Written by Stephane Corcuff.
It could have been the first civic protest against Taiwan’s new government of Premier Lin Chuan and President Tsai Ying-wen. Or, like the Sunflower movement, an expression of the discontent of the civil society, expressed independently from the old political establishment. And it could also have been a surge of imagination to create a brighter future, a way out of old, non-participative politics. The May 31, 2016 street movement, in front of the Legislative Yuan, was the first to be organized after Tsai Ing-wen’s inauguration on May 20. After only ten days in existence, the government of Premier Lin Chuan was in effect being denied the opportunity to deliver its first address to the Parliament.
Before 08:00 on May 31, one or two hundreds of elderly pig farmers – at least that was how they were identified by speakers on the stage – had converged on Qingdao East Road 青島東路, close to the main door of Taiwan’s legislative body, and one of the main sites of activity outside the legislative Yuan during the Sunflower movement (18 March – 10 April 2014). When they arrived, they found a fun-fair style stage with microphones, ready for a rally. Some in the KMT had informed the press the previous day that the party was planning “a major event”, one that would reveal the difficulties the KMT has in facing up to electoral defeat. Despite the DPP’s victory in “free and fair” elections in January, a big poster on stage claimed that “The DPP cheats votes” (“民進黨詐欺、 騙票”).
Protesters wearing various pig-related decorations and holding signs and banners converged at the intersection of Zhenjiang street 鎮江街 and Qingdao East Road 青島東路, one of the now legendary spaces of the Sunflower movement, to criticize the possibility that Tsai’s government may lift a ban on importing American pork containing traces of Ractopamine, a feed additive that enhances meat leanness used by the US pork industry but banned in Taiwan. A French observer of Taiwanese politics nicknamed the event “OccuPig Legislative Yuan” when he later saw a picture by the Central News Agency of the big polystyrene pig being smuggled into the Legislative Yuan.
Enhancing Food Safety, Protecting Taiwanese
When I arrived on site, at 08:35, the main argument that could be heard was the necessity to protect the health of Taiwanese. When I left at 11:44, it was a long time since talk stopped being about pork imports, food safety and health concerns of “Taiwan Moms” (“台灣媽媽”). For the last half of the event, it had been all about how bad the DPP and the NPP are, and why the KMT was here to help.
What I first noticed on site was the age of the protesters: all of them were old. It was striking: not most people, but all of them. With time passing, bystanders came, intrigued. And as news channels finally arrived, looking for a possible remake of the Sunflower story, a few young journalist faces popped up too. By 10:00, a small group of four or five young men were on stage. They talked, inevitably, about Taiwan’s future. But their allotted time on stage was less than five minutes, and they were sandwiched between old KMT figures who monopolized the microphone. What a striking contrast with the youth-led Sunflower movement.
At 10:00 there were not many politicians on site, and everybody was speaking Taiwanese: the balance later shifted very obviously to Mandarin. The number of demonstrators was still quite low, although a large number of police were blocking two entrances to the legislature. I had expected a greater turnout, but the number probably reached no more than 500. The crowd was subdued most of the time, yet it was marked by an increasingly anger fostered by the stage politicians, loudspeakers, and ‘Taiwan Mammas’ blowing whistles in anticipation of the politicians’ arrival.
It soon became clear that the protest was political, with health concerns, pork imports and policy decisions relegated to afterthoughts. The stage filled up with KMT politicians, of different clans, happily reunited: Mrs Wang Hung-wei 王鴻薇, a KMT city councillor in Taipei, former spokeswoman and close aid to Hung Hsiu-chu; Mr Wu Yu-sheng 吳育昇, a KMT legislator who had just lost his seat in January; Mr Chen Ming-yi 陳明義, city counsellor in New Taipei; a city counsellor from Taiwan, Hsieh Lung-chieh謝龍介; a legislator from Nantou, Mrs Hsu Shu-hua許淑華; and several other KMT politicians including Chiang Ching-kuo’s grandson, the young Chiang Wan-an 蔣萬安. According to the United Daily News, also present were KMT legislators Lee Yan-hsiu李彥秀, Wang Hui-mei王惠美, Wang Yu-ming王育敏.
The ‘farmers’ had apparently not converged spontaneously without organisation, but were alerted by Facebook and social media calls to rally and protest. One speaker on the stage, Legislator Hsu Shu-hua, recognized in the small crowd, “friends from the countryside, coming from Nantou” (“來自南投縣的鄉親”). They were well prepared, decked out in all the relevant street demonstrator paraphernalia: horns, flags, signs, T-Shirts and banners.
