Monday, March 31, 2014

China’s gangster proxy threatens Sunflower Movement

Gangster-turned-politician Chang An-le now appears to be a factor in the ongoing crisis at the legislature 

One thing that’s been on a lot of people’s mind in recent days (it certainly has been on mine) is how President Ma Ying-jeou, who has backed himself into a tight corner over the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA), will get out of this. As I’ve already argued, widespread criticism of the police crackdown on protesters occupying the Executive Yuan on March 23-24 makes it unlikely that force will be used again to expel the thousands of activists in and around the Legislative Yuan. But what if someone else were to do that for them?

Since day one of the occupation of the LY on March 18, gangster Chang An-le (張安樂), the leader of the Unification Party and ex-Bamboo Union leader, has agitated against the protesters. On at least two occasions his goons turned up at the site and attempted to pick a fight with the students, threatening them with knives, firecrackers, and homemade bombs.

Chang, who should be in court defending himself, was released on bail in June 2013 a few hours after his return to Taiwan, which he’d fled amid a nationwide crackdown on organized crime 18 years ago. Rather than be tied up with lawyers and court summons, Chang, also known as “White Wolf” (), has appeared on TV shows, brushed elbows with local KMT politicians, bought support with “humanitarian” aid, and opened campaign offices around the country — even in Tainan, the “heartland” of Taiwanese independence.

And he’s flexed his old unreformed muscles by threatening various people, including the leaders of an NGO fighting for the rights of laid-off workers, the Dalai Lama, and Tainan Mayor William Lai (賴清德). Chang himself showed up briefly after the first goon “knife” incident at the LY, surrounded by individuals you’d never trust your daughter with (the same thug-looking types who surrounded him when Chang sat a few meters away from me at a popular drinking hole in Taipei a few months ago).

With no end of the occupation at the LY in sight, Chang has now called upon 2,000 of his “friends” to retake the legislature tomorrow, April 1. Given who his friends are, it’s difficult to imagine that they would do so through gentle persuasion (the irony of a man who advocates for unification with an authoritarian regime seeking to liberate the legislature is an unctuous one). “Netizens” with ostensible ties to Chang have also now called for the occupation of movement leader Lin Fei-fan’s home in Tainan. The message was left on the “White Justice Alliance” Facebook page. Ahead of the movement’s mass protest on Ketagalan Blvd and around the LY on March 30, Lin had received a text message on his cell phone threatening that “blood would be spilled” if their proceeded, a threat that was taken seriously enough as to warrant police protection for the two students.

One interesting thing about Chang’s press conference is that two of the individuals who were on a “workers’ union” panel with him have been attacking Lin Fei-fan and Chen Wei-ting, another student leader, since the latter led a movement seeking to counter the pro-China Want Want China Times’ acquisition of Next Media’s Taiwan operations in 2012. Both of them, New Chinese Children Association head Wang Puchen (王炳忠) and Chinese Culture University history graduate student Lin Ming-cheng (林明正), have been strong proponents of controversial changes to textbooks that promote a more “Chinese” identity. The pair are members of the pro-unification New Party’s Youth Alliance.

As I wrote last week, a series of attempts to block the posting of evidence about police abuse during the raid on the EY on various Internet platforms (including Wikipedia) were traced back to the China Times Group.

The truly worrying thing about this development is that everybody knows that Chang is a proxy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and that he has brought back to Taiwan practices of terror and intimidation that are sadly commonplace in China. United Front efforts aside (China watchers are well aware of the role of organized crime in Beijing’s United Front work), the White Wolf’s involvement in politics is a threat to social stability and national security. Not only do his actions put the lives of young Taiwanese at risk, they also pose a threat to the police officers that are currently deployed at the LY.

The responsibility for any resulting injuries to the students or police officers would rest squarely on the shoulders of the Ma administration that should long ago have dealt with Chang’s return the proper way. Until the situation changes, we can only conclude that Ma’s failure to deal with Chang, and the National Police Administration’s turning a blind eye to his nefarious activities, are the result of a decision to allow organized crime to do the administration’s dirty work. Another possible explanation is that the authorities do not understand the damage that someone like Chang, who evidently does not understand the workings of democracy, can do to society. (Photo by the author)  

Hundreds of thousands protest against trade pact

Protests over a Taiwan-China trade pact continued, with up to 350,000 attending a rally outside the Presidential Office and near the legislature 

As the crisis over a controversial trade pact with China entered its twelfth day on March 30, approximately 350,000 Taiwanese held a daylong rally near the Presidential Office in Taipei and around the Legislative Yuan, which has been occupied by students since March 18.Held after failed attempts at negotiations between the leaders of the Sunflower Student Movement and the government, and two press conferences by President Ma Ying-jeou, the “330” protest was organized with memories fresh on everybody’s mind of a bloody crackdown at the Executive Yuan. 

