a shot as a legislator at large, and possibly even as a Cabinet official. 

Yes, the government has good people in its midst, including many career civil servants who were hired or rose under the previous administrations. But serving the Ma administration, they have all become silent, unwilling to challenge their masters and thereby complicit in the crimes that are now being perpetrated against Taiwanese.

I have worked for a government agency, one that, given its nature, tended to be rather unaccountable to the public. I know how easy it is for government officials (think Premier Jiang-Yi-huah [江宜樺]) to abandon their beliefs and humanity for the sake of a promotion, or to avoid being expelled. A few, like me, chose to leave when we could no longer countenance actions that were detrimental to democracy, but most stayed on and became part of the problem. The stakes were not extraordinarily high in Canada, and its democracy is resilient enough to survive. But Taiwan is in the crosshairs of what could possibly be the most successful authoritarian regime in all of history, by a regime that cannot wait to annihilate Taiwan’s democracy. With the return of the pro-unification gangster Chang An-le (張安樂) and the increasingly repressive and unaccountable behavior of the Ma administration, I find it difficult to believe that what we’re experiencing doesn’t have a Chinese component to it. The public is agitating, but eventually it will take government officials who are courageous enough to fight their own institutions for this country to survive as a liberal democracy.

Artists come out in support
Activists, students, academics, artists and members of the public are rising and shouting their anger; let’s hope some noble souls sitting in the ministries nearby hear their cries and act accordingly. It might be a while yet before the rest of the world realizes that a serious battle is being fought in Taiwan at the moment. (All photos by the author)

NEW! A Chinese version of this article is available here.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Real academics will fight for the nation

Real academics, those with integrity, know they have a responsibility to society to act as role models for the future leaders and citizens of this country

For a government that supposedly admires Confucian values, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration has lately been doing an abominable job in its treatment of the few academics left in Taiwan who have not sold their souls to mercantilism or to China.

There are worrying signs that the government, led by Ma, who was recently “re-elected” as Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) chairman in a “democratic” process that managed to be both farcical and illusory, is tightening the screws on dissent, while growing ever more distant from the public. In recent months, the process of theft and destruction of people’s property by the authorities has accelerated, from the outrage of Dapu Borough (大埔), Miaoli County, last week, to the Huaguang Community (華光) earlier this year, where more rounds of destruction are planned next month. No matter what victims and their supporters did, the government ignored their pleas and proceeded with grabbing whatever it wanted.

My unsigned editorial, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here. (Photo by the author)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

‘Today Dapu, tomorrow the government’ (中文 link at bottom)

As more protests erupt over the demolitions, disturbing trends in law enforcement call for close scrutiny

Eight years ago when I relocated to Taiwan, I never thought that one day, working as a journalist, I would be covering actions by people in this young democracy that, more and more, have the characteristics of guerrilla warfare. No, bombs are not going off and the military is not being attacked by small groups of men bearing assault rifles. But as people become disillusioned with an increasingly predatory government and a legislative and judicial system that cannot be counted on to ensure justice and fairness in this land, Taiwanese are standing up — and the outrage at Dapu (大埔) in Miaoli County last week appears to have lit a fire.

Peng Hsiu-chun, victim
Ever since people’s homes were torn down on the orders of the bandit Miaoli County Commissioner last Thursday, activists — a mix of students, artists, academics and NGO members — have embarked on a series of flash protests targeting senior government officials for their indifference to suffering, possible complicity in the act, and years of lies. Almost everywhere they go, senior officials are met with protests, and the leaders of the campaign have promised that those actions will not cease until justice has been met. At the weekend, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) headquarters, abuzz with President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) ridiculous “re-election” bid for chairmanship of the party, was egged by activists, and a number of his campaign activities encountered small but pointed protests.

The tactic seems to be working: on Monday, after being interrupted by protests during an event promoting the alleged virtues of the cross-strait trade agreement to be signed next week, Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) complained to the press that his efforts to talk about the pact had been “hijacked” by the protesters, who must feel terrible for making the premier uncomfortable.

