Written by J. Michael Cole.

As the political crisis pitting civil society against the Ma Ying-jeou administration deepens, Taiwanese authorities are adopting countermeasures that, to many observers, are unfit for a democratic system and evidence that the government is getting desperate.

More than a month after the Sunflower Movement burst into the Legislative Yuan and launched a three-week occupation that shook the nation at its foundations, it is now clear that the political environment in Taiwan will never be the same. With this unprecedented action on March 18, the movement succeeded in channeling mounting discontent with government policies and elevated a nascent civic nationalism — and a desire among young Taiwanese to fight for what they believe in — to a point of no return. As the movement’s leadership vowed in front of tens of thousands of supporters as they vacated the legislature on April 10, the occupation has ended, but the battle goes on.

And it has. Although the trigger for the Sunflower Movement was the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) and the manner in which the pact had been handled since its inception, the activists were (and are still) mobilizing for something that is much more fundamental. Their focus is government accountability in all matters pertaining to public policy and, increasingly, the government’s less-than-transparent dealings with authoritarian China. The snowballing movement — or rather, the constellation of movements that has flowered over the months — now targets a variety of interconnected issues ranging from lack of government oversight to the unholy nexus of high-level officials and big business, unsafe nuclear power plants to inappropriate law enforcement decisions.

After years of seeming disinterest in politics, something has shifted among Taiwan’s youth. Having despaired in an administrative system that arguably no longer seems to work, the activists have shown unprecedented determination. They will simply not go away. It is this resilience, accompanied by signs of a slow escalation and the youths’ highly efficient use of new media, that worries the authorities. Unwilling to back down, the Ma government has hardened its position and is now embarking on a campaign whose effects on Taiwan’s already highly imperfect democracy could be disastrous. In fact, in a matter of weeks, the quality of the nation’s democracy has arguably deteriorated, though unlike what the government would argue, the cause of that erosion was not the “undemocratic” occupation of streets and government buildings by activists, but rather the government’s response to the challenge and its indifference in the past year when protesters limited themselves to what the administration regards as acceptable activism.

The source of the problem lies with the paternalistic nature of President Ma’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) administration, whose behavior since the beginning of the crisis has served as a stark reminder that the party’s authoritarian tendencies did not completely disappear with democratization. Ma, who serves as KMT chairman, and his small circle of appointed officials cannot countenance dissent within the party (which certainly exists) and seem unable to admit failure. They are always right, and whenever opposition to their policies arises, it is never because the policies are flawed, but rather because the public hasn’t been “educated” enough. That reflex has now reached Orwellian proportions, with criticism of government policy automatically being treated as lies and disinformation, even when the critics are respected academics from the nation’s top institutions, or former special advisers to President Ma. To further discredit its critics, the administration often claims that the activists are “irrational,” “violent,” and that their actions are undermining stability and harmony within society — language that is usually heard in authoritarian China.

Through this approach, the Ma administration has sought to downplay the size, reach, and heterogeneity of its opponents, which it wants to be regarded as a small group of malcontents with nothing better to do than to sow chaos within society and inconvenience local residents with protest actions.

While a segment of society and ideologically aligned media have been receptive to this government propaganda, the Ma administration is aware that it is nevertheless on the brink of losing the war for hearts and minds, mostly because it has failed to harness the powers of new media, a natural territory for the young activists. The government has slowly come to realize that social media are the new battleground, where the propaganda war is waged, and where social movements organize and get their information.

To counter this, the KMT and the Executive Yuan (EY) have both announced they will soon establish “new media” units to counter “disinformation” circulating on the Internet and provide “correct” government information using the social networks that served as the principal means of communication for the Sunflower Movement. The unit under the EY will reportedly fall directly under Premier Jiang Yi-huah. Ma and Jiang said that they would hire tech-savvy youth to facilitate the operations of their “new media” units, whose raison d’être bears striking similarities with similar units in China, which have been strengthened under President Xi Jinping in his campaign against the dissemination of “rumors” on the Internet. Officials have reportedly also been instructed to roam the Internet and rectify “wrong” information whenever they encounter it. The parallels with China’s use of “fifty cent party” — paid Internet commentators who are relied upon by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to counter dissent and spread the “correct” line — are hard to miss.

