Written by Michal Thim.

It seems that Taiwan has grown accustomed to frequent protests targeting a broad range of issues, starting with land grabbing disputes, ending with increasingly unpopular cross-Strait policy of current KMT administration led by deeply unpopular President Ma. Yet, the decision by an alliance of students and civil society groups to take over the premises of Taiwan’s legislature on March 17 surprised most observers. However, closer observation of some of the more recent protests provide some hints that such a radical event was in the making. This move by mostly young protesters was preceded by the highly irregular handling of the review process of the controversial Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) by Chang Ching-chung, chair of the Internal Administrative Committee from the ruling party. Chang declared the review unnecessary since the Agreement had been held up in the legislature for more than 3 months, and was thus eligible to be put to a vote planned for March 21 without any amendments. This appeared to be clear violation of bi-partisan agreement from July 2013 on a review of the Agreement and subsequent voting on each article separately.

Reflection by media and scholars focused largely and not surprisingly on the event itself. On the scholarly front, debates addressed whether such an action is beneficial or detrimental to democracy in general. Media in Taiwan for their part have, to a considerable extent, denounced students’ actions in line with government rhetoric. However, one does not have to search far for counter-arguments. Since CSSTA was announced by the government in late June 2013, opponents of the agreement have seized every opportunity to take part in (not so) public hearings and protest in a more traditional way. Moreover, political parties were bound by a promise that CSSTA would be reviewed and voted on by individual articles rather than as a whole. Thus, while occupation of the nation’s legislature is not a standard way of business for a democracy that offers other avenues for expressing discontent, it can be deemed as legitimate as protesters have been trying patiently and vigorously to channel their disagreement using more traditional ways. Ultimately, while the legality of the ongoing occupation is an issue for lawyers, legitimacy is a political matter and the government and the ruling party should not be feeling particularly comfortable on this.

While philosophical and practical debates about merits of democracy and what is and what is not permissible as a mean of protest are welcome contributions, it is also worth turning our attention to two stories that should help to understand current events in a broader context.

First is the story of a divided KMT. When the government announced in late June 2013 that it concluded yet another agreement with China as a part of Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), among the legions of unpleasantly surprised were legislators of the ruling party. One of the more vocal critics of government’s approach, i.e. the absence of consultations with the legislature, was the Speaker and KMT veteran Wang Jin-pyng. The agreement from July 2013 was reached under Wang’s supervision and nothing could please Ma Ying-jeou less than that since he invested considerable energy to have this deal passed as soon as possible.

When Ma tried to purge Wang out of KMT and from the legislature later in September, it was clear that Ma could not expect any favours coming from the legislature. In many ways, this was self-inflicted injury for Ma as it appears that the expectation was that the KMT-dominated legislature would simply rubber-stamp whatever agreements were laid before it. When Chang Ching-chung decided to cut the review and move CSSTA to final vote, it was a move by the ‘presidential faction’ in the legislature that knew that whatever problems individual KMT lawmakers may have with the Agreement, they would not vote against it as a whole. This step may have been smart move, yet, the students who swiftly seized the legislature were of different opinion. Thus, it is useful to consider the current crisis as an extension of tensions between Ma and Wang (and between the executive and legislative branches), one that continues on the background of the occupied legislature.

The second story relates to the myth of the “Strawberry generation“. It has become a mantra of the veterans of the pro-democracy battles in the 1980s and 1990s to blame and shame current generation of young people for being politically apathetic and naive, for not caring about public issues, and for caring only about personal well-being. While the latter is not particularly fair criticism since young people struggle with finding job and college graduate salary has not risen in years (the same can hardly be said about prices), the former is clearly untrue and not only in the light of the most recent development. During the last 2 years, young Taiwanese led campaigns addressing among others issues of media freedom, land grabbing, and naturally also cross-Strait relations. The thing about current young generation is that it feels reluctant to identify with traditional political parties. While undeniably most of the criticism is addressed towards the KMT, many believe that the DPP has failed them too. Critics coming from partisan backgrounds have a hard time understanding the non-partisan orientation of much of the political youth.

Given the extent of legitimate grievances, it is actually rather admirable how disciplined and organized the ongoing occupation of the legislature has been. That applies to deployed police forces too, except for the failed attempts to evict the protesters from during the first night. At the end of the day, the students’ may achieve only a short-lived victory (if at all), as the government will seek all means available to implement CSSTA. Yet, one message is clear: these strawberries are pretty tough and they are not going anywhere. While both main political parties are dominated by veteran politicians, we may be witnessing the grooming of a new generation of Taiwanese politicians. After all, leaders of the student-led protests have already acquired nearly 2 years of experience. In the atmosphere of defeatism and fatalism regarding Taiwan’s future, this is rather refreshing development.

Michal Thim is a PhD candidate in the Taiwan Studies Program at the China Policy Institute, School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham and Research Fellow at the Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs. Michal blogs at Taiwan in Perspective and tweets @michalthim.

Photo courtesy of Linh Nguyen