Press conference on Ketagalan
The protests continued this morning with a press conference on Ketagalan Boulevard, a few hundred meters away from the Presidential Office and a sizeable turnout of police officers in riot gear and rolls of barbed wire. During the event, the Taiwan Rural Front and allied organizations issued an ultimatum against the government, warning it that if by August 18 — exactly one month after the demolitions — the government has not apologized for the demolitions and returned the land stolen from its owners (ostensibly to make way for a science park, though their properties were located on the peripheries), there would be hell to pay.

Remains of lives
As Taiwan Rural Front spokeswoman Frida Tsai (蔡培慧) and a number of academics railed against the government, Peng Hsiu-chun (彭秀春), a soft-spoken housewife and owner of one of the properties torn down last week, displayed the remains of family items — clothing, wedding photos, the bowl that she had used for the past decade — that were buried under the rubble of their home and subsequently dumped in a field.

After the press conference wrapped up, activists and journalists jumped into cabs and headed for the Ministry of Health and Welfare, where President Ma and Premier Jiang were attending an unveiling ceremony. Before I joined them, I tool a long look behind the line of police officers at the area in front of the Presidential Office, where I had covered the protest last Thursday, and where a senior police officer pushed me and, as I have related already, told me to leave because this was not my country.

Police awaits
As it turns out, after the protest had ended on July 18, something else happened that raises serious questions about the state of affairs in Taiwan. Unfortunately it occurred after I had left to go cover another unrelated protest, but thankfully it was caught on film and posted on the Internet. Based on the footage, police started asking anyone who was still in the area to show their I.D., and those who refused were immediately taken away and held for as many as three hours. Those acts were purportedly made legal through the creation of a “special district branch” which we’ve never heard of. Combined with the growing number of plainclothes and other individuals bearing no uniform or insignia used by law enforcement during protests (including today), such developments should give us pause.

Lin Fei-fan is taken away
The voluble cab driver took us to our destination on Tacheng St near Taipei Main Station, where several police officers were cordoning of the area. Little by little, as the protesters converged on the Ministry of Health and Welfare, clashes erupted, and once again police zeroed in on well-known protesters, including Lin Fei-fan (林飛帆), Chen Wei-ting (陳為廷) and Hung Chung-yen (洪崇晏), and prevented them from going any further. Clashes erupted almost simultaneously in various areas, often pitting a few men against large groups of police officers, or a pair of female officers against a single female demonstrator.

I then heard a loud scream and ran across the street, where I came upon Hung, blood dripping from a large gap at the back of his head. For a second, I feared that the tissue paper that was falling off the back of his head was actually brain matter. Hung had fallen during an altercation with police and knocked his head on the pavement. He remained defiant, stood up and holding a banner, but he was eventually taken to hospital, where he received three stitches under the guard of police officer, who then tried to take him to the police station, but were prevented doing so by friends of Hung who accompanied him at the hospital.

Hung, injured, defiant
Word is now going round that the authorities have identified Hung as a “security threat,” with conflicting reports mentioning possible orders from the National Security Bureau (NSB) or the National Security Council. Upon hearing this, I could not help think of the NSB’s inability to properly defend the country against Communist infiltration, or the many instances where visiting Chinese officials got away with molesting or raping young female staff at hotels. And yet Hung, a student of philosophy at NTU, is a threat to national security? Update: It’s confirmed, the NSB is involved.

I snapped more pictures of clashes and protesters chanting the slogan”[You] tear down houses in Dapu today; [we] tear down the government tomorrow,” and then followed a small group of activists as they tried to come in from another direction. Immediately, more clashes occurred, with a goon-like fridge of a man in a green T-shirt, but otherwise no identification, helping police with dragging protesters away.

