Recent social phenomena in Taiwan, from the White T-shirt mass vigil for army Corporal Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘) to the Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) case, are all linked by a common theme: Taiwanese society has changed.
Some believe that the two major political parties should adjust to accommodate this new force of change, and others are hopeful that a third political force will arise as a counterpoint.
The crucial question is this: If society has changed, how exactly has it changed, and why?
The consensus seems to be that the changes have come about because the public is fed up with partisan squabbling between the pan-blue and green camps. However, is this true?
Distaste for such squabbling is hardly new. It has existed since Taiwanese politics became divided into blue and green.
When a couple splits up and they are asked why, they will simply reply they were not compatible. The answer is deemed sufficient. Nobody knows what actually happened, nor do they pursue the matter further.
When a stock answer exists and has come to be accepted by enough people, even to the point of being a cliche, it may well be worth entertaining a degree of skepticism over whether it is actually true.
It is apparent from the increasing popularity of political talk shows and the incessant chatter of the hosts of these programs, that the public has not had enough of the bickering between the blue and green camps. Even 20-year-old entertainer Cheng Chia-chen (鄭佳甄) — dubbed the “Chicken Cutlet Girl” (雞排妹) by the media — has launched herself into the fray, espousing her political opinions with what seems to be absolutely no regard for the danger to her career.
This is enough to demonstrate that, while society has changed, there is no evidence to suggest the public is fed up with politics and the squabbling between the two parties.
The question again is: What exactly has changed?
From a historical perspective, such large-scale social change results from technological revolutions.
For example, the invention of movable type and the printing press in Europe allowed for the mass production of the Bible, affording the devout easy access to their own copy of the scriptures, no longer relying on the church.
This led to a revolution in religion and the freeing of thought that would spawn the Enlightenment. From this followed waves of democratic revolutions and the formation of universal values that continue to exist today.
Following the digital revolution, the public has had evermore access to information.
As mobile handsets have evolved into smartphones, this revolution has done the same for today’s public as the printing of the Bible did for the public centuries ago.
With their own Bible, everyday people in late medieval Europe could bypass the established church and feel they had more direct contact with their god.
With smartphones, the public can now bypass political parties and have direct contact the society as a whole, directly challenging decisionmakers.
Therefore, when members of the public take the initiative to organize their own street protests and rallies, it is not because they have become disenchanted with politics, it is that they are now able to bypass the political parties that have traditionally acted as the intermediary.
Political parties now have to evolve to survive.
They need to considerably reduce their role as intermediaries in these movements, and play a more constructive role in legislating so that the demands of the public are met.
If they succeed in making these changes, it is likely we will see an improvement in the current partisan enmity, and the electoral process will also start to work in more of a rational way.
First, there will be mass protest movements and demonstrations reflecting the public’s demands, then the political parties can fulfill their role of being entrusted with making sure these demands are met.
The public will then be able to make an objective assessment of which party is most prepared to ensure these demands are met and make an informed decision as to which one to support.
In this way, the parties can significantly increase their influence in the legislature through their support of the public will.
This will put considerable pressure on the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), which has used its party assets to distort public opinion.
Christian Fan Jiang is deputy secretary-general of the Northern Taiwan Society.
Translated by Paul Cooper