By Julie Yu-Wen Chen and Helen Russell.
On Saturday 3rd August hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese, including many young people, took to the streets of Taipei to demand an explanation for the death of soldier Hung Chung-Chiu. The vague answers put forward by officials regarding his death have outraged the public. Hung died as a result of abuse following disproportionate punishment for the minor offense of having a cell phone. The protesters believe that the military is corrupt and are actively voicing their frustration and are demanding political reform. This commentary suggests that the democratic development and achievement in Taiwan is not that well-known among the public in Western Europe. However, Taiwan’s democratic achievement is an excellent example of and has much to teach to, not only to western democracies, but also to the authoritarian regimes and younger democracies striving to undergo reforms and transition.
The draftee’s death has provoked an unprecedented mass protest by a civic group with no prior political affiliation. It is run by individuals from all walks of life. They are known as “Citizen 1985” and have created a stunning logo of an eye shedding blood. The initial numbers of members in this group was 39, although it has increased. They originally did not know each other but, due to their common cause in addressing the injustice revealed in Hung’s case, they have come to coordinate the protest over the internet. The origin of the number, 1985 in the group’s name comes from the hotline of Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense for filing complaints against the military. Callers, however, have to identify themselves while filing complaints, which the group believes is a failed mechanism to protect fully the vulnerable military personnel.
The successful organisation of the protest shows that Taiwan’s democratisation is progressing and can move beyond bi-partisan politics. Most significant protests staged on the island previously were backed by activists or politicians with clear political affiliation. As Taiwan’s civil society develops, citizens gradually can be awakened to fight for social justice without necessarily being influenced by bi-partisan stance or ideology.
Another significant achievement of Citizen 1985 is its ability to coordinate mainly over the internet and call upon nearly 250,000 people to attend the protest offline. Social media’s importance in facilitating Taiwan’s development of civil society is thus apparent.
In a conversation, one of the young participants in the protest expressed his belief that their voices could make a difference and have a positive impact on the government. Furthermore, he believed it was an honour and regarded it as his duty as a citizen to participate in society in a real and meaningful way.
During this peaceful protest many of the participants sat on the ground in orderly lines, wearing white shirts to symbolise truth, singing and chanting gently and holding copies of the “Bleeding eye”. They believed that the world was listening and that their action truly mattered, and their collective power can force change upon government.
In direct response to this protest, the Premier JiangYi-Huah has said a special commission will be established to investigate all possible miscarriages of justice in the military. The commission is to be comprised of representatives of the military and national defense as well as citizens, human rights groups, lawyers and legal experts. The government is now claiming it will assist families involved in pursuing legal redress in cases where illegal activities are discovered.
The consequences of the protest are far wider reaching than was intended. It is now viewed as an example of participative democracy working in the fullest sense. It has sparked pro-democracy calls on mainland China. It is also said to be the main topic of discussion on China’s Weibo.
Political Apathy in Comparative Perspective
A large proportion of the protesters were young people. In mature western democracies, such as the United Kingdom, political apathy is a significant problem. It is widely accepted in the UK, that young people are more likely to be cynical and disinterested in political matters. They do not trust politicians; in terms of voting participation, British young people between the ages of 18-25 were reported as more likely to become first time abstainers than first time voters. This is in marked contrast with their Taiwanese counterparts.
The United States currently has programmes in place to address trends similar to Britain, educational programs as well as public service internships have been suggested as means to reverse these trends. In Japan, there have been growing reports of concern regarding political apathy and voting. Currently people in Ireland are undergoing serious hardship as a result of political and economic situations. Irish political apathy has been much commented upon. There are claims that this apathy is undermining democracy and hindering attempts at recovery. Ireland has one of the youngest populations in Western Europe. However, problems of lack of awareness of or self-perceived feelings of powerlessness over political issues such as democracy prevail.
Established Western democracies have much to learn from their Taiwanese counterparts. One of the most disturbing threats to democracy today is political apathy. The democratic development and achievement in Taiwan is not that well-known among the public in Western Europe. Taiwan’s democratic achievement is an excellent example of and has much to teach to, not only to western democracies, but also to the authoritarian regimes and younger democracies striving to undergo reforms and transition.
Julie Yu-Wen Chen is a lecturer at the Department of Government at University College Cork (UCC). Helen Russell is a student at the Department of Government at UCC and recipient of Huayu Enrichment scholarship at National Taiwan Normal University. Click here for more photos Helen Russell took amid the protest.