Over the past few weeks, a number of protests and even clashes have broken out in various cities and towns around Taiwan. Last week, as a second extra legislative session got underway, every day saw protesters gathering in front of the Legislative Yuan and trying to push their way through the gates. Students rallying around the call to “take back the future” have been taking the place of the usual familiar faces. These youngsters are bringing new blood to street protest movements in this country.
Taiwan’s political system has gone through two peaceful transfers of presidential power. One would expect the nation to have completed its democratic consolidation, so the outbreak of protests should not be seen as normal. As social discontent reaches boiling point and people take action to say “no” to those in power, many observers will probably be asking whether such protests are of any use, and whether they can bring about any change in the existing state of affairs.
This question should be seen on two levels:
The first point to ponder is how a democratically elected government should regard such expressions of popular opinion.
The second is whether civic forces have plans about what to do when those in power react in an arrogant way.
With regard to the first point, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), now serving his second term in office, rashly claims that a distinguished academic’s objections to the cross-strait service trade agreement can be demolished with one stroke. He has called the debate about the service trade pact “a conflict between those who create rumors and those who seek to refute them.”
Meanwhile, the Presidential Office has announced that Ma will visit other countries this month, showing how completely insensitive he is to the tangle of domestic issues facing the nation.
These facts make the answer to the first point crystal clear, so the emphasis must shift to the second point. When a dictator refuses to change his authoritarian ways, is there any way for people to solve the problem?
Why isn’t Ma listening? Two incidents from the past may cast some light on his attitude.
The first incident is what happened when the World Health Assembly (WHA) held its annual session in Geneva in 2003, and Taiwan, which was suffering the greatest impact from the spread of SARS from China, asked to join the assembly. China’s permanent representative to the UN, Sha Zukang (沙祖康), reacted to Taiwanese reporters’ questions by asking: “Who is listening to you?”
He could say such a thing because Taiwan had not joined the international establishment, and countries that were part of the establishment accepted China’s demand that they vote against Taiwan’s participation.
The second incident took place when former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) was in office, when the Constitution was amended six times and a certain newspaper ran a long series of editorials lambasting these constitutional changes. When one of Lee’s advisers asked him about it, Lee said there was nothing to worry about, because the media would not be the ones raising their hands when it came to a vote.
Lee’s remark shows how convenient it was for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to maintain majority control in the now disbanded National Assembly, as it still does in the Legislative Yuan.
By the same logic, considering Ma’s disdain for votes, appealing to him on the basis of any kind of value is sure to fail. This is a thoroughly realistic and rational conclusion, and it means that the only way to get Ma to bow down to the will of the public is by dismantling his power structure.