During the night of March 23-24, riot police evicted thousands of activists from the seat of the Cabinet. About 170 people were hurt in the clashes, with activists accounting for the most serious injuries. During a public address on March 29, Lin Fei-fan, one of the leaders of the Sunflower Movement who has camped out at the legislature since March 18, said that the “330” protest could be called off if President Ma met their demands. As Ma failed to respond according to their wishes during his second press conference, the leadership elected to proceed with the rally, which was scheduled to start at 1pm. Ma, however, argues that he did respond to the protestors’ demands, and wants them to go home so that the legislature can resume its operations. 

My article, published today in The Diplomat, continues here. (Photo by the author)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Ma Ying-jeou’s point of no return

Having underestimated the heterogenous nature of the Sunflower Movement and the resilience of its leadership, the Ma administration now finds itself in a very uncomfortable position 

With some half-a-million people joining the Sunflower Student Movement protest on Ketagalan Blvd and around the Legislative Yuan on Sunday, the question on everybody’s mind was how President Ma Ying-jeou, barricaded inside the Presidential Office, could possibly extricate himself out of the mess he’s created for himself. 

It’s not like Ma and his advisers haven’t had time to see this coming. After all, the student-led campaign against the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) at the center of the crisis had gone on for several months already when a few hundred students climbed the walls around the LY on that fateful evening of March 18. For months, as academics, NGOs, business groups and students alerted the public to the pact’s possible nefarious consequences to Taiwan’s economy and liberties, the Ma administration responded with indifference, then contempt, and finally police shields, batons, and court summons. 

My op-ed, published today in Taiwan News, continues here. (Photo by the author)

Saturday, March 29, 2014

SWAT teams deployed to protect Presidential Office

In a worrying development, anti-terrorist units have reportedly been activated to protect the seat of government ahead of a planned protest

Well, maybe it was al-Qaeda after all. News has emerged today, one day ahead of the 330 Sunflower Student Movement protest on Ketagalan Blvd, that a total of 60 elite Night Hawk special forces have been activated at the Presidential Office to ensure security amid times of political uncertainty.

For anyone who’s never heard of them, those are the guys who wear black uniforms, break bricks with their bare knuckles, jump through flames, perform gravity-defying martial arts, rappel down buildings, can shoot a gun blindfolded, and storm buses during hostage situations. Presumably, those are the muscle that would also intervene if the People’s Liberation Army or actual terrorist attempted to do nasty things here.

Let us remember that the thousands of people who have occupied the Legislative Yuan since March 18 to protest a trade agreement with China, and those who escalated matters on March 23 by invading the Executive Yuan, are mostly students. Many of them are not even of voting age. Yes, some of them unfortunately broke a few windows, damaged a few computers, unhinged a few doors, removed a plaque at the LY and ate someone’s cakes. But those people, however hard the government tries to depict them as “violent,” “extremists,” and members of an al-Qaeda cell, are not a threat to national security. They sing songs, distribute bento boxes, listen to impromptu lectures, sleep on cardboard mattresses outside the legislature, read Orwell and Said, and take lots of photographs.

Okay, you might say, but what about the 120 or so police officers that were reported injured during the occupation of the EY in the night of March 23-24. One hundred and twenty against, again according to government figures, about 50 civilians. Those figures are pretty hard to believe, given that the civilians had no body protection or weapons, whereas police had shields, helmets, body armor (riot police), truncheons, rods, and batons. Oh, but what the government has not revealed is that the majority of the police injured (there are hospital records to prove it) had suffered nothing more serious than wrung wrists, sprained muscles in their backs, or symptoms of tennis elbow (which perhaps means a lot of, uh, “swinging action”). In one instance, a female police officer was reportedly “attacked” by student protesters — with a towel. Yes, a terroristic towel, of all things! Hell yes, we need S.W.A.T. units to counter those! Meanwhile, of the about 50 protesters who required treatment, some had concussions, broken bones, split heads.

One question that’s doing the rounds now is whether the Night Hawks (those guys usually come with guns) have rubber bullets. The Ma Ying-jeou administration has already said that it gives the protesters until midnight after Sunday’s protest to clear the area near the Presidential Office, which has turned into a kind of unsightly bunker in recent weeks. Or else, we might find out the answer to that question. (The organizers of the protest have called on all participants to be peaceful and to not provoke law-enforcement authorities.)

It’s unclear whether special forces would intervene and use force against unarmed protesters (presumably they would only take action of people managed to slip through the barricades and stormed the Presidential Office). Aside from the resulting injuries to those who are met with such force, the main loser would be the Ma government, whose image internationally would suffer a terrible blow. Their mere deployment tomorrow already reflects poorly on the administration. 

Let us pray that clear heads prevail in government. S.W.A.T. teams are unnecessary. Let them keep honing their skills to meet the real threats to this nation’s way of life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 27, 2014

324: Police brutality or commensurate response?