While the Premier was being prevented to deliver his address to parliament and respond to questions, I wondered how to interpret this sentence by New Taipei City counsellor Chen Ming-yi, telling to the crowed : “The KMT is not against democracy, we are just again Lin Chuan who is oppressing us” (“我們不反對民主，我們只是反對欺負我們的林全”). It was clear by then that the whole event had been planned to stage a protest and prevent the new Premier from his duties. Just the day before, however, the head of the Council of agriculture, Tsao Chi-hung 曹啟鴻 had declared before the Legislature, during his hearing, that conditions were not ripe for lifting the ban. The KMT could not have been unaware of it, and it was reported by the Central News Agency.
The old folks present were mostly passive observers, sweating under a broiling sun. In addition to “pig farmers”, there were obviously some elder women’s organisations, calling themselves the “Taiwan Moms”, among the most vocal. Water had been prepared for distribution. Perhaps to mask the small number of demonstrators, or to incite them, the organizers had rented a small truck with screens on three sides showing pictures of demonstrators. Screens also showed short movies about the politicians vilified at the same moment on the stage: Tsai Ing-wen, Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chü 陳菊 (who was Tsai campaign manager and a veteran democracy activist) and legislators Kuan Pi-ling 管碧玲 and Chen Ting-fei 陳亭妃, all women.
Little by little the attacks became more personal. The most striking attack was on someone’s “brain”. Tsai was not directly mentioned, but the allusion was clear. A speaker on the stage said “The DPP has changed positions, and it now has a pig brain” (“民進黨換位置，就換豬腦袋”). Precautions had been taken not to mention her directly, yet the sentence, in a Taiwanese context, was clear for everyone. In addition, anybody who remembers the verbal attacks launched by some KMT members against Chen Shuibian will remember the officer of the ROC army who said that Chen had a “brain problem” and suggested he be “lobotomized”. The sentence was pronounced several times, in front of everyone. The author was Lin Teh-fu 林德福, convener of the KMT group at the Legislative Yuan. Yet, it would be wrong to imagine that it was just a sentence invented on-stage. As I turned my head to go on watching the crowd, I saw one, two, three banners with the very same words. They had been prepared for the event. The slogan had been designed, discussed, spread, written. It was not an on-site emotional invention. I could infer that, since Lin Teh-fu had been the only one to use this phrase on stage, and that he used it repeatedly, he was probably one of the main organizers of the event. It was confirmed by a press report that he and the notorious Alex Tsai (Tsai Cheng-yuan 蔡正元, probably the politician most vilified by the Sunflowers after Ma Ying-jeou) had indeed both planned the event.
As I was listening to the attacks launched on the DPP and the NPP – linked together – I noticed the re-appropriation and distortion of the Sunflower ethical, tactical, symbolic and rhetorical heritage. It was now clear: the KMT was behind all this, judging from the increasing number of KMT politicians now on stage, and was recycling what its politicians had learnt at their expense two years before:
- They initially tried to call upon the policemen to side with them (I heard sentences like “Friends from the police, unite with us and open the doors of the LY”). The Sunflowers had called the police to side with them, too; they failed, but did not, in the end, attack policemen verbally for doing their duty, which the KMT politicians did very earlier on;
- They tried to “invade” the parliament. However, considering the situation, it was doomed to fail, even though protesters were far more numerous than the students who entered the LY on the night of March 18;
- They mobilized the “black box” rhetoric. Though nothing has been yet decided on the pork issue, and it was announced that more debate and a consensus was necessary, we still could read some placards criticizing “black box decision making”;
- Flyers and posters portraying President Tsai with a pig nose recalled President Ma depicted with deer antlers by the Sunflowers;
- A speaker alleged that the police had sent reinforcements from southern Taiwan, reminiscent of what had happened during the Sunflower movement, though in this case a baseless rumour;
- Last but not least, as the KMT has done many times in recent years, the rhetoric of “protecting the nation” was used to exhort Tsai not to be “a traitor to the nation”…
Unlike the Sunflower movement, where the DPP was largely absent, overtaken by events, here the KMT was all over the protest. The activity all revolved around the stage in a traditional, hierarchical one-way relation, with politicians incensing souls in the very same place where, two years ago, there were stages with continuous debates. The KMT did not depart from a very traditional mode of political mobilization where the crowed is regularly asked “好不好?” or “是不是？” (“right?”), where everyone is invariably supposed to reply by a “yes”.