Recent chatter among Taiwanese activists also alleges that the above-mentioned EY and KMT units could seek to spread disinformation on the Internet to confuse civic groups, such as by instructing them to gather at sham protests.

Meanwhile, although the National Police Agency (NPA) has yet to officially comment on the matter, leaked documents seen by this author have led to allegations that police officers are being instructed to engage in similar online interventions and to do so while passing off as “ordinary citizens.” Such claims would be supported by recent incidents where images depicting improper police action during protests — including photographic evidence of a pregnant woman being hit by water cannons — were deleted by Facebook following repeated complaints of their impropriety. We can easily guess the likely origin of those complaints. During the Sunflower Movement’s occupation of the legislature, attempts to post links to articles describing disproportionate use of force by the police on platforms like Wikipedia were repeatedly blocked by individuals who, as it was later established, had ties to pro-government and pro-Beijing media. (In a related incident, Taiwanese activists discovered that a fan page on Facebook set up to support police officers who had come under severe criticism, had received tens of thousands of “likes” from zombie computers based in Russia.)

Those developments occur against the background of sporadic attacks on freedom of expression. In an incident last week, city government officials ordered vendors in New Taipei City to take down anti-nuclear banners from their stalls, claiming that the presence of political slogans in a business zone was improper. Furthermore, on several occasions during protests in recent weeks, journalists and photographers who clearly displayed their press credentials were forced out of public areas by police officers, in clear violation of press freedoms.

Besides waging war on information, the government is also adopting law enforcement measures that have drawn severe criticism from within society and among rights activists. The Ministry of the Interior announced on April 30 that it would empower police to use “preemptive detention” against activists who have been identified as “repeat offenders.” While such laws already exist, and justifiably so, to restrict the movement of known pedophiles and other types of criminals, the provisions have now been expanded to cover a wide variety of crimes including “endangering public safety,” “hijacking,” and “preventing official business.” The open-ended definition of such infractions, which have already been invoked against protesters in recent months, will facilitate the application of preemptive detention to counter activities that under normal circumstances would constitute lawful protesting. More importantly, it will make it possible for the authorities, presumably after they receive permission from a judge, to isolate and detain potential leaders before they can organize or participate in protests.

The potential for abuse should be clearly apparent, if only because it empowers the authorities to act on an individual’s perceived intent alone. Conceivably, the targets of such measures would be the same young leaders, people like Chen Wei-tin and Lin Fei-fan, who outwitted the authorities and established themselves as credible — and appealing — opponents of the government.

Meanwhile, Ma, who is perhaps most threatened by a possible split within his party, has sought to consolidate his power by using the tactics of autocrats by keeping his potential opponents close and diminishing the size of his winning coalition, or what political scientists Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith refer to as the “essentials.” This Ma did on April 30, with the announcement that he had appointed Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin, New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu and Taichung Mayor Jason Hu — all of whom had at some point or another in recent weeks occasionally expressed different views from the administration on how to resolve the political crisis — as KMT vice chairmen. By doing so, Ma co-opted potential critics within the party, which he himself admitted had been made “stronger” as a result, and probably ensured that he can withstand pressure from within the ranks to step down as party chairman, an outcome that this author had seen as highly likely.

The same day, Ma announced that one-third of KMT Central Committee members (presumably those whose support for Ma wasn’t rock solid) were being slashed. Both were classic moves meant to strengthen the leader’s power and ensure his total grip on the executive and legislative branches of the government. KMT legislators have been repeatedly reminded that failure to vote along the party line at the legislature will result in expulsion from the party.

Ma’s machinations send a worrying signal that he does not intend to budge and that he will likely continue to push for expedited policies, such as passage of an experimental free-trade zone, which is being pushed through at the legislature in a way that would look very familiar to those who were following the CSSTA when it was on the legislative floor earlier this year. With no side showing signs that it intends to back down, the stage is being set for escalation and a possible showdown. Based on the policies passed this week, it looks like the government intends to respond to that challenge with a major propaganda campaign backed by a strengthened security apparatus.

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.