State of Siege

The past few days in Taiwan have been marked by a mixture of joy and trepidation: joy at Obama's unprecedented electoral triumph and what it means for the achievement of justice and racial harmony (dare we hope that one day a Hakka or Aborigine may become President of Taiwan?), but also trepidation over the state of Taiwan's democratic system. Violent street protests accompanying the visit of Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) Chairman Chen Yunlin 陳雲林 have shocked and dismayed the nation, prompting the normally mild-mannered President Ma Ying-jeou 馬英九 to pound the podium in rage while issuing a strong rebuke to those involved.

There is ample blame to go around for both the government and opposition, and especially for those opportunistic DPP politicians and other public figures who attempted to use the protests against Chen's visit to gain greater notoriety and/or enhance their prospects for winning future elections. At the same time, however, simply labeling the protests as the work of some sort of violent rabble overlooks the fact that many participants were law-abiding citizens deeply concerned about their country's future. To keep things in perspective, the pattern of largely peaceful protests dissolving into violence following the infiltration of gangsters and other anti-social elements also occurred following the Presidential Election of 2004 and the Depose Bian (倒扁) movement of 2006, the main difference being that the leaders of these protests were mostly members of the pan-blue camp or their sympathizers.

It is also essential to recognize that protests during the first two days of Chen's visit were largely peaceful. Many people agree with the need for enhanced contacts and mutual understanding across the Taiwan Strait, and the agreements signed during Chen's visit should benefit the citizens of China and Taiwan alike while aiding the cause of regional stability. Lengthy negotiations led to the signing of deals to introduce direct cargo shipping between 11 Taiwanese seaports and 63 in China, expand direct postal links, increase passenger flights from 36 to 108 while also allowing private business jet flights, shorten existing routes across the Taiwan Strait, and allow more mainland tourists to visit Taiwan. In the wake of the melamine scandals, closer cooperation was also promised on food safety issues, and both countries agreed to a wildlife swap, with China receiving a deer and a Formosa serow (an indigenous goat-like animal) in exchange for two pandas with names that when combined (團團 and 員員) symbolize a reunion.

There was also the symbolic importance of the meeting between Ma and Chen, which represented the highest level of contact between the two sides since 1949. Despite the fact that the meeting was moved forward five hours to avoid protestors and lasted a mere 5-7 minutes, with Chen declining to address Ma as "President", the fact that such a high-level encounter took place at all provides hope for the future.

Nonetheless, many people were dismayed by the mammoth security operation that accompanied Chen's visit. A cordon sanitaire was set up around all the sites that Chen visited, and attempts at peaceful protest inside the cordon were met with swift and decisive action. National flags were confiscated or their holders hustled away (see video), while people wearing "Taiwan is my country" T-shirts were stopped, questioned, and in some cases also ordered to leave. Perhaps the most disturbing scene occurred outside a music store located near one of the hotels where Chen was enjoying a banquet with some businessmen and KMT bigwigs. Videos of the incident (originally broadcast on the 東森 and 中天 networks) show people dancing in the streets to the sounds of the "Song of Taiwan", with the atmosphere being almost carnival-like...until a group of uniformed and plain-clothed policemen entered the store, instructed the owner to shut off its sound system, and attempted to close its doors. Apparently someone had filed a noise complaint, but loudness is a daily fact of life here and it is rare for the police to respond with such vigor.

The tone of the protests turned decidedly negative following that particular incident, which, along with the numerous state attempts to curtail peaceful expressions of free speech, prompted over 200 students to stage a sit-in outside the Executive Yuan to protest what they perceived to be excessive use of force by the police. After being hauled away by the police (videos can be found on TVBS and 華視), the students moved the protest to Liberty Plaza (自由廣場). The KMT has responded by pointing out that the sit-in was illegal, but it should also be noted that under current Taiwan law the police have the power to approve or reject applications for public demonstrations, as well as arrest those who subsequently engage in acts of protest.

Now that the violence has ended, another issue that has moved into the spotlight involves the rapid-fire detention of numerous current and former DPP officials, some of whom have been held incommunicado without being formally charged. The situation has prompted a number of scholars and experts, including former Far Eastern Economic Review bureau chief Julian Baum and former American Institute in Taiwan chairman Nat Bellocchi, to publish an open letter on the "erosion of justice in Taiwan". In addition, one of the detainees, Yunlin County Commissioner Su Chih-fen 蘇治芬, refused offers of bail and launched a hunger strike to protest her treatment, which has now resulted in her hospitalization. There now seems scant hope of achieving any form of transitional justice (轉型正義), especially with the return of hero worship of the Chiang's and the restoration of the name Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (國立中正紀念堂)

Some people claim that Taiwan is returning to the dark days of martial law and authoritarian rule. This is a gross and unfair exaggeration. Instead, what we are witnessing now seems more like the late 1980s, when democratization was just beginning but the KMT still held an overwhelming monopoly on power, with the executive branch displaying unbridled arrogance and the judicial branch running amok. One of the few ways for opposition elements to express their concerns was through street protests, some of which unfortunately turned violent and were soon followed by crackdowns launched under the banner of "law and order".

