From afar, a forest is all calm and quiet; penetrate its heart, however, and soon the placidity reveals itself as illusory, as nature perpetuates itself ruthlessly.
When it comes to political conflict, so-called experts and many government officials often look at it as they do a forest — from the outside, unawares of all the pressures, rifts and dynamics that animate it. Economists and investors, whose trade thrives on stability, are often also guilty of adopting an outsider’s view that blinds them to realities on the ground.
This usually engenders two problems: Self-deception, as experts do not have all the necessary variables to draw a complete picture of the situation; and intellectual dishonesty, whereby inconvenient variables are ignored so that the coveted end-result can be achieved with as little friction as possible.
Such a situation is taking place in Taiwan these days, where it seems that the entire international community is of one mind regarding the benefits of rapprochement between Taiwan and China and of the proposed economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) between the two countries. The same song has been repeated by academics, economists, consul-generals, trade council chairmen — all of whom have one thing in common: They do not live in Taiwan and get their information about the place through a number of filters.
So far, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration has succeeded in fostering an image — at least abroad — of unity on his pro-China policies, an image that diplomats in places as close as Hong Kong, or who were wined and dined by Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) officials on official visits to Taipai, appear to have swallowed. Ma promises stability and peace in the Taiwan Strait, slogans that have been received abroad well.
Like the proverbial forest, however, there are tensions — and they are rising. The ruling on whether the administration will allow an opposition-initiated referendum on an ECFA to proceed will also determine the manner in which these tensions manifest themselves. If the referendum bid is turned down, like the one initiated by the Democratic Progressive Party earlier this year was, inhibitions for social unrest will also likely disappear.
This holds especially true for the many single-interest groups, such as pro-independence organizations and the many sectors that feel threatened by an ECFA. Without proper democratic outlets to express their grievances, and absent sincere government measures to palliate political and economic apprehensions (Ma has offered too little, both in terms of financial compensation and assurances on sovereignty), the next steps cannot but become more radical.
Already there are signs that this is happening. Last week, this newspaper learned from a source that must remain anonymous that protests on Friday night in downtown Taipei were on the brink of escalating, with tactics that could have resulted in damage to property, if not injury. Though this did not come to pass in that specific instance, the potential for escalation is real, and if the Ma administration continues to neglect rising public apprehensions, the restraint that gainsaid more radical elements on Friday could quickly dissipate.
No one — regional economies, global markets and least of all Taiwanese — stands to gain from unrest and instability. However, if a group of people feels boxed in and their fears are ignored by all, they may come to see unrest as the only option. If this happens, all the stability that experts, diplomats and economists are so enamored of would be threatened.