The past two or three months have seen another upsurge in social movements in Taiwan: Aboriginal movements (over the Makao National Park and nuclear waste storage on Orchid Island, among other issues), workers opposing the increase in labor and health insurance fees, the housing rights movement, the big march by teachers on Sept. 28 and the gathering of 120,000 farmers in Taipei. Perhaps Taiwan is on the verge of another major change.
More than a decade ago, Taiwan's democracy movement brought about substantial changes to the nation's political and economic systems. All kinds of social movements flourished in the wake of these changes, leading to a social transformation. That period of great structural change, so rarely seen in Taiwanese society, ended with the DPP's ascent to power. Not only did the political and economic system become more democratic, but social reconstruction gave rise to limitless popular expectations thanks to the DPP's support for, and involvement in, the social movements.
But the limitless expectations have been dashed by the recent succession of marches. The "post-social movement" reform model has already run aground. The fact that Taiwan's social development has regressed to the point of being a subject of hostile street demonstrations in just two or three short years is a fact that demands some analysis.
Over the past 10 years or so, vigorous Taiwanese social movements in the shadow of the authoritarian system have had an enormous impact, forcing social change and even assisting the DPP's ascent to power, the first transfer of political power in Taiwan. Considering that Taiwan had experienced decades of martial law, the results of social movements over the past decade are exceptionally commendable.
Has Taiwan's social reform project been largely completed, eliminating the need for social movements? Or have all major social reform projects been appropriately considered by the government, eliminating the need for the flag-waving and slogan-shouting personalities in the social movements?
Quite clearly, the recent upsurge in social movements negates the premise behind such questions.
The weird thing is, however, that some big recent social movements seem to have erupted in response to several of the government's reform policies. The big march by teachers on Sept. 28 has been seen as opposing educational reform. The demonstration by farmers and fishermen on Nov. 23 has been interpreted as a reaction to agricultural financial reform. Social movements appear to have turned into a conservative, anti-reform activity.
But the root of such bizarre phenomena lies in the abstraction and conceptualization of reform rather than thorough research into reform proposals.
In theory, any change to the existing system can be called reform, and reforms can therefore have different orientations. They can improve things or they can make things worse. It is absolutely not a one-dimensional phenomenon, and it is inappropriate to consider it in one-dimensional terms, such as "better" or "worse." The questions we should ask are: "Who will gain from the reforms?" and "Who will lose?" Phrases such as "the common interests of the whole people" cannot be used in this context.
But neither can reform be reduced to a simple dichotomy by saying that "reform is detrimental to vested interests within the old structure, and better for everyone else." The fundamental reason why educational reform and the reform of agricultural financing have recently met with such vehement opposition is that the decision-makers within the DPP are adopting such a simple dichotomy.
Let's analyze the march by teachers on Sept. 28. The teachers are said to have taken to the streets to protest their loss of income-tax exemption and to win the right to form unions, but their protest was mainly a result of educational reform. The attention and support given to the teachers' movement by society in general is also related to the issues created by educational reform.
The first proposition involved in educational reform presided over by Lee Yuan-tseh (
What was termed "deregulation," however, was basically the same as thorough marketization. Blind deregulation leads to the commoditization of education. Following the logic of commodities and free markets, people's rights to an education becomes polarized, with different family backgrounds leading to different educational opportunities. Many parents are suspicious of educational reform because they believe it will involve higher tuition fees and more expensive educational materials. More seriously, unequal educational opportunities impede mobility between social strata and perpetuate unequal social systems.
Let's take another look at the farmers march on Nov. 23, which seemed to be attacking agricultural financial reform. Bad management is certainly a factor in the credit units of farmers' associations, but the financial reforms proposed by the Ministry of Finance would basically result in agricultural financial institutions being run as though they were commercial banks. The plan is to regulate the agricultural sector according to free-market logic. Such regulations are obviously advantageous to international financial operators, but are not in the interests of the farmers. Such reform cannot be generalized as being simply better, or more ideal.
These two real-life examples expose the myths of reform. Abstracted and conceptualized reform furtively projects the moral halo of idealism, which prohibits a true understanding of the objective world. When true understanding is no longer possible, the victims take to the streets.
Lin Hsiao-hsin is the founder of Science Monthly and an executive director at the National Association for the Promotion of Community Universities.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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