Professor Hsu is dragged away and arrested
Then I came upon Hsu Shih-jung (徐世榮), a gentle professor of land economics at National Chengchi University (NCCU), as a group of police officers dragged him away across the street. Hsu has taken up the cause of the victims of Dapu and has actively sought justice for them, participating on protests and visiting Dapu on several occasions. Police claimed that Hsu had violated the Public Safety Act (公共危險罪) and arrested him. According to the professor and several witnesses, his only crime was to shout the same slogan that activists had been shouting all morning. As police were taking him away, young activists surrounded them, screaming “excessive police force!” Pictures that later emerged showed serious bruising on Professor Hsu’s armpits. Activists were able to track down the police officer who’d ordered Hsu’s arrest, who refused to identify himself or talk to them, saying “the investigation is supposed to be private,” whatever that means. There is something about the pictures that I took of Professor Hsu that I find … haunting. Hsu was later released for “lack of evidence.”

Chen Wei-ting speaks up
Ma and Jiang left and the protests ended, the police officers melting like ice cream on this extremely hot July morning. Most went into the shade, where oddly enough they struck conversations with some of the protesters. I sat down next to Lin Fei-fan, realizing I’d not had water for a while and feeling dizzy. The cops, seeing a long foreigner sweating like a pig, were amused. The atmosphere was rather out of place, coming as it did minutes after the clashes and the anger. Many cops said they were just doing their job, and a good number of them didn’t really seem to know what the groups were protesting against. A few said that if it’d been their day off, they’d have joined the protest — in jest, I’m sure. (All pictures by the author)

NEW! Chinese version available here.

Ex-premier Hau calls for ‘Chinese-style’ democracy, unification

Hau Pei-tsun speaks in Hong Kong
Under his proposed system, only a limited number of political parties would be allowed to field candidates 

Beijing must work with Taiwan toward “reunification” through a new mechanism of “Chinese-style” democracy that would limit the political arena to only a few political parties, former premier Hau Pei-tsun (郝柏村) has said.

Hau, who delivered a keynote speech at the City University of Hong Kong on Friday, said that only when China abandons the threat of force against Taiwan and the two sides embrace “Chinese-style” democracy will the “Chinese dream” be accomplished, the South China Morning Post reported on Sunday.

My article, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Desperate, the government turns to the courts and loses all moral standing (中文 link at bottom)

More and more, the Ma government is using lawsuits and the law in an attempt to deter and discredit young activists

I first met Wang Yun-hsiang (王雲祥) during a large protest against the destruction of houses in Taipei’s Huaguang Community (華光) in April this year. In fact, I didn’t even know his name when I took a photograph of the young man, the red letters on his T-shirt reading “street fight,” as he was being whisked away by police officers. On that day, the Taipei City government had moved in and bulldozed a number of houses and commercial establishments, claiming the residents had lived there illegally. From the rubble of Huaguang, city officials promised that a sparkling new complex for the rich would sprout, while the few human remnants were scattered to the winds, the tight knots of a community, formed over decades, severed forever.

Wang is taken away at Huaguang
As he was escorted right past me, where I stood on the tracks of an excavator, snapping pictures, Wang looked straight ahead, a light of defiance in his eyes that, when I met him again weeks, months later, had not died out. The young man was arrested that day, and his summons to court was last week. According to court documents, Wang was found guilty of obstructing the work of police officers in their line of duty. Using video footage, he contends that all he did that day was to try to mediate between another protester and police officers who were taking him away.

Was Wang, like others, involved in physical clashes with the hundreds of police officers who had been deployed to protect construction — strike that, demolition — workers as they perpetrated state-sanctioned violence against the poor, the elderly, and the infirm? Maybe. Since I was behind the police lines, one of the few individuals allowed in, thanks to my press credentials, I did not directly witness what happened in the melee. But on that fateful day, Wang and hundreds of others were fighting for their ideals, and for a just resolution to the years-long conflict.

The court sentenced Wang to 100 hours of community service so that he could “improve his behavior” and become a “better citizen.”