Police action on the night of March 23 to 24 to expel protesters from the Executive Yuan was marred by several acts that were not proportionate to the threat

Much mystery and disinformation continues to surround the events of the night of March 23 to 24 in and around the Executive Yuan in Taipei, which hours earlier was occupied by thousands of protesters angry at the government’s handling of a controversial trade pact with China. While the unprecedented move, which occurred five days after the occupation of the nearby Legislative Yuan, represented a major escalation, several questions have been raised about the police response to the act. Was the crackdown justified, or did law enforcement authorities go too far?

Depending on the source one turns to for information, police action to expel the protesters spanned the entire spectrum, from the irenic to the genocidal. In the days following the incident, the highly polarized media in Taiwan made it difficult to clearly assess the situation, though photographic and video evidence has since trickled out, as have eyewitness accounts.

Based on the evidence released to date, as well as this writer’s observations at the site of the clashes, we can exclude, with a certain degree of confidence, the more extreme accounts of what happened. The response was neither velvet gloved, as argued by Premier Jiang Yi-huah, nor was it a second 228 Massacre, as green-leaning media have hyperbolically described it. As it usually does, the “truth” lies somewhere in between.

My article, published today at the China Policy Institute Blog, University of Nottingham, continues here. (Photo by the author)

President Ma in the tower of solitude

Surrounded by cowards and sycophants, President Ma is now alone as civil society defies a state apparatus that no longer works

Maybe the unarmed school-age protesters whose limbs were smashed by riot police batons at the Executive Yuan on Sunday night would disagree with this, but President Ma Ying-jeou’s shoes must be just about the worst place in the world to be in right now.

From a president who rode in high on slogans — believed by many — that he would “save” Taiwan’s economy and create a new era of peace in the Taiwan Strait, Mr. Ma is now, like Icarus, on a downwards spiral. And it wasn’t his nemeses in the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) that did it, as its many factions were too disorganized and busy fighting each other to accomplish such a feat. No. Civic groups, led by university students, did it. And for anyone who has followed social activists over the past 24 months and seen the contempt with which the Ma administration has held them, the current political crisis does not come as a surprise. In fact, it was almost inevitable.

It didn’t have to be that way. Initial bumps in the road notwithstanding (police action during ARATS chairman Chen Yunlin’s breakthrough visit to Taiwan in 2008, the mishandling of Typhon Morakot in 2009), Mr. Ma’s first term was not disastrous. His efforts to liberalize relations with China were, on the surface, beneficial, if only as they normalized ties with an economy that Taiwan cannot afford to ignore. Those were signals that, for better or worse, the international community wanted to hear if Taiwan is to have a shot at joining the regional FTA bandwagon. Ma furthermore stuck to his promise not to engage in sensitive political talks with Beijing, and for the most part, the comfortable “status quo” remained in place.

But something happened in the second term, and sadly for him, this is the one by which he will be most remembered. By surrounding himself with a Cabinet of cowards and sycophants, the president has actually succeeded in undermining democracy — not in the country just yet, and we have civil society to thank for that, but certainly within his party, where a regime of intimidation has succeeded in silencing critics. As a result, Ma, a man with a proclivity for aloofness to begin with, has grown increasingly disconnected from reality. In many ways, his word has become the law, and he relies on a close group of individuals, Premier Jiang Yi-huah among them, to keep everybody in line.

Mr. Ma’s personality doesn’t help either; his tendency to regard setbacks as a personal affront precludes the possibility of compromise, as the current standoff over the CSSTA makes perfectly clear. Ma the intransigent, outwitted by graduate students, has responded by hardening his position (and sending in police to crack down on protesters).

There is every reason to believe as well that President Ma’s administration has failed to set the agenda in cross-strait negotiations and that it is therefore forced into a reactive position, not a good spot to be in when negotiating with the Chinese. Tremendous pressure from Beijing under an impatient Xi Jinping seems to have forced Ma to accelerate the pace of things, which runs directly against public expectations and has led to the mess we’re currently in.

Over the past two years, hundreds, thousands of activists, most of them students, have helped expose Ma’s true nature and revealed the government’s abuse of the democratic mechanisms that we hold dear.

Ma, who might soon grow nostalgic for the nearly double-digit approval rating he currently enjoys, now finds himself vulnerable, alone in his high tower, surrounded by a dwindling handful of desperate yes-men. Already the courts have shown that they can act independently and against the wishes of the president on fundamental issues. As a resentful Ma becomes more authoritarian in response (and past behavior suggests that this is how he will respond), other agencies, and more importantly, people within his party — Wang Jyn-ping and Eric Chu come to mind — will distance themselves from him. The stage has been set for the next move, which will likely come from the more liberal elements within the party, who coincidentally agree with the basic ideology of the Sunflower Movement.

In the past six years the more liberal-mined elements within the KMT were cowed into silence, afraid to stand up to a relatively popular president. But electoral pressures will likely change that, and as a result they won’t allow him to sabotage the party’s image any more than he has in recent months. Mr. Ma cannot run for a third term in 2016, but someone else within his party will. And that person would like to win.

