On July 30, a group of artists and academics — including the deans of National Taiwan University’s College of Liberal Arts, College of Social Sciences and College of Law — issued a joint statement regarding the controversy caused by the cross-strait service trade agreement. The statement expressed hope for an in-depth policy debate to build a consensus on the agreement based on a rational and mature approach and through a diversified democratic deliberation process. It also called on the government to listen humbly to opinions from every sector of society, rather than relying on one-way promotion of the agreement through formalistic official propaganda which distorts questions and suggestions from civil society by sticking labels on them.
After the statement was issued, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said at a public forum that some academics have sensationalized the issue with lies and rumormongering and said that the reasons for opposition put forward by highly placed intellectuals did not withstand scrutiny. He even said that the confrontation was “a battle between those who tell lies and those who refute the lies.” It was both distressing and regrettable to hear such rhetoric.
In his book The Rhetoric of Reaction, Albert Hirschman divided opposition to social change into three narratives: perversity, futility and jeopardy. If he had heard Ma’s response to the doubts expressed throughout civil society, he might have added one more narrative: “smearing.”
Taiwanese have already decided that the service trade agreement was signed in a closed-door procedure that violates democratic procedure. Former presidential advisor Rex How (郝明義) asked who it was that decided on a closed-door approach and why that decision was reached. He asked who decided which industries should be included in the agreement and which not. No one in the government has come forward to offer formal and comprehensive answers to any of these questions.
We can only wonder if Ma, when he used provocative language to attack the academics, accusing them of rumor mongering, engaged in self-reflection. Did he ask himself if he really could make an arbitrary decision on the scope, content and conditions for deregulating an industry without a comprehensive industry survey and impact assessment, and without giving the legislature and industries a chance to express their opinions? Did he ask himself why he, a directly-elected president, chose to harm Taiwan’s democracy or why his government continues to stress that “the service trade agreement can only be voted on in its entirety” after the legislature decided to review and vote on the agreement item by item?
Over the past few months, some intellectuals and civic groups have worked hard to study the impact of the agreement, collected information for the service sectors involved, and consulted small and medium-sized enterprises and the general public. All these things should have been done by the government, which failed to accomplish any of them.
Unfortunately, people making these efforts have become targets of Ma’s criticism. The situation is unbearable.
Neither the money to run advertisements nor the power to ask for media support is available, and the Central News Agency certainly will not help to issue a press release. However, an intellectual’s ethics and conscience demand action, so releasing research results on public forums and hoping more people understand the truth is all that can be done.