The past few weeks saw a white T-shirt vigil protesting the death of army corporal Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘) followed by another demonstration in which protesters vowed to “tear down the government.” These two social movements were very different in their nature, but both served to demonstrate that the legitimacy of the government of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) has been weakened. These events have also precipitated a debate on civil disobedience.
The general assumption is that civil disobedience movements are founded on five basic principles. That is, that they are concerned with the public interest; that they give rise to public debate and scrutiny, seeking a change in the law or in public policy; that they happen only after all alternatives have been exhausted; that they proceed in a peaceful manner; and that the proponents are willing to accept the legal repercussions of their actions.
It may not always be that straightforward: All of these five principles entail various qualifications, and not everyone is in agreement regarding the details. Moreover, they all need to be understood and modified according to the actual political, social and historic context in which they occur.
In terms of Taiwan’s recent experience, the white T-shirt vigil organized in Hung’s memory was not strictly about civil disobedience, although it did carry a strong message that things could not continue in the way that they had. More specifically, the protesters said a collective “no” to the way the authorities are governing the country, and to the parts of the system relevant to their grievances, such as the existence of military courts.
To these things, they expressed their dissatisfaction, and their refusal to continue to accept the system. However, the way they carried out the demonstration was conspicuously one of “obedience.” That is, they broke no laws, and they carried out their protest in an orderly manner. Insisting on saying no, and yet refusing to resort to disobedience, they still managed to secure their goal of seeing military trials abolished in the nation.
There is no way the “tear down the government” movement could have adopted this model, as government officials at the very highest level had blatantly reneged on promises made in black and white, and people found themselves in a direct confrontation with police and the earth-movers brought in to demolish their homes. That they did not take up arms themselves was already adequately temperate and civilized, and naturally the subsequent protests had little alternative but to adopt this “civil disobedience,” supposedly in violation of the law.
How can actions taken in violation of the law have moral legitimacy? Good intentions were never an adequate defense, so what makes people involved in civil disobedience an exception? The experience in Taiwan is informative. By “tearing down the government” the protesters were seeking to symbolically dismantle a “corrupt government” to defend the fundamental principles of a “legitimate” government. They were attempting to openly explain what type of government qualifies as a government deserving of respect, and what kind of principles of governance need to be upheld for a government to assert that it governs by common authority, as opposed to by force. This is civil disobedience at its most profound.