When I first heard of the ruling, my first reaction was to ask, But hasn’t Wang already done a lot more than 100 hours of community service, standing on the side of the weak and vulnerable against the vultures bearing the masks of “modernity” and “development”? Didn’t any of his actions, not only at Huaguang, but also in Yuanli (苑裡) and Dapu (大埔), both in Miaoli County, where he and others were roughed up, intimidated, and threatened by police and thugs as they once again attempted to erect a line against injustice, constitute time served? And above all, how could a judicial system presume to make Wang into a “better citizen” through community service when his very actions were inspired and motivated by the noblest of motives, when those at fault were not the protesters and the victims, but the government itself, a force that is evidently in cahoots with land developers and that has grown increasingly disconnected from the needs and fears of its citizens?

A cop pushes Wang away
Wang took the hit, and the very next day, undeterred, he was at it again, this time participating in a protest in front of the Presidential Office just as the bulldozers were moving in in Dapu. No sooner had he pointed his nose in front of the seat of power, where hundreds had gathered, than the police pushed him back, clear evidence that he was being singled out.

What is special about this otherwise ordinary, skinny young man is that he doesn’t fit the stereotype with which the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have become comfortable over the years. For Wang, who works in the visual arts sector, is of second-generation “mainlander” stock, which means absolutely nothing for a generation that was born here in Taiwan and identifies with the land (Wang even speaks Taiwanese). But for conservative forces, activists like him are problematic, as they cannot be placed in the typical category of ethnic conflict pitting “mainlander” against “Taiwanese.”

The CCP, and in many ways the KMT as well, would like nothing more than for Taiwan to remain divided along the old “ethnic” lines, but with Wang and several others his age, such divisions, both in terms of one’s “ethnicity” and voting preferences, are disappearing fast. More and more, and as society mobilizes against a series of outrages orchestrated or condoned by the government, Taiwan’s ethnic groups are fighting alongside one another, and oftentimes are doing so in cooperation with, or in the name of, individuals who are evidently of different “ethnic” background or political views. Only in today’s Taiwan could young Taiwanese, leaders like Lin Fei-fan (林飛帆) from Tainan, get themselves into trouble with the authorities for the sake of saving a house inhabited by an elderly KMT soldier who continues to revere Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), and whose memorabilia of the late dictator went down with the house.

It is no surprise that the authorities, faced with rising, organized, and heterogeneous activism, would seek to make examples of young men like Wang, or Chen Wei-ting (陳為廷), a Hakka from Miaoli who often has been targeted by law enforcement and pro-China media conglomerates (Chen was taken away by police at the weekend for throwing paint at the house of Miaoli County Commissioner’s house to protest the Dapu demolitions). In doing so, the government has increasingly relied on the courts, presumably hoping that fines, sentences, and community service would suffice to dissuade youth from continuing their opposition.

Kuo clashes with police on July 18
Wang and Chen are not alone. One day after the houses were demolished in Dapu, sparking nationwide outrage among citizens, academics, journalists, documentary filmmakers, and the artistic community, Kuo Guan-jun (郭冠均), another young activist, was arrested by police as he participated in one of the many flash protests that were launched that day targeting senior Cabinet officials. The next day, Kuo appeared in court, where he was accused of “endangering public safety” during a campaign event for President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). Images of the court schedule posted on the Internet showed the bails that had been set for a variety of people who were set to appear before him that day. The offenses were for drunk driving, theft and so on, and the bails ranged from NT$5,000 to NT$10,000. For some reason, Kuo’s was set at NT$30,000, which the Taiwan Rural Front, an NGO supporting land and farmers’ rights, eventually paid for.

If found guilty, Kuo could be sentenced to a maximum of five years’ imprisonment. Guo never even came close to President Ma.

Later the same day, activists Wang Chung-ming (王鐘銘) and Wu Hsueh-chan (吳學展) were detained and charged with violations of the Social Order Maintenance Act (社會秩序維護法) during an egg-throwing protest in front of the KMT headquarters building in Taipei.

That same weekend, during another campaign event for Ma, a mother of three, with no history of involvement in political issues, brought her three-year-old child to see Ma, and pretending to be a supporter, she was able to get close enough to him to shout: “Today it was Dapu, tomorrow it will be the government!” before a shaken president was whisked away by his security detail. Police then asked the woman to show them her I.D. card, a request that she complied with, even though law enforcement had no right to ask a citizen to provide such documents simply for having spoken her mind in public.