Whatever the future may hold, the current situation represents a great shame and loss of face for a country that has prided itself on its tolerance of free expression and respect for human rights. For its part, the opposition needs to follow the path of non-violence so clearly laid out by renowned leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. As for the government, it has an obligation to show greater restraint in the face of peaceful protests, as well as respect the views and needs of those with legitimate concerns about the state of the nation.


YB's Fight against Stupidity said...

I find the constant reference of Taiwan as a 'country' uncomfortably jarring. It shall never be one, no matter how much violence the unwashed and uneducated type in Taiwan are able to produce. No matter what ideology dominates China, we shall never concede on this point. Mind you, this has never been about Taiwan and continental China. It has always been about the USA and China. Had it not been for the American interventionism back in the last century, we would not be in this impasse right now. Hopefully, with the new leadership in Washington, America will realize that its interventionist agenda needs to stop. And that stirring cross-strait tensions will end up destroying America itself one day.

Emma said...

Taiwan is NOT a country, no matter what your views are on the island's status. To refer to Taiwan as a "country" or "nation" is simply incorrect and discredits all you say here.

ST said...

>>dare we hope that one day a Hakka or Aborigine may become President of Taiwan?

Actually, there has certainly been one, possible two Hakka ROC presidents: Sun Yat-sen (arguably) and Lee Teng-hui.

Paul R Katz said...

Many thanks for pointing out Lee Teng-hui's Hakka ancestry!

As for the issue of whether or not Taiwan is a country, I will leave that to wiser heads than mine. For now, just check out the BBC website:


J said...

Taiwan is a distinct geographical entity with its own government, over which no other government has de facto authority. In other words, the laws and orders of government of the PRC are ignored in Taiwan and there's nothing the PRC can do about it. It is therefore a de facto country- and denying this fact will anger even many pro-reunification Taiwanese. As the CCP so often likes to say, "seek truth from facts". The question is whether or not it should be a country.
Chinese insistence that Taiwan bow down to the CCP is extremely disturbing. Let the Taiwanese decide their own future.

tiff said...

While the blogger tried to be netural in his presentation of facts/timelines (supported by news footage), there is a slight condesending tone that is alternatingly amusing and irrating. We all know what an ideal democratic movement looks like, and we don't need anyone (especially some outsider) to to hold a beacon of free speech and peaceful deomonstration as if it is a manual for us to follow. We are Chinese/ Chinese descent, we embody the dictomy of the Confusion order of hierchy, as well as rebel anarchy, plus the woeful indifference of bystanders getting a free show.
BTW, the insistant referenc to TW as a "coutnry" sits unconfortably with impartial reporting (this is what this blog is about right, after all, peter hessler, Leslie chang, louisa lim...etc are here).

The China Beat said...

Dear Tiff,

Thank you for your comment. China Beat is not a site that purports to do any "reporting" on China. The majority of our contributors are China scholars and the goal of China Beat is to provide historical and broader context for current China reportage--bringing to bear on current events the knowledge of investigative reporters and academics.

And, just to set the record straight, while one of our contributors recently conducted an interview with her, Louisa Lim is not a contributor to China Beat.

tiff said...

Hi Chinabeat,

Appreciate your reply and clarification.
While not trying to split hair, the fact that this site does purport to do "reporting" - my point in that it was not netrual in calling TW a country, does not in my humble opinion fit with your statement that it "bringing to bear on current events the knowledge of investigative reporters and academics" either. Wouldn't the fact that the blogger, wether him be a reporter or an academic, proclaimed TW is a country, already skewed the facts he was presenting, and had in fact cross over as an advocate? After all, neither of the official govnmts in China/TW had declared that TW is a country unto itself, only the very deep of the green party members had came out and offically said so.

Michael Turton said...

Nice work again, Paul. It's hard to believe in all that excellent information, a few yammmerheads showed up to complain that maybe you might be mentioning that Taiwan is a country, and that interferes with their desire to annex the place.