Pro-China ‘Opinion monitors’ at work in Taiwan crisis?

In the war for the public opinion over the Sunflower Movement, the pro-government side has resorted to techniques that are all-too familiar across the Taiwan Strait

Pan-blue and pro-China media have been at work since day one of the Sunflower Movement’s occupation of the legislature, seeking to discredit the organizers while providing strictly pro-government propaganda about a controversial trade pact with China that sparked the whole mess. Those outlets redoubled their efforts following the bloody police crackdown on occupiers of the Executive Yuan on Sunday.

Some religiously echoed the government’s version of events, such as that provided by Premier Jiang Yi-huah, who obviously cannot tell the difference between a gentle tap on the shoulder and being hit in the ribs by a nightstick, gave airtime to “pundits” like the ludicrous Chiu Yi (who can’t tell the difference between sunflowers and bananas). Others meanwhile fabricated stories about the “violent” protesters and their alleged connections to a certain political party.

Those media outlets are well known for their lack of professionalism, and their performance at this important juncture in the nation’s history, though deplorable, is not unexpected. (That is not to say that pan-green media have been blameless in this, as they too have occasionally engaged in ethically questionable pursuits, mostly of the hyperbolic type.)

Less known are behind-the-scenes efforts, for which there is mounting evidence, to counter, if not outright delete, information about and footage of the instances of disproportionate response by riot police during the incident at the EY. Interestingly, this development occurs just as the Chinese government confirms the existence of a training program, launched in 2006, for about 2 million “opinion monitors.”

Soon after the streets in front of the EY had been cleared by the several hundreds of police officers deployed that night, witnesses of the night’s events began posting videos on Internet platforms such as YouTube. One such video showed riot police swinging their truncheons ad hitting unarmed protesters, an event that I and another foreign reporter witnessed firsthand on Beiping Rd behind the EY. A few moments later, the videos were no longer available (thankfully those were stored elsewhere and are now circulating on the Internet).

On Tuesday a Taiwanese approached me to complain that his efforts to update the Wikipedia page created for the Sunflower Student Movement with a link to my eyewitness account in The Diplomat of the raid at the EY had been frustrated by other users. A quick look into the posting history showed IP address repeatedly deleted the reference. Asked to explain his/her action, the user wrote, “Use of excessive force is subjective. Do not confuse issues.” Lasersharp, the registered user who had attempted to post the reference to my article, then retorted, “yours is based on [Premier] Jiang’s statement, whereas excessive force used in Diplomat source is based on eyewitnesses, sorry.” replied with, “Please stop abusing Wikipedia to push your personal agenda with subjective statements,” and “Mr. Jiang has nothing to do with this. There’s no evidence of excessive force as yet other than claims by activists. Don't make stuff up.” (I am now informed that attempts to link articles in the Taipei Times have equally been blocked.)

After posting something about this on my Facebook page, a friend who is immensely more knowledgeable than me about these things (kudos to Brock!) conducted his own investigation into And what came up was rather interesting, to put it mildly. According to him, the IP address is associated with a communications company that operates in both China and Taiwan. Furthermore — and this is mightily relevant — the company appears to have links to, or is owned by, the Want Want Group, the pro-China media company whose outlets have been among the worst offenders in the media splurge, with their scandalously bad coverage of the Sunflower Movement.

Which brings us back to the aforementioned “opinion monitors.” As, citing Xinhua, reported on March 25, “Once trained, monitors will ‘supervise’ the posting of social media messages, deleting those that are deemed harmful.” It continues, “Beijing claims to have deployed ‘advanced filtering technology’ to identify problematic posts, and will need to ‘rapidly filter out false, harmful, incorrect, or even reactionary information.’” Opinion monitors kicked into action recently over a series of attacks that state propagandists attributed to “Xinjiang terrorists.”

Coincidentally, as I write this article a Facebook user who I do not know has been going through my recent pictures on Facebook and left several comments disparaging the protesters’ artwork at the LY. With the simple click of a button, I was able to rid myself of that annoyance. Blocking China’s nefarious influence on free speech here will sadly require harder work.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Al-Qaeda occupies the Legislative Yuan and other absurdities

Forget conspiracies and terror training camps. The students are simply more clever than the government officials in the Ma administration

After a week during which pro-government media used every possible false analogy to discredit the Sunflower Movement — calling them “violent,” likening them to Nazis — it seemed that we had reached the outer edges of absurdity. But then, when the movement slipped past security and occupied the Executive Yuan on Sunday, people within the ruling party felt they had to come up with something new.

Legislator Chiang Hui-chen (江惠貞) was certainly happy to oblige, and on Monday she compared the student leaders to al-Qaeda, the international terrorist organization responsible for, among other things, the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the 2000 attack on the USS Cole off Yemen, 9/11, the 2004 Madrid Bombings and the 2005 London attacks.

