Fri, Dec 20, 2002 - Page 8 News List

Cabinet's reform message confused

By Lin Hsiao-Hsin 林孝信

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.

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