The anti-nuclear demonstrations that were held throughout Taiwan on Saturday were undoubtedly quite successful. Over 100 civic groups simultaneously took to the streets in Taipei, Greater Taichung, Greater Tainan and Taitung, with organizers estimating about 200,000 participants in all. Unusually, there were also many celebrities among the crowds expressing anti-nuclear sympathies, making this perhaps one of the most telegenic marches Taiwanese democracy has seen.
Nevertheless, this type of mass demonstration, in which large numbers of people are mobilized, takes up huge amounts of social resources, and it is important that they are clear about what they want to achieve. After the heat of the moment has passed, can they say that they have done what they originally set out to do?
In general, there are three main goals that groups seek to achieve through such rallies. The first is to strengthen the feeling of unity or confidence among supporters, and to reinforce certain concepts: This is the kind of rally held by political parties during election campaigns.
The second is about kicking up a storm and getting yourself in the papers, in order to drum up latent or floating support within the wider population: This is the kind of demonstration held to protest the White Terror period or about the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台).
The third is aimed at expressing the strength of certain opinions to get the government to implement certain policy changes, as we saw when public servants recently contested reductions in their pension payments, or when students objected to increases in tuition fees.
Then there are the protests meant to operate outside of the system. These attempt to foster social divisions, or perhaps even to topple the government or challenge its legitimacy: They are more revolutionary in nature, and are not often seen in democratic countries.
Looking at Saturday’s anti-nuclear rally in the light of the above categories, I fear that it is unclear what exactly was achieved, save making a lot of noise.
According to several surveys conducted by various media outlets over the past two weeks, about 60 percent — in some cases 70 percent — of the population support the anti-nuclear movement, or have little faith in the government’s ability to ensure the safety of nuclear power. Given this overwhelming majority, anti-nuclear groups should not expect the demonstrations to actually increase support.
Neither did it seem that cost-effective to mobilize telegenic celebrities, who the press naturally gravitate toward, out on the day to attract the support of otherwise indifferent people.
Of course, the organizers may have hoped that the event would show the strength of people’s feelings toward the issue, which in itself might get the government to backtrack. Remember, though, that the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in Gongliao District (貢寮), New Taipei City (新北市), has already had hundreds of billions of New Taiwan dollars plowed into it, and if the construction is halted at this stage the government would need to pay a further fortune in compensation and subsidies to cover Taiwan Power Co’s losses.
When it was in power, and despite limited government investment or the non-nuclear stance clearly stated in the party’s political platform, even the Democratic Progressive Party administration did not dare halt construction of the plant. How would one expect the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to do any different now?