Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Voices for Taiwan’s future

The battle for Taiwan’s future starts here at home, through endeavors that will ensure that honest and qualified individuals are given the responsibilities of high office

It’s been going on for several months now, and with the passage of time, their skin has been getting darker, their waists slimmer, and the battle wounds — a scratch here, a bruise there — have adding up. Over the past year, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young Taiwanese, most of them university students, though some are still in high school, have mobilized against a variety of issues, protested in Taipei and across Taiwan, organized information sessions and concerts, and developed a plethora of Web sites to monitor developments (sometimes almost in real-time), and to provide documents, photos, and film clips.

Aboriginal protester against the Miramar project
With the exception of the alliance against the monopolization of Taiwan’s media industry and the growing influence of China within the sector, all the issues that have animated and brought together the young protesters have been what we could describe as “local” in nature. From the opposition to the destruction of houses and small businesses in the Huaguang Community (華光) in Taipei to efforts to safeguard the residents of the Losheng Sanatorium (樂生) in Sinjhuang District (新莊), New Taipei City (新北市); from protests against the seizure and demolition of farmers’ houses and land in Miaoli County’s Dapu (大埔) to those targeting the construction of wind turbines dangerously close to residences in Yuanli (苑裡), again in Miaoli County; from efforts to halt the construction of a hotel resort on Aboriginal land on Taitung County’s Shanyuan Beach (杉原) to that of a cement factory in Dongcing Village (東清) on Orchid Island, the young activists have oftentimes sacrificed weekends, lost sleep, pulled all-nighters, skipped meals, been arrested, beaten up, followed, monitored, ridiculed, gotten heat strokes, caught colds, compromised their studies, and spent their own money to travel from one part of the country to the other. They did all of this not for the sake of self-aggrandizement, as some critics have proposed, but rather to draw attention to causes that, in their view, are important ones, and whose outcomes are a key component of their homeland’s identity.

Leaders have emerged in the process, and some have done exceptionally well, so much so that their efforts were attacked by individuals who, for example, were incredulous at the youth’s ability to raise relatively large sums of money for their causes. Others have come forward as reluctant public figures, by force of things pulled from obscurity as greater forces — often in the name of “progress” — threatened to destroy their homes, livelihoods, and so on.

Through their perseverance, youth activists have managed to make acts of injustice that would likely have been perpetrated unnoticed into ones that speak to the nation at large, attracting interest from the local media, and in some instances international ones. They have exposed government officials as complete liars, corporate leaders as thugs, county commissioners as crooks, legislators as self-serving, media moguls as unprincipled, and oftentimes brought out the very worst in individuals in positions of authority, forcing them to show their true colors to the electorate.

Protesters at Huaguang during a round of demolitions
One needs to be there, in their midst, exposed to the unforgiving elements, repelling PVC shields and muscle, to understand the depth of their determination. One needs to see the tears, the rage in their muddied faces, as protesters and victims fight for what they believe in, or for as little as the right to keep one’s roof over one’s head as rapacious governments and corporations seek to take those from them, again for the sake of “progress.” Equally, one needs to be amid the cops and the hired thugs to witness the unseen angles of the story, the sympathy for the protesters as a police officer drives a youth to the police station (“if someone built wind power units this close to my home, I’d be protesting, too”), the hired muscle who calls it quits as he no longer wants to fight “his own people,” the cop crying as people sing old Taiwanese songs at protests outside the Legislative Yuan, or the tears running down a female cop’s cheeks as an old farmer, her way of life threatened, confronts a member of the Executive Yuan.

There has been beauty, and there has been ugliness throughout. Some Taiwanese have donated money, rented tents, provided shelter, food, and encouragement. Others — including legislators from both sides of the divide, some who should know better as three decades ago they themselves (and their parents) were storming the barricades — have libelously referred to the activists as “professional protesters,” or accused them of undermining social stability. Others have called the youth of being naïve, of being played by unseen corporate forces, or of being mere pawns in the struggle between, in one instance, the nuclear and wind power industries. But as anyone who bothers to get to know them will quickly realize, those very same protesters — many of them graduates from the nation’s top universities — have mastered their subjects to a dot, and often offer commentary that goes well beyond the simplified accounts in the media or, help us, given by officials.

Activist in Yuanli
There are those who will give the young activists a paternal pat on the head and mild encouragement, but who will then argue that they need to grow up and tackle “real” issues, those that touch on Taiwan’s relations with China. However, there is terrible shortsightedness in regarding “local” protests as if they are somehow disconnected from the larger problematic of cross-strait relations, for in fact, the two are closely related. After all, how can we expect this government to kept Taiwan’s best interests at heart in its negotiations with China when its officials cannot even play fairly with their own citizens? How can, say, Vice President Wu Den-yih (吳敦義), who many believe has presidential aspirations for 2016, be a credible candidate when time and again he has given us proof that he is fully deserving of the unflattering nickname (hint: it rhymes with “friar”) that Taiwanese have given him? Or how can people place their hopes in the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) when it selects issues on the basis of their value as a tool by which to make the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) look bad ahead of important elections? Or when one of its most esteemed legislators, who comes from a family with an unassailable tradition of opposing injustice, belittles activists and browbeats other DPP legislators into silence, because the protesters oppose a project that involves a form energy that she has espoused — even when the implementation of that project leads to undeniable (and repeated) violations of human rights? Or that also acted inhumanely when it was in power, sometimes on the very issues that engender protests today?

The fact of the matter is, all those “local” issues are directly related to national ones: keeping officials, local and central, honest, while ensuring that the rights of every inhabitant on this island, whether he be rich or poor, young or elderly, are respected by those in power, are inherently about Taiwan’s relations with China, as they speak to the nature, spirit, and character of the government that rules over this nation. If officials in Taipei cannot ensure that Ms Zhang’s house in Dapu isn’t bulldozed to make way for a road, despite promises (which he now denies ever making) by then-premier Wu in 2010 that such an outcome would be averted, if Mr Chiang cannot be treated fairly by a city government that wants to erect a wonderland for the super-wealthy on the ashes of Huaguang, then how can we possibly expect them to be fair when they strike deals with the authoritarian vultures in Beijing? If crooks and miscreants are allowed to retain positions of power in Taiwan, they will remain crooks and miscreants in their dealings with China, and quite possibly so in amplified form.

The battle for Taiwan’s future, and for its democracy, starts here at home, through endeavors that will ensure that honest and qualified individuals, people who have Taiwan’s interests at heart, are given the responsibilities of high office. This is what the young protesters are doing, and they are aware of what’s at stake, both locally and nationally. (All photos by the author) Taipei Times version here.

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