According to Chiang, who evidently commands a vast body of knowledge about terrorism, the Sunflower Movement was “too well organized” and “too well trained” to be a simple student movement. Implicit in his remarks was the view that (a) university students are too dumb to pull off such a stunt and (b) some obscure force must have orchestrated the whole thing — the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), former chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), or perhaps outside elements.

Student leader Wei Yang at the EY on Sunday night
The reality, however, is a lot less complicated. Issuing from the nation’s top universities, the leaders of the Movement are, for the most part, a lot more intelligent, and certainly more tech-savvy, than your ordinary civil servant. It is therefore well within their capability to organize such a campaign. As to their training, secret camps deeps in the mountains were not necessary; the leaders have been at it for the past 24 months, and their training ground was to be found in the streets of Taipei, in Miaoli, and elsewhere around the nation where government policy broke democratic rules of the game. Some of them were part of the Wild Strawberries; others go back a few more years, with involvement in the Wild Lily student movement.

But the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration, on the defensive and with public opinion turning against it, had to lash out and strike fear in the hearts of the constituents. This has been the tactic from the beginning of the crisis, and several media outlets were happy to help out. (Ironically, the government has been mum about two incidents outside the Legislative Yuan involving gang members, armed with knives and improvised explosives, be associated with the pro-unification Chang An-le.)

Perhaps the allusions to Osama bin Laden’s evildoers and to a party that was responsible for millions of deaths in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s went a little too far. Surely, a far more reasonable Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺), a man who when a professor at NTU taught Hannah Arendt,* knew to stay well clear of such hyperbole. Yet Jiang didn’t completely skip the conspiracy theories either, and has hinted at a possible coordinating role by the DPP. Coincidentally, news reports were indicating that some of the protest leaders had at one point interned at Tsai’s think tank, the Thinking Taiwan Foundation, claims that her office did not deny.

But here again, people looking for secret societies and intricate political plots will be disappointed. As the Foundation said in its response, the student leaders were fully capable of independent thought and initiative. They didn’t need the support or promptings of politicians to agitate against bad government policy. In fact, most of the main leaders of the Movement have been protesting for the past 24 months over a variety of issues, from media monopolization to forced evictions. (This reminds me of the KMT claim in September 2011 that the Liberty Times Group and the DPP had ordered me to write an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal pointing out lax counterintelligence measures by the administration, as if I could not have reached such conclusions on my own. My employment with the green Taipei Times continues to haunt me, with critics of my recent articles in The Diplomat about the Movement arguing that my positive depiction of the activists stems from my past affiliation with the Times, a newspaper from which I resigned in anger.)

Moreover, those among us who have followed the activists known that they have been adamant since the beginning that they did not want to be the tools of any political party and have taken measures to ensure a safe distance between them.

So yes, some of the student leaders have had “contact” with Tsai’s Foundation, but the reason they did so isn’t because she is forming her own private army. Instead, it is because she understands to role and importance of civil society, one of the crucial components of a healthy democracy, and knows that the future leaders of this country are among them. Furthermore, she did so at a time when Su Tseng-chang’s (蘇貞昌) more conservative DPP was not taking social activists seriously (at least until last week), a policy that directly influenced the student leadership’s decision to stay away from the party.

There’s no nefarious plot afoot; the mundane reality is that a group of university students has taken on the government and prevailed. This is not good for the vast egos of seasoned politicians. But even more importantly, it is a stark reminder that the current crisis is not a ploy by the opposition for the sake of the coming elections. It is, rather, a symptom of a much larger social malaise and snowballing discontent with a government that has grown ever more distant from the people. (Photos by the author) 

* Apparently I wasnclear enough: Jiang did not teach Arendt as a student, evidently, but rather her works.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Riot police crack down on Taiwanese protesters

Despite the escalation by an alliance against the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement, riot police used disproportionate force against unarmed young protesters at the Executive Yuan

The standoff over a controversial trade agreement between Taiwan and China that began on March 19 with the occupation of the legislature took a turn for the worse on March 23 after riot police turned on protesters who had occupied the nearby Executive Yuan, injuring several dozens.

Sunday night’s dramatic events occurred a day after an unsuccessful meeting between Premier Jiang Yi-huah and Lin Fei-fan, one of the leaders of the “sunflower revolution,” and following an international press conference by President Ma Ying-jeou, who refused to meet the group’s demands. Since March 19, tens of thousands of Taiwanese have protested outside the legislature, while about 300 — mostly students — remain shacked up inside the building.

Protesters at the Executive Yuan, 9:00PM
The alliance against the services trade pact, an amalgam of student organizations, lawyers, and civic organizations, had initially demanded that the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA), signed in China in June 2013, be reviewed clause-by-clause by the legislature, that a mechanism be set to monitor future agreements with China, and that President Ma apologize for the crisis. It later changed its demands by requesting that the pact be annulled altogether and calling for a national conference on the matter.