Chen Wei-ting
Increasingly, as the embattled government loses its footing, it will resort to heavy — in fact disproportionate — punishments against “unruly” youth that will no longer stand by as the government fails to abide by its contract with a people that brought it to power via democratic means. This will come in the form of jail sentences, fines, or lawsuits, all of which has already started to happen. In the process, the Ma administration will more and more resemble the governments of Singapore, which has perfected the art of using lawsuits to cow and discredit anyone who dares to oppose its soft authoritarianism, and that of China, which distorts the legal system to maintain its tight grip on the public.

The government, banking on so-called Confucian values that it is actively seeking to revive, is trying to make criminals out of young, idealistic individuals who are fully cognizant of the values upon which this nation was built. It accuses them of being “troublemakers,” or “professional protesters” whose actions are hurting the country’s image. But there is no doubt in the public’s mind that the activists, whose ranks are growing, are on the side of the angels, selflessly enduring injury, fatigue, ridicule and the threat of the courts in their battle to prove that two plus two isn’t five, as our increasingly Orwellian government claims, but indeed four. (All photos by the author)

NEW! A Chinese-language (中文) version of this article can be read here.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

With protesters at MND headquarters, calling for justice in the Hung Chung-chiu case

Taiwanese support the military and genuinely regard it as a tool to defend their nation. But they want transparency and accountability

I was somewhat divided on Saturday morning as I headed over to the Ministry of National Defense headquarters in Taipei to attend a mass rally calling for justice in the recent death of 23-year-old corporal Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘) and other mysterious deaths over the years.

Having spent several years covering the Taiwanese military for a local newspaper and specialized publications such as Jane’s Defence Weekly, I have struck many friendships in the armed forces, and have great admiration for several members of the force. Conversely, I also believe that MND owes it to its soldiers to address systemic issues of corruption and cover-ups in its ranks, especially at a time when the military is struggling to attract enough recruits to implement an all-volunteer service by 2015. As a strong proponent of Taiwan’s right to self-defense, I contend that it is essential that cases of criminal neglect and corruption be brought to light and dealt with accordingly to avoid such incidents breaking troop morale, and with that, the armed forces’ back.

Protesters call for justice
So I went, joining the estimated 15,000 to 30,000 people — the majority of them wearing white, as requested by the organizers — who encircled the headquarters building. People carried various placards and banners, with messages such as “Train the body, not become a body” and “We can handle the truth,” in reference to the Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson movie A Few Good Men. The parents of other young soldiers who have died in recent years under suspicious circumstances, and whose efforts to shed light on the tragedies had until now been met with silence and indifference by the authorities, were also present, showing pictures, military badges — and most disturbingly — photographs of the autopsies.

Tsai and his father
I briefly spoke with a young man surnamed Tsai (蔡) and his father, who became famous a few months ago when Tsai, who was then doing his compulsory service, made a scene at Taipei Main Station by refusing to go back to his base, which was caught on film and spread over the Internet. I myself had been too quick to judge Tsai at the time, believing that he was simply too soft for the military, or too selfish to sacrifice some of his time for the sake of his country. After what Tsai and his father told me, and after the terrible fate that befell Hung, I have altered my views on the matter. As it turns out, the young Tsai had grown up in the U.S. and didn’t speak Mandarin, a shortcoming that, he claimed, had led to serious physical abuse. “If my father hadn’t pulled me out of the military, I’d be one of them today,” he told me, jutting his chin towards placards with pictures of dead soldiers next to us.

Several protesters, young men who obviously had already undergone their military service, participated in a number of skits during the protest, parading to army songs with slightly altered lyrics and being “forced” to do push-ups while being abused by mock superiors. In the morning heat, the sun blazing on our heads, they repeatedly made it a point to sing the traditional song reminding soldiers to drink water, and then hydrated themselves — a powerful symbol, given that Hung had died not of “heat stroke,” as the media have referred to it, but rather of disseminated intra-vascular coagulation, or DIC, a much more serious condition.

