Written by J. Michael Cole.
Aside from shedding light on a poorly crafted and potentially harmful services trade pact with China, Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement has performed an extraordinary, if under-appreciated, service to the country by sparking a necessary societal debate on the meaning of democracy.
Ironically, the great majority of the Sunflowers’ detractors, both in the West and here in Asia, have used “democracy” and “rule of law” as weapons with which to discredit the activists’ nearly three-week occupation of the Legislative Yuan. While conceding the possibility that the movement’s ideals might have been laudable, the critics often expressed strong disagreement with the “illegal” techniques adopted to pressure the government.
Many have lambasted the movement for acting outside the parameters of democracy and laws and argued that the activists should instead have engaged in legal protests outside government buildings. As the Ministry of Justice mulls severe punishments for the student leadership, with charges that could result in as much as seven years’ imprisonment, a number of critics — including people who should know better — have come out saying that young leaders like Lin Fei-fan and Chen Wei-ting must face prison for their acts.
The more rigid among them opined that Taiwanese deserved their lot and that if they are unhappy with current state of things, they should use democratic retribution in the next elections to punish the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) for its bad behavior.
The arguments above only make sense if one limits himself to the minimalist definition, or to what Larry Diamond refers to as a “thin” conception, of democracy (The Spirit of Democracy, p. 21). That definition limits the scope to the holding of regular “free and fair” elections, and says little about conduct in between elections. Under that logic, which has been espoused by a good number of those who disagree with the Sunflower Movement, society has little choice but to countenance bad governance between elections, and the disgruntled polity must wait until the next round of elections to punish the party in power.
Others disagree with that definition and seek to expand the nature of democracy to what is sometimes referred to as “positive freedom,” which Jonathan Schell defines as “the capacity to participate in political life, but such acts as voting, demonstrating, even rebelling against the government” (The Unconquerable World, p. 238).
Proponents of “positive freedom” would evidently never argue that rebellion is a desirable action. But its inclusion in their enlarged definition of allowable democratic expression makes accommodations for extreme acts under extreme circumstances.
Detractors would counter that extreme action in the current context is unwarranted, as Taiwan is a democracy and has the rule of law. Oftentimes, however, the awareness of the state of affairs in Taiwan among those individuals is rather superficial. In their view, Taiwan became a liberal democracy in the late 1980s or in 1996, when the nation held its first free presidential election, and since then its status has been pretty much settled. Such a view echoes the by-now discredited notion that democracy was the apex of political systems and that with its achievement one had reached the “end of history.”
Sadly, Taiwan’s history did not end in the 1990s. In fact, its system remains seriously handicapped and has retained some unsavory elements — laws and practices — of Taiwan’s authoritarian past. Furthermore, as with several other young democracies that emerged towards the end of the Cold War, various developments have raised concerns about the democratic health of those states. Writing about a downturn in the 1990s, Diamond lamented the “mix of distressed governance [which included] abusive police forces, domineering local oligarchies, incompetent or indifferent state bureaucracies, corrupt and inaccessible judiciaries, and venal, ruling elites contemptuous of the rule of law and accountable to no one but themselves” (Spirit, p. 292).
For many of the activists who have spent the past twenty days inside the legislature, the current administration seems to fit many, of not all, of the characteristics of Diamond’s distressed governance. Diamond continues, “There were elections, but they were contests between corrupt, clientelistic parties that served popular interests only in name.”
In many ways, the structure of the Taiwanese government and its strong emphasis on the law to counter dissent discredits its claims to being democratic. Sure, Taiwan’s citizens have the right to vote for presidential candidates and political parties and go through the motions of a democratic system, but once a new administration steps in, there is little empowerment to keep the government accountable, which are tools that are to be found in Diamond’s definition of “thick” democracy. Chief among them are “Institutional checks on the power of elected office, by an independent legislature, court system, and other autonomous agencies” and “Real pluralism in sources of information and forms of organization independent of the state; and thus, a vibrant ‘civil society.’”
Unfortunately, most of those elements have suffered under the Ma Ying-jeou administration, which has oftentimes smothered internal dissent, intervened in the judiciary, and for the most part ignored input from civil society — including input on the agreement at the heart of the current crisis, the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA). For all intents and purposes, the Taiwanese government has drifted towards what Diamond terms a competitive authoritarian regime, little more than an empty shell.
It is because of that refusal to implement a “thick” version of democracy by the ruling authorities that Chen, Lin, and several thousand members of the Sunflower Movement decided to take action and utilize their right to rebellion — rebellion which, we must emphasize, has been peaceful and that never sought to overthrow the government or undo Taiwan’s political system. Chen, Lin, and thousands of others realized over the past two years that Taipei had no intention of moving beyond the “thin” version of democracy. Every peaceful means was adopted and exhausted during that period; hundreds of rallies, lectures and protests were held; dozens of failed attempts were made to access public hearings organized by the government. In almost every instance, the authorities ignored social groups and retaliated with police shields, intimidation, and in incommensurate fashion, the courts. Land was seized by the government, homes were demolished, the environment was damaged, elderly laid-off factory workers were sued, ordinary citizens were beaten by police or private security firms, Aboriginal land was stolen, historical buildings were threatened with destruction, soldiers were abused to death, the gap between rich and poor widened, men and women died under mysterious circumstances and the autopsies were never made public, while corrupt individuals or wanted criminals were seemingly untouchable (including Chinese officials who broke the law while visiting Taiwan). The list goes on. I and several others have documented almost every single one of them, but the world has chosen not to pay attention.
Many of the students, academics and their supporters inside the legislature today are graduates of those protests. The government’s intransigence convinced them that abiding by narrow democratic rules — the “thin” definition espoused by the Ma administration and many of the movement’s critics — no longer worked and would likely spell disaster for their country, especially as Taipei became increasingly close to, and subject to pressure from, the authoritarian regime in China.
Taiwan’s democracy has become an empty shell, an illusion used and abused by both the powers that be and those who have no compunction in seeing the democratic miracle slowly descend into soft authoritarianism. Of course Taipei can respond with the law and put the leadership behind bars for years, with strong support from a number of people in Taiwan and abroad. After all, they did break the law, as have several other dissidents worldwide, people including Liu Xiaobo. But the government has broken its contract with society, and consequently the law has become an instrument of repression. As such, if Chen, Lin and others end up in jail, they will not be ordinary criminals. They will be prisoners of conscience.
J Michael Cole is a Taipei-based analyst and writer. Michael is a CPI blog Regular Contributor and Non-Resident Senior Fellow in the China Policy Institute. Image by J. Michael Cole.