Many Taiwanese, including leading economists and politicians, fear that the problematic pact, which was negotiated behind closed doors, will damage vulnerable sectors of Taiwan’s economy. Others fear it plays into Beijing’s unification goals. Although 70 percent of the public favors a line-by-line review of the agreement, President Ma’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) broke a promise on March 19 (following deadlock in the legislature) to hold such a review and sent it directly to a plenary session for a vote, sparking the crisis (the KMT has a legislative majority and the Central Committee has threatened any dissenter with suspension).

My article, published today in The Diplomat, continues here. (Photos by the author)

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Occupy the Legislature: Jiang Yi-huah v. Lin Fei-fan

A ‘summit’ between the premier and a student leader didn’t yield anything, with both sides talking past each another

As President Ma Ying-jeou continues to refuse to address the students’ demands over the Cross Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA), Premier Jiang Yi-huah jumped into the fray on Saturday by visiting the students at the Legislative Yuan — occupied since Tuesday night — for “dialogue.”

After an hour’ delay, Jiang, who was initially scheduled to arrive at three, parted a sea of protesters around the legislature and, after a brief period of chaos as reporters fought like wolves over a prized lamb, reached the side gate of the building on Qingdao Rd, where leader Lin Fei-fan, a graduate student at National Taiwan University, awaited. Jiang was flanked by Minister of Education Chiang Wei-ling (who did not say a word) and a handful of police officers.

Lin Fei-fan, right, speaks, as Lai Chung-chiang listens
Not unexpectedly, the “summit” was not exactly a resounding success, primarily because Jiang, presumably channeling President Ma, was there to lecture rather than engage in negotiations with the students, who have made clear demands regarding the pact and future negotiations with China. Jiang, standing a few meters away from Lin, said the Executive Yuan wanted the CSSTA passed because the pact was “fundamentally good” for Taiwan’s economy, a position that is disputed by many economists. Furthermore, as the activists have long argued, the EY isn’t the only institution that should be involved in determining whether agreements with an authoritarian and irredentist China are “good” for the nation. Jiang also refused to commit to establishing oversight regulations for future agreements with China, another demand of the activists.

As could be expected when emotions run high, the summit wasn’t without its glitches. Lai Chung-chiang (賴中強), a lawyer with the Anti-Blackbox Service Agreement Alliance who stood next to Lin, often interrupted Jiang. Despite efforts by Lin to appease a disgruntled Lai, the lack of courtesy didn’t go unnoticed and may have cast a shadow on what was otherwise a significant development. (This is a battle to win hearts and minds; impolite behavior gives ammunition to the other side, which in this case has a compliant media and big business behind it. This was a tactical mistake that played right into Jiang’s hands and those who argue that the protesters are undemocratic.

For his part, Lin met the challenge with brio and would only cut Jiang short when the premier detracted from the demands. “Mr. Premier, you have all the mechanisms. If you want to speak to the public, you can hold press conferences whenever you want. However, we don’t have a lot of time, so please answer the questions,” Lin said at one point.

After Jiang, who smiled throughout, said that he had no intention of scrapping the pact altogether, the crowd cut him short and shouted, “Return the CSSTA!” and demanded direct communication with President Ma, who has so far refused to meet the protesters. Seeing that no progress could be made, Lin politely sent Jiang packing, sparking another bout of turmoil among journalists and Jiang’s surprisingly small security detail (a sign, again, that law enforcement authorities do not perceive the protesters as a threat to officials).

Police and journalists engage in a shoving match
Following the meeting, Jiang told a press conference that Taiwan could not afford to kill the pact, adding that it would help create 12,000 jobs and that it was a stepping stone to future agreements with other countries, rhetoric that the Ma administration used repeatedly ahead of the passing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with China in 2010. Jiang nevertheless said he hoped the pact would be “examined thoroughly” in the legislature. It wasn’t clear whether this meant a clause-by-clause review of the pact, which the two main political parties had agreed upon last year (the KMT broke that promise earlier this week, sparking the recent events at the legislature).

Following the summit, the activists inside the legislature issued their own press release.

“We believe that the Ma administration drafted, negotiated and signed the CSSTA behind closed doors in lieu of a monitoring mechanism for cross-strait agreements,” it said. “Despite the controversy, the administration has failed to properly explain its impact on Taiwan and its economy — holding just 10 public hearings in the span of less than a week.” As I noted in an earlier article, the problem isn’t just that the public hearings were rushed, but also that they were more show than substance.

“As we saw during the passage of the ECFA between 2009 and 2010, the current review process for cross-strait agreements in the legislature amounts to little more than a rubber stamp — exemplifying the undemocratic and autocratic nature of the Ma administration,” the group said.

