I first met Wang Yun-hsiang (王雲祥) during a large protest against the destruction of houses in Taipei’s Huaguang Community (華光) in April this year. In fact, I did not even know his name when I took a photograph of the young man, the red letters on his T-shirt reading “street fight,” as he was being whisked away by police officers.
On that day, the Taipei City Government had moved in and bulldozed a number of houses and commercial establishments, claiming the residents had lived there illegally. From the rubble of Huaguang, city officials promised that a sparkling new complex for the rich would sprout, while the few human remnants were scattered to the winds, the tight knots of a community, formed over decades, severed forever.
As he was escorted right past me, where I stood on the tracks of an excavator, snapping pictures, Wang looked straight ahead, a light of defiance in his eyes that, when I met him again weeks, months later, had not died out. The young man was arrested that day, and his summons to court was last week. According to court documents, Wang was found guilty of obstructing the work of police officers in their line of duty. Using video footage, he contends that all he did that day was to try to mediate between another protester and police officers who were taking him away.
Was Wang, like others, involved in physical clashes with the hundreds of police officers who had been deployed to protect construction — strike that, demolition — workers as they perpetrated state-sanctioned violence against the poor, the elderly and the infirm? Maybe. Since I was behind the police lines, one of the few individuals allowed in, thanks to my press credentials, I did not directly witness what happened in the melee. However, on that fateful day, Wang and hundreds of others were fighting for their ideals, and for a just resolution to the years-long conflict.
The court sentenced Wang to 100 hours of community service so that he could “improve his behavior” and become a “better citizen.”
When I first heard of the ruling, my first reaction was to ask: Has not Wang already done a lot more than 100 hours of community service, standing on the side of the weak and vulnerable against the vultures bearing the masks of “modernity” and “development?” Did not any of his actions, not only at Huaguang, but also in Yuanli (苑裡) and Dapu (大埔), both in Miaoli County, where he and others were roughed up, intimidated and threatened by police and thugs as they once again attempted to erect a line against injustice, constitute time served? And above all, how could a judicial system presume to make Wang into a “better citizen” through community service when his very actions were inspired and motivated by the noblest of motives, when those at fault were not the protesters and the victims, but the government itself, a force that is evidently in cahoots with developers and that has grown increasingly disconnected from the needs and fears of its citizens?
Wang took the hit, and the very next day, undeterred, he was at it again, this time participating in a protest in front of the Presidential Office just as the bulldozers were moving in in Dapu. No sooner had he pointed his nose in front of the seat of power, where hundreds had gathered, than the police pushed him back, clear evidence that he was being singled out.
What is special about this otherwise ordinary, skinny young man is that he does not fit the stereotype with which the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have become comfortable over the years. For Wang, who works in the visual arts sector, is of second-generation “Mainlander” stock, which means absolutely nothing for a generation that was born here in Taiwan and identifies with the land (Wang even speaks Taiwanese). However, for conservative forces, activists like him are problematic as they cannot be placed in the typical category of ethnic conflict pitting “Mainlander” against “Taiwanese.”
The CCP, and in many ways the KMT as well, would like nothing more than for Taiwan to remain divided along the old “ethnic” lines, but with Wang and several others his age, such divisions, both in terms of one’s “ethnicity” and voting preferences, are disappearing fast. Increasingly, as society mobilizes against a series of outrages orchestrated or condoned by the government, Taiwan’s ethnic groups are fighting alongside one another, and oftentimes are doing so in cooperation with, or in the name of, individuals who are evidently of different “ethnic” background or political views.
Only in today’s Taiwan could young Taiwanese leaders like Lin Fei-fan (林飛帆), from Greater Tainan, get themselves into trouble with the authorities for the sake of saving a house inhabited by an elderly KMT soldier who continues to revere Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), and whose memorabilia of the late dictator went down with the house.
It is no surprise that the authorities, faced with rising, organized and heterogeneous activism, would seek to make examples of young men like Wang, or Chen Wei-ting (陳為廷), a Hakka from Miaoli who has often been targeted by law enforcement and pro-China media conglomerates (Chen was taken away by police at the weekend for throwing paint at the house of the Miaoli County commissioner’s house to protest against the Dapu demolitions). In doing so, the government has increasingly relied on the courts, presumably hoping that fines, sentences and community service would suffice to dissuade youth from continuing their opposition.
Wang and Chen are not alone. One day after the houses were demolished in Dapu, sparking nationwide outrage among citizens, academics, journalists, documentary filmmakers and the artistic community, Kuo Guan-jun (郭冠均), a young activist from the department of sociology at National Taiwan University, was arrested by police as he participated in one of the many flash protests that were launched that day targeting senior Cabinet officials.
The next day, Kuo appeared in court, where he was accused of “endangering public safety” during a campaign event for President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).
Images of the court schedule posted on the Internet showed the bails that had been set for a variety of people who were to appear before him that day. The offenses were for drunk driving, theft and so on, and the bails ranged from NT$5,000 to NT$10,000. For some reason, Kuo’s was set at NT$30,000, which the Taiwan Rural Front, an NGO supporting land and farmers’ rights, eventually posted.
If found guilty, Kuo could be sentenced to up to five years’ imprisonment. Kuo never even came close to Ma.
Later the same day, activists Wang Chung-ming (王鐘銘) and Wu Hsueh-chan (吳學展) were detained and charged with violations of the Social Order Maintenance Act (社會秩序維護法) during an egg-throwing protest in front of the KMT headquarters in Taipei.
That same weekend, during another campaign event for Ma, a mother of three, with no history of involvement in political issues, brought her three-year-old child to see Ma, and pretending to be a supporter, she was able to get close enough to him to shout: “Today it was Dapu, tomorrow it will be the government,” before a shaken president was whisked away by his security detail.
Police then asked the woman to show them her ID card, a request that she complied with, even though law enforcement had no right to ask a citizen to provide such documents simply for having spoken her mind in public.
Increasingly, as the embattled government loses its footing, it will resort to heavy — in fact disproportionate — punishments against “unruly” youth who will no longer stand by as the government fails to abide by its contract with a people that brought it to power via democratic means. This will come in the form of jail sentences, fines or lawsuits, all of which has already started to happen.
In the process, the Ma administration will more and more resemble the governments of Singapore, which has perfected the art of using lawsuits to cow and discredit anyone who dares to oppose its soft authoritarianism, and that of China, which distorts the legal system to maintain its tight grip on the public.
The government, banking on so-called Confucian values that it is actively seeking to revive, is trying to make criminals out of young, idealistic individuals who are fully cognizant of the values upon which this nation was built. It accuses them of being “troublemakers,” or “professional protesters” whose actions are hurting the country’s image. However, there is no doubt in the public’s mind that the activists, whose ranks are growing, are on the side of the angels, selflessly enduring injury, fatigue, ridicule and the threat of the courts in their battle to prove that two plus two is not five, as our increasingly Orwellian government claims, but indeed four.
J. Michael Cole is a deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.