It seems that Taiwan has grown accustomed to frequent protests targeting a broad range of issues, starting with land grabbing disputes, ending with increasingly unpopular cross-Strait policy of current KMT administration led by deeply unpopular President Ma. Yet, the decision by an alliance of students and civil society groups to take over the premises of Taiwan’s legislature on March 17 surprised most observers. However, closer observation of some of the more recent protests provide some hints that such a radical event was in the making. This move by mostly young protesters was preceded by the highly irregular handling of the review process of the controversial Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) by Chang Ching-chung, chair of the Internal Administrative Committee from the ruling party. Chang declared the review unnecessary since the Agreement had been held up in the legislature for more than 3 months, and was thus eligible to be put to a vote planned for March 21 without any amendments. This appeared to be clear violation of bi-partisan agreement from July 2013 on a review of the Agreement and subsequent voting on each article separately.
Reflection by media and scholars focused largely and not surprisingly on the event itself. On the scholarly front, debates addressed whether such an action is beneficial or detrimental to democracy in general. Media in Taiwan for their part have, to a considerable extent, denounced students’ actions in line with government rhetoric. However, one does not have to search far for counter-arguments. Since CSSTA was announced by the government in late June 2013, opponents of the agreement have seized every opportunity to take part in (not so) public hearings and protest in a more traditional way. Moreover, political parties were bound by a promise that CSSTA would be reviewed and voted on by individual articles rather than as a whole. Thus, while occupation of the nation’s legislature is not a standard way of business for a democracy that offers other avenues for expressing discontent, it can be deemed as legitimate as protesters have been trying patiently and vigorously to channel their disagreement using more traditional ways. Ultimately, while the legality of the ongoing occupation is an issue for lawyers, legitimacy is a political matter and the government and the ruling party should not be feeling particularly comfortable on this.
While philosophical and practical debates about merits of democracy and what is and what is not permissible as a mean of protest are welcome contributions, it is also worth turning our attention to two stories that should help to understand current events in a broader context…(cont.).
This article, originally written for China Policy Institute on March 22, continues here
Even though the Strawberry generation describes the current youth, there is a difference in the experience of political freedom. Those born in the early 1980s went through a school system largely based on that of martial-law KMT government. The political climate may have begun to change, but the textbooks did not change. They were not old enough to participate in the Wild Lily Movement, and woke up under the cloud of the KMT on their own. Those born in the late 1980s and early 1990s went to school post-martial law and during a DPP-led government when there were changes to textbooks and it became more open to discuss issues such as 228 and White Terror. This latter cohort is seeing the government move backwards rather than forwards.