This old style of politics will surely go on, as if the Sunflower x NTICs x g0v revolution of digital civic consciousness had not happened. g0v, 臨時政府, refers to the galaxy of Taiwanese IT civic geeks who are inventing new forms of popular participation and supervision of governance, deeply engaged in open access government sources, among other reflections on how to transform representative democracy.
At a moment when Taiwan is contributing deeply to a world movement of reinvention of democracy though civic monitoring and deliberative democracy, the KMT acts as if it had no other way to mobilize people than convoying protesters to Taipei by buses, with the promise of free water and bento lunches. And, judging from the number of people present, it failed miserably. But my point here is not, actually, to compare the movements: they are immensely different.
What I want to illustrate is how a particular set of values has been appropriated and reused, and turned by the KMT against those who initiated it – the Sunflower students, and, beyond, the DPP, the NPP which was founded after the Sunflower movement, and the Taiwanese nation.
It is not the first time the KMT has used this strategy of appropriating its adversary’s strategy and discourse. During the 2008 campaign, the KMT clearly appropriated the green camp’s Taiwanese nationalism rhetoric – at least, on the surface. During Chen Shui-bian’s tenure, KMT rhetoric was heavily focused on ousting the supposedly illegitimate Chen. As a result, the 2008 campaign was heavily based on “give us back our Taiwan” (“換我台灣”), “saving Taiwan” (“救台灣”) and “protecting Taiwan” (“保衛台灣”), only to see Ma Ying-jeou’s rhetoric abandoning the word “Taiwan” after being elected, in favour of “the Republic of China” that was seldom heard of during his campaign.
During the Sunflower movement, opponents said they were defending democracy against a horde of students decided to ruin the efforts all Taiwanese had done to build their democracy. During the counter-protest organized on April 1 2014 by the White Wolf, Chang An-le 張安樂, I heard him and others saying that they wanted to “protect democracy” (“捍衛民主”), using the very slogan that the students were shouting in front of the nearby Legislative Yuan.
How do people react when the values they fight for are appropriated by others who then turn those values against them in a discursive conflict? How can they respond, when those who recycle their values, whether sincerely convinced or not that they themselves share such values, consciously avoid mentioning that they borrowed them from their opponent? And isn’t such a strategy precisely aimed at leaving them speechless? I cannot respond for militants, but watching this new development in Taiwanese politics in recent years, I feel a need to name this tactic with a word, or an expression, in order to help scholars studying Taiwan identify it more clearly.
Mimetic distortion and the imposition of silence
What we can see at play is a mimetic strategy, in which distortion is conscious and voluntary; it organizes a rhetorical disconnection with reality, acting as a mirror that sends a deformed image. Mimetic distortion aims at leaving the expropriated ones speechless, after depriving them of the very values that they used and mobilized to build their own legitimacy and discourse. It hopes to stun them with its apparent self-assurance in claiming values, rhetoric and strategies appropriated from them. Hence the fact that the appropriating party remains silent about its theft, as doing so would undermine the legitimacy of its rhetoric and expose its strategy. This reminds me of what anthropologist Jérôme Soldani has described as a legitimisation attempt by the KMT in its appropriation of baseball.
Naming this strategy can help us identify it whenever it is used in Taiwanese politics, by whichever camp. For mimetic distortion blurs lines consciously and confuses minds purposely, and should be considered a factor in political debate in Taiwan. As an example, during the Sunflower movement, when the former gangster Chang An-le was calling for his (very few) supporters on site to “protect Taiwan’s democracy”, some “Taiwan Moms” standing next to me were applauding his declarations. But they were also applauding what students were saying. Both sides were calling for Taiwanese to protect their democracy, but one is known to also advocate openly the unification of Taiwan with the People’s Republic of China.
In Homi Bhabha’s notion of “mimicry”, the colonized imitate colonizers, but never fully become the same. There are substantial differences between “mimicry” and “mimetic distortion”. In the mimetic distortion, the one who appropriates is consciously creating the distortion, while in the mimicry by the colonized, the difference is an automatic result of the impossibility to make an exact replica, and of the strategy by the colonizer to limit this imitation. In addition to this first difference, we see in the KMT case that it is the former dominating minority who appropriates the values of the former majority it used to dominate, and not the opposite. Last, appropriation does not mean that the values are appropriated to be regarded as one’s own, but to deprive the formerly ruled majority of the values that helped it build its national narrative and its legitimacy as his own ruler.
