In the three years since the Sunflower movement flew the civil disobedience banner in 2014, Taipei has experienced a series of protests and demonstrations. On Wednesday last week, the draft pension reform bill was discussed in the legislature’s Economics Committee while anti-reform groups gathered in a massive protest outside the Legislative Yuan.
The protesters also claimed the civil disobedience banner, saying that if it was alright for the Sunflower movement, then why should it not be OK for them, too?
However, is a group of demonstrating citizens calling for “disobedience” sufficient to dub the protest an act of civil disobedience? Are the reform protests and the Sunflower movement even comparable?
Civil disobedience requires a few special characteristics: concern for the public interest based on social conscience and justice, which is based on an intentional violation of the law; an extraordinary action that commands the acceptance of a majority of the public, that does not involve violent protest and rioting; holding to principles of fairness and justice, and being an ethical, open, non-violent and peaceful protest aimed at urging the government to change unjust policies or actions.
This demonstrates that civil disobedience is not simply a matter of citizens being disobedient. Furthermore, the Sunflower movement and the reform protesters are different both in substance and action.
One difference is the attempt to persuade people with reason or force. The reform protesters attacked legislators, county commissioners and city mayors, surrounding, pushing, beating and pouring water on them. They also broke a window on a media van and threw smoke bombs outside the Presidential Office.
Such behavior turns the concept of non-violent and peaceful civil disobedience on its head. This attempt to use force to persuade the government stands in stark contrast to the Sunflower movement’s peaceful, non-violent attempt to persuade the government using reason.
The second difference is public interest versus vested interest. The Sunflower movement took action to block the opaque cross-strait service trade agreement and in doing so, displayed social conscience and a concern for the public interest that reached far beyond their own interest.
The reform protesters, on the other hand, are working to protect their own vested interests rather than the interests of the public, and they are trying to maintain an unjust system rather than working for fairness and justice. One wonders whether they are really working for harmony and forgiveness between generations or if they are just trying to exploit the younger generation.
The third difference between the two movements is the issue of popular will versus subversion of the will of the people. The political parties and civic groups that participated in the rally against the cross-strait service trade agreement on March 30, 2014, were marginalized at the time.
The vast majority of the approximately 500,000 people who participated in the rally were young and had never been to a demonstration before; a far cry from the middle-aged, predominantly male pan-green camp demonstrators who usually attend anti-government rallies.
Most of the March 30 demonstrators came by MRT rather than being bused in; one recognized the faces of hardly any of the marchers.
In contrast, the pension reform protest was called for by special interest groups. At the protest, the usual suspects, clothed in black, were very much in evidence and claimed that they were speaking up for the “silent majority.”
The pension mess was created by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). Facing a choice between reform and offending voters, the party chose compromise with the next election in mind.
The KMT, which only knows how to curry favor with special interest groups, must be baffled at the moment. While in power, it was opposed by the Democratic Progressive Party, which organized protests; public opinion often appeared to be on their side. Now that the KMT is in opposition, it also organizes protests, but public opinion seems to side with the government. What is going on?
The ability to harness public opinion has nothing to do with whether the party is in government or in opposition. While in power, the KMT opposed pension reform; while in opposition, it still opposes pension reform. No wonder the public, overwhelmingly supporting pension reform, is not applauding.
Chang Kuo-tsai is a retired National Hsinchu University of Education associate professor and a former deputy secretary-general of the Taiwan Association of University Professors.
Translated by Perry Svensson and Edward Jones
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