Curing democracy of its maladies

By Yen Chueh-an 顏厥安  / 

Fri, Sep 06, 2013 - Page 8

The past few weeks saw a white T-shirt vigil protesting the death of army corporal Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘) followed by another demonstration in which protesters vowed to “tear down the government.” These two social movements were very different in their nature, but both served to demonstrate that the legitimacy of the government of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) has been weakened. These events have also precipitated a debate on civil disobedience.

The general assumption is that civil disobedience movements are founded on five basic principles. That is, that they are concerned with the public interest; that they give rise to public debate and scrutiny, seeking a change in the law or in public policy; that they happen only after all alternatives have been exhausted; that they proceed in a peaceful manner; and that the proponents are willing to accept the legal repercussions of their actions.

It may not always be that straightforward: All of these five principles entail various qualifications, and not everyone is in agreement regarding the details. Moreover, they all need to be understood and modified according to the actual political, social and historic context in which they occur.

In terms of Taiwan’s recent experience, the white T-shirt vigil organized in Hung’s memory was not strictly about civil disobedience, although it did carry a strong message that things could not continue in the way that they had. More specifically, the protesters said a collective “no” to the way the authorities are governing the country, and to the parts of the system relevant to their grievances, such as the existence of military courts.

To these things, they expressed their dissatisfaction, and their refusal to continue to accept the system. However, the way they carried out the demonstration was conspicuously one of “obedience.” That is, they broke no laws, and they carried out their protest in an orderly manner. Insisting on saying no, and yet refusing to resort to disobedience, they still managed to secure their goal of seeing military trials abolished in the nation.

There is no way the “tear down the government” movement could have adopted this model, as government officials at the very highest level had blatantly reneged on promises made in black and white, and people found themselves in a direct confrontation with police and the earth-movers brought in to demolish their homes. That they did not take up arms themselves was already adequately temperate and civilized, and naturally the subsequent protests had little alternative but to adopt this “civil disobedience,” supposedly in violation of the law.

How can actions taken in violation of the law have moral legitimacy? Good intentions were never an adequate defense, so what makes people involved in civil disobedience an exception? The experience in Taiwan is informative. By “tearing down the government” the protesters were seeking to symbolically dismantle a “corrupt government” to defend the fundamental principles of a “legitimate” government. They were attempting to openly explain what type of government qualifies as a government deserving of respect, and what kind of principles of governance need to be upheld for a government to assert that it governs by common authority, as opposed to by force. This is civil disobedience at its most profound.

Further, Taiwan is facing the kind of tribulation often faced by countries in their transformation into democracies: that of a democratically elected government itself threatening the democratic system. It might therefore be worth considering, in addition to the five requirements of civil disobedience, whether there is a need to develop a kind of “democratic resistance.”

This democratic resistance would be different in that its goal would be the protection of the principles of democratic constitutional government — human rights, the rule of law and social justice — and does not necessarily need to wait until all alternatives are exhausted; neither do the proponents need to accept prosecution for their actions. Democratic resistance is an advanced form of civil disobedience, seeking to cure the democracy of its malady, just as civil disobedience is the perfect context for democratic resistance.

What kinds of democratic maladies are sufficient to legitimize this type of comparatively radical democratic resistance? First, when the state authorities violate the principles of constitutional government on a relatively frequent basis. Second, when the various branches of government have found themselves impotent in mitigating this situation in an effective manner. Third, when the opposition parties are either too weak to do anything, or even complicit. Fourth, when the government is seriously devoid of any degree of sincerity, or seeks to govern through falsehoods and lies. And fifth, when the government chooses to crack down on dissent, and even uses criminal elements to deal with the public. Using these to look at the state of Taiwan’s democracy of late, we can see that these maladies are, indeed, becoming increasingly serious.

Some might say that these maladies, as indicators, have been tailor-made to represent the situation in which Taiwan now finds itself. However, the more pertinent point is how it is that Taiwan is becoming increasingly like 1930s Germany.

From civil disobedience to democratic resistance, the public has finally realized that from its inception in 2008, when it started using the police force to protect itself, the government has not stopped at tearing down and destroying all of the basic principles of democratic, constitutional government, and so tearing down the government through democratic resistance is the way to protect justice of the people, by the people and for the people.

The great Roman historian Tacitus once mocked the Britons for thinking themselves civilized by imitating the ways and lifestyles of Romans, whereas in doing so they were actually demonstrating their servility. Resistance in the face of unfairness and injustice is the noblest expression of civilization. All the various paraphernalia and artistic legacy of the resistance process, such as the posters, the paintings, the plays, the songs, and the works of poetry and prose, shall become the historic artifacts of Taiwan’s democratic civilization, for all to see in posterity.

Yen Chueh-an is a professor at National Taiwan University’s College of Law and a supervisor of Taiwan Democracy Watch.

Translated by Paul Cooper