“As a result, we — supported by tens of thousands of citizens with us and the millions more in support — repeat here that we demand that the CSSTA be sent back for renegotiation. We reject Premier [Jiang’s] comments and continue to await more constructive dialogue from President Ma Ying-jeou.”

So the standoff and occupation of the Legislative Yuan continues, and throughout the day KMT headquarters nationwide were confronted with protests.

A side note, which is based on my on-site observations in recent days and discussions with other journalists: Citizen 1985 types seem to have taken over public control around the legislature, erecting “boxes” in which protesters must remain while denying people access to certain areas. They have constantly bugged journalists, which on occasion has made it difficult for us to do our work (we waved them off today, however as we awaited Jiang’s arrival at the site). As I observed in a previous article, Citizen 1985, whose members consider themselves “high class” and who have had no compunction in smearing organizations like the Black Island Youth Alliance — one of the groups behind the occupy movement — are control freaks who constantly strive to reassure the authorities that their activities are peaceful. Close observation of their activities last year has led me to question both their allegiance and effectiveness (several of the original members have left the organization since its inception, and there is chatter, which I must emphasize remains unsubstantiated at this point, that some of them my in fact work in China). (Photos by the author)

The Sunflower Revolution continues

Several tens of thousands of Taiwanese, young and old, continued the standoff at the legislature on Friday amid fears of a police crackdown

The noon, March 21 deadline came and went, and President Ma Ying-jeou, who’s been having a terrible week, refused to meet the demands made by the activists who have occupied the Legislative Yuan since Tuesday over a controversial services trade agreement with China.

Braving a cold front and overnight showers, the students and supporters remained undeterred as rumors circulated throughout the day that the order had been given to expel the 300 or so activists from the main chamber of the legislature. As promised on Thursday if President Ma didn’t meet their demands, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its smaller ally, the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), held their own rallies outside the legislature.

Lunch time, at the TSU protest zone
Besides the generational difference between the students who had gathered at the legislature since Tuesday night and the participants in the DPP and TSU rallies — whose average age must have been at least thrice that of the former — another contrast was the language of the speeches, which was markedly ideological where that of the youth is pragmatic. Having listened to hundreds of speeches in the past four days, it wasn’t hard to see that, overlapping interests notwithstanding, the youth’s approach to the problem was likely to have much greater appeal with the general public than that of the green-camp politicians, who once again occasionally resorted to language that divides (i.e, “mainlander” versus “Taiwanese”). Additionally, it was hard not to think that none of this would have been possible had matters been left in the hands of green politicians, who now were more than happy to capitalize on the youth’s months of efforts.

Both these things — the age difference and ideology — again highlighted how unlikely it was that the students would be the pawns of, or have been misled by, the DPP, as the Ma administration and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), as well as Beijing mouthpieces, continue to allege.

Meanwhile, police were busy erecting barriers and laying barbed wire outside the Executive Yuan and in front of the Presidential Office on Ketagalan Boulevard.

As night approached, waves of people, the majority of them young people, converged on the legislature. By 9pm, the entire area was completely packed and organizers had to ask people to move elsewhere. On the side of the building were youth had gathered since Wednesday, moving around was nigh impossible; covering a mere 100 meters took 10-15 minutes. Crowd estimates are an art rather than a science; by this author’s estimate, the crowd had very likely surpassed the 30,000 who were said to have gathered at the legislature the previous night. 

Freedom of speech
All over the site, citizens were invited to address the crowd to share their views on the pact; small groups walked around displaying various placards; bands played music. Organizers distributed food (rice porridge) and beverages; others collected garbage, directed the crowds, or ensured an orderly process at the chemical toilets, whose population has also exploded in recent days. Some read books (one was absorbed in a Chinese version of Brave New World). A number of dogs as well as a duck, equally worried about the negative repercussions of implementing the services trade pact, strutted around, bearing flags and other apparel.

Throughout the night there were rumors that water cannon trucks were on the way and that police would use teargas. Ma had given the order, it was said, but immediately human rights associations filed a lawsuit against him and the police chief saying such a move would endanger the safety of students and police alike. Large groups of police offices bearing PVC shields and batons eventually turned up, leading to speculation that the raid was about top begin, but this was a false alarm; they were there to take over the previous shift. As the off-duty police left the building, protesters opened a corridor for them began cheering and applauding them. There was many a teary eye among the cops as they left. A few were smiling, obviously moved. One mid-aged police shook hands with a few protesters and thanked them profusely. For anyone out there who continue to claim that the protesters are violent — including Taiwan’s envoy to the U.S. King Pu-tsung, who repeated the term four times in less than a minute during a press conference on Thursday — the scene put a lie to that.

Citizens give speeches all over the site
The students have said hey will continue to occupy the legislature until Ma, who seems to have lost the support of Legislative Speaker Wang Jyn-ping, agrees to all their demands — an apology, withdrawal of the the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) and that priority be given to passing rules that would stipulate the legislature’s powers to oversee all future cross-strait agreements. Protests were also held in Taichung, Tainan, and Kaohsiung. The students have also called for nationwide protests at KMT headquarters on Saturday (barricades were already going up around the HQ in Taipei on Friday night). Word has it that the KMT HQ in Kaohsiung is already surrounded.

