Last year was a busy year for social movements. Basic wages returned to the level they were at 14 years ago. Nobody would have guessed that after being re-elected, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and his administration would turn around and become the first Taiwanese government to openly list increasing the number of foreign workers and keeping the minimum wage down as major policies for national development.
At the same time, Ma appointed a premier who believes the minimum wage should be scrapped and who is busying himself with setting up a new processing and export area in southern Taiwan to lure back Taiwanese businesspeople from China, saying this is a good way to spur industrial upgrading and boost employment.
On the other hand, the Presidential Office seems to have disappeared into thin air and is not taking any concrete action. For example, the Presidential Office is allowing administrative bodies at various levels to ignore court decisions and lets them continue with their development of industrial and scenic areas. And faced with monopolization of the media, the government has completely given up on its role of control and monitoring.
We should realize that the government has a very consistent logic when it comes to which policies to promote and which to scrap. Government policy is ruled by the desires of large corporations, with economics and finance officials applying neoliberal ideas when it suits them. This does not mean that past presidents distanced themselves from the wishes of capitalists, but in the past, we seldom saw such a lack of discretion in who they were listening to and the way they were pampering to and acting on the opinions of capitalists.
Therefore, the social movements we have seen this year have been characterized by their challenges to the control large corporations have over the country. Mass protests against the forced eviction of the Wang family from their home in Taipei’s Shilin District (士林) in connection with the Wenlin Yuan (文林苑) urban renewal project, the construction of the Miramar Resort Village in Taitung County, the debate about the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in Gongliao District (貢寮), media buyouts and the recent freezes of the minimum wage can all be seen as reactions against the power of corporations by civil society.
This force for justice has become very strong and as a result, we have seen a second phenomenon emerge in social movements: Different civic groups are engaging in mutual dialogue and supporting and cooperating with each other.
The movement against media monopolization has not only resulted in the mobilization of groups supporting media reform, but student and labor groups are also taking part. In addition, many different groups from around Taiwan are participating in the anti-nuclear movement that started after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. Apart from such open collective action, many previously silent workshops, symposiums and training camps have also engaged in dialogue and discussion on a large number of cross-issues. Issues like build-operate-transfer contracts and government land expropriation have become part of the agenda for social movements in a wide variety of spheres.
The Internet is increasingly being used as a tool for mobilizing the public and those involved in the gay and lesbian rights, environmental and labor movements are gaining more experience in using it for this purpose.
A recent example can be seen in the recent strike by workers at textile producer Hualon Corp. In the past, this sort of movement would never have gained much attention outside of labor circles. However, in the recent Hualon strike, students played a prominent role, helping the strike staged by the workers to gain strength during the more than 100 days of its duration, giving mainstream media no choice but to report on the issue.
In addition, cyberspace is also making it easier to start collective actions. A recent example of this can be seen from the protests held by students on school campuses against media monopolization.
Looking back, we can see that the interaction of the real world and the Internet has strengthened public resistance to the government.
Finally, more people are realizing how important it is to make donations in support of lively civic groups. In the past, public donations mostly went to faith-based charity groups and political parties. However, faith-based charity groups are not willing to get involved in the deeper structures of our society and after the Democratic Progressive Party’s efforts on many social issues were ignored by social movements, the public has started to realize the social significance of civic groups and to donate to them. This has led to the strengthening of many social movements. The experience of many democracies has shown that a strong and independent civil society is a prerequisite for a democratic and fair society.
The average citizen must overcome a perceived lack of political power and learn to pay attention to a greater number of public affairs issues. People also need to make donations, work as volunteers and join organizations to take concrete action.
This year, this trend has become clearer than in the past. As our political and economic systems become more influenced by neoliberalism, it would not be surprising if groups of powerless citizens were to join hands to form larger and stronger social movements.
Chiu Yu-bin is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Development at the National Pingtung University of Education.
Translated by Drew Cameron