On Sunday, about 200,000 people took to the streets in Taipei.
As always, it was a colorful display of political views on a range of current issues. That this is happening is a testimony to Taiwan’s still-vibrant democracy.
At the same time, that it is necessary to go out into the streets means that a lot of people are unhappy with the current state of affairs and want a change in direction. Let us attempt to analyze the situation from an outside perspective and see what steps would be appropriate.
A major socioeconomic element driving the dissatisfaction is the weak economy, coupled with the widening income gap. Workers, students and middle and lower income people in general have seen their incomes decline and costs go up. In particular, housing prices have skyrocketed.
The global economy is sputtering, and this may of course have some effect on Taiwan, but the main issue in the view of many people is the discrepancy between the promises of high economic growth made when the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) went into effect about two years ago and the present reality.
A second major theme driving the people into the streets is the encroachment on Taiwan’s media by major pro-China media and business mogul Tsai Eng-meng (蔡衍明). I commented on that development only recently (“Want Want monopoly threatens democracy,” Dec. 26, 2012, page 8).
It does appear that this issue is of deep concern to many, but in particular the young people, the students, who have been out in the streets for several months now. However, the government has turned a deaf ear to their pleas, and recently even blocked amendments to media legislation in the Legislative Yuan designed to prevent such monopolies in the media.
A free press is an essential element of a democratic system. Allowing Taiwan’s media to gradually slide into the control of a conglomerate that is so obviously susceptible to pressures from Beijing is not a responsible policy.
This brings me to the third theme of the rally in Taipei on Sunday: support for a national affairs conference designed to bring about a broad-based dialogue on how to move forward on socioeconomic and political issues.
This idea was first proposed by former DPP chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in November, when several of these issues were starting to come to a head.
The concept of such a conference is not new to Taiwan. Former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) used it very effectively in 1990, when he was preparing for changes in the political system, which led to the major reforms in 1991 and subsequent years. Then, as now, Taiwan was faced with a deep political divide with irreconcilable differences on how to move forward.
At that time, the main issues were parliamentary and constitutional reform, and the June-July 1990 conference eventually led to the retirement of “eternal” legislators who had retained their positions since the late 1940s, and making Taiwan a full democracy in which the legislature and president are elected by the people.
At this time, the main issues causing so many people to rally are enhancing people’s economic well-being, safeguarding democracy and press freedom, and ensuring that people can make their own choice about the country’s future. These are themes that a broad spectrum of political opinion in Taiwan should be able to agree on, so it would be worthwhile to try to bridge the political divide and have a national policy conference to develop a brighter vision for Taiwan and its future.
Nat Bellocchi served as chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan from 1990 through 1995. The views expressed in this article are his own.