I don't understand the kind of mind that argues that people should be killed in order to annex their land; I simply thank the fates I don't have that kind of mind.

Once again, excellent work. The outbreaks of violence at the protest, where 99.99% of the protesters were peaceful, were deplorable but given the way protests often work in Taiwan, probably inevitable, especially in Taipei where the gangs are all pro-KMT. It's pretty normal that at the end of protests gangsters flow in to engage in battle with the police, something I've seen at other protests. There were numerous reports of individuals circulating through the crowd urging people on to violence, and witnesses said that the violence in the evening was caused by "brothers" who came late.

We are not yet back at White Terror 2.0. I don't think that is the goal. Rather, the KMT has been holding up Singapore as a model, and I think that is the direction they are headed.


J said...

What's wrong with bemoaning something bad that happens in another country? We're all human, how can we feel no emotions when we see other humans face injustice? In my opinion, this is part of what separates humans from animals.

The China Beat said...


Paul Katz has already addressed the issue you raise in his above comment. I urge you to re-read his response.

Paul R Katz said...

People are free to continue expressing their views, but I sincerely hope that this does not cause everyone to miss the point of my two most recent posts, namely the apparent abuses of power and human rights violations occurring in Taiwan. Taiwanese people have had the ROC flag ripped out of their hands before (I will refrain from saying by whom), but never on their own territory and by members of their own police force. Ruling parties have always tended to prosecute members of the opposition for corruption while ignoring wrong-doing in their own ranks, but rarely have suspected politicians been handcuffed or subjected to pre-trial detention. Taiwanese elites have been detained without a hearing, and record stores have been shut down for playing "improper" music, but not since the 1980s. The situation should be a matter of concern to all who love democracy and respect human rights.

YB's Fight against Stupidity said...

I think tiff is well spot-on in pointing out the lack of neutrality in this post. The fact that the author insistently refers to Taiwan as a country already betrays his political bias in the matter. So far, no developed countries recognize Taiwan as an independent country, not least because the issue is complex and each side of the straits has its own reasons to support their own political viewpoint.

Granted that the territory operates independent of the mainland government. Yet to the extent that political reality is a matter of international consensus, the fact that Taiwan's 'nationhood' is not recognized by most countries means that it is not appropriate to label it as such.

And for those who do not yet know, Taiwan and Continental China are still technically involved in Civil War. It is not legal for Taiwan to unilaterally declare independence without signing a peace treaty beforehand. The accusation that Continental China intends to 'annex' Taiwan is therefore laughable.

What Taiwan means to America (and the West at large) are essentially two things: 1) It represents an example of successful exportation of American political ideals. 2) It is a leverage America can use against its ideological archenemy, China, as part of its larger containment strategy.

For this reason, American academics and intellectual charlatans have overwhelmingly sided with the sentiments of the pan-green party.

It is therefore not surprising that the views expressed in this post categorically show sympathy towards the pro-green party. Mr Chen, if he is good at anything, is to pull off political antics. Reports have emerged that he was not to be handcuffed according to the original procedure. But instead he insisted that he be handcuffed. And when in front of the camera, he eagerly raised his handcuffed hands above his head and shouted "political persecution", pulling his own muscle in the process. He blamed the injury to the police, alleging that he had been roughly handled.

True that in a free society people should be able to stage "peaceful" protests. You lamented the fact that the police acted to rein in the violence, even though it was out of necessity. You bemoaned the apparent decline of (American style) democracy in Taiwan. Maybe you could also talk about the gratuitous ill will and violence that was shown to Mr. Zhang and Mr. Chen (the mainland China envoy) and what it means for cross-traits relations. What about the human rights for these two gentlemen? They went to Taiwan at the invitation of the TW government. You don't invite someone into your own home and allow your family members to assault the guest. I am not saying that people should not protest. But what they did was over the top.

But the author thinks it is more important to whinge about the apparent 'erosion' of (American style) democracy.

I think he is holding the wrong end of the stick and that his views are out of the touch with the people.

Independent polls have shown a majority disapproval of the violence agitated by the pan-green lot. Most people in Taiwan have no sympathy for those virulent elements from the pan-green party and the corrupt officials (or Taiwanese elites, as the author chooses to call them).

The China Beat said...