Remember to drink!
In layman’s terms, DIC means that Hung, his body temperature having risen to 44 degrees Celsius, literally cooked internally (the autopsy pictures attest to the horror of his death). While in confinement, and for what now looks like his efforts to expose corruption among his superiors, Hung was forced to participate in various physical exercises under severe heat and was not given a drop of water to re-hydrate himself. As little as 300cc of water would have saved his life, but that was denied him, and on July 4, after falling in a coma and being taken to hospital, he died.

Throughout the event, organizers kept reminding the protesters to remain peaceful, and that call, despite the palpable anger among young men, women, and parents present, was respected. Otherwise, given the size of the crowd, the protesters would have made short shrift of the police and MP deployed around the MND building.

What soon became evident, both from the speeches and the behavior of the crowd, was that the protest wasn’t against the military, a very important distinction. It was, instead, a loud call for justice and the fair treatment of soldiers in the military, and for MND to fix the problems that had led to Hung’s death and that of others before him. The mood in fact clearly underscored the participants’ commitment to defending the nation. The composition of the crowd, moreover, left no doubt that this country has several young men and women who are willing to fight, and die, defending their country, despite what critics of the armed forces, and of Taiwan’s youth, often claim. It was impossible not to be moved when several thousands of Taiwanese started chanting guo fang bu jia you! (國防部加油!), or, “Go! Go! Ministry of National Defense!”

Andrew Yang addresses the crowd
Then a nervous-looking Deputy Minister of National Defense Andrew Yang (楊念祖), whom I have met on several occasions over the years, and who tends to make a lot more sense than many people in his ministry, climbed onto the lead protest vehicle and briefly addressed the crowd, under the close guard of two police officers holding round shields. Revealingly, and somewhat missed in media reports, Yang asked the public to give the ministry a chance to correct its mistakes and to prove that it can do better in the future. Yes, the deputy minister had publicly admitted that MND had committed mistakes in its handling of the Hung case, words that went well beyond what others in his ministry, and within the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration, had said to date. He then accepted the list of demands and manifesto from Citizen 1985, the organizer of the protest, and bowed to the crowd in apology, to thundering applause and very limited booing.

Yang did — and probably meant — well, though there are doubts as to his ability to force change within the armed forces. Despite his appointment, which was supported by former National Security Council secretary-general Su Chi (蘇起), a trusted Ma aide, Yang remains a policy man and has often been sidelined within his own ministry.

Parents seeking justice
It should also be said that unlike what critics were saying the following day, Yang never made any promises; he only accepted the manifesto and the demands handed him on Saturday. The deputy minister never vowed that an independent third party would be allowed to conduct an investigation into Hung’s case, and as such, he cannot be accused of breaking his promise when MND late on Saturday night issued a communiqué in which it reaffirmed its determination to keep the matter in the hands of military prosecutors (yes, this is problematic, albeit not unusual for military organizations the world over).

An old hero turns up
As many more people had turned up for the protest (organizers had expected 6,000), a planned march to the Legislative Yuan had to be cancelled. The numbers were a clear indication that the matter is one that they — people in the armed forces, recent recruits, soon-to-be recruits, potential ones, and parents — take very seriously. The ball is now it the MND and Ma administration’s camp. (All photos by the author.)

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Things coming apart, the Dapu outrage as a catalyst? [UPDATED]

Thuggish local officials, an unresponsive central government and the exploitation of the weak are creating an unstable brew of anger across Taiwan 

We all knew it was going to happen eventually, that efforts over three years by residents and their supporters, lawyers, journalists and academics to prevent a local government thug from destroying their homes would likely fail, but when the outrage was actually perpetrated on Thursday, the cold, hard reality hit home. On that day, as hundreds of people protested in front of the Presidential Office, the bulldozers rolled in and razed people’s homes in Dapu (大埔), Miaoli County, pulverizing wood, concrete, dreams, lives lived, memories — and faith in people’s ability to rectify government abuse through legal and peaceful processes.

