Written by J. Michael Cole.
Chang Ter-cheng (張德正), a 41-year-old truck driver and former Air Force officer, had serious grievances against the government. As he explained in a letter he sent to various Taiwanese media prior to his act, he did not expect to come out alive in the early hours of Jan. 25 after he crashed his 35-tonne truck into the Presidential Office in Taipei.
In the end, a bulletproof gate pulled down in extremis by security staff stopped the speeding vehicle in its tracks, but not after it had rammed through a series of light protective barriers and careened up the steps leading to the main building. Chang suffered serious injuries, including a collapsed lung, but didn’t die and remains in intensive care.
As more details emerge, we can slowly piece together the factors that pushed Chang over the edge. Some media, as well as police authorities, have sought to downplay the political aspects of the attack — Chang had recently lost a legal case following a troubled marriage — but his aforementioned letter and blog entries tell a much more complex story. While the perpetrator of the attack writes at length about what he called the unfairness of the courts that handled his case (he was charged with physically abusing his wife and child, though he claims that the witnesses lied), he places his case in the much larger context of government corruption, widening inequality, and a judicial system in which the rich and powerful are more equal than other members of society. More specifically, he singles out cases such as the forced evictions and demolitions in Dapu Borough (大埔), Miaoli County, the death by abuse of Corporal Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘), and the preferential treatment of government officials who engage in corruption —developments that, along with many others, fueled civil activism throughout 2013 (Freedom House mentions the growing role played by social movements in the Taiwan section of its latest Freedom in the World report).
Deploring the abuses of power and total indifference by the authorities to the plight of ordinary citizens, Chang wrote that ordinary Taiwanese could no longer brook the existence of such a government and had no choice but to resort to more drastic measures. Asking people to look after his child, Chang wrote that he would accept the death penalty if someone died as a result of his act (thankfully nobody did), or life imprisonment if he survived. In a blog entry, he indicated that he had “cased” the Presidential Office on several occasions and had chosen to ram the building early in the morning (his attack occurred at 5:05am) so as to minimize the chances of collateral. President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was on a state visit to Africa at the time of the attack.
Although Chang’s act is unusual in contemporary Taiwan, it is an expression of growing public discontent with an administration that has often been accused of showing disregard for the “little man,” and whose policies are widely seen as benefiting the rich and powerful, including Taiwan’s own “princelings.” Having monitored social movements for nearly two years, this author has witnessed first-hand the government’s failure to respond to public demands and its growing reliance on law enforcement and the judiciary to counter protesters, a worrying development that has serious implications for the quality of Taiwan’s democracy. The Jan. 25 incident, committed by an individual who was evidently aware of the major social issues of the previous year, could be a sign that we are entering a new chapter in activism here.
The intention here is neither to condone or condemn Chang’s act, but simply to point out the potential for an incrementally more violent response to the many problems that have emerged in Taiwan over the years. Many of those deficiencies, such as antiquated assembly and parade laws, are structural and were unresolved by successive Kuomintang (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administrations. New pressures have also been created by rapprochement with China, with trade pacts and new laws threatening to dislocate the more vulnerable sectors of Taiwan’s economy while allowing the business elite to deepen their pockets. The Ma Ying-jeou administration’s less-than-stellar handling of various cases and seeming indifference to the impact of future projects such as the Taoyuan Aerotropolis, which will result in the eviction of thousands of families, has meanwhile exacerbated public anger while encouraging the exploration of alternative, and perhaps more violent, means to force the government to listen to their demands.
Beyond signaling the possibility of growing social unrest in Taiwan, the Jan. 25 incident furthermore highlights the stunning vulnerability of the seat of government in Taiwan. As a former intelligence officer charged with drafting threat assessments for the Canadian government, this author never ceased to be shocked by the poor security measures on Ketagalan Boulevard leading up to the majestic colonial Japanese-era structure (it was rebuilt after the then-Japanese Governor-General’s Office was severely damaged by Allied bombardment during World War II).
The physical protection in front of the building consists of knee-high fence poles placed at an about 1-meter interval and linked by a chain, thin police fences, and two rows of metal spikes, about 2 inches high, protruding from the ground. A few unarmed security officials guard the area before the steps leading into the Presidential Office, with armed MP guarding the entrance in daytime. While the measures would be sufficient to stop a small vehicle, they are clearly insufficient, as we saw on Jan. 25, to prevent a speeding heavy vehicle from ascending the steps and reaching the main building. Moreover, while the bulletproof glass eventually prevented the truck from going any further, it would have been insufficient to protect the building against explosives.
The lax security measures are hard to explain, given the fact that Taiwan technically remains in a state of war with China. Relations between the two sides have indeed improved on various levels since Ma’s election in 2008, but even when tensions were at their highest, as during the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) presidency (2000-2008), the Presidential Office remained vulnerable to attack. Given that one of the first acts that China would take prior to an attack on Taiwan would likely involve a decapitation attempt against the political leadership, such accessibility is hard to explain. All it would take for a successful decapitation would be reliable intelligence placing the leadership inside the building and a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) — a favorite of terrorist organizations like the Lebanese Hezbollah and various groups in Iraq — to wipe out the seat of government. No missile required. One or more vehicles, packed with explosives, would constitute the perfect asymmetrical precision-strike weapon, one against which Taiwan’s PAC-3 air defense systems would be of no use whatsoever.
Following Chang’s act, it is likely that security measures at the Presidential Office will be augmented, and they should. But as Chang wrote, while walls can be erected to ensure better protection, they will do absolutely nothing to resolve the widening chasm between those in power and the growing number of ordinary Taiwanese who have lost faith in the ability of their government to rule their country.