The dynamics of Taiwanese politics have altered dramatically in less than six weeks, starting from the initial protest outside the Legislative Yuan in Taipei by the Sunflower movement, for both better and worse.
Many Taiwanese were inspired to see the surge in grassroots civic nationalism and the younger generation cooperate to demand a more accountable government — especially in relation to cross-strait affairs.
The major political parties were reduced to the roles of spectators as students and other activists debated national policy, using new media to broadcast their views nationally and internationally.
For those Taiwanese who are middle-aged or older, it harked back to the heady days after Martial Law was lifted in July 1987.
However, this past week has seen President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration and other agencies — badly humiliated by the recent protests — strike back in politically cynical and possibly illegal ways. The paper-thin veneer of democracy that has cloaked them for years has been stripped away.
For those under the age of 35, too young to remember the Martial Law era or born after it was lifted, it has been a shocking revelation. For those older, it has been a frightening reminder of an authoritarian era that most thought had gone forever.
The back-to-the-future flashbacks began in the pre-dawn hours of Monday, when Taipei police used water cannons and batons to remove antinuclear protesters who had occupied Zhongxiao W Road on Sunday. Police also allegedly manhandled several photographers and journalists.
The location and tactics revived memories of May 29, 1990, and the protest against the legislature’s confirmation of former general — and father of the present Taipei mayor — Hau Pei-tsun (郝柏村) as prime minister. The police used water cannons near the intersection of Zhongxiao E and W roads and Chungshan S Road and near the Legislative Yuan. When the demonstrators fought back with rocks and Molotov cocktails, the police used rocks, batons and water cannons against them in a very violent confrontation.
Then on Tuesday, the Ministry of Justice announced the execution of five death-row inmates in a stunningly self-serving move that was aimed firstly at drawing attention away from all the protests and, secondly, appealing to the more conservative sections of society who support capital punishment.
Two of the inmates, brothers, had been convicted of murders committed in China on the basis of evidence provided by Chinese authorities — despite the infamously politicized and corrupt Chinese legal system.
On Wednesday, photographs were posted online of documents detailing the National Police Agency’s (NPA) organization of an “Internet Army” to monitor online activity opposing the cross-strait service trade pact, nuclear power and wind turbines. The cyber task force was instructed to try to “neutralize” statements critical of the police.
On Wednesday the Ministry of the Interior declared it would make an all-out effort to break up illegal demonstrations, even if it meant putting “repeat offenders and extremists” into pre-emptive detention.
On Thursday, the NPA admitted the documents posted online were authentic, but said that the use of the term “Internet army” was inappropriate and it would not invade civilians’ privacy.
The Ma government is returning to its roots — the paranoia and totalitarianism of the White Terror era — when freedom of expression was harshly curbed, students were encouraged to spy on one another and the Government Information Office specialized in disinformation campaigns.
The government has tried to paint the Sunflower movement and other protesters as violent radicals, but the only side resorting to violence has been the government itself as the last shreds of its legitimacy crumble in the face of widespread public unhappiness with, and contempt of, its rule.