Written by J. Michael Cole.
In the absence of knowledge, fall back on conspiracies. This is what many foreign analysts and the Taiwanese government have done as they try to explain — and more importantly deal with — the activists’ occupation of the Legislative Yuan (LY), which is now on its eighteenth day.
According to the official narrative, the Sunflower Movement, which on the evening of March 18 began an unprecedented occupation of the legislature, came of out nowhere. After months of circus and the occasional skirmish on the legislative floor over the controversial Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) signed with China in June 2013, young activists acting as proxies of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) climbed over the fence, slipped by the police, and invaded the LY. The student leaders and academics who turned the legislative floor, and then the entire area surrounding the LY, into a sea of placards, banners and posters, were but the continuation of a sinister DPP policy whose sole intent was to prevent the passage of the trade agreement. Incapable of countering the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), which enjoyed a majority of seats in the legislature, the DPP had resorted to undemocratic means and “mob role” to try to defeat government policy.
For many, the Sunflower Movement had been too spontaneous and organized to not have had a structure, prompting one KMT legislator to use the unfortunate example of al-Qaeda to describe the protesters. Hence the belief, held by government officials, the media and foreign observers, that the DPP had orchestrated the whole thing. Only the main opposition party, with its contacts and financial resources, could have achieved such a feat, which eventually led to the occupation, albeit brief, of the Executive Yuan (EY) next door.
Or so the story went.
But there’s a problem with this theory — it’s completely wrong. In fact, the entire DPP apparatus could be thrown behind bars tomorrow and this would have almost zero effect on the movement. Failing to understand this results in a failure to understand just how resilient and deep-rooted the movement is.
Taiwanese government officials and the local media should have known better, but for self-serving or ideological reasons, or simply because they were too lazy to see the signs, they chose to ignore the facts. For their part, foreign media and academics have been getting it wrong because they were either not paying attention or were poorly served by journalists and editors who neglected important developments on the island. Most were notorious for their lack of interest in, and curiosity about, the mobilization of civil society, whose efforts in the past 24 months had been snowballing.
For those of us who covered the constellation of activist movements that agitated during that period, the events of March 18 and the subsequent crisis were almost inevitable. The occupation was but the logical next step to mounting pressures and dissatisfaction with a government that on a plethora of issues had simply been ignoring democratic procedures and, in some instances, the law. A few among us, academics and journalists, sought to alert the rest of the world to this coming crisis, only to be told by foreign editors that domestic events on the island were too “inside baseball.” For reasons that ought to be explored in another essay, with a few rare exceptions American media and academics were particularly uninterested in what was going on in Taiwan. Their European counterparts were somewhat more curious, which perhaps reflects a stronger tradition of rebellion in the Old World, or an understanding that Taiwan’s history did not end when the island democratized in the late 1980s.
It’s little wonder then that when U.S. experts on Taiwan weighed in on the Sunflower crisis, they had no idea what they were talking about and were forced to rely on official information and fall back on conspiracy theories.
A prime example were comments by David Brown, a SAIS scholar and board member of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). Responding to an open letter by DPP Legislator Hsiao Bi-khim, Brown had very few positive things to say about the movement. “It is remarkable that the students reacted so quickly that same evening [March 18] to occupy the LY,” Brown told The Nelson Report on March 28. “The KMT has accused the DPP of instigating this action, an accusation that many believe. Unnamed DPP politicians were reportedly on the scene later that evening; and the party endorsed the action the following day, and then encouraged all its members to support the students’ illegal occupation.”
Brown continued: “So rather than have the DPP LY caucus responsible for continuing to block consideration of the [CS]STA, wasn’t it in the DPP’s interest to have students play that role? […] the DPP will go to whatever lengths are necessary to block the majority when their key interests are involved or when it suits the DPP’s election mobilization goals to exploit issues for political advantage.”
