What do students bring to the occupation of the legislative chamber and other protests? Many things, including energy and sincerity, but they have two particular assets:
They have an education, composed of both specific aspects, such as current affairs or ways of analyzing complex events and processes, but also made up of what we might call a tenor or style, in which — hopefully — habits of inspection and criticism develop.
Second, they bring their own communal and electronic cultures of communication and discourse, derived from family and neighborhood, as well as social networks, friendships and gangs, reading, traveling and so on.
The importance of the past few days in Taipei lies not only (or even principally) in the issue of the trade pact. The effectiveness of the students has exposed the character of their assets and therefore also the changing nature of student life and culture. As for their education, in the advanced international political economy class that I teach undergraduates, on Thursday last week I opened up a discussion on the student occupation by posing six questions that I believe they and we should be thinking about.
One, is the student occupation the right tactic and manner of challenge?
Two, is it possible to capture benefits from extending the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, whilst minimizing negative political impacts?
Three, have the latter been exaggerated?
Four, look carefully at the agreement and the new proposals. How does it seem to balance out?
Five, is the problem as much one of incorrect and authoritarian Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) procedure and attitudes as one of the agreement itself?
Six, does this reflect any departure and improvement in social movements in Taiwan?
My class will answer such questions during the coming weeks as we consider topics on China, Taiwan and regional economic development. I am sure that similar discussions are taking place, or will soon take place throughout Taiwan. Hopefully the public will now be prompted by the activity of the students to consider these issues. In particular their original printed statements were thoughtful and sincere and worthy of further examination.
As I suggested, there is more to education than formal lectures. Taiwan has been criticized along with other parts of East Asia for having a “narrow gate” approach to all levels of education, in which rather rigid and often turgid textbook repetition and memory dominate even in humanities and social sciences. In contrast in other regions, there is more focus on open-ended, but properly prepared class discussion, criticism of the published word, debate amongst peers and with teachers, lecturers and professors.
Purportedly, the latter system is better at producing scientific and technological innovation as well as artistic and humanist creativity and integrity. Does the virulence of the present student movement contradict this view, perhaps suggesting that Taiwanese education is now less likely to dampen dissent or innovation?
I am afraid it does not. Much of Taiwanese education is still mired within a system of memorization and repetition, examination, standardization and regulation, rather than critical discussion and evaluative methodology — cramming still dominates and is well-supported by large financial outlays across a huge cross-section of the parental population. What has changed is the character of that other asset — student culture itself.
There is every evidence that student culture is more lively and robust, more technologically sophisticated, than the educational system which seeks to define it. Anyone over 30 is probably excluded from possessing much authority or voice on this subject, but as a father of five grown-up kids and a teacher since 1970 (annually in Taiwan since 1994) let me mention at least some obvious points.
Let us turn to the history of social movements in Taiwan, as introduced in these pages by my colleague at SOAS in London, Dafydd Fell. Comparing the Wild Lily and Wild Strawberry movements with that of today, Fell makes the point that the issues concerned were not really resolved by authority, that student protest was definite and public and divorced from party opposition ownership, remained non-violent, and that they represented an advancing democracy.
Here I argue that what we are witnessing is a step change in the armory of student culture set amidst a turgidity of mainstream politics and a basically conservative educational system. A reason that the occupation came as such a shock to everyone is that nothing in the way of street demonstration was involved or required as a prerequisite to sudden action. In the recent demonstrations over the media or nuclear energy, the notice given for public meetings, the events themselves and so on, alerted police, politicians and the public to what was about to happen. Here and now, the increased power of communication within student and youth culture altered the chronology of events for the first time — today the sudden event is being followed by more public street demonstrations over a wider social and geographical base.
Technology provides social networking within youth culture the following advantages: First, protest is freed from the need for pre-event publicity, previously required in order to gain support, test the waters, allow student leaders to emerge, and so on.
Second, close networking allows protest to be increasingly free of interventions by the opposition parties who wish to jump on the bandwagon — thus further weakening the Democratic Progressive Party, already stymied by moves within its leadership that were taking the party toward rather than away from the KMT positions on China.
Third, such an occupation required far less help from the established media, both in advertising what was happening and provoking further actions, confrontations, etc. Students could communicate with no help from outside, so they gained the early initiative, and, of course, were prepared for the subsequent activities of more conventional media. This was very important given the recent strident student protests over the political impacts of changes in media ownership.
So I would conclude that this occupation in Taipei is significant because the students have made a good case as a beginning, and because they were enabled to do so through the independence, momentum and saliency given them by unstoppable social networking of all sorts. All authoritarians had better beware.
Ian Inkster is a professorial research associate at SOAS, University of London, and a professor of global history in the international affairs department of Wenzao Ursuline University of Languages in Greater Kaohsiung.
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