The May 31 appropriation attempt of the Sunflower legend by these KMT politicians shows how the defeated KMT is unable to accept that Taiwan doesn’t belong to them any more. It shows that the colonial minority they represent does not accept Taiwan’s new political order. For them, party change is an aporia, a crisis, and not an occasion to rebuild its platform, rejuvenate its elite, and adapt to new socio-political realities. After all, the new government was inaugurated just 10 days before the event, and one of the protesters’ demands was the Premier’s resignation. This part of the KMT has never accepted democracy. I wrote a long paper on this in the aftermath of the KMT’s campaign for the 2004 presidential election, speaking of the bitter taste of democracy for those who do not believe in it.
Managing a trauma
Why did the KMT politicians of this May 31 movement seem so concerned with mimicking the Sunflower movement? Why did they explicitly re-use some of the most fundamental elements, themes and gestures of the Sunflowers’ symbolic memorabilia, such the hyper-iconic “black box” (黑箱) theme?
Is this strategy of mimetic distortion simply a sign that the Sunflower culture of street occupation is now so powerfully imprinted on Taiwanese politics that the KMT itself, the primary target of the Sunflower movement, had no other choice than appropriating, re-enacting, transforming, and diverting (some would say ‘perverting’) the set of values it has been a “victim” of?
The artificial nature of the show, and the fact that, beyond appearances, the KMT rally was in fact typically traditional suggests not. The KMT has yet to find a platform and vehicle for mobilizing the youth behind its ideas. It can’t count on popular mobilization self-organized by social media, and instead relies on the old tactic of bussing people in from Taiwan’s south (a tactic the DPP used to great effect many years ago).
The reason why the KMT chose to organize a rally mimicking (or mocking) the Sunflowers may have more to do with the psychology of politicians so used to monopolizing power in Taiwan that being an opposition party is difficult to conceive for them as a normal process of democratic alternation. In addition, never has the KMT experienced such an enormous defeat since 1949, at every level of government, local and national, executive and legislative. After the January 2016 defeat, the KMT has been taken over by the faction of the party which is the most out of touch with Taiwanese society and its leading identity trends regarding unification with China. We should forget about pig farmers and pork meat imports. The KMT – at least those of the KMT represented here – was simply seeking symbolic revenge and psychological relief. In the coming period it will seek many others.
I witnessed on May 31 a form of trauma management – not representing the whole KMT for sure. The mock re-enactment of the Legislature siege, because it had no chance to succeed and because the organizers knew it, was an outlet for this trauma, a post-electoral revenge that required those politicians to seize the tools of the green camp, to express through the adversary’s own language their contempt, and, most importantly, to externalize their anger and their sense of crisis.
Considering that no decision has been taken on US pork imports, and in view of what has been described above about the organization of a non-spontaneous protest, it can be argued that the movement had nothing to do with a civic movement, and was pure political show. The KMT organized the protest, recruited protesters, asked for the legal permission to stage a protest, designed slogans and posters, and built a stage in advance. The police was informed early enough to be prepared and in position by the time the protest started. At the most heated moment, five rows of officers in front of the main entrance protected the Legislature.
It seems clear that no organizer imagined that penetrating the Legislative Yuan would ever be possible. In fact, the re-enactment of the invasion of the chamber did not fail, because no invasion was ever planned. Who could imagine ageing “pig farmers” (who were probably not pig farmers at all), storming the legislature and occupying it? With the precedent of the Sunflowers, the legal declaration of the protest a day in advance, and the important police deployment, there was not a single chance for any protester to climb the fence and successfully penetrate into the compound. I hence witnessed an organized simulacrum. Several KMT Legislators, among whom Huang Chao-shun 黃昭順, repeatedly called for the police to “take away the barbed-wire barricades” (撤拒馬). Yet, there was no barbed wire, and with the small number of persons on site, everyone could easily see it. The play was supposed to end at 12, and it ended at 12:00 sharp.
How should Taiwanese consider incumbent legislators calling for a crowd to besiege and occupy the very Legislature to which they were elected?
Dr Stephane Corcuff is Associate professor at the University of Lyon, France, and researcher at CEFC, Taipei office. He tweets @stephanecorcuff. All images by the author.