Written by Gary Rawnsley.
You know something important is happening in Taiwan when the island is in the BBC news. Well ok, perhaps current events are not making the headlines in the main bulletins – Crimea, a missing Malaysian aeroplane and the little matter of a Budget Speech by the British government are seeing to that – but if you press the red button on your remote control and read the BBC’s news, it’s there. Moreover, Taiwan is also being reported by the timeless wonder that is the BBC World Service.
I am referring of course to the surprising, astonishing and wholly unprecedented events of the last 24 hours when the students and other young Taiwanese have occupied the Legislative Yuan. Social media have gone Taiwan crazy; and in addition to receiving almost minute-by-minute updates on Twitter and Facebook, we can also see some striking photos of the protests, many of them taken by my fellow CPI blog contributors.
My interest in writing about these remarkable events was piqued by a question posted on Facebook by a former student: ‘Isn’t there a better way to voice your opinion, guys?!’
As a political scientist with research interests in the media and political communication in new democracies, especially Taiwan, the short answer is ‘no’. A longer answer would include the phrase ‘I am sure there are better ways if you define “better” as “legal”, but are there more effective ways of voicing opinions that may have a political impact?’
The question of legality is tricky and boils down to the old ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ type of argument. Breaking into and occupying the Legislative Yuan is illegal, but such forms of protest are often a weapon of the weak, an instrument of activism used by groups of people who are frustrated that their voice is not being heard through any other channel. One might even use as an example the threats by Chinese relatives of passengers on the missing Flight MH370 to stage a hunger strike as a protest against what they see as misinformation and miscommunication by the Malaysian authorities: when you feel so powerless, ignored and silenced, sometimes your only option is to resort to extremes. One might also point to history and say that sometimes democracy progresses through illegal acts, otherwise there would have been no civil rights movement in America, no suffrage for women in the UK or no end to Apartheid in South Africa. Dare we even contemplate the possibility that without illegal protests and activism by previous generations of students, there would be no democracy in Taiwan today? Certainly the Wild Lily movement of 1990, coming just one year after the crackdown against student protestors in Tiananmen Square, was a landmark event in Taiwan’s recent political history.
Direct action, especially involving illegal activities, are often the final strategy of groups who are frustrated with conventional methods of trying to persuade the powerful of their cause. It is also a useful tool for those groups and movements that find it difficult to generate media attention. As Jordan (1998: 327) has observed, ‘Protest without media coverage is like a mime performance in the dark: possible, but fairly pointless.’ The kind of direct action that we have witnessed in Taiwan in the past 24 hours is as much about drawing attention to the problem as it is about actually intervening in the political arena.
However, Taiwan is now an electoral democracy; aren’t such protests in contradiction to the very principles of democratic politics?
The events unfolding in Taiwan are a sign of Taiwan’s maturity, the consolidation of democratic processes, procedures and, most important, the democratic culture. All across the democratic world we find a deep dissatisfaction with traditional-style politics: membership of parties is on the decline, and voter turnout is shrinking. The broad church of political parties cannot satisfy individuals who are eager to effect change on the environment, human rights, poverty, or the inequalities of globalisation – issues that cannot be defined by parties or their programmes. The ability to influence parties and governments between elections is almost non-existent, while the shocking state of the news media in Taiwan requires a whole other blog post; a genuine fourth estate that challenges power for popular and not political interests is absent. Since the introduction of democratic reforms, the people of Taiwan – representing all ages and backgrounds – have taken to the streets regularly to campaign on issues and problems they feel strongly about and which they feel are addressed inadequately by political parties: Nuclear power; the economy and the environment; the Wild Strawberry protests of 2008 and 2009; the anti-media monopoly campaign in 2013. The rise of broad social movements, in Taiwan and elsewhere, is a response to the growing irrelevance of old models of democratic political communication connected to nation-states, parties, electoral participation, and representative government. Now, the political agenda is more exciting, wide-ranging, and certainly more inclusive than ever before.
So, “Isn’t there a better way to voice your opinion, guys?!” There are, but if the channels available to voice opinions are limited, or that those voices feel (at best) ignored or (at worst) suppressed, then direct action is the next logical weapon of the weak.
Gary Rawnsley is Professor of Public Diplomacy in the Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University. He is a CPI Blog Regular Contributor and tweets @GDRaber.
Jordan, G. (1998) ‘Politics without Parties’, Parliamentary Affairs, 51(3):314-28.