A mass rally of about half a million people on Sunday punctuated the two-week-old “Sunflower student movement.” The students vowed to continue their occupation until President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) gives in to mainstream public opinion.
While the globally renowned movement is ongoing, now is a good time to reflect upon the largest Taiwanese student movement in the last 20 years. We might also consider the implications of an event that is destined to be a historic chapter in the nation’s development.
It is not decided who will take responsibility for the bloody crackdown at the Executive Yuan on Monday last week. Ma and Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) have claimed the response was legal and appropriate, but it appears to have already eliminated an entire generation’s trust in the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).
History shows that whenever the KMT resorts to violence against — such as the 228 Incident in 1947, the protest by 520 farmers in 1988 or the crackdown on protesters when Chinese official Chen Yunlin (陳雲林) visited in 2008 — it eventually created strongly dissenting factions of the public as the victims’ families, farmers and beaten protesters are groups who remain strongly opposed to the KMT to this day.
However, the Ma administration either does not care or has not realized that there have been at least three mass rallies of more than 150,000 people against it in the past year including Sunday’s. The other protests concerned nuclear power and the handling of army corporal Hung Chung-chiu’s (洪仲丘) death. Almost every time, the administration has adopted a stand in direct opposition to the will of the people.
It is unfortunate Taiwanese are governed by an administration that though democratically elected refuses to follow democratic processes. The “Sunflower student movement” has also thrown the spotlight on Ma taking advantage of the country’s trust in the constitutional system, the KMT’s hope of winning in the seven-in-one municipal elections in November and Ma’s concern with his legacy.
Meanwhile, it could not be further from the truth to say that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is reaping political benefits as it has found itself struggling between distancing itself from the students or offering full support. Either way it has not been appreciated by the students.
The deeper implications of the movement lie far beyond a simple struggle for political power. The controversy reflects Taiwanese concerns over two salient issues -— the nation’s rapid tilt toward China on almost every front -— economically, socially and culturally, and the failure of representative democracy. Due to Ma making cross-strait policy and his historical legacy his priorities, the administration has signed almost 20 agreements with China since 2008 and has advocated broader liberalization of the bilateral engagement.
However, the public are concerned that not only the economy, but their way of life and freedom will be at stake if Taiwan and China pull closer together. China still claims sovereignty over Taiwan and does not rule out taking it by force. It appears that the public are not opposed to free-trade deals in principle, but argue that any deal with Beijing requires particular attention and supplementary measures.
In that regard, interpretations of the protest against the signing of the pact as an anti-China campaign are appropriate and pointed. The most legitimate grievance of all is the public’s disappointment at the “blue-green struggle,” the zero-sum approach both sides take in the legislature, as well as the backsliding democratic mechanism and the return of an autocratic KMT regime, which was why protesters demanded the organization of a citizens constitutional conference.
The answers to these questions remain unclear, but one thing is certain -— rather than his own legacy, Ma should be thinking hard about the legacy his administration will leave for Taiwan’s democracy.