Unsurprisingly, Brown’s comments sparked very different reactions on both sides of the equation. Pro-government media in Taiwan splashed them as evidence of AIT, and by rebound U.S. government, disapproval of the student-led movement. For the other side, this was either proof that Brown was a paid agent of the KMT or that AIT had a secret agenda against the DPP. In reality, both sides were wrong. Brown was not speaking on behalf of AIT, as he is only a board member, nor was he a hatchet man on the Ma Ying-jeou government payroll. He’d simply involved himself into a very complex issue without fully understanding its context. And who could blame him, given that the media he likely relied upon for his information about Taiwan often couldn’t tell the difference between the Legislative Yuan and the Executive Yuan? However, sources tell me that Brown hadn’t set foot in Taiwan in about seven years, sadly a not unusual absence for academics that are considered experts on the island’s politics.
So there was no dark U.S. government plot to paint the Sunflower Movement in a bad light, though that isn’t to say that Washington doesn’t have its biases and preferences, as evidenced by the National Security Council’s rather crude leak to the Financial Times during a September 2011 visit by Tsai Ying-wen, the then DPP’s candidate in the following year’s presidential election, or inappropriate remarks by former AIT director Douglas Paal to pan-blue media during the same election. In fact, it could be argued that the underlying biases against the DPP in Washington help reinforce perceptions that tend to reinforce their views on complex issues such as the current occupation of the LY. Unfortunately for the Sunflower Movement and its supporters, this cognitive slant is a handicap, as they tend to be put in the same basket as the DPP.
A few days later, Alan Romberg of the Stimson Center also entered the fray with comments of his own, which were reproduced in The Nelson Report on April 1. While somewhat more receptive to the movement, Romberg nevertheless had issues with their actions.
“[O]ne should take the students’ concerns seriously and not simply dismiss them. The fact that students feel strongly enough to take a visible stance is commendable and an encouraging sign of the strength of Taiwan’s democracy,” he wrote. But then came the criticism: “At the same time, while, as an American I very much respect free speech, I am not in favor of activities that disrupt the government, either in the LY or the EY, and I regret any suggestion that the students have been encouraged to proceed along that course.”
Like Brown, Romberg appeared to be commenting on issues that he only partially understood. In his case, what was missing was the context in which the occupation had occurred, which one could only understand if he was aware of the 24 months that preceded the occupation. Throughout that period, every peaceful and democratic means had been tried by civil society, academics, NGOs and lawyers to deal with the problematic CSSTA and several other issues, from forced evictions to the mistreatment of army conscripts. For their rational and non-occupational efforts, they were rewarded with government contempt, farcical public hearings, police shields, court summons, and fines.
Again, unless Romberg was paying attention to Taiwan’s underground and Chinese-language media — where the only consistent coverage about Taiwan’s increasingly ebullient social forces was taking place — or was here physically to observe the clashes and disappointments, he could not have known that the next step, short of capitulation, had to be escalation. There were already signs that this was happening. On Jan. 25 a 41-year-old truck driver crashed his 35-tonne truck into the Presidential Office. Writing of the incident for the CPI Blog, this author concluded by saying, “[W]hile walls can be erected to ensure better protection [at the Presidential Office], 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.” This was a little less than two months prior to the occupation of the LY.
The executive and the legislative branches were no longer working; the mechanism of democratic governance was failing the public who had entrusted officials with its operations. This included the very DPP that is alleged to have masterminded the student occupation, which in reality could not have cared less for the efforts of civil society in recent years. The mishandling of the CSSTA and the fears that the pact awakened among politically aware young Taiwanese was the spark that set the prairie on fire. To outsiders who hadn’t been paying attention, it looked like a spontaneous eruption of madness by students who had nothing better to do than to interrupt the operations of government. In reality, their actions were a wake-up call long in the making, following many screams that were simply ignored by the world, including researchers who make Taiwan their expertise, and media that were failing to connect the dots for them, as this author wrote in his parting shot from the Taipei Times in November 2013.
Now their call has been heard, and it is important that the international community fully understand what it is and where it comes from. Facile conspiracy theories and the lazy regurgitation of state propaganda will not do and are the surest way to ensure that the problem won’t go away. It’s time for Taiwan experts and international media to do their homework again.
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.