More and more, Taiwanese are realizing that harsher, perhaps more extreme measures will be needed to unhinge a government that makes a travesty of democracy and rule of law while enriching itself and its cronies at the expense of ordinary citizens.

Protesters in front of the Presidential Office
I observed the latest round of protests on Ketagalan Boulevard against what can only be described as the criminal behavior of Miaoli County Commissioner Liu Cheng-hung (劉政鴻). The emotions, supercharged with the knowledge of what was happening at the same time down in Dapu, were palpable, and as expected, after a few speeches by activists and academics, clashes erupted, with waves of people rushing towards the Presidential Office, while rows of police officers pushed back with their shields. In the melee, Peng Hsiu-chun (彭秀春), whose house was among those being demolished, turned up, her face strained by emotions, sadness, and despair. “My home! They are destroying my home!” she said of an act that her husband, Chang Sen-wen (張森文), his mental state obliterated by recent developments, has to this day been kept secret from him. As the clashes continued, Peng was pushed by a police shield and collapsed to the ground, where she lost consciousness. Medics were sent to the scene, where they stabilized her neck, put her on a gurney, and spirited her away in an ambulance, as the angry crowd looked on.

Mrs Peng is taken away
Two large police buses then turned up, and the order was given for police to take the protesters away. The cops were also ordered to create a ring around the protesters and to keep journalists at bay. I circled round the scene as activists were forcefully shoved into the buses, frustrated at my inability to take good pictures of the action — a feeling that was shared among most photographers on the scene, who loudly voiced their complaints.

Then, just as one bus, its hull pregnant with dozens of protesters, was about to take off, I attempted to take one last picture of it (a female protester had managed to lodge herself against the front window) when a police officer used his shield to shove me away. He pushed so hard that my feet left the ground momentarily, but I managed to remain in position to take the shot. He approached me again and told me to bug off. “I’m a reporter,” I replied. “I’m doing my job.” It had the opposite effect. He turned on me and screamed, in English: “This is not your country! This is China, you have no business here!”

Activists are taken away
Now, to be fair, I cannot say with 100% certitude that he said China, as his accent was rather thick and there was a lot of noise, but immediately after this, a Taiwanese protester joined us and bellowed: “This is not China, this is Taiwan!” Whereupon the cop repeated his insult, this time making sure that this was not my country, that this was Taiwan. Correction notwithstanding, I had just been told by a police officer that foreign reporters had no business covering such developments, and as readers can very well imagine, this writer, who regards his work as a responsibility, did not appreciate his views at all. Since he’d chosen to speak English to me, I summoned the Bard and responded in such a voice that must have been heard all the way inside the Presidential Office. “I’m doing my work,” I hollered, following him around and repeating myself, my words punctuated by a few unprintable expletives. A senior — and rather friendlier — officer from the CID then intervened and quieted things down. I repeated to him what the cop had said to me, and the CID officer admitted that the junior cop shouldn’t have said that. “But you were standing in front of that bus,” he said. Fair enough, I replied, and we parted amicably, though deep inside I knew that journalists and photographers did what I did all the time. I thanked him and patted him on the shoulder (always keep allies in the ranks). Soon afterwards, a Taiwanese protester came over and nodded in the direction of a plainclothes police officer standing nearby. “Be careful, he’s watching you,” he murmured. Update: I had initially referred to the cop as being young, but I ran into him again at the protest in front of MND on Saturday morning, and realized that he is rather senior, with two lines and three stars. In other words, he really should have known better.

More protesters were shoved into a bus, and once again it was impossible for journalists to get close enough to the action. One, who had briefly succeeded in breaking through the line, was soon expelled, whereupon he launched himself into a series of colorful expletives.

The protest, which had lasted about one hour, wrapped up, and we all dispersed. Activists on the bus say they weren’t told where they were being taken, and decided to call the authorities to inform them that they had been kidnapped. Police eventually dropped them off near Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall.

