The power to create or to destroy

By Pan Han-shen 潘翰聲  / 

Mon, Mar 31, 2014 - Page 8

The powers-that-be have been trying to cast the protesters peacefully occupying the legislative chamber as thugs.

This is a tried-and-tested ploy often rolled out by the authorities in these kinds of situations.

The protesters have been broadcasting live footage of their actions online, using their own devices, enabling them to mobilize members of the public to come and support the protest. This role used to be the responsibility of the traditional broadcast media, with a much larger budget behind it. This new access to the ability to broadcast information at low cost surely presages the rapid decline and perhaps demise of the big budget broadcast media.

This protest against the handling of the cross-strait service trade agreement has one major thing in common with previous protests against nuclear power, low wages coupled with high prices and property speculation, in that none of them have been directly addressed or dealt with effectively. Politics is the area in which Taiwan still lags far behind many other countries, and it is also the thing that has set the country on the path to extinction.

Commenting on the current crisis, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) warned the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) several days ago not to be on the wrong side of history. Given that Taiwan presently teeters on a razor’s edge, on the verge of tipping into revolution, hopefully peaceful, Ma might want to heed his own advice.

In Taiwan, if people are to demonstrate on the streets, they are asked to clear it with the government first, and to turn off their loudspeakers, klaxons and megaphones when passing schools and hospitals. This is out of deference for the inhabitants, and they should walk past silently. When the protest is over, they are expected to act like good citizens and pick up their own garbage, making sure the streets are left as tidy as they were before the protest began. They are not to jostle the police crowd control barricades, and hurling Molotov cocktails or projectiles like stones or sidewalk tiles has, of course, long been banned.

If anyone goes against any of these conditions, no matter how justified their cause, then the state, with its hegemonic mindset, will set the dogs of the media biased in favor of the establishment on them.

Non-violent movements, by definition, start off peacefully. Nevertheless, they necessarily involve large numbers of people, and are therefore, by their very nature, unpredictable: They always have the potential of violence.

That inherent menace is necessary. A blunt straight razor may be safer, but it is also useless. To a large extent, this menace has been tamed in Taiwan, so there is very little risk of violence erupting in protest marches here.

Nowadays, marches are symbolic shows of numbers, to whose causes the Presidential Office merely needs to pay lip service, assuring the crowds that it has “heard” them.

The government, thick-skinned as it is, has little to actually fear.

Protest rallies and marches in Taiwan are probably some of the most peaceful and rational examples that you will see anywhere in the world. However, when the authorities continue to push people, and to increase the level of discontent among the general public, the traditional media, seeking to profit from its ties with politicians and big business, becomes increasingly complicit.

The mainstream media have a monopoly on how “peaceful” and “rational” are defined, and this acts like the Internet censorship used in China.

They view mass movements as petulant children. They lingered on the image of the glass broken when the protesters forced their way into the legislature, but later at the same spot, people who had been jostling in the small hours of the morning parted like the Red Sea to allow stretchers in and out, and police officers forced out of formation in the pushing and shoving were allowed to leave the same way. The crowds to the side called out in unison not to hurt the police, and to give them safe passage, and a girl next to me was profusely apologetic to a police officer who had been hit.

The journalists reporting on this failed to appreciate the positive aspects of what they were seeing, choosing to view it through the prism of the conflict between police and protesters that occurred more than 20 years ago. Both the public and the police have learned the lessons of the past, acting on this occasion with restraint and maturity. It is just the media that have not moved on.

Battles between protesters and police in the past led to many casualties, and even in the intervening lulls between confrontations, the two sides retreated red-eyed and indignant.

The scenes we are currently getting from the legislature, still, are of calm. In the absence of any order for the chamber to be cleared, you can see people at the forefront of either side chatting with each other, while those in the background are relaxing, eating, joking with each other or just killing time swishing their smartphones.

The occupation has been turned into a reality TV show, broadcasting every mundane second of the proceedings and every trivial detail of the students’ life at the protest. It has been distorted into a piece of theater.

While journalists are expected to stay the course, doing overtime — probably unpaid — members of the public can record scenes of the protesters passing the time of day and post them online. However, those like the police and the reporters have to get on with our respective jobs during this preposterous sideshow. It is time for the two sides to come together.

It is precisely because of the considerable influence that the traditional media have that it is important how things are reported. As the fourth estate, the media have a responsibility to monitor the powers-that-be.

In the past, when the clashes were much more violent, the ruling and opposition parties would burn the midnight oil locked in crisis talks, helping our nascent democracy take its first, uncertain steps. All we hear now is empty words, while the protesters remain in the streets.

This article began with the straight razor as a metaphor for the dangerous potential of the occupation. Let us hope this razor is used here for something positive, for making the legislature more presentable, rather than using it to slice the throat of our democracy and therefore the destiny of our country.

Pan Han-shen is a former spokesperson for the Green Party Taiwan.

Translated by Paul Cooper