The anti-nuclear demonstrations that were held throughout Taiwan on Saturday were undoubtedly quite successful. Over 100 civic groups simultaneously took to the streets in Taipei, Greater Taichung, Greater Tainan and Taitung, with organizers estimating about 200,000 participants in all. Unusually, there were also many celebrities among the crowds expressing anti-nuclear sympathies, making this perhaps one of the most telegenic marches Taiwanese democracy has seen.
Nevertheless, this type of mass demonstration, in which large numbers of people are mobilized, takes up huge amounts of social resources, and it is important that they are clear about what they want to achieve. After the heat of the moment has passed, can they say that they have done what they originally set out to do?
In general, there are three main goals that groups seek to achieve through such rallies. The first is to strengthen the feeling of unity or confidence among supporters, and to reinforce certain concepts: This is the kind of rally held by political parties during election campaigns.
The second is about kicking up a storm and getting yourself in the papers, in order to drum up latent or floating support within the wider population: This is the kind of demonstration held to protest the White Terror period or about the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台).
The third is aimed at expressing the strength of certain opinions to get the government to implement certain policy changes, as we saw when public servants recently contested reductions in their pension payments, or when students objected to increases in tuition fees.
Then there are the protests meant to operate outside of the system. These attempt to foster social divisions, or perhaps even to topple the government or challenge its legitimacy: They are more revolutionary in nature, and are not often seen in democratic countries.
Looking at Saturday’s anti-nuclear rally in the light of the above categories, I fear that it is unclear what exactly was achieved, save making a lot of noise.
According to several surveys conducted by various media outlets over the past two weeks, about 60 percent — in some cases 70 percent — of the population support the anti-nuclear movement, or have little faith in the government’s ability to ensure the safety of nuclear power. Given this overwhelming majority, anti-nuclear groups should not expect the demonstrations to actually increase support.
Neither did it seem that cost-effective to mobilize telegenic celebrities, who the press naturally gravitate toward, out on the day to attract the support of otherwise indifferent people.
Of course, the organizers may have hoped that the event would show the strength of people’s feelings toward the issue, which in itself might get the government to backtrack. Remember, though, that the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in Gongliao District (貢寮), New Taipei City (新北市), has already had hundreds of billions of New Taiwan dollars plowed into it, and if the construction is halted at this stage the government would need to pay a further fortune in compensation and subsidies to cover Taiwan Power Co’s losses.
When it was in power, and despite limited government investment or the non-nuclear stance clearly stated in the party’s political platform, even the Democratic Progressive Party administration did not dare halt construction of the plant. How would one expect the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to do any different now?
The KMT has already promised that the fate of the plant lies in a public referendum, and the party’s legislative caucus has already completed the draft text of the referendum proposal. Perhaps the demonstrators were correct in their suspicions of the KMT’s motivation behind the referendum, that is, to palm off responsibility for the plant on the public as a whole.
Perhaps the announcement was the result of bad faith on the part of the party policymakers, who know full well that the threshold is unlikely to be reached. Regardless, since the government is willing to listen to public opinion, and given that some 70 percent of the public support the anti-nuclear cause, to hold a mass demonstration at this juncture, and call on the government to do what it demands, somewhat weakens the legitimacy of the demonstration.
If they really want to achieve their objective, the correct way for civic groups seeking to scrap nuclear power would be to wait until the Referendum Review Committee (RRC) has passed the referendum question and then galvanize all of their collective support to campaign for a “yes” or “no” vote, depending on how the question is posed.
In other democratic countries, when people are asked to vote in a referendum, they wait until the question has been decided before the two sides officially lock horns. In Taiwan, the question has not even been confirmed yet, and people have taken to the streets expressing doubts over the referendum or complaining that the government has gone ahead without consulting anyone.
This is not how things are done in democratic societies. Worse still, when the demonstration started, members of the opposition came out in force, despite the efforts of the organizers to avoid this kind of politicization of the rally.
Unfortunately, in Taiwan, where you are either affiliated with the pan-blue or pan-green camps, it is no small feat to try to rein in politicians looking for exposure. Consequently, those who joined the demonstration purely because they oppose nuclear power in Taiwan began to suspect that they had been used: This is unfortunate for the organizers, as they were left with egg on their faces.
When the government is resolved to holding a referendum, the most important thing for the public to do is to put the issue to serious debate and engage in dialogue.
It is not often that we are in such a commanding position as this, to be able to get to the bottom of an issue and truly understand what it is about. As far as providing free publicity to stars and politicians, perhaps we should save this for campaign rallies in the run-up to elections.
Yang Tai-shuenn is professor and chairperson of the Department of Political Science at Chinese Culture University.
Translated by Paul Cooper