Janice posted a comment to this piece that isn't showing up. Here is the text:

A couple of points:

1. Contrary to the impression created by some of the comments above, Taiwan's democracy was not the result of some kind of western conspiracy or manipulation, but rather an organic phenomenon that grew out of the native desire of its people for greater freedoms and greater control over their own destiny. They may have looked to the examples of the U.S., western Europe, and Japan as models, and Chiang Ching-kuo's decision to implement political liberalization was due in part to pressure from certain segments of the U.S. government. But those pressures came only in response to clear signs that there was a strong and viable opposition to the KMT regime emerging from within Taiwanese society. In the end Taiwan's democracy was achieved only through the courage and sacrifice of its own people.

Of course foreigners have the right, pursuant to their freedom of expression and speech, to support whatever values they choose as applied to Taiwan, and conversely, to express their concern about recent violations. But make no mistake, it is the Taiwanese people themselves who are livid at police suppression of free speech, and it is Taiwanese students who are sitting in the freezing cold out in Freedom Plaza right now demonstrating their opposition to the erosion of democracy. They acted of their own accord and not in response any 'outsider" holding "a beacon of free speech and peaceful deomonstration [sic]." Voices of foreign critics of the Ma administration are merely blending into the broad cacophony of criticism from Taiwanese citizens, which is the sound of a truly open society that tolerates dissent. No lame attempt to inject derision into the parenthetical of the phrase "(American style) democracy" can discredit the home-grown origin of these protests. Sorry if that doesn't fit into your idea of the "Confucian order of hierarchy," Maybe the Taiwanese are not quite as Chinese-descended as you thought.

2. I may be the only one interested in splitting these particular hairs, but personally I think the use of the word "country" does not at all indicate any partiality with regard to the "unsettled" question of Taiwan's legal status. Based on some quick-and-dirty research, it appears that only the word "state" carries that kind of legal precision. Merriam-Webster defines "country" as "a political state or nation or its territory," or "the land of a person's birth, residence, or citizenship.' Note the use of the disjunctive, indicating flexibility in its definition. Similarly, the all-powerful Wikipedia says that a country is "frequently, but not always...considered a sovereign territory." Furthermore: "In common usage, the term country is used casually in the sense of both nations and states, with definitions varying. In some cases it is used to refer to both states and other political entities"

If "neutrality" is your aim, I think one could even use the word "nation" to describe Taiwan--in the sense of a group of people with a common destiny--without getting into trouble, because while there could be considerable room for debate about the extent to which that kind of cohesive identity actually exists in Taiwan, the concept itself does not contravene of the strictures of Taiwan's "official" status. Neither nation nor country carry the implication of sovereignty that is all-important under international law in the same way as "state"--and has the added benefit of being consistent with reality to boot. (For that matter Taiwan is by all objective measures "sovereign" as well, but that discussion can be left for another day.) When benign observers must relinquish the right to words that acknowledge reality, in favor of words which cling to some fiction constructed from a tortured reading of history, it is an Orwellian world that we live in indeed.

3. To the ChinaBeat team: even if you disagree with the above analysis and have concluded (as I concede is well within your editorial discretion to do) that excluding references to Taiwan as a country from future posts was necessary to preserve "harmony" on the site, whatever that means, couldn't your policy have been implemented a little more quietly, without such an explicit announcement? Knowing as we all do that the decision resulted from the comments of a few vocal critics, such a public declaration creates the appearance for readers that it is easy to influence editorial decision making and even pressure writers into self-censorship of the site's content. I cannot imagine how sending that kind of message contributes to the overall mission of your blog. Just a thought.

The China Beat said...

Ok, now I'm responding to Janice's comment (posted above by China Beat):

Thanks for your comments. I want to clarify that "China Beat" has made no editorial decisions regarding how it will refer to Taiwan. We have dozens of regular contributors and, as editor of the blog, I really want to let those individual contributors make decisions about word choice and how political or apolitical they want to be in their posts. I think this is the best way to reflect the wide range of viewpoints on issues from the literary contributions of Jiang Rong's Wolf Totem (we have run several different opinions on it) to more sensitive topics like Taiwan's status.

Thanks to all for the thoughtful and generally cordial discussion that has taken place on a sometimes heated topic. And apologies to Janice that her original comments disappeared somewhere along the line!

--Kate M-H

Paul R Katz said...

Many thanks to Janice and all the other people who have commented on my two most recent blogposts. This has been a genuine learning experience, and I greatly appreciate everyone taking the time to share their thoughts.

I would like to make one thing absolutely clear: The editors of The China Beat have consistently provided all of its authors (including myself) with absolute freedom of expression, and I am deeply grateful for their trust and support. The "harmonious blogosphere" note was simply a tongue-in-cheek response to some of the comments about my posts. Please rest assured that The China Beat will continue to contain all appropriate references to Taiwan.