By then, the homes in Dapu were no more. Under Liu’s orders, crew had moved in even before the residents could take all their personal belongings out. In fact, the residents were not even given enough time to pray to the land god before the workers demolished their homes, which according to Taiwanese beliefs will bring bad luck, as if they didn’t have enough of that already. Workers took out fridges and TV sets, but almost everything else — clothes, jewelry, money, photo albums — went down with the buildings, only to be dumped into a field nearby. Appearing on a talk show on FTV the following night, Peng, a sweet, humble woman who never asked to be forced onto the national scene, tearfully showed some of her clothes, covered in mud, ruined. She also displayed what was left of her wedding photo albums. Her wedding ring was somewhere in that field, under piles of debris, which continued to accumulate as city workers kept dumping stuff there. Images of their son sifting through the rubble, looking for their belongings, were heartbreaking. Update: On Saturday at noon, an order was issued for police to surround the dumping ground. It now seems that the Chang's personal belongings are being held hostage by the county government. Might it be because of the series of absolutely heart-rending pictures we have seem coming out of that field since last night, as the family and friends look for their cherished items? Or a personal vendetta to make the family suffer for daring to oppose Liu?

As academics had said at the protest and are now saying on talk shows, citizens had used all legal and peaceful means over three years, all means of suasion, had been given promises by then premier and now Vice President Wu Den-yih (吳敦義), only for the crime to be perpetrated anyway. The inaction of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has contented itself with playing the role of opposition party, and the silence of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislators, has also left activists disillusioned and desperate. It is no wonder that we are increasingly hearing calls for revolution, disobedience, guerrilla tactics, and more direct action. Or warnings to Liu that he will be hounded wherever he goes, that he should have police parked in front of his house 24 hours a day. The commissioner and his backers in Taipei have pushed people to the limit of their patience, and made it evident that traditional approaches, based on rule of law and reasoning, are failing — over Dapu, and over many other issues.

In front of KMT headquarters
So on Thursday night, Yang Ju-man (楊儒門), better known as the “Rice Bomber,” re-emerged and joined the cause by lobbing a paint bomb at the Presidential Office. The following morning, student activist Chen Wei-ting (陳為廷), better known for his role as a leader of the anti-media monopolization movement, visited one of Liu’s five homes in Miaoli (Chen himself is from there) and threw paint at it, before he was overpowered by police and taken away. Later that day, protesters gathered in front of the KMT headquarters building in Taipei, carrying pictures of old KMT revolutionaries and holding a press conference before throwing eggs at the building, prompting brief clashes with police and more muscular pain for this writer, who at one point was sandwiched between a concrete wall and a bulky police officer who was fighting off a protester. Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) campaign office (he’s running against only himself for the KMT chairmanship on Saturday in what is expected to be a very close race) was also heavily egged, and pig feces were thrown while he was on a visit on Chiayi. For his part, Wu was heckled by protesters during an event in Taipei. More and more, people from the inside are providing activists with the itineraries of government officials, which includes the Central News Agency (CNA) list of all government activities, known as the daily guo nei. CNA sends the list to news organizations every night at about 9:30.

Eggs fly
Just before the eggs started flying at the center of KMT power, Li An-cih, one of the activists who spoke during the press conference, quoted words by Japanese novelist Murakami Haruki which he had issued upon receiving the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society in 2009:

"Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg."

Loud and clear
It takes a lot to push Taiwanese to take non-peaceful measures, but from everything that has happened in recent months, and with the crime of Dapu perhaps serving as a catalyst, I believe we may soon cross a line where more direct — perhaps even violent — action will be taken. It’s always easy to regard individuals like the Rice Bomber as extremists, terrorists even, but how can we not agree with their tactics when years of rational efforts, abiding by legal and democratic rules, are simply ignored by those in power, by crooks who undo the very fabric of Taiwan’s democracy in the process of seizing valuable land to fatten their bank accounts, perhaps in expectation of the day when Taiwan will relax its regulations on Chinese purchase of land here?

Things might get ugly, and the government will only have itself to blame for what happens next. (All pictures by the author.)