The Rules of the Game Have Changed: Taiwan's Next Big Protest is?

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Friday September 07, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Taiwan is no stranger to protests. From 2-28 on up to the present, protests have occurred with increasing frequency and over an increasing variety of issues. More recent protests include issues like the red shirts against corruption under Chen Shui-bian, China's anti-secession law, the import of beef, and even the anger and dissatisfaction following President Ma's first term in office. But with any social movement/protests, questions naturally arise on how to evaluate their success and effectiveness as well as how crucial they were to a nation's development? This past Saturday's protest against the WantWant China Times Group's attempts to create a media monopoly while comparatively small in size to other past protests ranks high in importance because of its link to democracy. A true democracy cannot function well if one corporation controls the media. Whether this protest was successful, however, still awaits judgment on the National Communications Commission's conditional decision on WantWant's purchase. If the conditions are too vague or "unmet" what will happen next? With this in mind, it is good look back and to examine three definitive protests in the shaping of Taiwan's democracy. In what ways can their success be measured and what was their price?

Er-er-ba or the 2/28 protest was spontaneous, and unplanned yet it played a pivotal and definitive role in Taiwan's past. The protest came after two years of smoldering discontent as the populace watched their island home abused and denuded by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) as it fed its losing war effort in China. The protest flashpoint/hook was the beating of a woman selling contraband cigarettes by government agents. The goals were simple, a more equitable government. When it came to negotiations, protestors were unfortunately betrayed in discussions by then Governor Chen Yi. Chen Yi took the names of all leaders as he secretly requested more troops from China. If success is measured by what was immediately achieved, the results were horrid. An estimated thirty thousands would die in the ensuing crackdown. Taiwan would experience a White Terror and Martial Law lasting for forty years. Native leadership was killed off. But with that betrayal, many Taiwanese refused to be pacified the way the KMT wanted them to be and an opposition identity slowly formed from the shared suffering

Taiwan's second pivotal protest was the Kaohsiung Incident held on December 10th, 1979. There was clear preparation and much clearer goals. The set flashpoint/hook was a Human Rights Day celebration emphasizing the abuses of human rights and lack of democracy under Martial Law. The KMT government saw it coming and set a trap for the participants. They created a fake riot, which would justify a subsequent harsh crackdown. There were no negotiations. Hundreds were jailed and key leaders were put on public trial and given harsh prison sentences. Was it successful? White Terror and Martial Law continued for another seven years along with high profile murders of innocent citizens but the attention gained through international exposure helped mobilize and energize more Taiwanese as well as generate international pressure. How could a political party that allegedly espoused democracy justify its continued one-party state? Eventually a reluctant KMT allowed a multi-party system and lifted Martial Law in 1987 and the nation moved closer to being a true democracy.

The third pivotal protest in Taiwan's history came with the Wild Lily movement in March 1990. This was a clearly organized protest with specific goals and a specific sit-in. The flashpoint/hook was the upcoming presidential election where there was only one party and one candidateXLee Teng-hui. The goals were clear; it was time for Taiwan to be a full democracy. The KMT government again knew it was coming but without martial law and with a multi-party system already in place any type of suppression was out of the question. As over 300,000 people joined with the students, President Lee Teng-hui proved up to the task. On the day after his election, he met with 50 student leaders and listened to their demands. Success can be measured as to how those demands were met. Within two years Lee retired the iron rice bowl legislators of 1947; all the people would elect future legislators. The Garrison Command was also disbanded, and the blacklist ended allowing former "dissidents" to return. Finally in 1996, all the people would elect Taiwan's president. Taiwan had taken another giant step in developing itself as a democratic nation. If anyone suffered it ironically was Lee Teng-hui who would be later deemed a traitor by the KMT and drummed out of the party.

With these achievements one can ask, are there any other obstacles that still stand in the way of Taiwan's nation building, democracy and identity? With the president elected by all the people from a wide selection of multi-party candidates, what then might be the next pivotal protest for Taiwan as it moves forward? I propose the following for consideration.

One clear obstacle to true democracy in Taiwan is the un-level playing field created by "the stolen state assets." One party, the KMT, still has war chests some 700 times larger than those of all other parties combined allowing it to outspend them and "out-influence" them in all elections. Taiwan's current KMT president had promised to dispose of these assets in 2005 but basically did nothing. A second obstacle is the continued lack of transitional justice dating back from 2-28 on. Apologies have been made, and restitution has been given to some families. However the records of all responsible parties and of how the decisions were made have yet to be made public. Many of those responsible for deaths and torture still walk the streets. A third obstacle to Taiwan's achievement of true democracy is the need for reform of its judicial court system. Dinosaur judges and prosecutors from the one-party state KMT days still mete out uneven justice with a double standard. These three along with an outdated Constitution continue to obstruct Taiwan's nationhood and democracy. Unfortunately their lack of high profile and a flashpoint/hook makes them more difficult to target with protest. Is anyone up to the task.