Written by J. Michael Cole.
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.
Although there were a few incidents — a broken window, light damage to computers, chairs stacked up to prevent police intrusions — the legislature was never ransacked, as claimed. Furthermore, protest leaders repeatedly beseeched participants to avoid causing damage. Lin Fei-fan, one of the student leaders inside the legislature, went out of his way to remind activists not to put water bottles directly on the desks to avoid damaging the wooden surface (the so-called vandals evidently forgot to bring coasters along). Moreover, the impressive garbage-collection efforts that were launched around the legislature after March 17 should put to sleep any notion that the occupiers and their supporters are bent on destroying the Legislative Yuan.
Having created the myth of activists as vandals, later in the night “news” got out that the activists had engaged in binge drinking and were “making out,” preposterous behavior that, interestingly enough, never showed on the continuous video stream. Nobody seemed to question how illogical a decision it would be for the activists, having set up a live feed, to engage in activities that were certain to discredit them and their cause. Still, some media picked it up, and it became “fact.”
After repeated failed attempts by police to dislodge the protesters and as the number of people outside the legislature swelled to several thousands, figures of authority began portraying the occupation as “undemocratic.” Again, several journalists, who have had it drilled into them that their duty is to serve power rather than speak truth to it (echoes of an authoritarian era), were all too willing to oblige. Meanwhile, Control Yuan President Wang Chien-shien, a devout Christian, bemoaned the activists’ “misguided acts.” After quoting Jesus’ last words on the cross, Wang offered to pray for them.
Various comments by government figures and journalists also compounded the perception that the actions of the protesters were “violent” and that the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had orchestrated the occupation or, less nefariously perhaps, misled the students.
Anyone who has spent time at the protest site, as this author has, will know through observation that the protesters are not violent. In fact, they have co-existed with the police deployed at the site, and are oftentimes seen chatting, trading jokes, and exchanging cigarettes with cops who have little, if any, physical protection. If the activists were truly violent, we can only assume that police authorities would have deployed riot squads and ensured better protection for the few hundred cops who could easily be overpowered by the much larger crowds if they so desired. But for the propagandists, reality didn’t matter. As they have done repeatedly over the past 24 months, they invidiously depicted the activists as violent, putting them on the same level as the mobs in Egypt, Syria, and many other parts of the world.
The claim that the DPP was behind the activists, meanwhile, is absurd to anyone who knows the highly educated and politically aware organizers of the protests, who in recent months have consciously stayed away from all political parties, which they see as having failed society.
Despite the blatant falsehoods, there is reason to believe that efforts were made to encourage those views with foreign diplomats based in Taiwan who evidently do not have the time or sufficient resources to assess the situation by themselves.
What none of the critics ever mentioned was the fact that the entire process behind the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) was severely flawed from the beginning and that the Cabinet, with the help of accomplices among KMT legislators, was breaking democratic rules — at a minimum, expectations — by skipping the agreed-upon line-by-line review. With more than 70 per cent of the public saying they want a close legislative review of a pact that is widely regarded as potentially harmful to several sectors of the island’s economy and to its democracy, the executive nevertheless went in the opposite direction and has added that the agreement cannot be amended and must be passed “as is.”
Despite all this, authority figures and the media maintained that activists had no right to use “undemocratic” means to counter government policy that itself refused to abide by democratic rules. The critics conveniently made no mention of the context in which the occupation occurred: the skewed public hearings and the unwillingness of the government to take public apprehensions seriously. If we based our understanding of the situation solely on the reports post March 17, the activists had spontaneously decided to adopt violent means to attack the government. No mention, again, was made of the several months of peaceful protests since June 2013, when the pact was signed in China, and the government’s complete disregard for accountability. Civil society took the peaceful and democratic route, but they were never met halfway.
As the critics nevertheless continue to savage the protesters, they ought to be reminded that protest is, as a CPI colleague pointed out yesterday, itself a component — albeit a not uncontroversial one — of a healthy democracy. When all “reasonable” mechanisms have failed, protest constitutes a last-ditch effort to keep systems of power in check when they overreach their democratic mandates. Electoral cycles make protest an especially important instrument of checks and balances in between votes (granted this can be abused).
Ironically, Taiwan’s success in democratization in the late 1980s has made it possible for those in power to use the “democracy card” against an activist civil society. This is a cynical exercise, but a most effective one to discredit opponents as “unruly” and “extremist.” What they do not say, and what isn’t immediately apparent to the majority of people who are too distracted to pay close attention to political developments on the island, is that democracy is not, to resurrect an old misinterpreted claim, the “end of history.” In other words, democracy isn’t a state that, once achieved, cannot revert to a previous one.
Taiwan’s young democracy remains imperfect and has retained several unhealthy elements of its authoritarian past. Big business, influence from authoritarian China, and corruption have in fact undermined Taiwan’s democracy in recent years. Observers of civic activism in Taiwan over the past 24 months are aware that the current administration often does not play by the rules, or makes rules that facilitate implementation of desired policies. With an executive that has disregarded public opinion, a neutralized legislature, and a disorganized opposition, civil society has had little choice but to up the ante and take measures that, though drastic, are not beyond the scope of acceptable democratic action. Their plan is not to overthrow the government (one will hear calls for such action outside the legislature, but those are minority outliers) or to obliterate government institutions; it is rather to ensure their proper functioning and to reconnect the legislature with the public that it was meant to serve.
Some people have described the events of March 17 as a “sad day for democracy.” Government propaganda certainly wants us to believe that this is the case, and it appears to have succeeded in convincing many. For those who have made the effort to truly understand recent developments within Taiwan, that day was as inevitable as it was a great one for the island-nation’s democracy.
J Michael Cole is a Taipei-based analyst and writer. His personal blog is here and he tweets @jmichaelcole1. Michael is a CPI blog Regular Contributor and Non-Resident Senior Fellow in the China Policy Institute. Image by J. Michael Cole.