As with every major display of public dissatisfaction in recent years, yesterday’s demonstrations in Taipei and Kaohsiung against the policies of the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration led to wildly variable speculation about the number of people who showed up. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which organized the protests, claims 600,000 participants in Taipei and 200,000 in Kaohsiung, while law-enforcement authorities put those numbers at about 50,000 and 30,000 respectively.
Different parties inevitably seek to manipulate, and thereby politicize, the estimates of turnouts at demonstrations. Accurate or not, crowd numbers nevertheless serve as indicators of the level of proactive, popular opposition to government policies — in this case, the opposition sees them as endangering the sovereignty of Taiwan.
The National Police Agency (NPA) said on Sunday that it deployed 2,000 police officers in Taipei and 800 in Kaohsiung (excluding forces on standby).
The deployment on Sunday was therefore relatively low-key. (The ratio at Times Square in New York City on New Year’s Eve is usually 1:20 and was 1:17 during anti-war demonstrations there in 2003.)
This illustrates that the Ma administration, the Ministry of the Interior and the NPA have learned from their mistakes during the November visit of Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林), when a large police presence — 2,000 at the airport, 800 at Chen’s hotel and 7,000 altogether — served as a catalyst for public anger.
As a result, demonstrations over the weekend were for the most part orderly and both sides respected the rules of engagement.
Both camps issued clear instructions and cautioned against overreaction and provocative behavior. Notwithstanding an incident involving a police vehicle, both performed commendably and showed that with restraint, public discontent can be freely expressed in a democracy.
Memories of bloody clashes in November may also have subdued passions on both sides.
Ironically for the DPP, the orderliness that characterized the demonstrations could make it easier for the Ma administration to ignore its efforts and downplay the importance of the rallies.
The last thing Ma and others want as they forge ahead with their cross-strait policies is more international attention.
By making sure that things would not get out of hand, the authorities ensured that the demonstration remained a very local one in news terms — and this they accomplished with brio.
By claiming that far fewer demonstrators showed up at the protests than the DPP expected, the Ma administration will again be in a position to say that the majority of Taiwanese agree with his policies on China and that there is no need for more transparency or referendums. In other words, May 17 will be easy to sweep under the carpet and Ma can stay the course.
The DPP and police played by the rules. The Ma administration did not bite. Democracy worked to perfection, but in so doing it muted the opposition’s voice. The DPP will have to think of something else if it wants the world to hear its message.