It was a difficult day for Ma. First, Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin said the protests were legal and that protesters could stay there indefinitely. Tainan Mayor William Lai, meanwhile, told Ma, who had dinner with his mother, was not welcome to Tainan for a scheduled ceremony and that he should stay in Taipei to deal with the crisis.

Meanwhile, a TVBS poll showed interesting numbers, with 48% of respondents supporting the students and 40% opposing them. Seventy percent were in favor of an item-by-item review of the CSSTA, while only 8% hoped for a quick vote on the whole package — basically the KMT’s position. Forty eight percent said they opposed the CSSTA, while 21% supported it, a drop of 11% since last October; 69% said they were not very clear about the content of the agreement, a drop of 16% from October. (Photos by the author)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Occupy the LY: Smear tactics and Taiwan’s compliant media

Efforts by the government to discredit the occupy the legislature movement are facilitated by media that have no problem with regurgitating the official line

As the occupation of Taiwan’s legislature by thousands of protesters enters its third day, the architecture of power on the island is once again resorting to the age-old tactic of slandering its opponents in order to discredit them with the public and an inattentive international community.

Immediately after approximately 300 activists, angered by a sudden decision by the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to bypass full review of a controversial cross-strait trade agreement, climbed over the poorly defended gate of the Legislative Yuan on March 17 and barricaded themselves inside the building, government authorities and compliant media began characterizing the protesters as “irrational” and “violent.” While witnesses at the scene, and those who watched the incident via live stream video, saw no shred of evidence to support such claims, word got out that the activists had “vandalized” and “destroyed” the legislature. Several Taiwanese journalists repeated the allegations on their Facebook pages, without first checking the facts or bothering to visit the site to see for themselves. 

My article, published today on the China Policy Institute Blog, University of Nottingham, continues here. (Photo by the author)

Taiwanese occupy legislature over China pact

More than 10,000 people have descended on the legislature to protest the government's handling of a highly controversial trade agreement with China

Thousands of Taiwanese were surrounding and occupying the Legislative Yuan (LY) in Taipei on March 19 after legislators from the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) expedited the review process of a services trade pact with China that many fear could have damaging repercussions on Taiwan’s economy and sovereignty.

Controversy over the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) began in June 2013 after negotiators from Taiwan’s semi-official Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) signed the agreement, a follow-on to the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) signed in 2010, with their Chinese counterparts. The breadth and scope of the reciprocal agreement, which was negotiated behind closed doors and would open various sectors of the service industry to China, was such that many legislators from the KMT, whose leadership favors closer ties with China, balked, fearing the pact’s repercussions on their constituencies.

After the KMT imposed internal measures making dissent grounds for expulsion, its reluctant legislators fell in line and began the process of passing the pact in the legislature.

Thousands gather outside the LY on March 19
However, close scrutiny by opposition lawmakers, academics, and civic organizations, which held a series of peaceful protests, compelled the government to submit the CSSTA to the legislature for consideration. Further pressure from civil society, which feared negative consequences of the pact not only for Taiwan’s economy, but also for freedom of speech and other aspects of the nation’s democracy, eventually forced the government to compromise. A June 25, 2013 agreement stipulated that the pact would be reviewed clause-by-clause. Additionally, on September 25, parties agreed to hold a total of 16 public hearings — eight chaired by the KMT, and eight by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) — for consultations with academics, NGOs, and many of the sectors that stood to be affected by the pact.

My article, published today in The Diplomat, continues here. (Photos by the author)

Is Taiwan’s military becoming too small to fight?

With conscription ending and budgets limited, Taiwan may have to make do with a smaller defense force 

As the gap in military capabilities between Taiwan and China continues to widen, talk of a substantial active forces reduction by Taipei is once again fueling speculation that the island may have given up on defense, perhaps after concluding that resistance is futile and unification inevitable. Is such a decision, occurring while the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues to enjoy double-digit budget growth, confirmation that Taipei is ready to capitulate, or is it part of a plan to maximize the return on stagnant defense expenditures and ensure excellence among volunteer soldiers? 

It all starts with the “Jingtsui Program,” an effort initiated by President Ma Ying-jeou soon after his election in 2008 to phase out conscription and create an all-volunteer military. Under initial plans, conscription, which accounted for approximately one-third of the total active force, was to cease by 2014. However, because of an inability to meet recruitment goals (total recruitment for 2013 was less than one-third of its target of 28,000, with only 8,600 people signing up in the first 11 months), implementation of the program has been delayed twice, and a complete phasing out of the conscription system is now set for 2017. 

My feature, published today in The Diplomat, continues here.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

L’Homme révolté (中文 link at bottom)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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